Dealing with Negative Emotions

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I feel like we are all searching for a magic bullet answer about to how to prevent feeling negative emotions. Or maybe this is a subconscious goal when we read self-help books, go to therapy, seek out advice from others, watch with wide eyes as others go through trials and tribulations and take notes in our heads about how we can strap a bullet-proof vest onto our own beating hearts to protect ourselves. We want somebody to tell us how we can stop feeling pain. The goal is misguided.

Haruki Murokami said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

We will never succeed at eradicating negative emotions or eliminating pain. Feeling pain means you are alive. You can, however, learn how to manage the pain.

When we are small children and we touch a hot pan for the first time, we learn that it hurts and we shouldn’t do that again (some of us take longer than others).

Emotional pain, and dealing with it, is a more complex beast. It’s easy to learn how to keep our hands away from the fire. Not so with emotional pain. There are so many factors beyond our control, and the mind feels like a vast ocean, too deep for us to fully understand, and easy to get lost in even with the best navigation tools.

This is what I’ve concluded about dealing with negative emotions: you can’t avoid them. And you don’t suck as a person if you feel them. It just means you are alive–a human being–if you feel negative emotions. The good, the bad, and everything in between. We don’t get to pick and choose. We have to feel it all.

The best advice I ever read on the matter was the following quote by Mooji:

“Feelings are just visitors, let them come and go.”

I try to always remember this when I feel like crap. I am never, ever going to get rid of having negative feelings. I just have to get smart about dealing with them. Hopefully decrease them. Most importantly, realize that these negative feelings don’t define me or represent my self-worth.

This, I think, is what differentiates the “strong” people from those who have difficulty managing their feelings. “Strong” people are not immune to feeling negative. They are not immune to bouts of low self-esteem. Strong people are not sub-human robots. Strong people learn to compartmentalize the negativity. They have mental tools that give them the resilience to not let negative feelings swallow them up.

I was recently asked how can I be a strong feminist and still have self-loathing thoughts about dating (I’m paraphrasing). It was an excellent question.

My answer: because I’m human.

I feel things intensely (some people may call this dramatic. I call it a highly evolved, emotive human being.) I gave birth to each of my children without drugs. The last one weighed an unexpected and whopping 10 lbs. 3 oz. and hurt like hell. If I ever have more children, I won’t hesitate to opt for no drugs again. I believe pain has a purpose. I want to feel it. I want it to guide me to something better. I want to lean in and listen and feel how my body and mind responds and I want to channel it to strengthen my mental and physical constitution. When my husband died, I deliberately avoided alcohol. I wasn’t going to self-medicate. I wanted to feel everything, even when it felt like it was going to split me in half. I wanted the feelings to sear through every fiber of my being and I wanted to remember all of it.

Once I feel the intensity of my pain, the next step is to get it out of my system. Let it go. I don’t want to carry it around. I don’t want to let it eat away at my insides. I learn from it. I fix what I can.

And then, I have to move on.

Feel it. Then let it go.

People let things go in different ways. I’ve been writing in various capacities throughout my entire life. I have a collection of journals and I almost always have one with me at any given moment. When I write, it’s a way for me to process my feelings and thoughts.

Some people haven’t figured out how to let things go.

I have never regretted feeling my feelings. But I don’t bottle them up. There is no shame.

You just can’t get stuck. You can’t hold on to the negative feelings. You have to let them go. I mean, you can keep them if you want, as long as you don’t mind being miserable.

But I want to live well. So mine have to leave.

When I write about times when I feel like I suck at life, it doesn’t mean that’s how I am feeling on that particular day. Writing is a process that takes a lot of time. Often when you are reading something I’ve written, it’s about something that has already happened. You would think I’m a total spaz if I live-reported my every thought. I’ll reserve that stream of consciousness for my journals.

Just don’t get stuck. That’s the best advice I can give about anything.

The Wimpy Texter*

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Kenneth and I, circa March 2007, when we started dating.

I discovered a secret. Shame dissipates when you throw the vile details of the things that torture you out into the open. Like a fish you’ve finally caught, floundering on the ground at the end of a line, gasping for air, its fate uncertain. Just put it right out in the open for everyone to see. Transparency. There is something you can trust about transparency. The vulnerability. It’s like a gateway for us to connect with each other, a reminder that we are all human.

When I’m transparent about the details of my awful experience with grief and starting over, I feel better. Better in the sense that a load has been lifted off my shoulders. It’s hard work to carry around shame.

Today, I’m going to give you my gory, boring details about another little baby step I’ve had to take. I hope you don’t fall asleep. It’s actually not that interesting. It’s even kind of stupid.

I feel a lot of shame about starting over in the relationship department. I’m basically a Buddhist-atheist with the family values of a textbook Catholic, or maybe a Mormon. I thought I’d be married until the very end, through rain storms and sunshine, with a large family. A gaggle of kids. That’s what I wanted. I definitely wasn’t supposed to become a 34 year old widow with three young children. I most definitely wasn’t supposed to have to try to date again in my lifetime, at least not until I was at least in my 60s. I knew I’d have to eventually venture into that murky water since my husband was much older than me. But not anytime soon. Not soon enough to even begin thinking about. Someday. It’s always someday.

My husband has been dead for almost 15 months. The idea of dating again terrifies me, but buried beneath all of the angsty emotions is a tiny bit of excitement for what might happen. I’ve never believed in having only one great love. The potential for meeting somebody new, somebody maybe even completely different from anything I’ve experienced before, is the kind of potential that gives me something to look forward to in a life that can feel overwhelming and dismally unfair.

I don’t want to be alone forever. I don’t think most humans really want to be alone, unless it is a better alternative to their other options. I didn’t choose to be alone. It was forced on me. So, in my mind, I have to force my way out. Somehow.

I’m not 24 anymore, which is the last time I had to bother with dating. And let’s be honest. That kind of changes the terms of the game. I know. It could be worse. I could be 54 and starting over. I could have an infinite number of odds stacked against me that would make this worse, but this is MY worst.

My first attempt at doing “this” again was an abysmal waste of time.

This is the story. I’m warning you: it’s embarrassingly boring and uneventful.

My friends, an anonymous husband and wife team, with all of the best intentions in the world (I think…?), thought it would be a good idea to attempt to set me up. My sister informed me that this is an effective way of meeting people. Social circles. Since I don’t seem to be procuring any better strategies, I figured I might as well go with the flow.

The man in question was friends with them. A widower. My first thought was: great, we can reside on the island of the misfits together. How pathetic and sad.

It was 8AM and I was still in bed on my last week in Europe (Copenhagen, to be exact), when I received a text informing me of this potential match. The text read like a mini novel first thing in the morning and included a picture of the man and his daughter. I rubbed my eyes, wondering why my friend would randomly text me a picture of a man. It made sense the further I read. This is _____. He’s so great. Blah blah. I gave him your number. (I’m paraphrasing here.) And some stuff in the middle, sounding like a personal ad written by an optimistic and well-meaning friend.

I literally replied “OMG” and laughed out loud. I didn’t know what else to say, or think. I wasn’t offended that my phone number was given out. I just never considered it. I was finally in a place where I had convinced myself that I was okay with being alone (for now) and would just stay busy focusing on my projects. Workaholic mode, I convinced myself. Better than sad mode. Better than licking my wounds mode. Workaholic is a respectable alternative to lonely, right?

After finally reaching this point of zen-hood after many agonizing months of trying to reconcile the emptiness inside of me, the idea of meeting somebody was unexpected.

I didn’t say yes. I didn’t say no. I decided to just wait and see what would happen.

So I waited to be contacted.

And waited.

And waited.

It kind of bothered the feminist in me. Why did I have to wait like a helpless animal ready to be preyed on? It didn’t seem very 21st century. But what did I know?

I waited some more.

Now I was wondering if there was something wrong with me before I even had a chance to speak to or meet this man. Did I seriously strike out before I even went up to bat? Before I even picked up the bat?

Was this my grand re-entry into dating?

There I was: smack in the middle of familiar memories of singlehood. The uncertainty of meeting somebody new. Worrying about everything they could possibly hate about me. Feeling inadequate. Wondering if I would ever even meet someone. Maybe I’d end up like my Great-Aunt Victoria, eternally single, collecting useless crap in suitcases every time she visited from overseas and scaring the children.

I was stuck in a pit of self-doubt. It had been so many years since I had to dwell in these swamps. I hated it then, and I hate it now. When I met Kenneth, it was so easy. He side-swiped me before I knew what was happening. I hadn’t thought twice about him. He was the teacher in the classroom next door to mine. He wasn’t even an option in my mind. And then one day he decided to win me over, and he did, before I had time to think about it. I liked that. There was no dwelling on not being good enough. There was just one day a man who thought I was the best thing he had ever seen and met. That’s what I want. Not these yucky negative thoughts. Something easy. Why can’t one thing be easy in my life????????

After waiting and waiting wondering what I would say if/when this man would finally call, we discovered that he was given the wrong phone number, which explained why I wasn’t contacted.

Thanks, Friends. Way to increase the awkwardness.

In my mind I thought this was a sign. A really bad sign. This couldn’t turn out well.

But I was going to shut up. See how it went. I had to try, my friends told me. I knew I had to try, but it didn’t mean I liked it. But try I would.

Correct number was given, and I waited a few more days.

Finally, a text, not a call.

Okay. Text messaging. That’s what they do today, right? I consulted my 18 year old friends just to be sure. Yes, they confirmed. It’s all about texting. Nobody calls. I just wanted reassurance that this wasn’t weird. I can text. It’s not what I experienced the last time I dated, but you know. I’m okay with embracing changing times if it leads to something interesting.

Conflicting schedules meant there were no phone calls or meet-ups for the first several weeks. I was out of town. He was out of town. I was out of town. You know. These are apparently the problems of grown ups when they try to meet new people. It certainly wasn’t a problem for early-20s me.

I’m an impatient person. I already know this about myself. That’s why being side-swiped works much better for a brat like me. Turns out side-swiped isn’t on a menu for take-out, so I have to get what I get. I’ve been trying to have an open mind about what “older” dating looks like. Or let’s not even make it that serious. How about just “meeting people.” I’m just willing to meet people. No high stakes anything. Just meeting. Still, meeting people looks a lot different once you’re out of your twenties.

Meeting people when you have children.

Meeting people when you have a career.

Meeting people when you have a 9PM bedtime.

Meeting people when you have a hell of a lot more at stake than when you were 24 years old.

Meeting people when you have had your heart broken into tiny shards in the worst possible way.

Meeting people when you feel like a castaway.

I know that I need to have a sense of humor. I know that I need to be patient. I know I need an open-mind. I know I need to have flexible expectations. I know, I know, I know.

But in reality, it’s only been 15 months since my husband died. I’m still angry as hell at him for leaving me behind. Why would anyone want to stop wearing their yoga pants and start shaving their legs again on a regular basis? I want to file a grievance. How dare he make me start using facial creams and caring about my thigh gap. I feel like he would be laughing at me, somewhere, somehow, as I bungle my way through this crap. I know he’d be very amused. And very sorry, so that makes me a little less angry.

I’m not 24 anymore. It’s hard to forget that, even though I know I have to. I already know what I have to do, but it’s always easier said than done. And this still feels so patently unfair.

I can see the wrinkles on my face.

I’m definitely more cynical. Guys like stupid 18 year olds. 18 year olds don’t ask questions. I should know. I was that 18 year old before.

My body has changed. I could spend time thinking about how it’s changed for the better, like how I’m thinner than I was at 24 and more fit, but nah. That ruins the pity party.

I drive an f-ing minivan. How am I supposed to “meet” someone when I pull up in my goddamn minivan? (I am so angry at my husband for this one. He’s the one who wanted the minivan!!!)

I have three young children. THREE. I might as well have herpes all over my lips to deter potential man friends. I mean, seriously. I waited my entire life to be a mother and have a family, even opting to not go to law school because I didn’t think the career would be conducive to the vision I had in my mind of the kind of mother I wanted to be. But now, single and widowed, being a mother sometimes feels like the bane of my existence, and I feel horribly guilty for feeling this way. It just wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was supposed to be with my husband, marveling together over the way Peter strings sentences together now, or how cute Ethan looks with his missing teeth, or the way Ellie changes outfits 50x/day. This was a team sport. This wasn’t supposed to be me playing all positions in the infield and outfield.

It’s not just about missing my husband. That has come to be the easiest part of all of this. The part I’m having the most difficulty with is the ruination of my life expectations and plans. I’m having trouble believing that I won’t be lonely forever.

Okay, so I go along with this texting guy. He is completely boring at first. The conversation is more polite than how I would talk to the parents of my students. I mean, totally generic. But that’s okay. My husband used to be really into the psychology of dating, and he taught me all about how hard it is for men to be their true selves around women. I could put up with some bungling, and maybe help ease more personality out of the conversation. Besides, I could empathize with him. He lost his wife. I get it. This sucks for everyone. He gets a couple free cards.

Older-Meeting-People-Me has convinced herself that she needs to practice patience, so I complain to my friend about how boring it is but I continue to go along with the texts. She assures me how wonderful he is. I wonder if I’m scaring him off, but he appears to keep texting back, so who knows. I hate how I went from confident wife to puddle of uncertainty literally overnight. Who am I? This is not who I am, and yet the vulnerability of the situation is enough to unravel the person I had spent a lifetime building. I have to find the lost me, somehow. I know she still exists inside of me. Somewhere.

After a while, after what feels like pulling some conversational teeth, real conversation begins to happen. I decide that I like him. Yes, this could have potential. He’s different than what I thought I’d go for. But I like him. I’m a great judge of character; I just need to meet him to confirm with my trusty gut feeling. I am cautiously optimistic.

Several late nights of texting occur. Interesting conversations. Now it was messing with my rigid, workaholic schedule. But…I could make exceptions, I decided. I needed to get into this “meeting people” game. I couldn’t jump into the game by being rigid and telling guys that it’s past my bedtime. I needed to be open-minded. Flexible. Patient. Go with the flow. Everything I’m not by nature, but I would force it. I don’t have any other options, I think.

This goes on through a couple of (separate) vacations. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve bored him with my conversation skills (but I mean, the nerve if that’s true, because he bored me first!).

I kept wondering if he’s going to suggest meeting.

No.

Nothing.

Crickets.

In the beginning, he’d text these ridiculously corny, generic things. Like…

“Good morning! I hope you have a great day!”

First of all, stop with the exclamation points. It’s like you’re laughing at your own jokes. Just stop. Secondly, I just “met” you. Let’s slow down on the niceties. Why don’t you tell me your zodiac sign first, and maybe a little something from your resume? And if I like you, you can tell me good morning and hopefully bring a cup of coffee with it.

Maybe I just suck at being a human being. It’s entirely possible.

The evenings got even cornier. The same text, daily, saying something about good night, sleep well, have sweet dreams.

*rolls eyes*

And yet, after a while, this ridiculousness started to grow on me. I kind of liked it. I’ll admit that I don’t always know what’s good for me, so I try to be open-minded so I can participate in unexpected goodness. It was these stupid little greetings, or lack thereof, that alerted me that something was wrong. They stopped coming.

Did that mean something? Why aren’t I getting these corny messages anymore?

That’s it, I thought. I finally scared him off. It’s done. I knew from the beginning this was doomed.

Why did I care? I mean, this dude goes to mass every Sunday. An altar boy. Practically a Boy Scout. There is no logical reason why I should care if he texts me or not. I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO CARE.

As it turns out, I’m not completely a cold-hearted robot, and I find myself caring more than I’m comfortable with, even though I’ve never even met this dude. And it’s kind of disappointing, because I actually liked him. You know, as much as you can like somebody from text messages. It was entirely possible that his pheromones would have been a dealbreaker. But that’s still a big question mark.

I guess I could have been a feminist about all of this and escalated the situation myself instead of waiting around for him to do it. But…no. I decided to go ahead and deem this a man’s job. I’m not going to do it. We women deal with a lifetime of having a vagina. You, Men, have to deal with initiating and escalating relationships. Sorry.

Instead of being proactive, I decided to dwell in chick logic and behavior, which includes: putting oneself under a microscope and identifying every possible flaw, whining about it, complaining about your dismal options, moping about your state of affairs, and thoroughly envisioning every detail of the convent you will soon reside in when you begin your life of exile as a nun.

That was definitely the route I was going to take. A glutton for misery. I could just beat myself over the head with all of the reasons I could invent about why somebody would never, ever want to actually call me and meet me in person. I’ve got this long, long, nasty list of why I must be untouchably horrid. Don’t even mention any of my positive attributes. It would ruin the mood.

The swamp. I was sticky with its grossness, drowning in the quicksand of self-loathing. I must be too fat. Too ugly. Too many kids. Too boring. Too mean. Too everything horrible under the sun for anybody to possibly like.

Why the hell didn’t I just stick to Workaholic Mode??

Finally, the writing was on the wall. This wasn’t going anywhere with Wimpy Texter. I literally wasted a month of my time. I let my guard down. Just when I was in a blissfully happy stage, content in workaholic mode and happy to focus exclusively on my goals and my children, I decided to go along with someone giving out my phone number.

And I couldn’t even make it to the phone call stage. Seriously, it can’t get worse than that, right?

It’s kind of funny. And kind of sad.

Basically, this is all proof that I suck at all of this and will die a nun. And that my friends should never, ever attempt to set me up again, unless they are giving me a referral to a comfortable convent for me to begin my life as a nun.

Goddamn Kenneth. He did this to me. This is all because of him. I could be in yoga pants and messy hair and not caring at all what I look like, and instead, I’ve been thrust into this alternate universe of meeting people at a time when most people are married with kids or getting divorced and going to therapy. Basically, a time in my life when the pool of what I would consider to be suitable potential candidates is very, very shallow and tiny. I need a Plan B, but not a Plan Desperation. I’d rather be alone than go with Plan Desperation.

So that’s my story. Embarrassingly boring, and I’m back to the drawing board. I will figure this out (and grow thicker skin). I hope.

I’m not happy about the time that I wasted on this, but at least I got some essay fodder out of it. Thanks, Wimpy Texter. I hope we can sustain eye contact when we meet again at our friend’s annual holiday party, perhaps standing over the lemon cookies, when we happen to both look up at the same time and notice each other across the table. Maybe we’ll divert our eyes and pretend not to know who the other person is.

Or maybe I’ll just stay home, “sick.” After all, I’m really just a big baby under my tough exterior.

*I don’t really think he’s wimpy. He probably has excellent reasons to stay away from me. Who knows. I’ve never actually talked to him.

The Re-Do

There has been some rumbling over Patton Oswalt’s recent engagement announcement. Patton lost his wife a few weeks before my husband died. The non-widows are appalled at how somebody who recently wrote about barely being able to take off his wedding ring could so quickly move on. The widows and widowers are appalled that those who have no idea what “this” is like would have the audacity to judge.

I’m going to take the middle ground here and say that this is why we need to talk about these issues more so that we can promote more understanding and hopefully encourage empathy.

Those of us who have walked this walk have a responsibility to set our own parameters and terms of living, and it would be helpful to educate others so they can try to understand. For everyone else, you should listen and soak it in so you can avoid being judgemental and offensive, and more importantly, so you can be a better friend, family member, colleague, or in the worst case scenario, perhaps a little more prepared should you find yourself in this situation someday. We all think it will never happen to us. *raises hand* I thought that too. But it can happen to any one of us. It will happen to all of us, eventually, unless you die before your significant other. So buckle up.

When it comes to matters of relationships after losing your significant other, I think the first rule of thumb is that your feelings (if you are not the widow/widower) don’t matter. But you’re going to think they matter. You won’t acknowledge it. You would deny it if somebody accused you of it. You’ll try to detach yourself from the opinion you throw out into the universe and package it as a universal truth or a harmless comment. But this doesn’t negate the fact that your feelings about another person’s intimate life do not matter, unless, of course, the person in question is your 15 year old child. And even then, if you haven’t instilled in them a foundation for making healthy choices, you’ve probably already lost that battle. The only other people whose feelings would matter are the minor children of the widow/widower, and that is something the widow/widower has the responsibility to work out with their own children. Not your business. Every family will be unique and have their own challenges that only they can navigate, without your opinions.

Secondly, can we please stop telling widows and widowers that being alone is okay? I’ve heard it so many times from too many people. I know your intentions may be pure, but your words are damaging.

“At least you have time to yourself!” Yes. Lots and lots and lots of time to myself (nevermind having children, which nullifies any time to myself). But yes, I have time to myself. As I sit in my hotel room on vacation, early in the morning, waiting for the kids to wake up and trying to get some work done, suddenly loneliness drifts into the cavity of my body like fog invading the forecast. At least I have time to myself!

“You’re lucky you have friends and family.” As if friends and family keep you company day in, and day out. As if they go to bed with you.

“You’re so lucky you don’t have to deal with _____.” I know men leave their clothes on the floor, and they have annoying habits, and women probably drive you crazy, and everyone’s significant other does something that is annoying and maybe at times suffocating. But, perhaps you can let me weigh the pros and cons for myself, based on my own experiences and insight, and let me choose whether or not being free of the burdens of companionship is worth the exile I live in.

Or there are references to being able to work on yourself, to live the way you want, to enjoying your own life, etc.

Blah, blah, blah.

Funny how every time I hear these unintentionally hurtful comments, they always come from somebody who has a significant other, the very person who would quickly get off a phone call because their spouse just got home. They are the ones telling me, either directly or in coded references, that somehow this is a gift. Again, it’s happened multiple times, from several people. I have to believe that it isn’t just me. It isn’t just them. There is some sort of societal misunderstanding over the issue.

You aren’t making somebody feel better trying to assuage their loneliness by inadvertently shaming them for moving on, wanting to move on, thinking about moving on, or even just planting seeds of doubt in their minds.

It is okay to be alone if that is what the person chooses independent of your judgement. But we should give them the respect of making that decision on their own. We should support how they survived their loss and are reconstructing their lives, hopefully exactly the way they want to live.

Next order of business: what comes next.

I’ll just give you my opinion about the matter, but everyone is different. Everyone makes their own decisions, based on their own circumstances, preferences, and desires. Furthermore, there really is no right or wrong.

You see, becoming a widow or widower does something to your world view. It cracks it open and exposes the truths you once clung to as etched in stone, and shows you an alternate reality where anything can happen, anything goes, and that ridiculousness can be beautiful, sad, lonely, happy, funny, or whatever you want to interpret it to be. Point being, there are no rules. You make the rules. I feel like somebody at some point tried to tell me this, but I didn’t believe it until I lived through the meltdown of my own life. People who have experienced loss tend to be fierce advocates of living life on their own terms. And we don’t like it when you try to tell us that there are prescribed ways of living, because we’ve already experienced what can happen to even the best laid plans. A life where following the rules didn’t necessarily change the outcome of our fate.

My idea of what comes next: anything is possible. For me, it’s likely I won’t pick somebody just like my husband. That isn’t a statement about anything. It says nothing about him. It’s just that I, personally, want to re-do everything. Kind of like going to a buffet, and choosing other food instead of the same thing every time. Like that. Think back to a moment where the thought entered your mind: if I wasn’t married to ___, I would do ____. Or if I didn’t have kids. Or if this or that. Yeah. That’s me. If I have to be in this situation, I want to try new things, even down to the places I travel to, the colors I paint my house, to the personality traits I might favor in a significant other. It’s not good, it’s not bad. If another widow/widower chooses not to date, that’s okay. It’s all okay. There are no rules except that you should live an authentic, fulfilling life. Also, moving on doesn’t replace your significant other. And can we just clarify something: you can’t compete with a dead person, even if you wanted to. There is no competition. People get divorced all of the time. Although this is different, we should still respect that we can love more than one person in our lifetimes. I don’t understand why this is newsworthy, or merits reiteration, in the year 2017.

Final piece of advice: when a widow or widower does something new, like Patton Oswalt announcing his engagement, here is what you can say to them: I’m so happy for you.

That’s it.

Wanderlust and Roots

trip 3

Paris, 2014

I never wanted to live in the city of my childhood as an adult. It was boring. Definitely not cool. Ugly. I escaped briefly to Long Beach, the part that felt like a nice mix of Orange County and Los Angeles County, where we could walk to restaurants and bars and parks and go to summer concerts with our wine glasses and crackers and cheese and feel like we were living a more interesting life than we did in the suburban cities where people mostly stayed inside.

I always wanted to live somewhere creative. Somewhere with grocery stores that sell lots of organic food, a place with an abundance of vegetarian options, a city that is socially conscious and progressive. I wanted to live where it would be easy to make hordes of new friends, a place where breaking bread and clinking glasses with your neighbors was commonplace. Somewhere with public transportation options, bikes that crowd the streets, and great walkability. (The place of my dreams sounds a lot like Northern California. Too bad it’s so expensive!)

At any rate, none of what I desired in my ideal city could be found in my hometown.

My hometown is a place where tourists go, but not to the neighborhoods where people really live. My hometown is a medium sized city with not very many parks, and the ones that we do have are often crowded with homeless people. On my side of the city, we have our very own busy street with prostitutes that work every imaginable shift of the day. I see them at 6AM and I see them at 6PM. Whatever time of the day you prefer, there’s a skanky woman with a too-short skirt pasted onto her backside and a seductive saunter in her gait for your pleasure. My hometown has great neighborhoods with homes that cost over 600K, and also streets of crowded apartments, some of which are the homes to gangbangers.

My hometown is where I got my primary and secondary education, elementary through high school, in great schools with great teachers. Mr. Elm, who introduced me to creative writing in the first grade. Mrs. Jefferson, the coolest 6th grade teacher who made learning fun and believed in my abilities. Mr. Davies’ biology class in high school. Mr. Quigley, our mock trial coach. There are too many amazing teachers to recall in one paragraph.

My hometown is where I rode my bike with my siblings and neighbors during the summer months, sometimes to the park, and sometimes to Target, where we’d comb over the clearance bins and look for useless crap to buy. Before the years of the drought we’d go to our local park and play in the public water area, a cement wading pool where you’d sometimes skin your knees, perhaps considered an early version of the modern splash pad. That was the same park where we played softball on teams during the summer, and also where we buried our pet parakeet Jasmine after we turned it into a mummy and made a sarcophagus, complete with offerings for his next life (yes, we had a male bird named Jasmine! Not a typo!). My hometown is where I went to Girl Scouts and sold annual cookies. It is where I was born, in a hospital that is now a community college, a hospital where I was a candy striper in high school, working a four hour shift at the gift shop once a week in my pink and white frock.

We have an amusement park, a baseball team, a hockey team, a convention center, and other major city things that make it a destination on a map, but this city was never a place where I wanted to stay. It always felt so hopelessly boring.

I started traveling at 17 years old, and I’ll admit that when I travel, I’m often measuring a new city by how much I’d like to live there. I’ve experienced my tastes evolve over the years. I first fell in love with Rome, since it was one of the early cities that I visited on my own. These days (four visits later) it has lost its place as my favorite city in the world, and I think it’s too hot and too crowded. Venice is dreamy, but I wonder if I’d get bored with it. Paris is amazing and has everything I want from cafes to museums to parks to oozing creativity and inspiring political slogans (liberty, equality, fraternity!), but it’s too expensive. London bores me and their food sucks. Copenhagen has the bikes and happy lifestyle, but its homogenous population (albeit a happy one) unnerves me and their language seems difficult to pick up. Kyoto would be cool, but Japan is irradiated and I’m not sure how well I’d be able to learn Japanese. Also, I don’t think I can live off udon and curry for the rest of my life.

I’ve always harbored a secret hope that someday I can have a second place to live, preferably overseas. I dream of going back and forth, my foot in two doors of culture, changing destinations with the seasons, picking where inspiration pulls me, making friends abroad, expanding my roots, learning a new language. A place with socialized medicine, rich history, the best food, and societal values based on connection rather than money (does this place exist??).

I never found that place.

I’m still here.

As my roots expanded in or near my hometown, and my responsibilities and anchors deepened, my plans shifted. Perhaps I resigned myself to the typical fate one grows into with age. As your roots deepen, you become tied to where you live for better or worse, and transplanting seems like an almost fatal decision.

Dreams changed. Maybe I wouldn’t move abroad, like I wanted so badly to do, but maybe I’d just visit. Or maybe I’d execute this plan “someday,” like retired-someday, or if something-extraordinary-happens-someday.

Something else happened besides the roots, though. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I’ve realized a few truths about living. It’s easy to glamourize a place that is different from what you know, whether it’s another city in your state, another state entirely, or places out of the country. It’s the old “grass is greener” adage. Now when I visit a new city and I’m using the measuring stick in my head to size it up, I try to think of it in those terms. I make myself pause and think about what the place might look like in the dead of winter. What would it be like to bundle up me and the kids and trudge through snow on our bikes or take the bus to school and work and repeat that every single day? What would the food taste like when I’ve had it every day for weeks and years? Would this park look so awesome if I saw it day in and day out?

The truth is, every place has its pros and cons.

Wherever you go, there you are. You can’t automatically land into an amazing life by mere location. If you are seeking changes in your life, it has to come internally, and it can happen in a cardboard box if it must, not necessarily in the color-splashed canals of Venezia.

When I travel, one of the things I’m able to reflect on these days is what my life means to me back home. Over time, I’ve developed an appreciation for where I live, my hometown, despite the fact that it is almost literally a concrete jungle. I realize how much I value my home. I pull into my driveway for the first time in three weeks, fresh from the airport, and I see my garden and the new paint job on my house and the new windows and the wheelbarrow with the kids’ garden tools and I smile because it’s all mine and there are so many memories attached to it. My driveway, my front yard, my backyard, four bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms. It could be bigger, it could be smaller, but whatever it is, it is our home. It has my books inside of it, our pictures, my clothes, and everything else we attach value to.

While I like and appreciate all of our material belongings, I realize it isn’t the main reason I’ve accepted “this” as not only my home, but a place where I am happy to live. The real reason is the relationships I’ve formed over the years. The network of people I have through work, our temple, my friends, family, neighbors, community, and acquaintances is all something I feel would take more than my lifetime to attempt recreating. This is where I have built my career, a career that never feels like a job, where I get to reside amongst my students and former students with a genuine community feeling. This is where I had my children. This is where I buried my husband, and when he died, this is the community that lifted us up in our time of despair. This is where my parents live and my sister, and two hours away my 93 year old grandmother. This is where I went to school, where I had my first job, where I’ve had good and bad times. My roots are deep in this boring and ugly part of the world, and that counts for something. (I should also disclose that we also have excellent weather, I’m 25 minutes from the beach, an hour from the mountains, and I live in the best state in the country. All of this helps make the downsides more palatable.)

The truth about life is that everything becomes boring and ugly after a while. The mundane finds its way into every nook and cranny of your mind. It’s not a city that enhances your life: it’s relationships and connections to others. It’s the meaningful contributions you make, the fulfilling activities you participate in, the creativity you forge in whatever circumstances, with whatever resources, in whatever city you happen to be in. It’s not a place that makes you great, it’s you. You have to put in the effort. You are responsible.

I still have incredible wanderlust, but I’ve reached a new stage where it takes me off on adventures, but doesn’t prevent me from feeling grateful or happy about coming home.

Shedding My Skin

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Everyone deals with grief in their own unique way. It’s part of what makes us human: we all must forge our own paths, and no two will be the same. Trial and error. We don’t have a definitive manual on how to live. We do the best we can.

As for grief, you can’t ever really prepare for it. Even if you read about it and watched others experience it, none of that will prepare you for the moment in which you are flung into the incinerator of your own grief. It’s one of those things where you have to be there to know how badly it hurts.

Always the schoolteacher, I felt it was both cathartic for me, and possibly helpful to others, to be transparent about what I was going through. No point in hiding the reality of living, even the messy, ugly parts. Sharing the experience helped me to not bottle up shame for a fate I did not choose. I have written many essays about my experience with my husband’s death. I wish we could all be more open with each other about life: birth, death, and all of the ups and downs in between. Instead, we tend to sugarcoat reality. We divert our eyes. We feel compelled to perpetuate a facade, to only post our best moments on social media, to swallow the depth of our pain and hide our innermost vulnerabilities out of fear of being societal anomalies. Somehow we forget that in the end, we all harbor the same fears. We all feel the same pain.

I suppose it was easier for me to be open with others since I already felt so raw and exposed. Since making the decision to be transparent, I have had no regrets. In fact, I’ve experienced a wonderful unintended consequence of meeting many interesting people with their own stories about pain and suffering. To know that I live in a world with perfectly imperfect people who are hungry to connect with others is something I feel hopeful about. It reminds me that I am not alone. You are not alone. We are all bumbling through life no matter how old we are.

It has been 14 months since that fateful day that made me a widow. I have experienced many stages of the tumultuous ups and downs in my journey with grief. It really is an out of body experience to witness every part of your being convulse in the most unimaginable ways. But lately, for the past couple of months, I’ve felt something new.

It feels like I’m a snake shedding my skin.

Apparently, snakes shed their skin to allow for further growth. It also enables them to get rid of parasites.

I love it.

I’ve been on summer vacation. I recently went to Europe for 3 weeks and had a lovely, rejuvenating time. I wrote my heart out. I had way too many superb cups of cappuccino, strolled in amazing parks, saw beautiful art, learned interesting history, ate delicious food–all things to overfill my cup of living bliss.

Then I came home, and things started to feel weird. The serene, balanced feeling I had come to enjoy gave way to a new restlessness that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at first.

I craved change, so I started making change. I changed pictures on the walls, putting away old family pictures that included Kenneth, and replacing them with new family pictures. Ordering a new patio set. Re-decorating. New color. I had to have more color! De-cluttered. Threw away clothing I didn’t want or need anymore. New bedding, with cute pillows and new crisp white sheets. Splurges on myself. New paint. New goals. Lots of writing. More writing. Playing with the kids. Exercise. New traditions. Doing stuff. Lots of stuff. Filling every inch of my life with the things I love, with people and experiences. I felt an insatiable thirst for living spreading inside of me.

All of this was the complete opposite of the horrifying bowels of the earth I dwelled in last year.

But it’s more than the physical changes. There are changes inside of me. The aching I used to feel, the longing for my old life, has largely gone away. The intensity I felt missing Kenneth has faded, and he has become a person I used to know. We’ve settled into the routine of our new normal. I’ve learned to appreciate the various aspects of my new life, like the changes I’ve done around the house, the people I have met, the decisions I have boldly made all by myself, and the fears I have bravely conquered. I’ve worked my butt off for all of it. It is mine, stitched together with my blood and tears, and I am proud. I own it.

We’re going on our annual camping trip soon. I’ve been thinking about all the things I love about the outdoors. Giant redwoods trees with trunks so thick I can’t wrap my arms around them. Rings marking the years of existence that stretch far back in the history books, dwarfing my time on this earth. Boulders bigger than my car, layers of sediment that took thousands of years to build up, weathered by erosion, each one uniquely shaped. Seasons that usher life in and out, make growth and re-growth possible, disaster, beauty. Early summer: snow melting, flowers and green foliage sprouting from a dormant ground, tender leaves stretching upward toward the sun. Animals emerging from hibernation with their babies, foraging for the bounty of summer to sustain life and a promise for tomorrow. Life cycles. An existence always teetering on the edge of death.

In the wilderness, life is sacred. It is fleeting and it is fragile. In the city we easily forget about these truths, but in the wilderness it clings to your skin and hangs over your head, and you have no choice but to savor what is in front of you. You focus on the essentials: food, water, shelter. Everything else is secondary. There is liberation in the simplicity.

It makes me think about my own life.

I once feared letting go of what was, of changing, of getting further and further away from the reality I once lived. Now I have learned to welcome the impermanence of life. It is beautiful and it is bittersweet, but it offers promise in unexpected ways, and in the end, it keeps life interesting and meaningful.

The silver lining: not all is lost. Everything I feared losing is still inside of me, buried beneath new layers, part of the foundation of what makes me uniquely me. It is exactly what has contributed to making this improved version of who I am.

Right now, I am shedding those final remnants of toxicity of my former self: anger, resentment, sadness, forlorn hopelessness that used to keep me awake at night. I am no longer scared, although it was okay to feel scared. We can’t be ashamed of having feelings. It is what makes us uniquely human.

But we can’t give in to our fears. We have to keep moving forward. We have to keep our eyes open to the endless ways life is fulfilling and worthwhile.

I will shed my skin over and over again until I take my last breath on earth. I still have so much to learn and experience. Every day I get stronger, more resilient, and more excited about the possibilities in my future.

This is a happy place I couldn’t even imagine last year. I am eternally grateful to be here.

Restlessness

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(Photo credit: My SIL, since I never seem to have any photos of myself!)

When you are in the throes of a deep, gnarled grief that stabs and slices and shreds, a relentless grief that wants to disembowel, your life becomes consumed with the important job of trying to survive. Pain is your new toxic companion that wants to wrap its tentacles around your neck every single night in the silence of a dark, empty house filled with shadows and reminders of the dead. Grief pours into every corner of space inside of you, invading every cell of your body, stretching for endless, hopeless miles with no horizon in sight. You, alone, spend your days cowering on a rickety raft amidst the violent churning of a vast ocean. You are focused only on getting through another day, one at a time. Every morning you wake up and are surprised that you are still alive.

Over time, the intensity wanes. Your toxic companion isn’t always around, because even it has grown tired of your sad life. It prefers to come around when you are least expecting it, when its chances of knocking you to your feet are the greatest. You are relieved that you don’t have to live every day with it, so the coming and going is acceptable to you, at least at first. When it leaves, you can breathe again. Soon, you can start eating and sleeping again too. The rest of the world had always kept moving along, business as usual. You had to eventually jump back on that train if you were serious about living, which you must have been, since you kept waking up every morning.

I felt almost normal until just before the one year mark, when another burst of grief hit like a volcanic eruption inside of me. I saw it coming. I knew what to do. But none of that ever matters in these circumstances. Like a tidal wave, it is bigger and stronger than you, and your only hope is to ride it out like all of the other wipeouts you’ve experienced. You’ve come to rely on the predictability of pain.

It felt like 8 weeks of a stomach virus, commandeering my body, my thoughts, my entire being. It catapulted me into long, desolate stretches of hopelessness. One final sputter, like the burst of energy surging through your body right before you die, except in reverse. Or was I finally dying?

And then, like a virus, it was out of my system, and a few days later I felt like my new-normal self again.

What I didn’t anticipate was the feelings that would flood my mind after grief subsided.

A new companion took its place: restlessness.

You see, grief is a dark, vicious beast that you spend your time resisting, fighting, processing, understanding. It takes all of your energy to keep it from defeating you, and you mistakenly start to think that this is who you are: a suffering, pathetic, pain-fighter.

Once it’s gone, when you hold your katana over your head in defeat of the ugly beast of pain, you look around, realize you are alone, and you wonder: what’s next?

Restlessness: the inability to rest or relax as a result of anxiety or boredom.

You didn’t prepare yourself for this, just like you weren’t prepared for grief.

I went to my husband’s nephews’ college graduation last weekend. The twins, who were little boys when I first met them, had earned their college degrees. We had a good time with the family, and I thought: wow, I have good in-laws.

Except…I’m not married to their brother anymore.

It’s a sad realization, but not one that cuts through me like it would have in the newness of Kenneth’s death. It’s just a fact now. Facts are facts. I’m not one to argue with truth.

After the festivities, I thought about how much my husband would have enjoyed the weekend. He loved time with his family. Kenneth would have been so jealous, I thought. Everyone together sharing a joyous occasion, but he is nothing but ashes.

It takes time to process the brutality of truth. You have to take the time to digest “Kenneth is campfire ashes” before you reach the point where it doesn’t make you break down anymore.

I’ve gotten used to it, and Kenneth is a neutral topic for me now. I can look at his pictures and feel neutral. I can think of sad things like how he was missing his nephews’ college graduation and it is a passing thought that does not debilitate me anymore.

Kenneth would have liked this.

Kenneth would have liked that.

Wish Kenneth could see this.

Passing thoughts.

I’ve had to work up to this point. I wear my indifference like a hard-earned battle scar across my chest. It is bittersweet: I haven’t gotten stuck in my pain, but Kenneth is a distant memory, floating further and further away from me.

Nobody wins in the end. We just survive the best we can.

Time softens feelings like a rock tumbler, smoothing the edges of the rough and jagged and ugly into something we can live with, maybe even something beautiful.

Having a dead husband, being a single mother, surviving grief–all of these parts of my identity are as normal to me now as being right-handed.

In the absence of my grief and pain, there is space. Breathing room. Time to think. A container to fill, but with what, I don’t know. My attachment to the pain is gone, and I am now attached to…what?

Not my husband.

Not my grief.

_____________.

I’m having an identity crisis. Should I feel normal? Am I really happy? What should I be doing right now, exactly? Is there a correct answer to any of these questions swirling around in my mind?

I am stuck in the role of pioneer, forging my way into new and uncharted territory, but I’m never quite sure if I’m going in the right direction, and this is a role I never planned to have.

This space inside of me is the source of my boredom-but-not-quite-boredom, and it gives me anxiety. Everything is working too efficiently right now in my life, and I’ve gotten used to chaos. I don’t know what to do with this. I’m suspicious of “this.” I’ve conquered the things I once feared, like pumping my own gas, raising three kids alone, and learning how to deal with household crises without another adult. But in other areas, there are still big question marks, like will I live the rest of my life alone? What does my next chapter look like?

I am unsure, and I have a horrible tendency of wanting to control all parts of my life. I’m a planner. I plan food menus and daily activities and monthly goals and weekly goals and a 5 year plan and a 10 year plan and I make to do lists for my to do lists and I revise them a couple times a day.

But “this”, this is something I have not been able to put my finger on. “This” is an elusive thing that I am unable to define.

It’s a scratch I can’t seem to itch.

Something I can’t remember, lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, just below the surface, escaping my memory.

It’s a frustration that grows in my chest, an unidentifiable feeling that isn’t happy or unhappy.

It’s going to dinner with somebody and asking, “What do you want to eat?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to eat?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t know either.”

A broken record that keeps spinning, playing and replaying a song that doesn’t offend nor appeal.

Going to bed early on a Friday night, wanting to do something fun but never getting around to making it happen.

Saying yes to something you didn’t really want to do, and the remorseful feeling afterward.

A child stuck inside on a summer day, watching the neighbors play and wishing they were too.

A desire to run for miles and miles and miles but not being able to work up the energy to get up and go.

An inability to put a finger on what is missing, but having that nagging feeling.

My days are filled with lots of meaning and productivity and doing the things I think I want to do. I meet my daily writing quotas. I exercise and eat well. My house is clean. I’ve organized closets and bedrooms and obscure drawers. I’ve taken the kids to a zillion places and they are fulfilled and loving little people and I am so happy they are my children. I’ve gone to Europe and gotten new bedding and cute matching pillows and I’ve taken naps and gone on walks and fiddled around in my garden and played with the kids and cooked and juiced and had my hair done and a manicure and a pedicure and everything I can possibly think of to feel content and happy and yet I can’t escape this feeling of restlessness.

If that’s what you call it.

I just call it restlessness for lack of a proper word in English to explain this space inside of me.

I can only assume this is a new stage in my new normal.

Perhaps I’m mourning the loss of the identity thrust upon me last year: Grieving Widow.

Now I am Bored Widow. Restless Widow.

Is there such a thing as Normal Widow? It seems like an oxymoron.

When a baby deviates from their routine and drives you crazy with new naughty behaviors, it tends to be a sign that they are entering a new developmental stage.

I must be evolving, I think. Entering a new stage.

It has to be a good thing, I think.

But I’m not sure. I’m never sure. I just have to keep bumbling through it, and right when I think I have the hang of it, something will pull the rug out from beneath my feet and I will have to figure out a new puzzle in my life.

The silver lining is that I’m getting really good at winging it.

Traveling

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The first day of every trip sucks, I reminded the kids, and ultimately myself. They whined, their eyes half-shut as they threatened to melt into a puddle of limbs onto the dirty ground. I tried not to get too mad at them. I’ve traveled with adults who have been whinier, and they are, after all, just children.

It was a 15 hour plane ride to Rome, counting our brief stop in Dallas. The loading and unloading, waiting, fussing over documents and lugging personal items with a 35 lb toddler strapped to your back can wear a person down. Usually I only do direct flights these days, but sometimes I make an exception if the price is right. It was probably a rookie mistake, but I figured we’d survive…somehow.

We arrived in Rome at 6:45AM and it felt as if an entire day of our lives disappeared with nothing to show for it. Airports are ugly; there was nothing magical about our adventure so far. In fact, there was nothing but nerves bouncing around inside of me as I worried about travel arrangements we needed to make in order to get to our final destination: Venice, a 4+ hour train ride away. I existed in a haze of sleep deprivation. We took the Leonardo Express to Termini, Rome’s largest train station. There we waited for 2 hours for our train. It was the only option with seats available. We were exhausted. I wondered if I could really muster the energy to continue, but I didn’t say that out loud. The trip was all my idea. I was the one who was here for the fourth time, the seasoned traveler in the group.

Let’s rally, I told the kids, my favorite mantra for when things feel tough.

They didn’t even worry for one second. They trusted with every fiber of their being that I would make everything happen the way it was supposed to happen. I guess that’s a compliment, albeit a lot of pressure. It’s different now. I don’t have my husband to catch me when I want to fall. It’s all on my shoulders.

It had been 11 years since the last time I was in Rome. I hadn’t thought of Termini Station in over a decade, the details tucked away in parts of my brain like an unopened junk drawer with forgotten items crammed inside. But once we arrived, it all came back to me with familiarity.

“There’s a McDonalds over there,” I said, remembering the last time I ordered a hash brown and it came with chunks of onion. I refused to eat it, back in my youthful days of extreme pickiness. My palate has matured…slightly.

I remembered the grocery store downstairs, where we purchased pesto (my first experience with it) with a woman from Seattle who we met at our hostel. We carried everything back under the moonlit sky and cooked dinner together in the hostel’s kitchen like we were all old friends. That was back in the day when I didn’t flinch to share a room with strangers and share a bathroom with an entire floor of people. Now I’m still sharing a room, but this time there’s three other people in my bed, limbs intertwined, and probably a couple of Legos and some stuffed animals.

We went to the McDonalds across the street from Termini, where we hoped to pass as much of the wait as possible since there was extremely limited seating at the station (basically, nowhere to sit) and we had time to burn. Our choice was sage; trusty McDonald’s with its globalized banality and dependable French fries. It was clean, there was food, and we could spread out and still be able to keep our eyes on the beggars who kept approaching us with their unsavory agendas pooling in their cloudy eyes.

At this point I wondered why I was still traveling. I wasn’t quite sure how I thought it was a good idea. I wondered if it was one of those things that seemed better on paper, or better in the idea stage. But then I wondered why I kept doing it if it sucked. There had to be a compelling reason. I tried not to decide at that moment. Surely I was on the edge of hallucinating from not sleeping in two days. I could reserve that decision for later.

I still wasn’t convinced any of it was a good idea 4 hours later when we got off our train at the Santa Lucia train station in Venice. I still wasn’t sure when we stepped out of the station and descended the ramp with our heavy luggage in pursuit of an easy route to the apartment we were renting.

And then we found ourselves facing the Grand Canal, watching boats float by against a backdrop of exactly the kind of gorgeous buildings you would expect to see in Italy.

Holy crap, I thought to myself. The city looked like the Venetian in Vegas. Except…it was real. We boarded a water bus toward the “tail” (Venice is shaped like a fish) and adrenaline pumped throughout my body. My fatigue disappeared. The kids were fully awake too, grinning widely, trying to stick their heads out the window so the wind would blow into their faces. They were ready to take on this new adventure. It felt like we stepped into a watercolor painting with lots of colors and people dressed in stripes and beautiful skirts and dresses and perfectly placed canals and bridges and churches. The water helped: it was everywhere. Surely any place with water can put a person at ease. It felt like we were caught in a dream.

In that moment all of the hassle of traveling felt worth it. It was a good idea. I got to see “this” with my own eyes. 15 hours of plane travel, 6 hours in train stations and on a train, and 40 minutes on a water bus. It’s the same feeling you have when you are backpacking. Your body is tired and your muscles are sore, you’ve lost track of how many mosquito bites you have, you’d give anything for a Coke and fast food, but when you’re on top of that waterfall, looking down a picturesque valley, or watching deer galloping across a meadow when the sun has just barely peaked over the eastern horizon and the air is dewy, then you know why you went through the hassle. Good things take effort. It is a universal truth.

Traveling is such an incredible experience. It opens minds. Traveling takes you through doors of civilization. It connects us to the billions of other people on this planet. It makes you realize that you are part of something bigger than the microscopic speck on the planet which you call home. Sometimes it’s as small as discovering a unique wine cork that helps you preserve your leftover wine, something you’ve never seen in stores back home, to make you realize that you and your country don’t have all of the answers, and your way isn’t the only way of living, and there is still so much to absorb in life. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

The rest of the world has simpler tastes, it seems. I am always reminded that we have too much in the United States, from the toys in our kids’ rooms, to the cars in our driveway, to our furniture and clothes and kitchen pantries bursting at the seams with junk that we eat and don’t need. If I hadn’t traveled, I wouldn’t have been able to think reflectively about how I live. That is an added bonus when you travel: copious amounts of time to reflect. I bring a journal and write. I don’t have to worry about the regular laundry list of tasks that keep me stitched inside of the daily grind. I feel free, and the beauty of everything fills my proverbial creative cup until it is overflowing, and the only thing I have to worry about is how I will carry it all back home with me and what will I do with it.

I noticed the way people prepare food differently. I noticed the importance of fresh ingredients. I get to walk when I travel. We don’t walk in the U.S. Not as much as we should. I walk up three flights of stairs to our apartment. Elevators are a luxury and not frequently found in these old buildings. I tried to picture what the people might have looked like in this building built in the 1500s. I hung wet laundry on lines attached from one building to the next. There are no driers. Other countries have amazing public transportation. When I travel, I get to experience the possibility of a world in which we can share resources and in turn, share a healthier planet.

Sometimes traveling helps me realize what it is I love about my home, opening up a well of gratitude for the randomness of the universe that allowed me to live where I live. My driveway. My backyard. The garden beds I can have. A bedroom for each person. My career. Our convenient grocery stores filled with many varieties of products to choose from. Sometimes the gratitude comes with the guilt of knowing how excessive it all is. We have so much. As ugly as the concrete jungle of my home is and how devoid of culture and history it may be, in so many ways I am reminded that I have won some kind of cosmic lottery.

I am convinced that there is a magical place I can call my second home one day, and I find myself in pursuit of this dream wherever I go. Only I can’t really decide, and I’m still partial to my roots no matter how much I love to hear different languages and learn new history. I love walking around amidst the layers of history, seeing 700 year old fountains with my own eyes, pondering artwork older than the founding fathers of my own country. I find myself enamored with many things, but for now, the dream of living abroad is a flicker inside of me begging to be nurtured until the conditions are right.

There are three stages of travel: planning, the actual trip, and reflecting.

The planning allows me to dream, strategize, gives me something to look forward to, occupies my mind, challenges me.

The actual trip is about survival, pleasure, challenge, fun, fear, learning.

When I am home, the reflection is a rosy-colored pair of spectacles that turn everything experienced into something to fondly remember. The stressful train rides are something to smile about. Missed connections, no big deal. There is no recollection of tired legs and cranky attitudes. I forget all of the moments when I asked myself what exactly I liked about traveling. The good and the blends into a reservoir of pleasant nostalgia that I keep returning to when the desire to see something new returns and I do it all again.

I know a lot of people who don’t travel, and it sort of boggles my mind. I mean, I guess I don’t like sports, and that probably seems weird to others.

The common reasons cited for not traveling: money, kids, can’t decide, careers that don’t give enough time off, inexperience in planning, or maybe they don’t like airplanes. It all ends up being excuses at the end of the day. We get married, have children, and buy things we don’t need, all of which cost lots of money and take up a lot of our time, and all of which require that we put effort into learning.

At the end of the day, it boils down to whether or not it is a priority. I remember feeling sticker shock about the price of a train ticket we had to purchase. It simmered inside of me. I felt myself questioning whether this was a good idea. And then I thought: this train ticket for my entire group to see an amazing city has cost me about 1.5 Costco trips. When I put it in those terms, it was easy to let go of the annoyance.

And like all things, if you can get past this learning curve of traveling with good humor and an open mind, you will reap the benefits of the experience. An experience isn’t the same feeling you get when you open a new package or purchase something tangible. Those purchases are a fleeting form of excitement, doomed to wear off and leave you hungry for more.

Unlike buying goods, an experience is something that stays inside of you and becomes part of who you are–forever.

There’s a reason I travel with three children like a mad woman. I love to travel. I’ve never been able to stop traveling, and I’m not the type of mother who is comfortable leaving my kids out of the experience I value so much. More importantly, I want to raise children who have been exposed to the world. I want it to be part of their foundation. I want it to be as familiar to them as their childhood home. I want them to always see a world of possibility. I also want them to accept all human beings as their neighbors, and that despite language, what our homes look like, the food we eat, the money we have, or any other difference, that we are all human beings with the same basic needs and wants. So when I’m tired from carrying Peter around all day, when Eloise has spilled her glass of water at dinner for the 284728657th time, when Ethan decides to start skipping around in a medieval church after I told him to deactivate his robot-mode, or when a cranky old lady shushes Peter’s noises and shames me with her impatience, I will still persevere. I won’t stay home. I can’t keep my wanderlust cocooned in the bubble of my tiny speck of the world. I have to roam. I live for the adventure.

I often hear people talking about their plan to travel “someday.” That someday might be retirement. It might be when their kids grow up. It might be when they save enough money.

To all of that I say: you just don’t know what your “someday” looks like.

I think I’ve always had a sense of urgency, a consciousness that I have a finite amount of time and a heck of a lot of things I wanted to do. But as I am traveling now, I am always aware that my husband is missing out on life. He studied Roman history and could be giving us historical information instead of us relying on Google. He put off traveling to Italy for “someday.” He thought he had all the time in the world. He never thought that one day he’d wake up and die, before he could retire, before his children were out of diapers, before he could finish his life’s bucket list. Just gone.

I thought about him the other day. Not just a passing thought that often happens, like how he liked this or that, or a reference with the kids. It was one of those thoughts I have when I suddenly feel struck by the outrageousness of life, and his lack of life. I don’t often have those thoughts anymore, but it happened while I was traveling on a train to Rome. I tried to remember his face. I even searched through my phone, looking for reminders. He has become a distant memory, intricately woven into the fabric of our lives, but also nonexistent in so many ways. It doesn’t hurt the way it did last year when it was fresh and raw and I didn’t know what to do with myself as a single woman with three young children, but there is a feeling of emptiness you can’t really ever shake out of your system. It feels like you are in a car on a journey with an empty passenger seat. You want to turn and talk to the passenger, or ask them what music they want to listen to or when they want to stop or where they want to go and maybe let them take over the driving sometimes, but there is nothing but empty space. Your car won’t stop. It will continue on, with this journey, and many more, and you get used to the feeling that something is missing. But it’s never going to feel like an ideal plot twist in your life.

When I hear excuses about why people don’t travel, I hear people who are afraid to make the leap into the unknown. I see people who are too attached to the comfort of familiarity. I see people who haven’t yet embraced their mortality.

For those people, I encourage them to make that leap into the unknown and to live as if today is your last. Tomorrow comes with no promises, and sometimes it never comes.