A Letter to the Young Women

I debated whether or not to share this with the masses. It’s a letter I gave to the founding members of the club of which I am the advisor. After several days of contemplation, and since I’ve already given it to my girls, I thought I might go ahead and take the risk and share it to encourage others to connect with our youth.

There is no garbage can for human beings. I’ve come to the conclusion that adults are really just children who have aged on the outside. They may or may not have grown on the inside. As somebody who has experienced brokenness and has had to rebuild and grow resilience, I’ve also learned that we can’t force people to learn on our schedules, they must do it on their own. As teachers, it is our job to be patient and give them repeated opportunities to learn without judgement. We can’t understand somebody else’s journey if we haven’t walked in their shoes. All we can do is practice empathy and patience with an open mind and give them every chance to succeed. They won’t always succeed. But they’ll remember that we believed in them. My husband was always trying to teach me that. I finally did, when I was ready.

***
May 19, 2017

Dear Founding Members,

Next week you will graduate from high school and begin your lives without the constraints of mandatory K-12 education. As exciting as this feels right now, it should not be the end of your learning. I believe that we should all be life-long learners. There is no such thing as knowing everything. While this doesn’t necessarily mean your learning always has to be through traditional means, having a college degree will give you privilege that others won’t have. It will open doors of opportunity, fill your mind with knowledge, connect you with people, and help you grow as a person. Find what you are passionate about and immerse yourself in the study of it. Then go find more things that you are passionate about to learn. There are an infinite amount of things to learn. Spend more time reading than you do engaging in passive activities. Participate. Participate even when you can’t see why or how it would benefit you. Participating leads to learning.There is always something valuable about experiences, and everything you do today will prepare you for the person you’ll be in all of your tomorrows.

Keep being the champions of great causes. Help people. Be bold, but remember a leader has to inspire others to take action. Build relationships. Be fair and compassionate with people. You never know the burdens they carry, just as they don’t know about your burdens.

Take care of your health. You only have one body. Develop healthy habits that will stack the odds in your favor for living a long, happy life.

Say yes to something beyond your comfort zone, and start saying no to the things that no longer serve your heart.

Live in a way that stays true to the woman inside of you. Don’t let society, relationships, friends, careers, laziness, addictions, tragedy, setbacks, friends, lame excuses, or anything else prevent you from living a purposeful, meaningful, balanced life. Life will attempt to bury you under a pile of B.S.. Life is pretty freaking hard, Ladies. Be more stubborn than all the odds stacked against you. Don’t let yourself get buried. The longer you wait to unbury your true self, the harder it will be. You may get lost. That’s normal. Take the time to check in with yourself. Journal. Spend time alone. Think clearly. Focus on your goals and do the best you can. We all make mistakes. When you make a mistake, fix it. Learn from them. Don’t repeat. Never, ever, ever, ever give up. You have too many important contributions to make in this world and in history. Humanity needs you.

Know that your past does not determine who you are today or tomorrow. You always have choice, and you can choose to live a happy life. Happiness is a direction, not a destination. Only you can make yourself happy. Only you can destroy your happiness.

Know that feelings are temporary. They aren’t meant to stay. Let yourself feel and then let the feelings move on. It takes hard work to keep a clear, focused mind. Invest the time to think. It’s worth it. Keep your impulsive instincts in check. It’s so easy to react when you are young. Impose a waiting period on your actions when necessary. Learn to trust your gut.

Keep an open mind about people. People are weird and annoying. So are we. Don’t write people off too quickly. When you can, give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t be a doormat, but don’t be quick to burn bridges.

Do your research in life. Research the heck out of everything, from cars to schools to jobs to how to fix things around the house.

Save your money. Don’t waste it. Strong women are independent in many ways, but financial independence is the hallmark of a strong feminist. Only then are you truly free.

Don’t fall in love with the first anything. That includes significant others, cars, houses, whatever. If you fall in love, don’t get one-itis (where you have tunnel vision only for that person). Always ponder the statistical odds of meeting “the one” at the age of 18 and that should help you put life into perspective. You live in a vast ocean with many fish to choose from. Guard your heart. Be choosy about who deserves your time and attention. Not everyone is worth your time.

When you do find that special man or woman to share a life with, if that’s what you choose to do, make sure that person supports the woman you’ve always been, the woman with hopes, dreams, and goals. You should never have to sacrifice that woman for anything or anybody, if that’s who you really are. You’ll know Mr. or Ms. Right is the one when they would never ask or want you to be anyone other than yourself.

Travel as much as you can. Once you have experienced a new country you won’t ever want to stop seeing the world. Once you witness with your own eyes and ears and senses that there isn’t only one way to live, it opens your mind to a world of possibility and opportunity.

If you want something, you’ll make it happen. Don’t wait for your dreams to knock on your front door. You must manufacture your own destiny.

Too much of anything is never a good thing. Knowing how to strike balance in your life is a skill you can develop, and it is something we all must work on throughout our lives. It’s not a one-and-done. You’ll have to calibrate, make adjustments, add, cut, and more over time. That’s what is so beautiful about life. You can wake up every morning to the smell of possibility.

Don’t cheat your way through life. You only cheat yourself, and you will have to pay the consequences at some point. At the end of your life nobody will be standing there high-fiving you for fooling everyone with your cleverness in taking shortcuts. People can spot the inauthentic vs. authentic people. They may not tell you, and you may think you’re getting away with the dishonesty, but it stains your reputation. At the end of your life it will just be you and the emptiness you allowed to grow inside of you. Don’t be that person.

At this age you probably feel invincible. You’ve got wide open space in front of you and lots of time, or so it seems. Know that time is an illusion. Ten years may seem like forever. But now that you’re out of childhood, ten years will pass as quickly as a blink of an eye. In ten years you will lose loved ones. Your body will change. You may or may not have a family of your own. You may have traded your tube tops and ripped jeans for t-shirts and yoga pants. You will not have all of the same friends. Your favorite band won’t be your favorite band anymore.

Don’t be scared of change. You will change. Change is healthy and normal. If we don’t change, we become stale and obsolete and stupid. As we acquire skills and knowledge and experiences, of course we will change! But we are taught to fear change. Instead, embrace it. Own it. The good, the bad, the painful, the joyful. All of it. Because we are human we get to feel everything. And most importantly, we get to learn from it all. That’s the key: make an effort to have a positive influence on the inevitable change you will have in your life. This happens through the choices that you make.

Picture the woman you want to be in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, 50 years, 60 years, or even 70 years from now. If you take care of yourself you will increase your chances of meeting that future you. Don’t sabotage yourself.

You’re not living by someone else’s timeline. This is your life. You do things when you are comfortable and ready. You must learn to have boundaries and learn to protect your boundaries. This will be important in your careers, relationships, and just life in general.

Make a life that you can enjoy. Find what is meaningful to you. Know that it is possible to live a life that doesn’t feel like drudgery. It’s all about choices and perspective.

The biggest mistake in my life was that I was always rushing from one destination to the other. I couldn’t wait to get out of high school. I graduated from college in 3 years. I couldn’t wait to move out of my parents’ house. To have a career. Get married. Have a child. Have another child. And another. And then my husband died. You wish you could go back in time and savor moments, even ridiculously small moments like trips to Costco, which you’d now give anything to have again. You often realize your mortality when it is too late. But it’s never too late to live fully. Enjoy the journey and appreciate all of your days.

Don’t squander your time. It is not unlimited. You may live 70+ more years or you might die next week. Live with purpose. What is meaningful to you? How do you think you can contribute good into the world? You will do great things. What will they be? What do you want to be known for? Isn’t it exciting to wonder and plan for this?

Each of you recognized a need for a feminist club on campus. Each of you knows that we still have a long ways to go to fight for equality and equity for women and other disadvantaged groups in society. You have the opportunity to continue your work advocating for others. You can do it. I’m picturing all of you as 80-somethings, taking a break from time with your grandkids to go to a rally or perhaps volunteer for a great cause. I envision all of you making gray hair and soft, older female bodies as normal as the sun rising and setting each day in a world that stigmatizes women for aging. We need bold, fearless young women like you to pave the mindset and societal attitudes of the future.

You will feel lots of pain in your life. Some of you have already experienced pain. This is the price of living. But that doesn’t mean you have to live a life of suffering. Look your pain square in the eyes with the audacity of the world’s most stubborn woman who won’t back down. Promise to face your problems head on instead of burying your head into the sand. In life we have two choices: lay down and crumble, or do great things. Your life doesn’t have to be over when you face adversity. There are so many beautiful things in the world, you just have to open your eyes and mind to see them.

Inside each of you is a fighting spirit with her own story. Own your story. You have so many more chapters left. You get to fill those empty pages with plot lines and characters and settings. Some of it will be imposed on you–the universe can be cruel. Still, there will be many choices for you to make. Choose carefully. This is YOUR story. As they say, “edit your life ruthlessly and frequently.”

When it all feels too heavy, don’t give up. People will want you to quit. Sometimes life feels like we’re one of many crabs thrown in a boiling pot of water, the crabs pulling each other down and inevitably everyone gets cooked. Don’t pull other people down, but don’t let them pull you down either. Choose your referent group (the people you hang around) wisely. Remember, your life is your story. You get to pick the characters in your chapters. You are the author. Nobody else.

Thank you for being the founding members of a club that means so much to many students on campus. The 2017-2018 FU cabinet has excitedly been planning next year, and they wouldn’t have the opportunity to do it if a group of fearless young ladies who wanted to change the world hadn’t put their heads together to make it happen. You have already begun your legacies–how exciting is that? I’m optimistic and thrilled to wish you all much happiness as you embark on your life journeys.

Thank you for also giving me hope in my own life. The past year was personally difficult as I embarked on my own journey of being a new widow. The hope, optimism, and curiosity I saw in each of your eyes gave me another reason to show up each day even when I felt like things were too difficult. I am a better person because of knowing and working with you ladies. Thank you for choosing me to be your advisor.

I have gifted each of you with a book that I myself have read. It’s about life. It’s about loss. It’s about finding meaning in your life. It’s an easy read, and if you’re like me, by the time you get to the end you’ll be in your pajamas eating your favorite cake and sobbing over the complexity and fragility of life. And then you’ll lift your head high, take a deep breath, and promise yourself that you will kick butt with whatever time you have been gifted. I hope it inspires you the way it did me.

If you ever feel like you need somebody to talk to, you know where to find me. Now go kick butt.

Sincerely,

Your Teacher

A Weird Wedding Anniversary Post

4143_101383841062_4476669_n

Yesterday would have been my 8th wedding anniversary, and just over 10 years together. We got married on the same day as my grandparents. I thought their almost sixty years of union would have been good luck. Nope. At least not for me.

Not long before Kenneth passed away, I teased him about our upcoming 7th wedding anniversary. I told him it was the seven year itch, and would we survive? He got mad. He was always very traditional and loyal when it came to family (not hair or music though, haha). I never had to worry about him running off. Until he died off.

As the anniversary approached, I wondered how I would feel on that day. I wasn’t overcome with sadness like I was last year when it was only two weeks after his death and two days before his funeral. I didn’t run off to get a tattoo, like I did last year. I told the kids that it was our “family anniversary,” celebrating the day that we formalized the beginning of our family. We spent the day at swim lessons and then at their school carnival, complete with cotton candy, face painting, and bounce houses. Instead of me getting flowers, I gave Kenneth flowers at the cemetery. I felt a bit of sadness well up in my chest, but then it passed. It kind of just…is. The agonizing grief has faded into tired grief. The kids declared it the “best day ever.” They are way more skilled at not letting the past interfere with the present.

What I’m about to write is probably the exact opposite of what you might expect to read about somebody’s anniversary, especially from a widow who is supposed to be sad about her dead husband. But I’m not one to sugar-coat reality, and like most things in life, it’s never as simple as feeling one emotion. When we take a trip, we are excited about going, we feel sad when we leave, happy to be home, and nostalgic when we look at the pictures. A full spectrum of feelings about one trip. To reduce our experiences to one emotion is to not be transparent about living.

My disclaimer before I continue is that of course I miss my husband and I wish he were here. But like all things, it’s never usually good or bad. Happy or sad. Tragic or fortunate. In life, it is usually all of it. 

I’ve noticed that I’ve become more efficient. I appreciate things more. I’ve learned a lot. I feel more. I’m writing more. My house is always clean. I’m more forgiving. I go where I want. i’m more organized and focused. I’m kinder to myself. ‘And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking. 

Maybe I’ve had enough time by myself, enough distance from that fateful day, to put everything into perspective about marriage and loss and being single again. I remember in the days and weeks after Kenneth passed away, one of the most noticeable changes in my life was all of the free time I suddenly had, left alone with my own thoughts. I was so used to him always being there. When the kids went to sleep at night, it became just me mulling around an uncomfortably silent and lonely house. Nobody to talk to. Just me and my thoughts and a desire to reconcile the madness in my head. In the mornings, instead of bumping into him as we prepped breakfast and lunch and chit-chatting about school and politics and what we had to do that day, I suddenly found myself alone to do all of the work by myself with time to think.

There’s nothing like becoming a widow to experience a complete identity crisis. I thought I was living the life that I wanted, and then the next morning, that life was gone. I became a 34 year old widow with three little ones. We all know what society thinks about single mothers. So much of a woman’s social status is tied to her reproductive strategies, no matter how bogus some of us might think that is. Not only would I have to grieve my husband, but I’d have to deal with the social ramifications of being a single mother. A societal outcast. I’ve had multiple well-intended people remind me how unlikely it will be for me to find a significant other while I have such small children. 

So this was it, I thought. My fate. It felt like rusty nails being pounded into my coffin. 

The first year of widowhood passed both excruciatingly slow and quick all at the same time. There were many evenings of isolated thinking. Many early mornings packing lunch and pondering. If I didn’t have three young children, I would have left my job and spent a year somewhere reflecting on a mountain. But alas, I was stuck in the suburbs with obligations and monotonous routines. Being single gave me the space to process without having to use someone else’s filter.

My dismal situation led to an opportunity to engage in deep reflection. It made me think long and hard about who I was, how I felt about myself, and how I felt others perceived me. I knew early on that I was going to think my way out of this. Someway, somehow, I’d save myself. This couldn’t be the end for me. I could take back my narrative. 

In marriage, so much of who we are has to pass through the marriage filter. Would my husband be okay with it? What time should I be home? He didn’t like this or that. He wanted to go there. I wanted this but he doesn’t like it, so we had to choose that. Compromises involve concessions that don’t always feel true to the person we once were. We forget the person we were. That person becomes buried under time. We assume a new identity that is shared with our spouse.  Until something happens.

My husband was the one who died, but I felt like in a lot of ways I died too.

Except I could reinvent myself. There could be rebirth for me, if I wanted it.

And I knew that I did.

Maybe the life I lost wasn’t necessarily the be all, end all in the narrative of my life. Maybe there could be positive gleaned from a horrific experience. I don’t know what it looks like, but there had to be value in the person I was becoming in my new life.

An identity crisis is not unique to widows. It happens to all of us. It’s just that widows go through the crisis of one day being married and sharing their lives with somebody, and the next day not, with no choice of their own. It’s a shock to body and mind.

But we’ve all experienced having our sense of self pigeon-holed into someone else’s projection of who we are. They want to define our narrative. We are led to believe that our narratives just kind of happen. We become passively complicit in the loss of ourselves, floating through life with the rest of society, accumulating labels over the years.

We’re too bossy. Too lazy. Too messy. Too radical. Too loud. Too idealistic. Too soft. Too drama. Too quiet. Too crazy. Too pretty. Too ugly.

I find myself fighting labels now more than ever. Awful ones that make you want to walk the other way, like widow and single mother and bitch.

They will judge me by what I say. How I look. What I do. Where I go. Who I associate with. What I believe. For my biology.

As a woman, and especially as a mother, we seem to be targets for unwanted opinions and generalizations. Everyone else apparently knows better than us about how to live our lives.

We are born a blank slate, uniquely our own person, but the moment we enter this world until we take our last breath (and for some even after death), we are subjected to the onslaught of society’s opinions about how we live and who we are. It pushes its way into the narrative of our lives. It attempts to define who we are without our direct consent. Some of us are better than others at handling the imposition.

We should get married. We should have children. We should do this. We should do that. We should, we should, we should. But nobody asks us what we really want to do, nor are we in the habit of creating the space and time to contemplate this heavy question. Often we don’t think to challenge social norms. It’s just the way it has always been.

But there is always a choice. We can roll over and accept whatever is handed to us, or we can take back our narratives. We can fight to unbury our true selves from out beneath the rubble of the societally-imposed narrative.

In the quiet space of my newfound singlehood, I’ve thought a lot about who I am, who I was, and what the future might look like for a pathetic widow like me. The truth is, we seem to have made being single a societal plague that one must strive to avoid. Marriage is glorified but being single means there must be something wrong with us. Something missing. Same for people without children. They get a zillion questions from curious people about why they wouldn’t want to reproduce. Why wouldn’t you want to do what everyone else does?

We live in a society that values bad relationships over being alone. So we settle. We stay. We concede and we tolerate and we live our lives without knowing what it takes to be happy.

Nobody talks about how marriage is one of the biggest hijackers of our sense of self, or how boring most parents become when they have nothing to talk about except about their children. 

We get married and our personal narratives are abandoned, replaced with a family narrative. Everyone acts like that’s the way life is supposed to work. It’s like a Vanishing Twin Syndrome, but for couples. One person becomes absorbed into the other. They are no longer individuals, but a unit.

Our spouse and children become our hobbies. We get addicted and attached to them. Codependent.

Having a personal narrative consumed with the lives of other people (even the humans I gave birth to) seems like a lazy way to live. How easy it is to hide behind being Ethan’s mom or Kenneth’s wife. It was easier not to have to make decisions alone. It was easier being able to pass tasks off onto somebody else. It was easier to blame each other. It’s so easy to say you can’t do this or that because of your kids. Crutches, that’s what they are. Crutches that prevent us from having to walk on our own and take responsibility for how we lived our lives.

The problem with basing your entire identity on your relationship with others is that you can’t control those others. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they leave. Children grow up. Children get their own lives.

But we are still here.

When I ask the students in my class to tell me about what they like, I tell them they can’t say sleeping or eating. Duh. We all eat and sleep. We all go to the bathroom too. And most of us have family, whether it be parents, siblings, offspring, spouses, whatever. Are any of those things really something to put on our resumes? If you go to a job interview, do you tell them immediately that you are a parent and a spouse? Are these personal attributes that measure our worth and appeal as human beings?

And yet we let it consume who we are.

I’m not trying to disparage parenting or marriage. I’m a fiercely loving mother of three. I’m the woman who wanted children since my childhood days of cradling Cabbage Patch Dolls in my arms. I opted not to go to law school because I didn’t think being a lawyer would allow me to be the kind of mom I knew I would want to be. And I had a mostly happy marriage to a man I would still be married to if he hadn’t died. But I’m not just a mother, and I wasn’t just a wife.

I had to lose my identity to realize that I didn’t want to drown in domesticity ever again. Even though I don’t think I was as bad as I could have been, I still recognized parts of my life that was not the way I really wanted to live.  Now that I have one foot in the family life, and the other foot in the single world, I don’t quite fit into either world. I don’t want to spend my social time talking about potty training, but I also don’t have the luxury of hanging out at bars and not planning my life around sitters. I’m somewhere in between. I don’t feel adequately understood, but I’ve become at ease with that. I feel less of a need to be understood and more interested in determining my own narrative, on my terms. It’s part of understanding your mortality and realizing that you have one shot at making the most of your life.

I guess the first moment I realized that my life wasn’t as bad as I thought was when my annual anniversary photo book came in the mail. I’ve been making one every year since we got married, using it as a way to look back on the previous year of our marriage. Now I’ve turned it into a family book. I flipped through the pages, looking at pictures from Germany, France, Mexico, Japan, a trip to Legoland, the Aquarium,  holidays, hiking, our house, the kids’ activities, birthday parties, the kids’ artwork, and outings. I closed the book and felt guilty. I had spent the last year feeling like my life was terrible, but the photographic evidence proved otherwise.

The family we knew had ended, but it evolved into something new. I had it ingrained in my head that the old version was better, the one that included my husband. But in a world where there are so many things beyond our control, we shouldn’t be measuring the value of our lives based on simplistic standards of better or worse, good or bad. There is no one way to live. There is value in everything. 

It doesn’t mean I don’t believe in marriage. I had a mostly positive experience being married. I was lucky enough to be married to somebody who was constantly in awe of me. It was a time when I could be myself around somebody who accepted me completely. He knew all aspects of who I was. He understood the nooks and crannies of my mind, for better or worse. He understood my dreams and goals. He knew exactly what my shortcomings were, but he cared more about my strengths and potential and would support me no matter what. He was somebody who wanted me to succeed. He was also a great co-parent. 

Nobody understands me the way that he did. The other people in my life usually only know a certain aspect of who I am. They know the professional side of me. The neighbor side. The daughter side. The friend. The mother. Only my spouse (who I worked with) knew what it looked like when all of these aspects of my identity intersected, creating the authentic narrative of who I was. We all have an innate desire to be seen for our true selves.

Despite having a positive experience, I think it is irresponsible to not point out the negatives of marriage. There was a lot I didn’t like. Even in the best of circumstances, marriage inevitably involved bargaining, compromise, acceptance, and concessions. Two individual narratives do not happily intertwine with longevity without some (or a lot) of mess. You will have battles of the wills. I also find it can lead to avoiding having to write your own narrative. It’s so much easier to make everything about the family. Being true to yourself, to really know who you are and what you want to do and be known for, is something that takes a lot of hard work. It’s easier to selectively post edited snippets of your life on Facebook so the world thinks you’re the happiest married couple on Earth and everything in your life is Pinterest Perfect.

Except, we all know that a parent living vicariously through their children or a person who sacrifices their life to cater to the life of their spouse are people who aren’t living true to themselves.

But we would never admit that. Instead of calling it like it is, we think it’s great parenting. Loving marriages. To think otherwise is nothing short of treason to social conventions. 

I always wonder why it is considered good parenting to show your kids (through the way that you live) that once they grow up they too will become a parent whose life amounts to chauffeuring small people around, catering to them like maids, and having no real interests or skills other than keeping the fridge stocked and managing the family calendar. I can’t be the only person to wonder about this. 

Why are we so terrified of showing the true colors of marriage? Like death, we shy away from revealing what living really looks like. I know Van Gogh didn’t paint toilets, but he also didn’t have a platform like social media  to constantly push out fake narratives about living.

If you want to know the truth, marriage puts constraints on your time. It can suck away your attention. It can reduce your life to Costco trips and diaper-changing rotations and squabbling in the car about the most inane topics. It can lead to simmering resentment. It can cause you to compromise away non-negotiables and make you have amnesia about the things you once wanted but gave up in the name of the family. It can make you selfish and entitled. It can dilute who you are, and we so easily smile and pretend that it’s all okay because we have these amazing families and lives and everything smells like roses until you look at the divorce rate in this country.

I often wonder if I am okay with living the rest of my life alone. At the rate I’m going, and the more I dissect it in my head, it seems less likely that I will agree to anything less than what I think I deserve, which means it may prove to be immensely difficult to find someone with a similar perspective (in addition to me having three young children, which everyone keeps reminding me is a major detriment to my social calendar). I won’t give away the person I’ve fought so hard to become just for the false security of companionship. I would also never downgrade, or contemplate settling, just for the sake of companionship. Being a widow has taught me that I can stand on my own two feet and face my scariest days alone.

And yet I still believe in the benefits of marriage. I had a mostly good experience with marriage, which means the good parts of my relationship outweighed the bad parts. We cannot reduce a complex relationship to a simple word of good or bad. It was fun, boring, dramatic, supportive, loving, bitter, resentful, admiring, tiring, inspiring, companionship, friendship, angry, adventurous, and a lot more words to accurately define what marriage was like for me.

There are many benefits of companionship, when done in a way that stays true to yourself. I still believe in the institution of marriage, despite the fact that I’m realizing that I kind of like being single too. We can be good partners and good parents without sacrificing everything. We don’t have to choose between this or that, but rather it’s a balancing act. When we work to strike the right balance (an ongoing process), I think it makes us better spouses and parents and people.

I know that if I ever get married again, I will be a better partner. I’ve learned so much about relationships from losing mine.

My narrative involves a dead husband and three young children, but there’s so much more than that. I am the only person with permission to write my narrative. I will protect that right until I die. I hope my narrative will be long and filled with memorable experiences and feelings and people and places. I want it to involve frequent plane trips around the world, gardens, libraries, and copious amounts of time spent with my children. I want a cozy home with purposeful space to socialize with family and friends. I want books all over my house. I want to learn, create, and participate in my community. I want to exercise regularly and eat clean. I have many more backpacking trips to make, whitewater rafting to experience, and snorkeling to do. I want to be a NICU cuddler and I want to comfort people in the hospital experiencing death. I want to play better chess. I want to attend Supreme Court oral arguments. I want to take the family to Plum Village and learn to meditate. I want to join a travel group. I want to say yes to something outside of my comfort zone and get better at saying no to the things that don’t speak to my heart. I want to publish dozens and dozens of novels and be a 90-something year old who still feels the insatiable desire to create more. I want to nurture my children’s interests and raise passionate humans who help the world. I want an Andalucian garden and maybe a hot tub. I want to be a strong female role model. I want to inspire and mentor young people.

None of this requires that I am married.

It would be nice to meet the right person again, someday, but I only want to share my narrative with somebody who has their own compelling narrative, who isn’t interested in consuming mine, and who isn’t seeking other human beings to make his hobby.

I don’t do downgrades. Only upgrades.

Whether this happens or not, I want to be known as a person who contributed good in the world. A person who lived the way she wanted to live. Not just a mom. Not just a widow. A human being who lived each day fully.

Dear Kenneth

DSC_1464.JPG
Dear Kenneth,

When you died, I didn’t know how I was going to survive a single day without you.

And now, 365 days later, we are remembering the one year anniversary of your passing on that fateful spring morning. The year has been both tediously long and achingly short. Somehow I am still standing.

Today we will go with your family to the cemetery. We’ll release butterflies, just like we did last year at your inurnment, and we’ll leave you and your parents flowers. We’ll eat at Curry House–your favorite–and then resume business as usual. I’ve always known that the first year is the hardest. Then the years start to fly by, like a pile of papers in a gust of wind, scattering before you can catch them, off into different directions.

The entire situation still seems so outrageous to me that I sometimes think there may still be a possibility that it’s all fake. But I am forced to deal with the brutal reality of your absence. It hurts more than any pain I’ve ever known. A year later, it has evolved from a searing pain into a duller, nagging feeling that just sort of sits heavy in the pit of my stomach, slowly digesting. I think about the distance spreading between us with each passing day. I feel like strangers now. Sometimes I wonder if I was ever really married to you. It feels like it was a mirage in my mind. I’m forgetting the details. I worry that I can’t remember your voice. The other day I desperately looked for a video with you talking and I listened to it over and over again. It feels like we loved each other in a different lifetime.

I’ve done my best to raise our children on my own. It feels like a cruel joke that our family has to be this way now, considering we planned every single child down to the day. We had charts of age projections and we crunched numbers and marked calendars together, investing all of our hopes and dreams into this little family we were building. We forgot to plan for you dying.

I hate looking into our children’s eyes when they tell me they miss you. How horribly unfair that they must grow up without remembering your arms around them embraced in a hug, or to have you carry them to bed from the car when they fall asleep. They miss the way you used to talk to them on the drive to school. Ethan claimed he asked you lots of questions and you always knew the answers. You loved being a dad, and you were a good one.

16195944233_53c8b27330_z

The main thing that keeps me going is knowing that I have to continue the love in our family for Ethan, Eloise, and Peter Jack. I know it’s what you would expect, and it’s what I expect from myself. We fought a lot, but we always agreed on the important things, like family, money, politics, religion, and love. The only thing that could hurt me more is to not do my best to give our kids a life of love and opportunity.

IMG_20160214_161837 (1)

Sometimes I wonder what you would have looked like as an old man. You would have been cute with white hair (although I’m skeptical your jet-black hair would have ever turned color). I felt a little guilty when your sister and I cut snippets of your beloved hair in the hospital room before they took your body away, just so we would have something to remember you by. The hair I took is still in the same purse, zipped inside the upper pocket, wrapped in the same tear-drenched tissue. I don’t know what to do with it. I haven’t used that purse since. I stuffed it on a shelf high in my closet, just like I stuffed a lot of things I knew I needed more time to deal with.

I get shivers down my spine when I look at the pictures we took only days and weeks before your passing. Moments of us together, frozen in time, like the picture of you pushing Eloise on the swing right after we bought them new shoes at the mall, or the one of all of us posed on the Legoland ride 11 days before you died, completely clueless about how our lives would unravel. The normalness of those last days still unnerves me. I’d give anything to have our ordinary life back.

IMG_20160423_180318

I’ve spent an entire year not only mourning your loss, but also the loss of my innocence. My life can be divided into two parts: before April 27, 2016, and everything after. It’s an odd feeling that I have to live with for the rest of my life. I dream of the day when I will start the third part of my life, the part where I’ve moved out from beneath the dark clouds of grief and have rebuilt my life into something happy and meaningful. I want the story of our love and tragedy to fit seamlessly into the tapestry of my long and beautiful life, rather than feel like my destruction.

Ethan recently told me “it feels like Daddy was just here, but then I closed my eyes, and when I opened them he was gone.” It totally does.

You were always teaching everyone about something, whether it was chess, philosophy, world history, religion, finance, health–whatever. Even in your death, you continue to teach me. I’ve learned more about myself, life, death, suffering, being present, gratitude, responsibility, love, trust, courage, and more in just one short year. I want to continue sharing the meaning you contributed to this world. I know you’ll live on through everyone you’ve ever impacted, but I want to do what I can to continue it too. So I’m doing it the best way I know how (other than through our kids). I write a lot. Fiction. Non-fiction. I’m working on your unfinished work. I have to turn the pain and loss into something.

2187408183_2f1c83b271_z.jpg

In the first year of your absence, I know there are decisions in my new life that you would love and others you’d be mad at me about, but I want you to know that everything I’m doing now is not necessarily what I would have done before you died. Our circumstances have changed. I’ve changed. I will admit that without your veto power, there have been no checks and balances in our home. It’s a one-woman show. Also, I’ve been kind of winging all of this. I just have to do what feels right in my gut.

I’m sorry I changed the color of your childhood home. I know you’d probably be pissed off at me. And I got the new windows you told me “no” about for the past several years. But…it had to be done. So I did it. I’m happy with the way it turned out. I think you’d probably like it. You know I was usually always right, and in this case I totally was.

I’m sorry I’ve been going a little crazy with my trips. I know you’d be telling me to stop spending money. You were a phenomenal saver. You used to tape “A part of all you earn is yours to keep” on everything, and you loved to stockpile your money. But, I am only going to live once. I think I’ll start being better at scaling back on the trips next year. Right now I’m searching for ways to occupy my mind as I persevere through this inferno. Next year I’ll be better. Maybe. Okay, probably not. But there never was a trip I ever regretted, so I’m confident that all of this will work itself out.

2358667293_a986ce40e8_z

You would have loved Japan. It was everything and a ton more than I ever dreamed of. Every time we ate udon or something good, we thought of you. When we were at the temple in Kyoto, walking barefoot across the cold wooden floors, listening to monks chant and smelling the burning incense, I couldn’t help but feel like you were there with us, even though I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. It made no sense. Maybe it’s because we hoped you were there. I know there isn’t a Santa Claus, but the idea is cute, right?

The thing is–and you would love this–but I feel like you are somehow in my DNA. A part of every cell in my body. My experiences with you are fused inside of my genome. And part of you is in each of our children. So you really are always with us.

I know you’d be jealous of us going to Copenhagen. I know you wanted to see the Little Mermaid statue. What a strange thing for you to want to see, but that’s what I loved about my metro husband. Unapologetic about the things he liked. So sorry you won’t get to see the “hot blonde women” in Denmark that you always wanted to see. But I’ll get to see the hot Italian men in Italy. You probably would have raised an eyebrow about that. I know you were annoyed with my penchant for Italian men. But I think you’d understand, given my current situation.

IMG_20160416_192227

I’m sorry I let Ethan drop out of karate. I know you wanted him to do it until he was 18. He confessed to me almost a year later that he missed going with you because you helped him with the difficult moves. He loved the way you used to put on a gi with him and practice karate side-by-side at the dojo. It just didn’t feel right for him to go alone, and he wasn’t interested. Maybe he’ll want to do it in a few years. Maybe he won’t. We really have to go with our gut feelings these days.

IMG_20150930_193320

You would be proud that we stepped up our spiritual game and attend service regularly. I’m appreciative that you introduced me to Buddhism. I feel like you somehow knew that I would need it to survive your loss. I am constantly contemplating the meaning of life, death, suffering, and happiness. My life before 4-27-16 wasn’t as consumed with these thoughts, but the new me is. I thought I had everything figured out. It turned out I didn’t and I still have a lot to learn. I’m happy to have a source of knowledge that I can reference when I need some intellectualizing to process my thoughts. I also finally found Nietzsche, Sartre, Freire, and others who you quoted over the years. You’d be happy to know that I was quite impressed with your intellect when I finally caught up with some of your reading list.

On May 12th, on what would have been our 7th wedding anniversary, I got my first tattoo. Your writing, from your journal. On my arm.

IMG_20160513_134606 (1)

Seriously. I know your eyeballs would pop out if you knew this. I was never going to get a tattoo and I used to tell you to stop saying “I am responsible.” You annoyed the hell out of me with it. You’d play your self-help tapes over and over again, and I’d groan out loud. And then I went and tattooed one of your dorkiest phrases on my arm, because somehow it felt like the right thing to do. Your handwriting comforts me. Now I feel like I need the reminder that no matter what has happened, it is my responsibility to control my interpretations and to make deliberate choices. My life is in my hands. I miss your writing. I miss your terrible spelling and the notes scribbled everywhere. I miss your thoughts. I’m still working on your story. I’m going to finish it. For you. For us.

In two weeks it would have been our 8th wedding anniversary. The kids and I are still going to celebrate. May 12th was the establishment of our family. That will never change.

IMG_20141224_184357

We went to Germany and Paris last summer without you. It was hard. You loved Berlin, and we were supposed to experience it together. You always talked about the amazing club you went to that was in a castle. Unfortunately my Berlin experience wasn’t as enchanting. Paris wasn’t the same either. Something was missing. You. Us. We did come across a bar called Bon Vivant. Ethan thought it was a sign (since we put “bon vivant” on your niche).

Our annual camping trip with our friends came and went–without you. I miss how you would get excited and always wanted to buy new camping gear as if you were a real mountain man, even though we all knew you were terrified of bears and bugs. I got a tick on my arm. You would have freaked out. I called your doctor on the drive home so he could reassure me that I wasn’t going to get Lyme Disease. I totally felt like you, the eternal hypochondriac. (Everything was okay!)

IMG_20150708_115233

I had to start a new school year without you. I cried the entire day. Bawled. It was so hard seeing your empty classroom and not hearing your voice. It’s still sometimes difficult for me to stand outside of my door during passing periods and not be able to talk to you. For 10 years we taught next door to each other, and then suddenly you were gone. I had to endure the end of the quarter minimum days, remembering how we would always go to lunch together and then go to the movies. Graduation. Breaks. I was so used to you always with me at lunch time and meetings and having somebody to always consult. I don’t have that anymore. I feel left behind and alone. Maybe I was spoiled. My work spouse really was my spouse. Now it’s usually very quiet. But the students get me through my days. I like that they aren’t jaded yet. For many of them life is a still a big, open canvas. I can relate to them too now. We’re all dateless and unsure of our futures.

13267696_10154098926261063_1715708787958921908_n

The kids and I visit your niche at the cemetery almost weekly. I can’t bear the thought of you not having fresh flowers. People always stare at us with pity. I already feel like a freak show. I know their intentions are good, but it still makes me feel like crap. Peter excitedly says “good-bye” to you. I hate that our baby only knows you as a plaque on the cold marble wall. He folds his chubby little hands together and bows, imitating the namu-amida-butsu he learned from his siblings. The kids kiss their fingers and then press them against the letters on your niche, repeating it over and over and over again until they have sufficiently kissed “you” at least 10 times and it’s time to walk over to your parents. I made sure I got your niche facing the door so you could “look” out to where your parents are. The kids race over to their columbarium and we give Jichan and Bachan flowers too. I know how much you loved your parents.

IMG_20150825_173126

I survived the election season without you. I was determined to precinct walk, business as usual. I strapped Peter on my back and brought the older two with me, walking house to house. I met Jackie. You would have never guessed in a million years that I would precinct walk with somebody who used to work for somebody you protested against. A Republican! But I know you would have liked her. I took Ethan to a Bernie rally. You were making phone calls for Bernie only days before you passed away. The kids and I went to an anti-Wal Mart rally. I’m going to make sure they are involved, the way you would have wanted them to be.

protest

By the way, Trump got elected. If you had lived I suspect you would have surely had your aorta explode on Election Day. Sometimes I think maybe you just couldn’t live in this world anymore. Imagine a world where Bush is slightly more tolerable than Trump. I don’t think you could have ever guessed that would have happened in a million years.

I really miss you when I’m feeling scared about life, during those moments when I feel like I have nobody who understands me and nobody to lean on. Life was better with our hive mind. I was less scared of failing with you by my side. It’s really freaking scary having to do all of the adulting in the house by myself.

Halloween came and went. We survived your birthday, but we felt your void. I remembered your last birthday party and the picture of you about to blow out your candles. There was something contemplative about your expression. I wonder if you subconsciously knew it was your last birthday.

IMG_20151017_195054

Thanksgiving came and went. Christmas came and went. All lonely days without you. I feel like a third wheel in a vast ocean of couples. Somehow this is always more evident to me on holidays. I’ll spare you the emotional pain of what it’s like being a “single mother” now because I know it would have killed you. But life as a single woman with three kids is odd. My feet are in two doors: the singles world, and the family world. I don’t fit in with either world. I’m a misfit. A woman with a scarlet “W” branded onto my chest. A widow. I find myself not wanting to be around couples and families. I don’t want to talk about kids or family life. Even witnessing somebody touch his wife’s arm makes me bristle. It’s hard not to feel bitter when you are so very alone and the person you loved is so very dead. I don’t think people realize this when they are around me. I know they can’t stop their lives. But it hurts feeling like I’m the only one who was banished to another planet.

Ethan turned 7. You would be proud of him. He’s smart, thoughtful, and he misses you the most. That boy loved the hell out of you. He is brave. He enjoys life. He’s social and curious. He started Cub Scouts, chess club, Mad Science, art, and coding. Most special about him is that he’s resilient. He’s full of love. And he is hopeful for the future.

IMG_20160213_174247.jpg

I turned 35. You met me when I was 24. I think I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been, but you’ll never see it. That makes me sad. I’m different. I feel it in my bones. If I didn’t have this layer of grief over my head, infecting my mind, I think I would be a better person than who I was before you died. When I’m thinking clearly it makes me hopeful for my future. When I’m not thinking clearly I feel like I’m doomed. You helped me reach more of my potential. You were my greatest teacher. You always encouraged me to pursue my writing. You never objected to me getting new clothes or books or anything that made me happy. Not having you here makes me realize in a soul-crushing way that I lost my most loyal friend and companion. I know you loved me more than anything. Sometimes I worry that I’ll never have that again.

Our baby, Peter Jack, turned 2. You would adore this little troublemaker. He looks the most like you. He’s a clown, an adventurer, a lover, a brat. He loves to eat. He’s 35 lb of squish. Last week he filled the sink in the “Dirty Bathroom” (your childhood name for the bathroom near the garage) with dog food and turned on the sink. He also climbed on top of the washing machine to reach a bag of Easter chocolate, which he promptly consumed. My mom accurately describes him as a bull in a china closet. Last week I was taking him out of the van to go to the babysitter’s house, and he said “Bye, bye, Da Da.” Nobody else was in the car. I clarified who he was talking to. He just smiled. I looked up at the moon and said, “There he is. There’s Da Da. He’s everywhere, isn’t he?” He smiled again, that big goofy grin that he owns. He fights with his siblings over who gets to carry the flowers for you at the cemetery. He kisses your picture every night before he goes to sleep. He loves you even though he doesn’t know you, and that makes me sad.

IMG_20160327_150908.jpg

Eloise turned 4 exactly two weeks ago. Her birthday was the last event we had together with family and friends before you died. A few days ago we had her unicorn party, and even though we had a great time, I noticed the empty space where you should have been. Ellie misses her daddy. She loves lipstick and shoes. I bought her high heels for her birthday and she hates to take them off. She also likes to read books and play doctor. I know you would be amused by her little personality. In many ways she’s like you. She’s creative and stubborn. She’s learning to sound out letters. Recently we were shopping at Sprouts and out of nowhere she pointed to the radishes and said “Daddy liked those in his salads!” We haven’t talked about that since you last went grocery shopping with us. I smiled, happy that she still had memories of you. You were the closest to Eloise since you had the most patience for her shenanigans. Ever since she was born (screaming the second she came into contact with oxygen) you had a way of consoling her and giving her the attention she needed. You never lost your cool with her meltdowns. The two of you could relate to each other. She would go to you over me any day. I worried in the days after you passed away how I was going to fill that role for her. It happened naturally, and now I feel an extra duty to Eloise to do my best to understand her the way you did.

IMG_20160413_184113

IMG_20160409_160348

It’s sad that the only thing our kids have left of you are memories, and because they are so young, those memories are going to fade and most likely disappear. But I promise you, I’m doing everything I can to keep your existence real and relevant in their lives. They are always eager to hear stories about you. Recently I told them about the chocolate bunny you bought me during that first year we lived together in the horrible studio apartment in Long Beach. The apartment got so hot that the chocolate melted. We started making it a tradition to buy a chocolate bunny and to see how long it would take to melt. The kids loved the story, and, well, there’s a chocolate bunny on our refrigerator, waiting to carry on the tradition. (Unfortunately for them we have air conditioning now.)

Guess what? I learned how to juice, and I actually do it 4-5 days a week! I didn’t even know how to use the machine before you passed away. But I learned (thanks to your sister). Peter is my biggest fan when it comes to drinking juice. He can drink 3x the amount that his siblings consume. I’ve continued your interest in health, branching off into my own areas of interest. Currently I’m exploring sugar, and how to drastically reduce it in our diet.

IMG_20160428_120551

We planted the avocado tree you always wanted. 1/10 of your ashes were put into a biodegradable urn that we buried beneath the new tree. My dad dug the hole and Ethan lovingly placed the urn inside while the rest of us watched. You will always be a part of your childhood home that you loved so dearly. Someday in the future we will have a beautiful avocado tree bearing fruit, and you will be a part of the earth that sustains its life.

After you died, I met many of your former students who also loved you. You had over 500 people at your funeral. The number of former students that attended was astounding. You never knew how loved you were. You had no idea about the reach and impact of your influence in their lives. I wish I could tell you that the ones you thought weren’t listening…they were listening. They carry you inside of them and they were in pain when they heard that you passed. You contributed so much good in the world. Who could ask for a better purpose in their life?

Several of your former students have become my students, and they formed a feminist club. You would probably be rolling your eyes, calling me a Femi-nazi. But I know you’d be proud of their hearts and what they are trying to achieve. One of your students started babysitting for us. I gave her some of your records and I’m happy that a part of your musical passion gets to live on through her. I know she will be a lifelong family friend, and I would have never known her if it wasn’t for you. I sometimes joke that she is the red-headed daughter we never had together.

kenneth

I don’t watch many movies anymore without you, the King of Netflix, picking the ones you thought I would like. I miss talking politics with you. I miss you being there. Here. I miss even going to Costco with you. Life was a little easier with a constant companion. The weight of life didn’t feel as heavy with you by my side. Sometimes that weight crushes me now.

I had to throw away your favorite shoes and True Religion jeans. I remember when we drove over an hour away to the outlet mall, back in the days before we had kids. We dropped my grandma off at the casino and went looking for True Religion jeans. She kept asking why you would spent so much money on pants that had holes in them.

IMG_20160315_100358

Slowly, memories of you are being scrubbed away, cleaned out of drawers, stowed, organized. Some things I couldn’t part with, like your books. Your nato is still in the freezer in the garage. Someday I’ll throw it away. I’ve learned that eventually you just know in your gut what to do next. You’ll know when it is the right time. It’s better not to rush anything. I probably should have been kinder to you when I nagged about cleaning out the garage. You needed your own time to process your memories. (Bet you can guess what happened to the garage after you passed away though.)

IMG_20160416_182100

I told the kids that we should be thankful for having you in our lives. You were never ours to keep forever. But we got a little bit of you. You were part of our stories.

It bothers me that I never got to say good-bye. I’ll never know if you heard me calling your name or making the 9-1-1 call. I’ll never know if you heard me crying over you, begging you to open your eyes. If I knew there was nothing they could have done, I would have spent those last few moments holding you and reassuring you instead of doing chest compressions. I can only hope that you possibly felt my presence and that you knew I was by your side when you took your last breath.

If I had the chance to say good-bye, I would have thanked you for your knowledge. For always encouraging me. For helping me come out of my shell, for teaching me to feel deeper, think broader, love harder, and to take care of my health. I would have told you that I loved you and reassured you that I will handle everything. I would have promised you that I will always fiercely love our children enough to count for the both of us.

IMG_20160213_170641.jpg

When you watch your significant other unexpectedly die, in that moment you realize that everything that ever bothered you about them, drove you crazy, made you mad, made you want to quit–all of those feelings were probably not as important as the good ones you shared. Or maybe not. (If I had the choice though, I would have chosen you again, even knowing how messy you were.)

We had bad times, like everyone else. I wish there was a magic way for other people to learn these lessons too without having to suffer like I have. I wish you would have learned them too. I wish we could all learn important truths about living without actually having to be disemboweled by life to understand.

It’s easy to lose your focus. Why do we dwell on the bad and quickly forget the good? Our mind plays games with what we see. If we could only understand this BEFORE we lose a person instead of AFTER, it would truly be an invaluable gift of living. I know you would have lived differently too if you knew what our fate was going to be.

The problem is that most of us don’t know our expiration dates, and we become selfish in the way we live. We aren’t able to gauge our time constraints unless we’ve been given a definitive diagnosis that puts the numbers in front of us. We should be living as if tomorrow is our last day together, and instead we arrogantly act like we have hundreds of years to squander. We forget how fast time passes by right under our noses. I don’t ever want to be complacent about living again. This is the challenge I wish to undertake for our children and myself.

Now I don’t count the days until the weekend. Weekdays and weekends are indistinguishable to me. I have no idea how many days there are until summer vacation. I really don’t care (and this is even with plane tickets to Italy!). It’s just that I know what it’s like to go to bed on a Tuesday night and to wake up on a Wednesday morning to your life in pieces. Whatever day or week or month it is, I want to focus on the present moment and not take any of my days for granted. You never know when they will be gone.

2187366147_2724e26f7b_z

You used to drive me crazy, but you were one-of-a-kind. I know you would want us to keep living our lives, and I know you would have 500% trusted me to lead the way for myself and our children. That knowledge makes it easier for me to move forward with living.

We love you. We miss you. But now, as we enter year #2, I need to work a little harder to figure out how to move on while still carrying you inside of me. I have many years of living left (I hope). I’m a stew of mixed emotions, but as the boiling cools to a simmer, I’m starting to see that it is making me stronger. And somewhere, probably closer than I realize, perhaps just beyond the horizon, there will be light guiding my path into the future.

Lucius Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Since I don’t have a choice in how these unexpected circumstances have changed the course of my life, I have to hope that it is true. Lots of new beginnings ahead of me. We are your legacy.

Love Always,

Teresa

For Good Excerpt

(For Good Lyrics)

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good

The Expiration Date for Grief

18033428_10155090556521063_8006824252847802572_n

A major question that has been swirling in my head for the past year has been: when will I stop feeling this way?

“This” being the ticking time bomb of loneliness, sadness, rejection, worthlessness, hopelessness, self-loathing, sometimes dotted with sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and loss of interest in the things once enjoyed.

Who knew the loss of a loved one could trigger your own self-hate.

I am now a person I did not plan to be. A widow. A single mother of three very young children. I’ve lost my best friend, my significant other, my colleague, my co-parent, and my most loyal ally in life.

There have been many moments when I’ve felt like something I did triggered this karmic wrath of the universe. I must be the scum of the earth.

And then I remind myself that it’s all random. There is no meaning behind it. It just is. I don’t like it, but at least it makes it all a little easier to swallow.

Perhaps the best word to describe to the layperson about how I feel is: rawness.

I’ve been skinned alive. My flesh is exposed and my body is throbbing in pain. You can’t see it. I’m raw inside. The pain is a constant reminder of my change in circumstances, and I assume an unpropitious future.

What I really want to know is when will all of this rawness heal and become calloused skin. Or maybe I won’t heal. Maybe I will be permanently damaged, a societal castaway.

Psychologists do not diagnose “this” as depression if the root cause is grief. Apparently “this” is a temporary psychological disturbance in which time, to be determined based on the person, will heal.

I want to know what they mean by “heal.” Right now I can’t envision any such thing. You can’t throw a porcelain bowl on the ground, watch in break into hundreds of tiny pieces, and then expect the shards to come back together and form another perfect, seamless bowl.

Apparently I’m supposed to wait and see how it goes. I’m not very good at waiting. I always place the burden back on my shoulders. There must be something I can do. Or something I’m not doing enough of.

I’ve mulled over whether I should accept letting time do the healing or if I should try to speed it up. Of course I want to speed it up. It’s definitely in the plans to speed it up. I’m the type of person who thinks she can logic her way out of anything. I absorb as much as I can on the topic: death, suffering, meaning, happiness, purpose. Anything I can read. I want to know and feel all of it.

And that’s just it. This rawness has turned me into a hyper-feely person. It’s like I have exposed nerves. I once was a pretty emotionally neutral person, and now I’ve become a woman who sobs during the last chapter of a book on death as I eat my cake (earlier this week!). I don’t recognize myself. It both pisses me off and amuses me.

Somehow I think I can unbury who I was, or someone close to who I was, from out of the rubble caused by my life’s greatest tragedy. I can dig myself out. I know I can. But sometimes I’m skeptical.

Recently I emerged from dark cloud cover that had me trapped in 3 weeks of new lows. Up and down. Up and down. Down, down, down. I found myself Googling “what’s the difference between grief and depression?” According to the sources I researched, the main difference is a person with grief’s ability to bounce back. This isn’t an option if you were diagnosed with depression. I’ve teetered on that fine line between the two more times than I’ve felt comfortable with and I don’t like it.

There are only three major things that have keep me going in my darkest, ugliest days, when I felt like there was no reason to continue under the crushing force of life.

My kids. There is nobody who will be able (no matter how good-intentioned) to give them the life I planned and envisioned for them. I have to provide them with the stability they need to become the humans they deserve. My bossiness has finally served a functional, life-saving purpose in my life. I can not give up on my life because I have to be the one in charge of my kids!

Second, my traveling. I still have places I want to see. Basically the entire world. So I’ll be busy for, like, the next hundred years.

And finally, I have writing projects that need to be finished, and many more that haven’t even been brainstormed yet. I plan to live until at least into my 90s, being as prolific as I can possibly be. T.S. Eliot once said “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.” I have a lot of blood to spill.

Because I’m the type of person who likes to have a handle on my brain, I have arbitrarily decided that one year is a good amount of time to mope around, and now as year 2 approaches, I need to have a more serious exit plan to move past my grief.

So I wrote out a plan. An actual plan, in true bossy style. This is where I think I can logic my way out of things. I will somehow convince myself to accept and love my new life. Maybe if I say it enough times, I’ll actually believe it.

I started with a mission statement:

Year 2 Goals:

– To progress in my battle with grief.
– To actively live a happy, fulfilling life, centered around my primary interests and objectives, which include: 1) family , 2) writing , 3) reading, 4) supporting my kids’ passions, 5) expanding social circles, 6) traveling, 7) self-care, and 8) health.
-To give myself reasons to feel excited, challenged, and hopeful as I make a concerted effort to live a happy and fulfilling life.
-To be authentic in my journey.

I included a checklist of specific goals I want to achieve in each category of my primary interests, including finishing a novel that I have started, reading at least 2 books a month, going on 3 dates a year with each kid, hiking at least once a month, taking the children regularly to dharma school, having friends over for dinner, going on trips (including one by myself to D.C. to see Ruth Bader Ginsburg while I still have a chance), improve my garden, repaint all the walls in my house, hire a nutritionist, and reduce sugar intake.There are a lot more, which I will now logically place into my Google calendar so I can ensure that my goals are met in this process of convincing myself that I am definitely moving forward and enjoying this new life.

The reality, however, is that I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know how long it will take me to return to my baseline. I don’t even know what my baseline is anymore. I still have many unanswered questions swirling around in my head:

Will my kids be okay?

Am I making the right choices?

Will I be alone forever?

Will I be truly happy again? Or am I doomed to an unhappy life?

Will all of this misery ultimately lead to something bigger and better?

When will Peter (the 2 year old) stop driving me crazy?

The honest answer to all of these questions: I don’t know. People feel the need (either for their own peace of mind, or they think they are being helpful) to reassure me that everything will be fine. The truth is, they don’t know either. Nobody knows what will happen.

The best thing I can do is to keep plotting my way out of this with sensible interpretations and sensible and deliberate actions that I still have control over. Basically, all I can do is give it my best shot, and hope that it will be enough.
But for now, today is all about hosting a unicorn and rainbow birthday party for my new four-year old who thinks life is magical. That’s a good reason to keep going.

When Breath Becomes Air

17991831_10155079591886063_3619368392107668053_n

I’ve been staying up late the last few nights reading this and finally finished today. It was wonderful, in a punch-you-in-the-gut kind of awakening wonderful.

“You left me, two legacies,–
a legacy of love
A Heavenly Father would content,
Had he the offer of;

You left me boundaries of pain
Capacious as the sea,
Between eternity and time,
Your consciousness and me.”

-Emily Dickinson

Why I Travel

Five months after my husband passed away, I sat in front of a financial planner and held my breath. It’s a little (okay, A LOT) scary becoming a widow with three young children. The thought of facing an unknown future, alone, on a single income, was anxiety-inducing, amidst the weight of everything else going on. This was exacerbated by my stubborn desire to continue raising my children as my husband and I had planned.

My financial planner, a big man with red hair and a matching beard that made him look straight out of the movie Brave, was eager to help. He seemed intent to send me home with as much information as possible. It appeared he had dealt with many widows before and anticipated the forgetfulness that plagues us when grief takes over. Somehow the pain seeps into our brains and muddles everything. He wrote things down for me. He assured me I could always email or come back if more questions came up.

I sat on the edge of my chair, half-nervous, half-restless, for an answer to the burning question that churned inside of me. No other question was as important. My survival hinged on his answer.

I kept wondering when would be a good time to ask him. I let him go through the practical matters first. I had to look like a serious widow instead of a daydreaming child. I nodded like a good student as he went over retirement accounts and helped me sort out what was there. He asked a lot of questions as we tried to untangle the disorganization my husband left me.

Was it a Roth IRA? 403B?

All things Kenneth used to handle, and now I found myself needing to learn everything as if I had been exiled to a foreign country with a pressing need to learn another language if I wanted to survive.

Toward the end of our meeting, I straightened in my chair and decided to ask my question.

What I thought was more important than IRAs.

Do I have to give up traveling?

I watched his expression, noting the way his eyes softened, and then he laughed. I suspect I wear every single one of my emotions on my sleeves.

No. He didn’t think so. I could still spend my money on traveling. I wouldn’t have to stop. Not at all.

I breathed a sigh of relief as my clenched muscles relaxed. The thought of having another door shut in my face had increased my already-full reservoir of anxiety.

Perhaps it seemed like a silly concern in the grand scheme of my problems. I probably should have asked more detailed questions about taxes and college savings accounts. I probably should have picked his brain about mutual fund accounts.

But if I had to distill my priorities into 3 specific things that I need in life, they are: 1) lots of time with family, 2) writing, and 3) traveling.

Traveling and I were not going to ever willingly break-up. I need to see new places. To me, staying home is the equivalent of being locked inside of a hamster cage. I’d grow restless and weary; I’d need to roam and explore. The restrictive environment would turn my soul black. I need to see new colors and people and inhale foreign scents and experience different weather and rules and eat interesting food. I want to hear other languages. I want to experience history. I want to see different ways of living.

In 1999, that fateful summer when JFK Jr perished in a plane crash, I took my first overseas trip to Israel and Egypt. My mom was born and raised in Israel until she was 10 years old. She left behind lots of family members, and we would be staying with some of them.

First we stayed with my teta’s (Arabic for “grandmother”) widowed sister-in-law in my grandmother’s childhood home in Nazareth. Nazareth is bowl-shaped, hilly, and because there are so many people living literally on top of each other, driving almost always involves a lot of traffic and car horns. We stayed across the street from a secluded convent for nuns. I remember the high walls that guarded the nuns’ privacy and wondering if there was a way we could somehow sneak a peek at them while they were out in their garden.

In the mornings we awoke to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, roosters, and church bells. I remember walking around the patio, staring down at the rooftops of cement homes that crowded the city. From the patio we could see the dome-shaped Basilica of the Annunciation, built upon layers of previous churches that met their fate in various ways in the conquest-riddled region. In the lower levels of the church, there is a grotto that is believed to have the remains of Mary’s childhood home.

1604539_10152190580276063_1823701363_n

My great aunt was always cooking. I have fond memories of the meals she made for us, but I remember one day coming back to the home and spotting a giant pot of snails waiting to be prepared. There was no way I was going to eat them. My Arabic got better in those three weeks abroad. I was quickly picking up words that I needed to know to survive as a picky eater, like the word for “lamb,” since I couldn’t bring myself to eat any of that. I suspect we embarrassed my mom at least a few times.

My memories of the trip included staring at garbage men in Nazareth who walked with donkeys between narrow alleys to pick up the trash. There were gutters in the middle of the walkways for the donkeys to go to the bathroom. This seems like a silly memory, but when you come from first-world luxuries, garbage collection via donkeys was the closest to third-world I had ever come to (and Israel isn’t technically considered third-world).

Not too far from the basilica is the souk, a shopping area where you will find live chicken for sale, household items, spices, butcher shops, shoe stores, and other random stores. My sister and I enjoyed walking down the many steps from the tiny concrete home where my teta grew up, all the way down the hill to the bottom, where we could experience the hustle and bustle (except for the skinned animals that dangled from storefronts, ready to be chopped into pieces for dinner. We would plug our noses and walk a little faster.) On our way back up to the house one day, two men in a car rolled down their window and yelled at us in Arabic. I don’t think they intended for us to understand. We must have looked like tourists in that conservative town.

What, girls? What are you doing here?

I almost yelled back an expletive, but I kept my mouth shut. In this town everyone knows everyone. I didn’t want my teta in the U.S. to hear about that and throw a shoe at me.

Maybe it was my skorts that caught their attention. They were scandalously short, falling just above my knees. It was those same scandalous skorts and sleeveless top that landed me a blanket in Jerusalem that I had to wrap around my shoulders for modesty.

1545833_10152190583716063_488317771_n.jpg

I remember stewing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where Jesus was supposedly crucified, and also the site of his burial and resurrection. I was unmoved by any of these stories. I was too busy being pissed off about the blanket thing. I felt shamed for being female and having the audacity to show the world my pornographic shoulders.

We went to the Dead Sea, where we floated in extremely salty water and got to rub special mud all over our bodies. (Don’t shave before you visit the Dead Sea. I found out the hard way.)

We had a friend use his native-ness to get us into Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy site where supposedly Mohammed ascended to Heaven. Inside we removed our shoes and walked around.

The same friend took us to his bar in Jerusalem. To a seventeen year old, that was super cool. He made light fixtures out of dried squash and we got to throw peanuts on the floor.

We went to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

We went shopping in Nablus, a Palestinian city.

My mom took us to Egypt. I’m grateful she did, given the fact that it doesn’t seem likely that I will return to Egypt any time in the near future due to the political situation there. We took a bus. When we got to the place of departure in Nazareth, we found out one of the drivers was a cousin. Of course. Everyone is your cousin in the Middle East. It was a long bus ride. Something like 11 hours. And they don’t drive like they do in the U.S. We’re talking bus drivers playing chicken with the other drivers on long stretches of desert road. I had heart palpitations more than once.

Egypt was a trip. They didn’t seem to believe in car lanes in Cairo. Cars and donkeys and carts swirled in a chaotic, loud frenzy of messy living.

We saw the Great Pyramid of Giza. We went inside! I couldn’t believe it. I knew at the time how fortunate we were to experience that once-in-a-lifetime excursion. Outside, men lurked on camels, looking for ways to con you into giving them money. The poverty was palpable in Egypt. Everywhere you turned someone was trying to hustle you.

Back in Israel, we visited Haifa, a port town where my mom was born and raised. My mom’s cousin had the same high cheekbones as my mom. Everything she cooked was amazing. Next door lived my grandmother’s sister. She looked just like my teta except she was taller.

In Nazareth, I pictured my grandmother as a young girl walking around. I pictured her in Haifa, raising four children. My grandfather. My great grandparents. How did they get there? In Akko you can see the remnants of the crusader walls. You can sense the layers of history. It’s a feeling you don’t get in Anaheim, California.

I loved to hear people speaking Arabic. The sounds that flowed off their tongues and the rumbling in their throats reminded me of my own grandmother.

And the food. Oh, the food. My heart will forever be connected to that place through my stomach. Fresh baked bread. Cheese bread. Arabic dishes. I am related to some of the best cooks in the world (in my humble opinion). If I had to pick one last meal to eat on earth, it would be Arabic.

Once you go on your first trip abroad, chances are high that you will become infected with the travel bug.

I entered my senior year of high school feeling that everything around me was somehow a little duller. I was now permanently affected with a raging case of wanderlust.

During my freshman year of college, I saw a trip advertised on campus to go to China. I studied the flier, re-reading the fine print. I immediately asked myself: what if?

I began a tried and true method of picking travel destinations: feelings and prices.

I just get a feeling about where I want to go. I feel it deep inside of me, a feeling of peace when I’ve decided on the location. If I feel conflicted, I wait it out until my feelings are crystal clear. It works. Of course, it has to align with the deals I find, and after years of traveling, I’m pretty good at spotting good prices.

There has never been a trip that I’ve ever regretted.

On that particular day on my way to lecture, pausing to read the flier on the pole, I knew immediately that I wanted to go to China. It looked like a good price. I could scrounge it together. I was going. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t know anyone. It didn’t matter that I had never thought about traveling to China before. I wanted to go.

Our tour had students and professors from various schools. It was a lot of fun, even if going on a tour meant we’d have stop at a zillion factories. Pearl factory. Silk factory. Tea factory. A tour is a good starting place for a young woman ready to travel the world. I was able to get my feet wet.

I ate a lot of the same Chinese food. I had tofu for the first time (I liked it) and learned what green tea was (I didn’t like it).

One day at lunch, I overheard another table talking about going to see Mao Zedong. I couldn’t help it. I risked outing myself as an eavesdropper, but I did it anyway. I turned around and asked where they were going. They told me Mao’s body was on display and they were going to see it right after lunch. I asked if I could go. Of course, they said.

We had to check our backpacks into a center across the street from the mausoleum and then we waited to walk single-file around his preserved body that they kept in a glass coffin. When it was our turn, we slowed to catch a glimpse of a name we had all read in our history books. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We walked along the Great Wall of China. We spent time in Tiananmen Square. We saw an acrobatic show. We went to a Buddhist temple in Hangjhou, and we flew to Shanghai to experience the modern metropolis.

17309429_10154999006676063_4898053123845971538_n

My Chinese roommate took me to the underground market where I bought DVDS for a dollar. It was a giant shopping area that only the locals know about.

We came home at the end of August with bags full of souvenirs that we carried on to the airplane in the days before travel was restricted and there were policies about what you could bring onboard. One guy even carried a samurai sword to his seat with no questions asked. A few weeks later, 9/11 happened. That ended the days of having people see you off at the terminal, waving to you from the windows. Gone were the days of easy security. A new era of travel had come.
But I was still willing to deal with the hassle, because that feeling of trepidation as you stepped out of an airport in a new country with the task of finding your way was a high I wanted to experience again and again.

Speaking of which. I came home from China and a few weeks later went to Alabama to visit family. I was visiting my uncle in Alabama on 9/11. When they shut down air travel, I found myself stuck in a place I decided I never wanted to get stuck in again. There’s not much I can say about the South, other than they do have good food and endless supplies of diabetes-inducing sweet tea. I felt alarmed by the Confederate flags that waved from people’s cars. I found their “ma’ams” and “sirs” and overly sweet and gushy small talk annoying. It reeked of oppression and subservient treatment of generations of people who still struggle in this country, struggles swept under rugs and written off as history.

By now the travel bug infected me real good. A few months later, I spent winter break in Italy and Greece with my sister. This time I planned my own trip. We toured places like the Coliseum in Rome and the Acropolis in Athens. In Athens, we enjoyed George Michael songs played in the stores as if he were still in the top 100. There were festive Christmas lights strung across squares and smoking Santa Clauses walking around. We ate gyros almost every day and my sister wanted to adopt every stray dog we encountered.

When I turned 21, me and three friends went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. We stayed a short distance from Bourbon Street and had a fun time that involved a lot of jello shots and Hurricanes. I made it out of the experience without properly earning any beads, and I was completely okay with that. I did have a drunk group of women induct me into the “itty bitty titty committee.” I was a reluctant participant. I was most fascinated with the graveyards and thought about Anne Rice concocting tales about vampires in that old city. I remember watching one of the infamous parades and suddenly becoming aware of the African American people who gathered on the other side of the street, segregated from the rest of us. There were no official rules that did it. I thought about the fun times we were having every night partying with the masses. There weren’t very many African Americans in those crowds. I felt uncomfortable.

I went with a friend to France, England, and Scotland. We stayed in hostels. Some had eight people in a room, males and females. We didn’t care. It was cheap and it allowed a couple of college kids to travel. We carried around large external frame backpacks that I used on backpacking trips in Yosemite. We met a cool woman from Seattle who introduced me to pesto. We all went grocery shopping and then cooked together. That was when I learned that grocery shopping was an excursion not to be missed when you go to another country.

613568089_039267f71e_z

We visited my pregnant cousin in northern England, and then went back a second time when she had her baby premature. I watched my cousin give her new baby his feeds through a nasal tube and the thought of having children seemed so far off in my life horizon.

We spent New Year’s in Glasgow. It was so cold it took an hour to defrost my gloved fingers. I remember going to an internet cafe (back when there was a need for such things!) and sitting by the keyboard, waiting to regain movement in my fingers. We were starving on New Year’s Day and nothing was open except for a tiny hamburger and fries place. It was meant to be. The owner and cook were Palestinian.

We went to lots of museums on that trip, like the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. We made the obligatory visit to see the Mona Lisa, and I was disappointed that it was small in real life.

I went to New York City and saw Mama Mia on Broadway.

I went on a cruise to Mexico and decided they were not for me. I felt sea sick the entire time and I couldn’t come to terms with being trapped on a ship. I wanted to explore a city. The most memorable part of the trip was when we got to Ensenada and I discovered Mexican jumping beans, which I promptly bought and brought home, and then me and my younger cousins had fun cracking them open to figure out what was making them “jump.” (A little caterpillar, in case you were wondering).

In 2004, a mere few weeks before I got my first teaching job, I went to Guadalajara, Mexico to meet a woman I met on Livejournal. I remember getting off the plane and wondering if I was going to be greeted by a serial killer. What the heck was I thinking? Instead I met Dayna and her super cool family. She showed me the crazy things they eat in Mexico, like corn with all kinds of crap heaped on top. I was amazed by the food places that operated out of garages. I learned that the Mexican food we had been eating in Southern California all of my life was really just crap in comparison to real Mexican food.

During the winter break of my second year of teaching, I went to England, Scotland, and Amsterdam. I met my sister and her friend in London and had a nightmare experience. I remember getting off the airplane with my clunky sweater, starving, and expecting to go to dinner with them. Instead these two 18 year olds were in skimpy dresses, ready for a night of partying. My hostel was way on the other side of London. So there I was, in a hot nightclub, looking like jet-lagged shit boiled over and dressed like a grandma, trying to not be more angry than I already felt. They pressured me into “lightening up” (I apparently have an uptight reputation) and got me to try absinthe, the kind illegal in the U.S. at the time, but legal there. The bartender lit it on fire and I promptly sucked it down, trying not to gag, hoping it would magically make me start having fun. I never liked to drink, and I instantly regretted it as it burned going down my throat. To make a long story short, I found myself wandering around at 2AM, hallucinating, looking for an ATM to get cab fare to take me back to my hostel while my sister and her friend continued to party. I remember the nice cab driver telling me “you really shouldn’t be out here at this time by yourself.” I think I cried the entire drive back to my hostel in Kensington.

Edinburgh is a beautiful city in Scotland, the castle being the centerpiece. I arrived after my disastrous time in London, alone. I went on a tour of the castle. They certainly aren’t like the Disney movies. I tried to picture Mary Queen of Scots in that castle, where she gave birth to her son James. After a while I remember feeling bored for the first time, and a little lonely.

On another trip I visited another online friend in Canterbury. I stayed in a hotel that was hundreds of years old and had floorboards that creaked every time you walked. There was a musty smell to the place that somehow perfectly fit its personality. I wondered if Jane Austen had to write in such a room.

I flew to Amsterdam and spent several days there. I visited Anne Frank’s house and cried. I went to the Van Gogh museum. One of the highlights of the trip was going on a night tour of the Red Light District. Wide-eyed and intrigued, I saw women of all shapes, colors, and walks of life on display behind glass, waiting for their next trick. I learned they even had a union.

No substances were consumed in Amsterdam.

In 2006, I spent Spring break in Cancun, where my friend was living. It was a much needed break (I was teaching middle school that year and having a horrible time). We wore mini jean skirts and skimpy tops and went clubbing in Cancun, bar hopping in Playa del Carmen, swimming in the warm Gulf water, and we went on a trek to Tulum to see the Mayan pyramids. They had giant iguanas. I realized the Mayans knew what they were doing, picking an amazing location to build their sacred temple, a place with views of my favorite water in the world.

613580073_78a0ca55dd_z

After the horrible experience teaching middle school and in between jobs, I went on a three week trip by myself. I went to Italy, Croatia, Hungary, and Israel. On my third trip to Italy, I made it my mission to eat a lot of gelato. I researched the best reviewed places and even traveled to medieval hilltop towns to find award-winning wine-flavored gelato.

I missed the memo on the dangers of traveling to Southern Italy alone and went to Pompeii. I saw the remains of people curled into the fetal position, the wrath of Mount Vesuvius ushering them to their fate in the saddest of ways.

613678455_3848da3b7d_z

I remember reading The Kite Runner on the night train in Italy so I could stay awake and not miss my stop I needed to get to so I could catch an early morning ferry ride to Croatia. Fortunately the book was so interesting I was never drowsy.

I stayed in a cool hostel in Hungary that had a meditation room. I gave away my beloved guide book about Rome to a cool woman I met who was on her way over there. I didn’t know if I would ever go to Italy again (ha!).

In Israel there was a conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli government. I experienced my first emergency siren (it sounded like a drawn-out ambulance) in Nazareth that gave you 40 seconds notice before a rocket hit. I learned what a safe room was and how you should move away from the windows. I happened to be in Haifa the day the katyusha hit two blocks away from where I was visiting with my cousin, her children, and her neighbor–a Holocaust survivor. I remember the shaking of the ground (like an earthquake) and the burning smell of the rocket. Her elderly neighbor quivered with fear. I looked at her, puzzled, and asked “but surely you’ve had scarier experiences?” Her arm had the number tattoo from the concentration camp.

613659173_0f13771550_z

In 2007 I was already living with Kenneth, but I left him for a few weeks in the summer to go back to Israel again. This time there were no emergency sirens and all was well. I went to the beach for the first time in the three times I visited and discovered a secret: they have the best beaches in Israel! Warm Mediterranean water, no waves, clean sand. Just the way I liked it. I came home to a crazy cell phone bill from all the text messages and phone calls I had with Kenneth in the early days of our new relationship.

Kenneth and I visited San Francisco a lot. I loved to linger in City Lights Bookstore, after which we’d walk a few steps to Vesuvios bar, where beatnik writers used to hang out. We walked through parks. He took me to clubs that had 80’s nights. I have not gone back to the city since he passed away. Some cities hold memories that are hard to come back to. San Francisco is still one of the them for me.

We went to Barcelona and London during the 2007-2008 winter break. We had a hard time eating in Barcelona. We both mutually disliked the sea creatures placed atop mounds of rice. Gaudi didn’t speak to us in any kind of inspirational way. I thought his beloved Sagrada Familia looked like a giant muddy wasp nest and Park Guell overrated with his whimsical art. I remember the front desk at our hotel giving Kenneth a hard time when he asked for more toilet paper (they weirdly didn’t give us much). Being the quicker-witted one in our relationship, I shot back to the clerk “do you want him to wipe with his hand?” The clerk turned red and promptly gave us three rolls to take back to our room. I’m sure it was the toilet paper that turned Kenneth off on Barcelona. He swore he never wanted to go back. He never did.

2188166638_ec1164b3a7_m

In London we visited with my friend who had taken us to the Dead Sea on that first trip to Israel. He was now married with a child since the last time I saw him. We met at a museum for an afternoon. We went for coffee afterward and his kid bit me.

Kenneth loved the seediness of Camden Town, where he found gothic stores and relived his youth. He swore he wanted to go back one day. He never did.

We went to Playa del Carmen in 2008. We went on a Jeep tour in Cozumel, stopping to see an alligator farm and snorkeling on a private beach. We saw a sea turtle swim past us amongst brightly colored coral. After an exhaustive time swimming, we went back to the shore and had a Mexican lunch under a thatched roof.

2806618004_d7889ae6a8_z.jpg

2806616610_e87e6b3d32_z

For six years we did not go out of the country. I felt sad. Stuck. This traveling void was caused primarily by two of life’s ball and chains: mortgages and babies.

In 2014 we broke a traveling dry spell by taking our first trip with children. By then we had two: a four and a half year old and a one year old. Traveling with children is a different ballgame, but still not something to miss. It was something we decided to prioritize in our budget. We wanted to raise children who were exposed to the rest of the world.

We took the family to Paris and Israel. My husband and I had both separately been to Paris before we met. Paris was magical on this trip together. We fell in love with the city, this time as a family.

trip 2

We took our son to sail toy boats in the Luxembourg Garden. We went to Montmartre and did a self-guided walking tour past places like Picasso’s old studio. We fell in love with the park across the street from our apartment, where they had museums like the Gallerie de Paleontologie. It was built in 1898 and had the feel of a museum straight out of movie. Rows and rows of bones lined the walkways of the small interior. Upstairs there were dinosaur bones.

We jogged in the park like locals and dreamed of living in the city. We lingered in Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, across from the Seine River from Notre Dame de Paris.

trip 3

Back at our apartment, we realized my son left his beloved toy turtle, Hugo, in the bookstore. Kenneth jogged back to fetch it. The day was saved.

After Paris we continued on to Israel. Kenneth was worried he would hate Israel, but he was pleasantly surprised that I had so many welcoming, nice relatives who were very kind to him.

haifa

We bought a lot of cheese bread and went to the beach every single day. Kenneth swore we needed to make sure we returned with Johnnie Walker for everyone next time we visited, just to reciprocate their hospitality. He never got to, but someday I will.

Our last trip together as a family was to Playa del Carmen, where we had gone together back when we were still dating. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort for my sister’s wedding. I remember eating pancakes at the airport. I remember the vegan restaurant. I remember how good my husband looked out on the beach, proudly showing off the body he worked hard to achieve. A few months later he was gone.

In the summer of 2016, less than two months after Kenneth passed away, I went on our first trip without him to Germany and Paris. My sister-in-law took over Kenneth’s ticket. We went to Berlin, which is a city Kenneth swore was amazing, mostly because in his single years he went to a club in a castle that served long sausages in tiny buns.

I did not have the same kind of magical experience. It was just okay. I’m not sure if it’s because of the neighborhood I was in, my psychological state at the time, or the fact that I realized I was really growing tired of Europe, as much as I thought I’d like to live there.

We continued on to Freiburg. I enjoyed this smaller city much more. We rented a car and explored the Black Forest. The colorful buildings looked exactly like a cuckoo clock.

13335655_10154139776001063_423674015630238585_n

My favorite parts about Germany were the desserts, spaetzle, the Black Forest excursion, and how easy it was to eat as a vegetarian. I also liked the imaginative public parks they had for children.

We took a train to Paris. When we arrived there was a worker’s protest with loud chanting and the beating of drums vibrating throughout the station. I am stirred by the French spirit: the politics, the fashion, the intellectual and creative vibes. Paris is messier than Germany. My brain likes Germany, but my heart likes Paris.

13335522_10154141877666063_6249505575241368978_n

But this time around, it wasn’t the same without Kenneth. I didn’t have that traveling buzz about the place. I didn’t feel romantic about it. It was quieter. The parks we enjoyed with Kenneth were no longer as magical. The kids and I re-traced a route we once walked with their father. We stopped to eat near our favorite museum. Ethan wanted to see the two-headed bird again floating in formaldehyde. He remembered it from our previous trip. Across the street we noticed a bar: Bon Vivant. The same phrase I had engraved on Kenneth’s niche, because when we first met he kept telling me he was a “bon vivant.” We thought it was a sign. Still, I didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to go back to Paris. Once a city I wanted to live in, it was now a place stained by a burst dream.

It was too bad, because on my third trip to Paris I finally found the neighborhood I really liked (near the Picasso museum). That’s the thing about cities. You don’t really know how you feel about them until you visit several times.

I traveled to see my friend In Mexico for the first time in 11 years. She now has a baby. I have three. The days of mini skirts and clubbing are long gone. We sat in yoga pants with cups of coffee. It didn’t feel like 11 years passed between our visits. When it was time to leave, I had the same longing I felt several times before, the wish that we lived closer to each other. It is always both joyful and sad. Still, I’d rather know people around the world than not, so it is worth it.

For winter break the kids and I went to Japan. It was more than I ever dreamed of. We enjoyed temples, udon, train travel, museums, curry dishes, bento boxes, Sanrioland, and lots of walking. I decide Kyoto is one of my favorite cities. We promised each other that we would be back. Sooner rather than later.

20161231_111020_HDR

Our next trip will be various cities in Italy and Copenhagen. I thought I would never return to Italy, but I’ve watched too much Eat, Pray, Love and I’m feeling like a beat-up human that needs copious amounts of gelato. I will visit different cities this time, like Venice and Perugia. I’ll finally hire a private guide to give me a historical tour in Rome. I’ll see Copenhagen, a city I was supposed to visit with my husband. He would be so jealous.

I have the next ten years planned with dreams of Peru, Bali, Thailand, South Africa, the Galapagos, Iceland, and more Japan and Israel. There are places in the U.S. I still want to see, like Mackinac Island and Chicago. But that’s the beauty of traveling. There are an infinite amount of places to experience, and it always leaves you with something to look forward to.

And these days, I need something to look forward to.

 

 

*Note: I wasn’t able to cover all of my travel destinations and stories in this super long essay.

Riding the Waves

Stages_of_Grief

source

“Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.”

A common analogy to explain the experience of grief to people is the waves scenario. You are riding waves. There are ups and downs. Sometimes they crash on your head and submerge you into tumultuous, bone-chilling water, where drowning feels imminent. Other times your buoyancy somehow helps you keep your head above water until you can float back to the dry mainland.

After the first several wipeouts, you start to acquire the skill of spotting impending waves before they crash. And then you get better at dealing with them. You become a stronger swimmer. But sometimes you revert back to your old patterns of not keeping your mouth shut and you swallow the seawater, sending you back into recovery mode.

One day you are fine, the next day you are floundering. That’s how grief works. Up and down, up and down, until those waves aren’t as high and not as low, and they aren’t tsunami-like in intensity, but more manageable to ride out. You may struggle, or you might not. It always depends.

The important thing is that you don’t get stuck. You fix your leaks and you keep on sailing. Sinking is not the goal, especially with so many passengers on board.

Of course there is the saying “if there are no ups and downs in your life, it means you’re dead.” I suppose I should be thankful for even the painful, crummy times. It means I’m alive. We’re never going to get rid of the waves, with or without grief. It’s just a part of living and being human.

But how do we keep floating? And even more importantly, how can I lay out on the deck, basking in the sunlight with a good book, actually enjoying my life versus just trying to survive? I don’t want to be in survival-mode all of the time. I want to be genuinely happy again.

Your life–the ship in this analogy–is put into question when you suffer great loss. In my case, it was my husband’s premature and unexpected death and getting left behind with three young children. When you lose a loved one, there are two major steps you must undertake in the aftermath of the trauma. First, you have to cope with the actual loss of the person. This is difficult to process. One minute they are with you, and the next they are gone. Your mind needs time to accept this truth. But perhaps more important and relevant, since you’re the one still breathing and in possession of a beating heart, is that you must begin the process of your own reconstruction. In a sense, you are mourning your former self. That person is gone. This is also not easy to accept. You are forced to accept a lot of craziness in one nasty dose.

Between those two major steps, you find yourself with a lot of mental work to do. Healing is a long, tedious process,and the bad news is that you ultimately have to do it alone. You can rely on support, but actual healing will only happen when you provide the labor and commitment to repairing and fortifying your ship. Plank by plank. Bolt by bolt. Plugging the holes. Inevitable leaks will spring, some big, some small, and your job is to fix them as quickly as you can before there is structural damage.

My leaks tend to happen when something triggers the negative emotions that I have bottled up. A bad day. Something I don’t want to do. A conflict with someone. Disappointment. Stress. The triggers open up the levee, and everything flows out. And then I have to do damage-control. I have to use my floaties to prevent myself from drowning.

When you see a person going through something, you might not be able to tell by surface factors that they are in pain. For example, you wouldn’t notice a change in my work patterns. You would see me smile. I’m still reliable, punctual, and efficient. I would make social conversation and socialize with others on most days. If you ask how I am, I will probably tell you that I’m fine. Most of the time I am fine, or some degree of fine, but even when I’m fine, you have to realize that beneath the surface, grief is always bubbling. It’s still raw and smoldering.

I tend to stuff a lot of the ugly parts of grief into the dark corners in the deepest chambers of my heart. It was imposed on me. I didn’t consent to having it in my life, so I don’t like to make space for it. And yet, somehow, it has become my garbage to resolve, and you can’t hide your garbage forever.

When confronted with people, the tendency is to do the same as what you would do if company was coming over and you had laundry and clutter scattered around the house: hide it all in a closet or in a room and shut the door. We can’t have people seeing our dirty laundry.

I often wonder when this will pass. I want it to pass. I want to wake up from this horrible nightmare and experience a day where “this” doesn’t permeate some aspect of my consciousness. That day feels like a faraway dream right now, eons of nautical miles to traverse before my ship arrives.

For now, I must focus on the journey.

When I find myself in a doldrum, I know I have to actively choose my response. I’ve learned that resistance doesn’t work. It’s like getting caught in a riptide. You want to keep swimming back to the shore, but in a riptide this might cause you to drown. You also can’t stop swimming and let yourself sink. Instead, you go with the flow. You ride it out. You don’t resist. I try to let my mind calm and see where it takes me. I give permission for my heart to override my brain and I let my feelings guide me. Sometimes it might take a day or so for me to accept that I need to let go in order to survive. I then have to clear my schedule. Watch a movie. Read a book. Hike with the kids. Something that isn’t on my to do list. Something that doesn’t fit in with what I think I should be doing. Tomorrow I can worry about my to do list. Right now I’m just going to ride the wave and float as if there was nothing in the world weighing me down.

The most important thing is that we don’t let ourselves get stuck in a whirlpool that we can’t get out of.

I’m still learning. And every so often I feel in my bones that it is time to advance to the next stage of this process, and I try to make it happen. I work a little harder. Keep swimming. No looking back. Sometimes reconstruction efforts require more attention, more self-care. And then you know you’ve successfully completed another stage, leaving behind the choppy waters of the past, and bracing yourself for the unknown conditions of the future.

There will be more storms and situations beyond my control. I know I must build resilience of body and mind, and that I need to weather-proof my ship.

I’m greedy. I don’t want to just live. I want to live well.

That is what I’m striving for: a good life. As close to my ideal life as possible, given my circumstances.

My ship is sailing regardless of what the forecast is telling me. I just might have to slow down every now and again to fix the leaks.