Your Voice Matters

Aristotle famously said that “man is by nature a political animal.”

I think most people would cringe at being labeled anything close to political these days. Just look at our voter turnout–people have clearly not made being a participant in a democracy an important part of their identity. Certainly not with the same fervor as how they identify with their favorite sports teams.

Many people see politics as this annoying, faraway thing that looks like a gnarled mess to avoid. We neglect to recognize the politics in our personal lives. Negotiating terms and conditions in our relationships, in the workplace, or perhaps with our neighbors. We don’t think of our communication skills or compromising or building consensus with others as anything particularly political. We all have opinions, and we have something to say about taxes and schools and the pot holes in the roads–yet so many of us will be quick to point out that we don’t like politics.

People don’t vote.

Americans get offended by the concept of “freeloaders.” Anti-immigrant rhetoric grows and spreads with zero-sum mentality: immigrants will come and get free handouts, and somehow we will lose something.

There is the rhetoric of demonzing “welfare moms” and pushing for drug testing because of course the children of addicts should definitely pay for their freeloading and irresponsible parents.

There are the assumptions that raising the minimum wage will give people something they do not deserve or didn’t work hard enough for. We like the idea of a business making more money, but the idea of a worker making more money makes us suspicious. They didn’t work hard enough. They might be freeloading.

Americans believe that freeloading is anti-American. Unpatriotic. The lowest form of low.

Football players get bashed for taking a knee.

Those who oppose reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are shamed for not supporting the military (not sure where the connection happens between the two).

People take their hats off during the National Anthem at a sports game and they get teary eyed over the lyrics, “ o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

But they don’t like politics.

And they don’t vote.

They don’t consider the idea that by not voting, you aren’t pulling your weight as a participant in a democracy.

You are basically getting your liberties for free. You’re a democracy freeloader if you are eligible to vote and do not.

I think of a classroom. Or any time at work when you’ve done a group project and there were people not helping or equitably contributing. How outraged that made you feel to have to carry “dead weight.” How draining it is to work with freeloaders.

Americans hate freeloaders–at least when others are doing the freeloading.

I know people who vote against welfare and minimum wage increases and demonize homelessness and talk about all the parasitic people in society and their handouts– yet their own children had been the recipients of public assistance.

They don’t see it though. It’s always about the other freeloaders. We use our cognitive dissonance all day long to convince ourselves that it is never about us. It’s always about “them.”

I’m really interested in why Americans so apathetic about democracy.

We say that we love it, and we invade other countries to “spread” it. But when I look at the numbers, I would say we’re fairly indifferent about our freedoms. Or at the very least don’t understand it.

In 2014 (the last midterm election), voter turnout was the lowest since WW2 with just 36.4% of eligible voters coming out. In 2016 during our last presidential election, only 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot, the lowest in 20 years. Voter turnout is considerably less for state and local elections.

What would you think if on the day of the last game during the World Series, or on the day of the Super Bowl, only filled ⅓- ½ of the stadiums were filled? The most important games of the year, half-empty. How would you react to seeing that?

You might have serious concerns about the future of those sports.

But most of the masses don’t bat an eye when only a ⅓ of voting age people participate in choosing our national legislature. You know, picking the people who make the LAWS.

I wonder how many people could tell you the names of the representatives on their local school boards, or who is in the city council, or even knows who represents them in the state legislature.

All of these elected officials are making policies that affect our daily lives, yet they are nameless to a huge portion of the masses.

I’m not an expert on the French Revolution, but I know that people with money weren’t paying taxes. Heavily regressive tax schemes led to an increase in social and economic inequalities. This collided with bad harvests and the deregulation of the grain industry, and as people did not have enough food to eat, it inflamed resentment toward the aristocracy and Catholic clergy. Did you know there was even a women’s March on Versailles in October of 1789, with over 7,000 women showing up? The next few years were a series of political struggles between liberal assemblies and the right-wing. The Jacobins were considered a “radical wing” during this time, because they advocated for a very crazy idea of having a REPUBLIC. Super scandalous.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it sound far-fetched now that we are talking about it outside of the boring history class you took once-upon-a-time?

But here is the scary thing. Most people during the French Revolution were not inspired by the Enlightenment ideas of the time. Voltaire and Rousseau argued for reason over faith. Locke and Rousseau mapped out social contracts. Montesquieu made the case for separation of powers.

There were were many other major thinkers of the time, but their ideas were not necessarily inspiring to the commoners.

It was the food. Or rather, the lack of food.

Is that what it takes to move humans?

Sports and food?

Do we have to be on the brinks of starvation before we revolt against an oppressive and greedy system that robs us of our humanity and exploits our labor?

I wonder if Americans are passive about our role in democracy because we were excluded from the creation of the much-revered Constitution. The Framers were “well-read, well-bred, and well-fed.” The masses were none of the above.

The Framers would probably laugh at us today. Maybe they were right. Why should they have included us peasants in the formation of a new country when the majority of us wouldn’t even bother to vote.

I often wonder about the future. People. Our communities, my great-great-great grandchildren. I wonder what the world will look like. I hope that we will learn the lessons from the past and fix our mistakes, but I fear we are like hamsters stuck in a neverending wheel, just spinning around and around and around making the same stupid mistakes.

Should we wait for bad harvests to send us scrambling for answers and action?

Should we wait until there isn’t enough bread?

Do we wait until we are killing each other?

Whether you want to admit it or not, we are political animals. You can’t escape a fate that was already determined when you took that first gasp of air outside of your mother’s womb. We live together in this so-called democracy; we were born into this social contract. We have competing interests and wants and needs and somehow we have to reconcile everything in a way that allows us each to live safely while protecting our personal liberties.

Thomas Jefferson said we had a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I think we have the right to life, liberty, and protecting that liberty.

Vote.

Vote like your seat at the table depends on it. Vote like your bread depends on it. Vote like your children’s lives depend on it. Vote like your drinking water depends on it. Vote like love depends on it. Vote like your grandmother depends on it. Vote like your dogs and cats depend on it. Vote like your home depends on it.

Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote.

If you can’t vote, march. Protest. Write letters. Go to meetings. Meet like-minded people. Precinct walk. Volunteer for organizations that advocate for causes close to your heart. Volunteer to register voters. Get to know your elected officials. Join campaigns. Find journalism that resonates with you. Share knowledge with respectful dialogue. Mobilize people to support your cause. Actually, even if you can vote, do these things too.

Or just vote.

You’re more likely to vote if you have a plan. If you’re voting tomorrow, when will you go? How will you get there? Do you know where to go?

I think you should treat yourself to something special after you cast that ballot, because you will have contributed to our democracy and that’s worth celebrating. You weren’t a freeloader. You did your part. And when you’ve done your part, you should talk about it. We learn by talking to each other. Storytelling is important. We fight passivity and apathy by looking it right in the face and using our words to spin a new narrative.

A narrative in which the percentage of votes cast in an election is just as impressive as a sold-out Super Bowl game.

It’s that important. We’re that important.

Remind your friends. Drive your grandparents. Ask your colleagues if they voted. Post on social media. Remind your adult children, especially the young adults. Let them know how important their voices are.

Your vote matters.

Thank you in advance for participating. Your investment in our democracy matters.

 

The New from the Old

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photo source

It was dark when we drove away from the penguin parade in Australia. My three children were asleep in the backseat and Maddy sat next to me, navigating alongside of the spotty GPS system that had poor connectivity in the rural countryside. I kept accidentally flicking on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal whenever I wanted to change lanes, which is what happens when you aren’t used to driving on the opposite side of the road. I felt inept at converting kilometers to miles and slightly terrified about the prospect of a wombat or a kangaroo jumping out into the road.

It is daunting to become a beginner again in the simple tasks of life–like driving–especially on a different continent. The mistakes you make. The stress and frustrations and worries. The second-guessing you do and the humbling experience of messing up, over and over again.

But there was also something a little exciting about it too. Kind of a reminder that there are still many aspects of life that haven’t been explored or experienced. There is more to learn. More surprises. Life can be eternally stimulating and adventurous and challenging, even when life is also disappointing and tedious and soul-achingly sad. Somebody like me needed those reminders.

We were an odd bunch, the five of us.

Me, a 36-year-old white woman.

My three children, half-Japanese, young, spirited.

Maddy, a redheaded 19-year-old, my late husband’s former student.

Maddy babysits the children. They hold her hand and like to crawl onto her lap as if they have always known her. She knows what they like and how to put the littlest one, Peter Jack, to sleep when he is restless and rowdy. She knows that Eloise likes to be read to and enjoys having her nails painted. Maddy treats Ethan to bagels whenever she picks him up from school. We lack a word in our language to describe somebody who is family in all ways except blood. Whatever the word would be, that is what Maddy is to us.

During our drive back to Melbourne, Maddy and I debriefed our day. We had just seen the world’s smallest penguins on St. Phillip’s Island. We braved the chill of Antarctic winds on the first day of the Australian winter as we waited for sundown, our eyes transfixed on the ocean where thousands of penguins swam in from each night on their way home to their burrows. The penguins waddled past us in small groups, their beady eyes darting around with vigilance. We witnessed the song and dance of their mating rituals, heard the chorus of their social noises that intensified as the night grew later, and smelled their distinct odor that reminded us we were in their territory. A few hours later, when there were no more penguins returning from the ocean, we got up to leave, and on our way out we noticed a clear black sky glittering with a million bright stars–a novelty for a bunch of city folks.

Earlier in the day we pet a koala and played with kangaroos. We ate potato leek soup and grilled sourdough bread and enjoyed views of the bay. Cape Barren geese ambled by our dinner table and my children played near the fence that surrounded a cow pasture. The kids were happy and content despite everything that had happened to us.

I was checking off items on my personal bucket list. Living life by my terms again.

But despite the euphoria, it could only ever be “almost perfect.” I could only ever be almost happy. No matter how sated I felt, there would also be a tinge of sadness. A niggle of guilt. It lurked even in the best of circumstances. When one is sentenced to a lifetime of grief, their happiness comes with the anchor of remembering who is not there. Although you learn to live with it and manage to forge more happiness and create new memories, the void remains. You simply learn how to use the empty space.

We would not have known Maddy if my husband hadn’t unexpectedly passed away on that fateful April morning, and if she had not been a student in his anthropology class, or if she hadn’t meekly offered her babysitting services in the early days of my grief. It took one cosmic roll of the dice to change the trajectory of our lives. If one thing had been different, we would not have been there, in that car, in a country 8,000 miles away from home. We would not even really know each other.

A week after the penguins, we walked through intermittent rain in Sydney looking for an opal gallery at the request of my gem-obsessed 8-year-old son. He wanted to see Nessie, whoever and whatever that was. Ethan is just like his father with his enthusiasm, database of knowledge, and the articulate way that he can explain facts with a mature vocabulary. Even the way he looks in his glasses reminds me of my late husband. Ethan is a part of Kenneth that has not been taken away from me yet, and sometimes I feel as if I am constantly holding my breath, not wanting to disrupt the universe’s equilibrium.

We ascended the escalator to the second floor and entered the open floor plan: fake dinosaur exhibits to the left, and to the right there were glass-covered display cases filled with opals for sale.

“It’s here, it’s here!” Ethan squealed from the place where he ran ahead. “Nessie!”

I expected something impressive and big, perhaps attached to a piece of gold jewelry, but instead we stared at a fossilized dinosaur. We had just seen dinosaurs in the Melbourne Museum, so I was a bit confused about why this was a big deal to my son. My youngest two children pressed their fingers against the glass, trying to figure it out too.

“This isn’t a giant opal,” I said.

Ethan turned to me and rolled his eyes. “Don’t you know how opal is made?” He proceeded to mansplain.

Fifty percent of Nessie–who happened to be a nearly intact fossilized plesiosaur–was opalized. That’s what made Nessie rare and priceless. Opals are formed when a mixture of silica and water settle into the fissures created by a dinosaur’s decomposing bones.

I leaned toward the glass and noticed the rainbow-colored opals where there was once bones. I tried to imagine the opals forming over the span of millions of years.

“It’s mostly silica, Mom,” Ethan said. “Silica. Not too much water. Silica.”

But I was interested in something else.

I continued to listen to his explanations, dutifully snapping photos of him as he inspected the exhibits. I tried to look interested in his hobby, much in the same way I once faked interest in his father’s coin collection.

We are an odd bunch.

I thought about Ethan’s beloved opals. Those precious gems formed in the space where death carved out the living. Something beautiful that filled a void.

That was us.

The odd bunch, formed in the fissures of what used to exist of our family. Something new and different and valuable; beauty that would not be here without loss. Proof that not everything is over in death. Life can still be worth living.

After the Australia trip, I went to dinner with an old friend. This friend had seen me through my rebellious teen years. She witnessed bad relationship choices in early adulthood, and also watched me blossom into a wife and mother. She was at my husband’s funeral and saw my debut as a young widow. Now she has seen me struggle to make sense of a new reality as I attempted to rebuild my life.

“Do you think Kenneth still exists?” my friend asked. “Or do you think he’s completely gone?”

My friend is Christian. I am Buddhist. We both know that we do not agree with each other about what happens after death, but that didn’t matter in this conversation. We were talking about something different. Not about what we could or could not see, and certainly not about our beliefs. This was about feelings. One, in particular.

Love.

“I think his energy still exists,” I said. I felt certain that the love we shared had not disappeared. It simply changed.

Sometimes I wonder if Kenneth gave Maddy to us. It felt too coincidental that she came into our lives just as he left, that we knew her through his loss, and that part of the bond our odd bunch shared was a mutual love for him. Perhaps it was fate that put her in our path at the right time, just when we needed her. Everything aligned even as our world fell apart.

I know that Kenneth’s love still exists. My husband was a teacher, and I have seen the torch of his love carried in the eyes and hearts of his former students. The love is found in his family and friends. Acquaintances who had been touched by a conversation. People who he helped. Neighbors. Those who knew him from afar. Maddy. The kids. Me. The way each of us continues to love others, paying forward a love that has traces of his existence in it.

That love has been re-shaped, reconfigured, and transferred into the space in-between what was and what exists right now. This transmuted love is the glue that holds our odd bunch together. We are proof that love transcends everything, and that beautiful things can be born out of loss. Love is what gives us hope; love is the strength and courage we need to move forward even in the worst of times. Love is the bridge between the old and the new.

A Relationship with Solitude

“Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness–an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.” – Brené Brown

Every day during the week when I pick-up my children from their respective childcare providers and/or schools, we have a routine of debriefing our days together. “Good” or “bad” or any  one-word summary is unacceptable.

Sometimes I have to provide sentence starters to spur conversation, but most of the time my children want to start with their social activities. No matter how many times I try to steer the conversation back to what they learned in class (I can’t help it, it’s the teacher in me!), the backbone of their days is unequivocally their social lives.

They usually share about who they played with, who didn’t play with them, and the details of what they did with their friends on the playground. “We went hunting for gems,” or “We pretended to be unicorn-cats,” or how they didn’t want to play handball but their best friend didn’t want to play dinosaurs.

We talk about peer pressure and also about reaching consensus. I tell them about crab mentality, and how we humans also have a tendency to pull each other down to the detriment of all. Sometimes the kids will come home and report that they dealt with the “crabs” today.

At first glance you might think this is the banal chatter of children–innocuous and insignificant in the grand scheme of the daily hum of our lives, especially in a world where more important things are constantly shoving their way into our priorities.

But play time is extremely significant in the development of a child. What does life matter if we do not know what to do with ourselves, how to live with others, the joys of being curious, and how to share knowledge? I can see why the playground is the most important part of their day.

The playground is where children learn how to form human relationships. It is where they are exploring their own preferences and interests, and it is also where they learn to be alone.

I like to run during my lunch time, and my route takes me past my kids’ school just in time to sometimes spot my oldest on the playground. Six weeks ago I was doing my usual run when I happened to see him sitting alone on the field. My first reaction was to leap over the fence and scoop him up into my arms and be his best friend forever so he never has to be alone.

I didn’t actually do that though.

I kept going, knowing that my job was to let him figure it out. I ran back to work with a heavy heart, and I thought about him for the rest of the day. Was he sad? Did he find someone to play with? Does he do that every day? Is there something wrong with him? Do I have to talk to someone? Have I failed him as a parent?

I can’t stand when my kids tell me stories about how they had nobody to play with, or the stories of kids being mean to them, or seeing them alone or in any kind of pain–physical or mental. It hurts me. As parents, our first inclination is to want to take the pain away from our children. We want to fix them with our TLC, wrap them up with our easy solutions and turn them loose into the world as images of our perfect expectations.

It doesn’t work that way, of course.

I know I have to be a witness –not always a fixer– to the natural growing pains of them figuring out interpersonal skills. No matter how many kisses on the forehead, no matter how many pep talks about their value independent of others, no matter how many analogies I use involving crabs– I know that ultimately I have to let my kids understand how to be alone. I can not sit next to them for everything.

They need to learn what to do with their solitude.

Most importantly, my children have to learn how to not fear being alone. They even have to learn to calibrate when it is time to invoke solitude.

I want them to know that being alone is not necessarily bad.

My own experience in youth involved many awkward, terrible, and stressful trials and tribulations of learning what to do with myself around other people. It also involved learning how to live with myself.

I started junior high school not knowing anyone. The kids from my elementary school went to a different junior high, and I was left to my own devices at a new campus trying to figure out where to sit and who to talk to–not an easy feat as an introverted shy girl. I found a place under a tree where I would eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich during lunch time and read a book, hoping desperately that nobody would notice me. Sitting by yourself was social suicide at that age.

Eventually there was a group of geeky girls who had braces and heavy backpacks like I did. My solitude must have made them uncomfortable because they kept asking me to join them, even when I turned them down a few times. I couldn’t hide with my book anymore; I eventually agreed. I am still friends with some of those girls to this day.

The thing is, I had friends in my classes. I wasn’t a total social outcast. There was Melissa, the girl with the wispy bangs and the powder compact always in her back pocket. She lived near me and asked if I wanted to walk to school with her. At first I liked the idea. I knew that if I walked with her, we would get closer. I would have a friend in my pocket, and everyone wants a friend in their pocket. There was something alluring about Melissa too. She appeared to take care of herself; there never seemed to be any adults around in her life. Maybe I too could wear shirts that showed my midriff and have my bra straps slipping down my shoulders like she did (totally cool in the 90s!). Melissa seemed to have reached womanhood when I still felt like a child.

I could have had lunch with her, but something didn’t feel right. Besides, my mom vetoed the idea of me walking to school, and then I got switched into honors classes. That was basically the end of my budding friendship with Melissa.

I did a little bit of snooping online and recently found her. She looks older than my mother and appears to have had a rough life, including addiction and early pregnancies. On some level I knew she was going at a faster speed than the dorky 7th grader that I was, even back then when I couldn’t articulate it as a young girl.

There were others too that I was casually friends with in those precarious days of junior high, when I was trying to figure out where I belonged and what to do with my awkward self. I think about how my life could have gone in any direction depending on which friendships I nurtured. If I had made different decisions about who to hang out with at lunch. Who I could have or would have walked home with, or if I hadn’t had the guts to sit alone under that tree until I figured out where the right place would be for me.

I try to remember that wisdom as an adult, but of course it is difficult.

We don’t know what to do with our solitude–we assume it is a sign of weakness and sadness. We want to fix it. We want to run away from it.

Instead, we should be leaning into it. Our solitude is like an empty room that opens up to us– a refuge from the chaos in which we easily get lost in. It is a place to rest. Gather our thoughts. Strategize. Figure out our next steps.

I re-encountered issues with solitude when I became a widow in 2016. After nearly 10 years of being with my late husband, I had grown used to having somebody with me. I was living with my best friend. We worked together. We parented together. We carpooled together. We went grocery shopping together and cooked dinner together. I was never alone.

And then he unexpectedly died, and I never felt more abandoned in my life. It was a tremendous shock to my system.

At night, when the kids were in bed and my house became quiet, I could feel the empty space squeezing my fragile existence out of the room. The empty chairs. Empty bed. No Netflix playing. No husband standing over the juicer, listening to self-help audios or his favorite 80’s songs as he juiced vegetables and fruits, and me yelling from the bedroom to “turn that shit down” while I tried to sleep.

It was extraordinarily difficult to reconcile.

At work I felt a deep loneliness at lunch time, sitting by myself in my classroom when I would have been sitting with him. All of our habits and routines felt scrambled. I didn’t know what to do with myself–how to be present with my solitude.

It was worse than 12-year-old me who ate alone under the tree, because teenage Teresa had never become codependent with a partner. She never knew what it was like to have to compromise on everything. To share a bed. To swap cars depending on carpool schedules. She didn’t know what it was like to have somebody to sit next to at events, who would give me his jacket when I was cold, or to go to the movies with me and the way he would frequently tell me how beautiful he thought I was.

One of the first thoughts I had after being told that my husband was dead was—I’m single now?

Isn’t that a selfish thought? My husband was dead in the hospital room and my mind wandered to my marital status. I literally ran through what I tried to remember from our wedding vows. ‘Til death do us part. The contract was fulfilled. I was a free agent.

Terrifying and mind-blowing when you are not expecting it.

Single= alone.

Being alone = sad (in our society).

At first, it felt like a horror story I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I had escaped being a sad single woman with a doting husband and three kids, but now like in a game my piece was plucked off the board and placed back on the start square.

I wore my wedding ring for a few months after his death until I could no longer take the identity crisis anymore. People still called me Mrs. Shimogawa, and in some ways I still felt like I had a husband still lurking somewhere in the universe. But I was most definitely single.

Society perpetuates this myth that we need another person to feel complete. I certainly felt terrible anxiety about being single–this time as a single mother.

We plan to be with other people. We don’t plan to be alone.

I lived alone before I met my late husband. I had traveled alone. I saw a Depeche Mode concert in Rome alone. I did my grocery shopping alone every single week. Being alone wasn’t a new concept to me.

But there I was, grappling with how to be alone again.

There are many anxieties that I think a widow feels, and being alone is certainly one of them. Every person has a different experience, but solitude is inescapable when you experience going to bed one night with your partner, and then waking up the next day without them.

Widowhood was a feeling that I had been exiled to the faraway land of loneliness from which I would never return. Like most people, I had gotten too comfortable in life and neglected to consider any other narrative for myself. I guess you could say it was a bit of an existential crisis. Who was I, if not a wife and a mother?

I had to spend over a year trying to remember who I used to be before I became a wife and mother. We often forget who we were independent from our relationships.

The interesting thing is if you can deconstruct the end of a relationship–no matter how it ended–you eventually admit to yourself that it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Maybe you can be honest and say there were times you even felt alone back then–despite having a person there.

There are pros and cons to everything, and that includes being alone.

Yet we demonize the option of solitude.

Most of us are terrible at intentionally creating solitude in our lives. We are constantly surrounded by other people–our partners, children, colleagues, friends, family, etc.

We become resentful and stressed when we haven’t had time alone, but we can’t figure out the source of our anxiety. It’s like we are suffocating to death and have no clue who is holding the pillow over our faces. We don’t know what sucked the air out of the room. We just get angry and frustrated and absorb toxicity that gnaws away at our insides, but rarely do we seek the solution.

What I understood about my solitude was similar to what I felt as the junior high student sitting alone under the tree: I had to learn to sit with it. There would be no running away.

It was okay to feel uncomfortable with being alone, especially with others watching, but it was important to be able to persevere through those difficult feelings.

It was imperative for me to not allow my solitude to morph into loneliness.

Solitude is not necessarily loneliness.

Lonely= lacking friends.

Solitude = being alone.

We become irrational when we are lonely. Desperate. We make bad choices. We get careless with our thoughts and decision-making. We jump into the wrong relationships.

But solitude is an opportunity to be present. It allows you to pause. Process and think, being careful about the next right move.

My immediate reaction to being single again was to feel like I needed to hurry up and fill that void. Find someone else. But where to start? I definitely didn’t want to settle for just anything.

The beauty of where I am at this point in my life is that I am at an age with enough experience to realize that the void has to be filled differently than with just another relationship.

The void that I felt was something deeper than the absence of someone in my life. It had been around even before my marriage.

The void was my inability to be with myself. To sit with my solitude. To be enough for myself.

It was me reaching for external sources of validation. It was me not knowing who I was outside of a relationship, or independent of a relationship, or aside from anything other than what was already inside of me.

This void tortured me for a solid year after my husband’s death. Perhaps the void inside of us never goes away. We probably just learn how to live with it. But I like to think that it starts with re-learning who you are.

I addressed my feelings by asking myself questions.

What can I do as a single woman that I was (for whatever reason) not able to do in my marriage? What do I want to do right now? What am I curious about? What interests me? What excites me?
What feels like enchantment?

At first you will think it is a betrayal to your previous life, but in fact it is really just your consolation prize. Just you trying to keep living as best as you can.

You have to let go of the picture etched into your mind about what your life should have been.

That chapter has ended.

You must loosen your grip on those past expectations and let them go like balloons slipping out of your fingers. Watch those expectations float away. You don’t owe them anything. Find new ones. Rinse and repeat this process until you die.

Once you have reconciled the harsh reality of those expectations never materializing, then you implement the things you answered from those questions–the things in life that you now can do but never would have been able to in your previous life.

You don’t rush into anything.

You take time to sit with your solitude.

Think about everything.

There is no right or wrong. You can sit under a tree and read a book by yourself. You can marry someone tomorrow. You can be single forever. It doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is that you are not afraid to be alone.

Apparently the Dalai Lama said that it is important to spend time alone every day. It is in that quiet space that you remember who you are. It is a way of centering oneself, a connection back to your authentic self away from the noise of the rest of the world.

In that space, you remember who you always were.

Is it scary? Yes.

Do you have a lot of unanswered questions? Yes.

Does it always feel good? No.

But you do it anyway, because you get one shot at living a fulfilling and adventurous life that is true to who you are.

You can have that life.

It doesn’t require anyone’s participation other than your own.

Tom Petty said it even better than I can:

“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free”

Shut Her Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

Interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I like a good challenge.

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

And this makes me feel less stressed.

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

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

Hollowness

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(pic source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But can that be true?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will never know, and neither will she.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiences.

New learning opportunities.

Time and space.

Relationships, platonic or something more.

Hobbies.

Traveling.

Writing.

My children.

Everything in moderation.

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

My children can not complete me.

Work can not complete me.

Writing can not complete me.

Men can not complete me.

Friends can not complete me.

A European adventure can not complete me.

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

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

It is my choice.

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

Somehow, I know I will.

 

 

 

When We Are Honest

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Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

When we are honest, we make it easier for other people to cope with the terrible things that will happen in their lives.

When we are honest, our stories can be healing not only in the way that saying hard things out loud can help us process our emotions and experiences, but in transformative ways for others who watch and listen to the pain that we share.

When we are honest with other people, we can learn from each other, and this helps soften the sharp edges of human suffering.

If only it was cool to be honest with each other.

Instead, we tend to sugarcoat our realities and cling to the facades that help us hide our pain. We are compelled to showcase perfect, happy lives in order to quell the feelings of inadequacy that pool inside of us. We chase a mirage of what we think life should look like, instead of accepting a truth that cannot be altered no matter how many times we paint over it.

If we are always projecting a fake reality, then we grow older with distorted views about being vulnerable. Our pain causes us shame that feels like a heavy anchor around our necks.

The consequence is that we get older thinking vulnerable is abnormal and bad and something to be ashamed of, rather than what it really is, which is part of the human experience.

More importantly, to hide our vulnerabilities is to lose the opportunity to connect with other human beings through our shared experiences. We can’t learn from each other when we shove our pain into the darkest corners of our hearts and minds and pretend that they do not exist.

When we prioritize pretending over being authentic, the worst consequence is that we lie to ourselves. I’m not an expert, but I believe a major source of suffering stems from being dishonest with ourselves, and it causes us tremendous inner turmoil.

How can we trust people in a world where we can’t even be honest with ourselves?

Recently a person told me about the images they had plaguing their mind. They suffered a great loss recently and struggled to live with the gaping hole in their life. This person kept having recurring thoughts and images about the moment they witnessed the death of their loved one. Graphic details. These memories hurt, causing many grievers to retreat further and further inside of themselves as a way to find a buffer between themselves and the pain. We pretend nothing is wrong, but in the process we hurt even more. Our grief festers.

I told this person, “I know what it feels like.”

It seemed like the most basic thing I could offer. Commiseration.

And it was true. I do know.

I have images of finding my late husband on the living room floor, face-down. I remember the words I said to him.

“Stop faking the flu again.”

Who says that to their dying husband? Me, apparently. I have to live with that remorse. A few weeks before I got mad at him and told him that if he didn’t change x, y, and z, that we probably wouldn’t last. After he died, I found his monthly planner, and on the day of that fight he wrote, “Worst day of my life.” I can’t go back and fix it. I felt guilty for months, wondering if I made his heart explode. Literally.

I felt regret about everything, which I would later learn is a normal reaction and way of processing the death of a loved one. I tortured myself with a barrage of regrets. Like, should I have said comforting words to him and held him in the seconds before I witnessed his final exhale, or should I have followed along with the CPR directions that the 9-1-1 operator guided me through?

I remember the operator telling me to turn his body over, and using all of my strength to make it happen so I could do the chest compressions. Later, when the autopsy said he had broken ribs, I felt guilty and wonder if I did it.

I remember the desperation in my voice during the 9-1-1 call.

“It’s not working. It’s not working. He’s not breathing. There’s nothing. Why are they taking so long to get here? He’s not breathing.”

Repeating myself as if that was the only way I could breathe while getting through that moment.

I remember the doctor’s face when I got to the ER, and how he met me at the entrance. I remember how hastily the doctor said, “Nothing we could do” before scurrying away.

I remember pulling the curtain aside and seeing my husband on the hospital bed for the first time, and the way he looked as if he were peacefully asleep.

I remember bursting into tears at the Social Security Office when I got a phone call from the crematorium while I stood in a never-ending line. They told me someone messed up in processing my request to do handprints before cremation. They waited too long. His body was too hard, his hands clenched into tight fists. There would be no handprints. I sobbed while strangers stared at me. I didn’t really need the handprints, but you feel so desperate to cling to any little scrap of memory that can be salvaged, so you do stupid things like cut a piece of his hair in the ER before you leave his body. I remember the desperate things you do when you have nothing left.

I know what it’s like to avoid looking at the part of the living room floor where I found him, because every time I did I saw his body in a pool of his own urine. I remember that gut-wrenching moment when I noticed it, and I knew. I just knew, and it was so incomprehensible that it took all of my collective inner strength to dial 9-1-1 because my hands were shaking so violently.

I know what it’s like to have those images pop into my mind as I’m perusing the aisles of the grocery store, or teaching students in my classroom on an otherwise innocuous day, or when I’m reading a book to my toddler, or driving to work and those thoughts just hit me out of nowhere. There is no rhyme or reason as to when the ghosts will haunt you.

The memories don’t plague my mind like they did in the first year after my husband died. They are infrequent visitors these days, but they still come. I suspect they will always be a part of who I am now. It took time for me to accept this new brain of mine, but now it’s just a part of who I am.

I share these memories with you to normalize the ghosts. To normalize the images. To tell you that I think it’s okay to share what haunts you, because other people are also haunted by similar experiences. It’s part of the grieving process. Normal.

It’s normal to feel shame. It’s normal to feel weird and exiled to a faraway land where nobody understands your life and feelings. It’s normal to feel like a giant green bug that has to exist in a society that does not want to talk about the details that you so intimately live with every second of every painful day that you are alive while the person you loved is dead.

The shame is from hiding your truth. Lying to yourself. Pretending to others. Feeling like you failed in living happily ever after and that you must have done something to deserve this terrible fate, and trying to hide those thoughts from the rest of the world.

Last week’s Terrible Thanks for Asking podcast did a good job of going through very typical experiences for the bereaved. Although that episode dealt with suicide, much of the processing is similar to other general grief. The shame. The depression. Regret. Feeling like you died too.

I can offer more than just “I understand. I see dead people too.” Commiseration is not all that I can offer.

I can also share that one day the intensity of the images and thoughts and feelings will shift. Incremental changes at first, but slowly the ebb and flow of overwhelming grief won’t always be so violent. You can tame the beast. You can ride it out. The waves will become gentle again. They never completely disappear, but maybe you don’t really want them to anyway. They represent what you survived. They are your battle scars, and they made you a better person today precisely because of everything they put you through. You lost a lot, but you gained tenfold.

I’m not an expert, but I can share with you what I’ve done:

Shame can’t exist out in the open. When we air out our pain, it has a way of drying up. It can’t fester in plain view. Shame can only manifest and grow when we allow it to hide inside of us.

Being honest with myself has been the most important thing for me. I keep journals. Lots and lots of journals, and notes, and notebooks with ideas, and other ways that I document my life. I write about myself. My feelings. My struggles. I spend a lot of time observing who I am. My strengths and weaknesses. Where I need to improve. Where I am doing well. I am constantly looking for subtle signs that there may be something shifting inside of me. All parts of me. It could be a physical ache, an emotional pang, what I’m struggling with on a particular day–whatever. If you don’t pay attention to yourself, who will? I want to know everything about myself, even the things I do not understand.

For me, that lack of understanding was about grief. In my prior life, I never felt depressed for more than a few hours or a day max. Feeling numb for weeks and months and for the entire first year was a new ballgame for me. I remember that I took a picture of myself when I came home from the hospital. I wanted a visual reminder of the pain that I felt in the worst moment of my life. I also grabbed my journal and wrote a few scattered thoughts. I knew that I never wanted to forget that pain, and somehow I also knew that I would forget that pain.

I am bossy and stubborn–even with myself. I was incredibly uncomfortable with the idea of surrendering control to foreign emotions that were tangled in my brain and disrupting my life. My solution was to stick to structure and routine and busyness. I never missed a day of work for grief once I went back after my husband’s funeral. I was determined to maintain as much of my life on track as I could. Keeping commitments. Sticking to an exercise routine. None of this happened perfectly. I wasn’t sleeping for months and months and finally had to be self-reflective about this and work to address the problem. I drank too much coffee and didn’t eat enough. But in other ways, I was extremely self-controlled, deliberately avoiding alcohol and other unhealthy coping mechanisms. I am not perfect, but I do work hard to keep my observing ego active and always on high alert for the subtle shifts within me that may lead to deeper issues and potential problems. I’m a big believer in not digging myself into deep holes that I will have to find my way out of.

It’s important that we understand that as subtle are the ways that our behaviors can deteriorate into unhealthy behaviors and habits, it is at that same incremental pace that we have to enact positive changes. One step at a time. Little by little. Expecting anything more is setting yourself up for failure.

I am obsessed with tracking daily habits. Setting goals. Reading books. Striving to be better. I want to die in my 90s with a list of goals and things I still want to learn. I don’t want to project a perfect life, because to me perfect is a sign that you aren’t living anymore.

I also listen to and read a ton of sad stories. Seriously. The Terrible Thanks for Asking podcast. Any sad memoir I can get my hands on. Tear-jerker news stories. Sad songs. Sad images. Sad poems and quotes. I literally seek out sadness.

Why?

Well, this is what I think. I like the perspective I gain from other people’s stories. Which goes back to the beginning of this post: sharing our vulnerability. I’ve been a sadness-seeker my entire life. I’ve mentioned before that I was a nosy child, and I’m a very observant adult (which is a sugar-coated way of saying that I am still pretty damn nosy). But! I like to think of nosy as a propensity to learn from others.

I like having friends of various ages who have different perspectives and life experiences and situations that teach me so much. I’m always observing people, and after 36 years of being nosy I am very good at reading people. That’s because I’ve spent so much time observing. Watching. Noticing.

I like sad stories because they give me perspective. For example, during the year that my husband passed away, there was a family who visited Disney World and had their toddler ripped away from them by an alligator. When I read about the story, I felt that gross feeling in the pit of my stomach that reminded me about the brutal reality of always being one wrong move away from something catastrophic in your life. And those things happen in the most ordinary second. Despite all of my despair over losing my husband the fresh and raw wounds I was still licking at the time, I just kept thinking: at least I’m not the alligator family. I mean, I loved my husband, but I don’t know if I could have stopped myself from flinging my own body into alligator-infested waters if I had to watch my child die in that way.

When terrible things happen to other people, we usually look the other way. We force those images out of our mind. We shush our fears, because we want to believe that terrible things happen to other people and not us. It’s never supposed to happen to us.

But that’s where we go wrong in life.

Closing your eyes to other people’s suffering and dismissing it does not prepare you for the day when you too will deal with something terrible. You can’t escape it. It is the price you pay for being alive.

Before I watched my husband die, I witnessed two elderly people pass away. I also saw the aftermath of a young girl who jumped from a parking structure–I saw her on the sidewalk before the police got there. I still remember her long dark hair soaked in blood. Those three deaths did not affect me as much as my husband’s did, but they did prepare me for death. I knew what that final exhale meant the morning that my husband died because I had seen and heard it before. Although I was in shock, I was able to keep my head above water, because previously experiencing it normalized death for me.

My oldest son sometimes asks me to describe the moment his father died. “Tell me about his eyes,” he will say to me. “Did they roll back? Were they open?”

I tell him to the best of my memory. They were closed. He looked like he was sleeping. His expression was peaceful.

Some people may find these details disturbing, or even inappropriate for a small child.

I think it’s normal.

And I don’t believe in sugarcoating normal.

I think our vulnerabilities are the most beautiful parts about us. The most normal parts of who we are. The only thing more beautiful is to see how people pick up the broken pieces of their lives and keep living. There is no shame in your brokenness. What matters is what you do with your brokenness.

If you are haunted by something that has caused you pain, I hope you know that your ghosts do not define you. They are simply part of your story, and your story is important. You are the only one who can tell your story to the world, and the world needs to hear it.

Stay in Your Lane

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I remember being told numerous times as a child to “mind my own business.” I was, how shall we say, a very nosy child. For example, I was devastated when we moved from a house where my bedroom faced the street and I could see everything, to a house around the corner where my view consisted of the ugly block wall in the backyard.

The thing is, I like to know what’s going on. I like people’s stories. I’m interested when the neighbors do something different to their houses and I like to see who is outside. If there is ever a crime on my street, you could ask me what my neighbors’ habits are, because I pay attention. I like to keep my blinds open. I like to go outside. Despite all of the ways that I am very much an introvert, I am also extremely social and could never live like a hermit. Too bad I am stuck in suburbia where nobody goes outside and neighbors hardly see each other.

I think my preference for running as my form of exercise ties back to my nosiness. Running allows me to have my boots on the ground to see what’s going on, versus being confined to a boring gym. Important stuff, you know. I would have never noticed the Halloween decorations going up two blocks away if I hadn’t passed that house on my run, and imagine how boring my life would be without that information. (Damn it, I’m behind in getting my decorations up. Usually I’m the first!)

This is where minding everyone else’s business can be problematic. When you see what other people are doing and compare it to your own life, things can turn unhealthy real quick.

And yet there are plenty of reasons why not minding my own business has served me well in life. I think there is much to learn from other people. I believe in helping other people. I also don’t agree with being passive in life. For all of this to be true, I have to keep my eyes open and pay attention to the world around me. Maybe that is nosy to some people, but for me, it is staying engaged in life.

What does minding your own business actually mean?

Should you not care about what others are doing? Does it mean staying out of other people’s’ comings and goings? Not adding your two cents? Ignoring the rest of the world? Not interfering? Not paying attention? Not helping? Not having an opinion, or having confrontations, or putting yourself out there in any capacity?

Are there exceptions?

When you become an adult, nobody tells you outright to mind your own business. They do it in other ways.

Like, sabotaging opportunities for you.

Attempting to smear your character.

Not listening to your input.

Shutting you out of conversations and the other ways of excluding a person.

Dismissal. Avoidance.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less tolerant of the ways people try to interfere with the flow of my life. I still refuse to “mind my own business,” but my nosiness has shifted. I’ve learned to develop a filter for myself; there are things to let into my boundaries and head space, and other stuff that has to be ignored. Times to say something. Times to shut my mouth. I’m still not always good at it, but I’m improving.

Getting older simultaneously helps a person develop a better filter, but in other ways busts the filter and opens floodgates. It’s a contradictory experience, and yet one of balance, control, expression and freedom.

Even as I age, I still find it easy to get sucked into other people’s problems and drama. We all know real-life Pig-Pen characters with dust flying everywhere.

That kind of stuff depletes your energy, and as you get older, energy becomes scarce. You can’t afford any leaks.

My energy is busted. Being an only parent has been the hardest, most draining thing I have ever done. If you think cremating your husband is difficult, try getting stuck with a 1-year-old, 3-year-old, and a 6-year-old. Forever. No other parent to take over driving the crazy train. Just you in charge. Energy has to be protected in order to survive.

That’s why I recently adopted a new mantra for myself. I actually chant this silently in my head as needed.

Stay in your lane.

I explained to my children the difference between “mind your own business” and “stay in your lane.” At least my interpretation of it.

I think “mind your own business” shuts people down. It intends to prevent people from observing or interfering or chiming in with an opinion. But it doesn’t give you a reason why.

Stay in your own lane has a focus.

You are headed toward a destination, wherever that place may be. Perhaps you want to be a doctor or a dancer or a teacher or a famous artist. Whatever. But you have direction, and you have things you must do to achieve the goal and reach the destination. That’s why you stay in your lane. Of course sometimes you may need to swerve to avoid problems. You are still mindful of the other drivers, and you change lanes when needed. You will inevitably have to refuel and stop for maintenance. There will be wear and tear. You might need to pull over to help others. But your goal is clear: you are headed somewhere, and you are actively preventing anything from stopping this journey.

Unfortunately there is so much crap in life that makes us swerve out of our lanes.

Crap in the form of toxic people. People who like drama. Egos. Selfish people. Inconsiderate people. People who would suck your soul dry and still want more from you. People who don’t want to see you succeed in life. Jealousy. Narcissism. Laziness. Unhappy people who project their misery onto everything they do.

Working with these individuals is the worst. You know who they are because they turn their interactions with others into a forum to vomit negativity all over a captive audience.

It is better to avoid these people, but of course that’s easier said than done. You need a lot of practice to know how to handle them. People can get stuck in their misery, and they often want company in the bowels of their despair. But if you’re going to stay in your own lane, you need to run away from these people.

The thing is, many of these individuals are at their core nice people. Often they don’t even realize that they are Pig-Pen with all of their dust flying everywhere. They lack self-awareness. That makes it hard to be direct with them about the ways that they are causing you problems. You should probably try to help them, and yet there is the possibility that they will infect you with their toxicity.

Somehow you have to draw the line when they are getting in your lane and hindering your forward-movement. That’s the balancing act: figuring out how to extend your help, your listening ear, your advice, but also knowing when to enforce your personal boundaries and to kick them out of your lane.

It’s more than dealing with other people though.

Staying in your own lane is also largely about controlling your own brain. Deciding what to spend your time on. What to prioritize. Deciphering what will further your objectives and what slows you down. Striking a healthy balance in your life, which requires doing the constant work of mental re-calibration and making adjustments on a daily basis. Being emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy enough to sustain the long-term pursuit of reaching a destination. This is something that requires stamina, resilience, optimism, and your unflinching commitment even when conditions seem impossible.

You aren’t handed these mental tools on a silver platter. You have to work every single day of your life to develop them, and then you have to do the maintenance to keep them. Our stamina and resilience, like muscles, don’t get stronger without using them.

To be honest, my head space is often a personal storm. Just yesterday I had a meltdown that involved feeling like I wasn’t keeping up with the things that I needed to do, feeling like everything in my life is impossible, that I am doomed to be miserable and unsuccessful, and that I am failing at everything. I felt angry, because anger is what you feel when you resent the things that have happened to you. I could literally feel my brain spiraling out of control–that hopelessness you experience when you think you are drowning in the tediousness of life. I am an ugly person when I let myself wander down that path.

I constantly wrangle my own brain and try to keep conditions optimal for my personal success. And by personal success, I mean waking up and getting through the day without hating my life. When you see me, you are looking at a person who works super hard to keep myself balanced. I am always one bad thought away from feeling derailed.

I use a lot of strategies to hold it together.

Writing helps.

Exercise is necessary.

Time to myself. Hobbies. Learning something new.

I personally need my house to be clean and organized to keep the storm in my head from turning into a natural disaster.

I need my children to follow a schedule (AKA go to bed on time, take their naps, follow directions, etc.)

Balancing time that I spend on my personal projects and the time spent with my children and everything else. I can finish a big writing project but still be a wreck if I didn’t spend quality time with my children. I am not happy unless I tend to all parts of my life.

The reality is that I can’t do everything, and life is often lopsided and unbalanced. Sometimes my kids are terrible for me. Sometimes I don’t have time to get my nails done or play tennis. Sometimes I have writer’s block and don’t feel like exercising and work is stressful and the youngest child just tore apart his closet again after I just reorganized it. Sometimes I’m upset for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on.

That’s when things can turn ugly.

Often I need to stop obsessing over whatever is bothering me, and the only way to do that is by taking a break. Watch a movie. Do something different. But knowing and doing are two different things. Many times I will persist at trying to manage the thing that is not working for me, and my lack of control pushes me closer to the brinks of madness. I can be stubborn, even with myself.

Changing my scenery is extremely helpful in diffusing a mental breakdown. Socializing with people always helps.

Yesterday I saw a bunch of people, and they probably had no idea that just hours before I was crying about how much I hate my life and how dare my late husband leave me with kids who don’t listen and I’m never going to finish a writing project and if the youngest doesn’t take a nap I will surely go insane and how I’m doomed to live out the lonely, cursed life as a maid to uncooperative children while nobody in the world cares.

But when you’re around other people, those terrible thoughts dissipate into the rest of the noise of the world, and you somehow forget the depth of your previous despair. By the end of the night I could barely remember what I had been working myself up over.

I need to stay in my lane and prevent myself from sabotaging my own life.

Part of it is moving forward. Taking care of the issues that pop-up, and to keep going. You can’t reach your destination if you get stuck in the mud.

Using tactics you know to work, like socializing and changing scenery before a breakdown.

By reminding myself to stay in my lane, I am constantly making a choice about what I am letting into my boundaries–which include outside noise, but also the clanking of my own thoughts that have the propensity to make a racket in my head.

Maybe you can consider “staying in your lane” a strategic way to mind your own business–the art of learning what to hear and see, and knowing what to ignore. Selective input and output. A strategy to improve the quality and efficiency of your life journey.

All of this is a difficult balancing act that requires intuition, experience, and self-control. None of these things come easily. I try to observe myself and take notes (this is why journaling is great), being mindful of triggers, knowing my feelings, acknowledging emotions, identifying patterns of behavior, and staying in tune with myself. I pay attention to what seems to work in diffusing my emotions, and I try to repeat those things. It’s a lot of trial and error, but I feel like doing something is better than letting myself unravel.

Although I can’t control the noise around me, I can work on my own boundaries. I can get better at reigning myself in. I can work through my own thoughts. That’s something I can do, right now, with what I have.

You can call that staying in my lane.

I have goals. I have a vision about how I want to live. I decided to not allow myself to be a human sponge to all of the noises in the world. I will compartmentalize. Let go. Stay clear and focused on my own path. Seek out those who share my philosophy about how to live well, and to let go of what I can not control. Help others as much as I can without violating my personal boundaries.

I can still pay attention to others. I can be curious. I can get involved and give my opinions and care about the world around me and still respect my boundaries.

When we realize that we are working with an indeterminable number of years left to do the things that we want to experience while we still can, we begin to realize how vital it is to stay in our lanes. It is the only way to increase the quality of this journey we call life.