You Just Need Confidence and Other Lies I’ve Been Told

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Photo by Isandréa Carla on Pexels.com

Throughout my life, I have heard the phrase “you just need to be confident” suggested to me, as if it is so easy to have when you live in a female body.

I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly when I began to hate my appearance, but it could have possibly started with a compliment. I was a sixth grader, awkward with frizzy bangs and mouth full of braces, coming out of my room in my bathing suit for a trip to the beach with family. I remember my aunt looking me up and down, her eyes lingering on my legs, and then she looked at my mom and said something along the lines of “you better watch out.” I remember feeling self-conscious and wanting to put pants on, uneasy about what she meant. It did not feel like a compliment. After all, nobody tells little boys that they have to watch out about their legs.

Maybe I started hating my body when I got my first bra before I started the 7th grade. I was flat as a pancake, but since I had to change in the locker room for PE my mom thought it was appropriate for me to get one. I remember coming home from JC Penneys with my ugly nude colored bra and my mom showing it to my dad, who then declared it was a slingshot. He began a game of pickle with my younger brother, throwing it across the room. I wanted to die. Having to wear a bra felt like an exile from childhood, and even at 12-years-old I knew life on the other side was not going to be all unicorns and rainbows for a female.

But who knows, really. Maybe I started to hate my body when I got my period in the 8th grade and had to sit at a table and guard the towels while everyone else had fun at the local waterpark. It could have been because I was not allowed to wear make-up like all of the cool girls did in junior high. Maybe I started feeling ugly because I couldn’t carry that Covergirl compact in my back pocket and put layers after layers of powder on my face like everyone else.

Whenever it started, and however it started, it began a lifetime of me fixating on everything I hated about my appearance. My abs. My thighs. My short torso. The frizzy hair and boring brown eyes. My toes. My teeth. The Mervins clothes in my closet. The only thing I never hated was my small breasts, because at least then I did not have to worry about men gawking at me.

The irony is that I never wanted to be just a body, yet I pigeonholed myself into an identity with self-worth measured solely by the perceptions about my body.

How does one “get some confidence” in a world that tells women we are too fat and too emotional and too weak and too this and too that?

In a world where women are not always invited to the table nor seen as anything more than desirable or undesirable to men. If I spoke up, I was a bitch. If I didn’t speak up, I was too shy. If I do this or that, will men like me? Because for a woman, we somehow learn by osmosis that men not desiring us is a death sentence, and subconsciously or consciously we seek to maintain our desirability. We women even tear our fellow women down, constantly engaged in subconscious Hunger Games.

Needless to say, I have struggled to find the conventional type of confidence.

Recently I was listening to the adult study at my Buddhist temple and they talked about having confidence in the system, or confidence in your path. It was another way of saying “have faith” without the baggage of the Christian connotation of the word.

It made me think.

I can’t tell you that I have confidence in the way that I look today, right now, here in this moment.

But I do have confidence in how I live my life. I feel I am moving at the right pace for me, doing what I need to do, and headed in an appropriate direction– even when I also feel like I am not exactly where I want to be.

My confidence is in the way that I show up in this world. I believe in working hard. Trying. Trying again. Trying and trying and trying.

I have confidence in my values and goals. There is confidence in my willingness to learn, the openness of my mind, and in the transparency of my vulnerability.

Confidence is tricky when you measure it by specific things, all or nothing. I am confident in certain areas, like my intelligence, career, and the way I can single-handedly run a busy household. I am not confident wearing crop tops, or in my tennis skills, or in my ability to use a round brush and make my hair look good.

But does confidence really have to be defined based on one thing about us, or can it be measured collectively?

I have confidence in knowing that if I watch what I eat and exercise, I will have a healthier body. I may not totally love my abs right now, but I have confidence in the plan I have chosen for myself, which is to join a gym, take a pilates class, regularly run, and watch my calories. I don’t always feel like I’m doing a great job in all areas every day or week or month, but I have faith in the plan and I am mostly satisfied with the average of my efforts.

I’m not going to stand up at temple and proclaim extensive knowledge in Buddhism, in front of people who grew up there, but I have confidence in my plan of attending service each week, raising my children in the organization, and continuing my own education of the practice. I believe in these values and how I spend my time supporting them.

Here is the toughest, toughest one for me.

In my 20s I started to worry that I would never find someone serious to marry. I really wanted kids and a house and the typical domestic fairy tale we are spoon fed at an early age to want. In college, I had my fair share of going out to bars and clubs and frat parties and also the typical banging my head against the wall in complete and utter despair about the universe apparently having nobody, NOBODY available for a person like me.

And then I met my future husband. At work. I literally never paid attention to him when I started the new job in the classroom next door to his. Not even a second glance. One day he lingered after a presentation I gave and that was it– we became instantly inseparable.

You get married, you might have kids, and then life is supposed to be on autopilot for your relationship status. I never thought I’d have to go through the drama of believing the universe was all out of options for me– again. I truly thought I dodged that bullet!

Oh hey, turns out life doesn’t exempt you from ANYTHING.

When my husband unexpectedly died and left me as a 34-year-old widow with three young children, I did what we all do in these terrible, life-shattering situations: I panicked. I delved into toxic self-hate. I writhed on the floor of my rock bottom and convinced myself that I deserved this bad karma. It was probably because of something I did. I was deficient. Nobody would ever want me. I’m damaged goods. I’m loathsome. On and on and on.

If you told me I should have just gotten some confidence, I would have asked if you ever watched your husband’s eyes roll back– and then I would have told you to come back with your advice when you had.

Eventually my feelings began to simmer down. My anger cooled. Slowly. Time always helps.

You see, when we are right in the middle of the boiling point of our feelings, no amount of logic makes sense to us.

Even in my despair, I knew logically that life would get sorted out. Paperwork would get done. My kids would get older. I would feel better. I would move on. Terrible days don’t last forever. I knew what I had to do: put one foot in front of the other. Small steps. One after another. I knew all of that.

But I didn’t want to see it or hear about it.

Just get some confidence!

But, HOW?

Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) we are battling paralyzing resistance in our bodies and minds.

How do you get confidence when you’re broken on the ground, smashed by life? How do you get confidence when you see everyone else married and you’re the only single parent at an event? How can you be confident when everything you worked for in life gets taken away? Or if you were born into shitty circumstances? How do you feel confident during your lowest lows?

We reach a new level of consciousness when we develop an observing ego that can examine feelings with perspective and objectivity, and in turn help us organize and compartmentalize our feelings. We may not be able to change the intensity of how we feel, but we know what to do. We know when to feel our feelings, how to respond to them, and also when it is time to let them go.

Letting go is important.

We can’t stop feelings. The only thing we can do is identify what they are teaching us and use that knowledge to make us stronger. They aren’t a sign of weakness. They are a sign of living.

When I finally met someone who I really liked this past summer, it was difficult when I had to embrace the realization that the relationship would have to end– no matter how much I wanted it to work, and how much I liked this person. The circumstances were such that it wouldn’t be a healthy situation for any of us. The timing wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to drag it on. I was only able to make this decision with the confidence gained from my personal journey. 20-something me would have kept it lingering. 30-something me had too much invested in her journey and too much faith that she deserved something better.

Experience and confidence did not make me feel any less sad, lonely, depressed, angry, or remorseful about the decision. I felt like garbage for a solid three weeks. But I knew I could survive, because I had already survived three hard years as a widow, and I had faith in my ability to persevere. I knew I could move forward. I knew I would move forward. I trusted that there would be more opportunities. This strength came from surviving my lowest lows.

As a 20-something, I had no confidence in my personal journey. I couldn’t see beyond the immediacy of a particular feeling in a specific moment. I was scared of loss. I was scared of pain. I clung to the notion of a happily-ever-after, all or nothing.

Now I know from experience that pain and loss and joy and happiness are all interconnected. We are meant to embrace it all during this journey called life. The only other option is to resist and have more suffering, and I refuse to accept that.

I have spent a lot of time analyzing who I am. It has helped me embrace what I am not.

I know that I am a highly sensitive person. I am all-in or all-out, but the interim and transitions can be excruciatingly painful for me because of my propensity to feel every little thing and over-analyze situations.

I used to hate myself for being this way. Now I feel like it is one of my greatest assets if strategically harnessed.

I have learned to trust myself. I have faith in my ability to survive. I lean on my track record of surviving 100% of my former problems in life. This journey– on this heavily treaded path– has been forged with my own two feet. Those feet move with a stubborn determination to live well with what I have right now, yet still reaching for better– a balancing act between gratitude and aspiration.

I keep moving. I wallow. I might wallow more than most. But then I make myself get up and move.

This forward motion has saved me.

I may never love my abs, my floundering chess skills, or the fact that I am a 37-year-old widowed single mother who still hasn’t found another suitable partner. HOWEVER, I absolutely know what I bring to the table. I know how I show up to the world. I know what I am working towards.

I have confidence in my journey, even though I do not fully understand it, nor can I fully conceptualize it.

But it’s my journey.

I don’t need permission to be here– the universe gave it to me at my birth.

I have worked on being able to love this journey. The good, the bad, the ugly, the unforeseen, the pleasant discoveries, and even the misdirection and pain. All of it.

Brene Brown said, “You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”

Either way, we have to choose.

 

Handling Uncertainty

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I wish someone had told me in kindergarten that the key to handling life is found in how we react to uncertainty. How we handle our anxiety about an unknown future.

It would have also been helpful if they taught us that there is no such thing as happily-ever-after, uncertainty will never stop happening, and disappointment and starting over will happen more times than you will ever want.

Maybe that would have been a little heavy for a 5-year-old, but why sugarcoat reality and inflate our expectations?

The more I experience the rougher parts of life, the more I wish I had started building my resilience sooner.

And yet there were unintentional things I did as a child that has helped me with my resilience today. One of those things is journaling.

Recently finding myself wallowing in my own uncertainty, I leaned on my journaling to help reclaim perspective. I was going to write an essay about the topic, but I decided to share the brainstorm I did in my journal, as well as others. This is a tried and true trick I constantly use to pull myself from the “shut down” reaction when something goes wrong in life, to moving myself (sometimes dragging myself) to embracing a strategic approach on my battlefield.

You don’t necessarily need to keep a journal if that’s not your thing, but I like being able to go back and cringe at the thoughts I had ten years ago, or even ten days ago.

I’ll leave you with this: it’s difficult to continue feeling terrible in life when you have a plan.

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I do monthly intentions. I’m not an artist, but I don’t care. I do it anyway! (Unicorn added by my 6-year-old daughter.)

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I love to collect quotes that resonate.

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An example of a brain dump I did in July. It was helpful when in August I took action on the Kyle part of this mind map, and having written it down several weeks before, I knew the feelings did not come out of thin air.

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I learn new ideas and/or ways of thinking about things and write them down.

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In July I decided I wanted new protocol in my day, so this is my AM and PM protocol. Still using it! The “3 frogs” refers to “swallowing the frog.” I pick the 3 most important tasks to do for the day.

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I like to brainstorm with post-its. My daughter likes to help me decorate with stickers, and I have to say there is something happy about using stickers.

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I seriously have to put “watch tv” on my list of things to improve haha. I never take the time to slow down and relax.

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These were just a few ideas that I use on a regular basis. The main thing I’ve learned to accept is that my ideas, lists, goals, areas to improve, focus, etc are constantly evolving. I embrace that. Sometimes I really need to lean on journaling, and other times I do not.

I use the Gratitude app on my phone to list what I am grateful for everyday, but I do try to write about good things in my journal as well. When my husband passed away and I went through his journals and my journals, I realized we both tended to focus a lot on documenting our gripes. I think it’s a natural human tendency. We want to vent. It takes intentionality to pause and review what is good in your life. Since then, I try to also document what is going well.

Starting Over

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I was 11 weeks into seeing this guy who I really, really liked. I loved his kids. Our kids loved each other. My kids liked him. We had fun together. It was the first time I liked someone enough to start fading them into the melting pot of my domestic life, and while it was crazy having 5 kids at the dinner table and watching the frenzy of children on bikes riding around my cul-de-sac with the dorky “Kids at Play” sign at the end of the street, I thought it was something I could definitely get used to.

I realized you could really, really like someone and still notice the red flags. I lacked this ability in my 20s. Or if I saw them, I certainly ignored them. That led to a cascade of painful experiences I could have circumvented. Now a widow in my 30s (with more clarity and experience), I expect myself to freaking heed those red flags. If not for me, at least for my children’s sake.

That’s the thing. With children, everything weighs more. Concerns and fears and what-ifs sit like boulders in the pit of my stomach while I dither over decisions that will impact the household. I’m their only parent and they trust me unconditionally. I do not take that role lightly. I also know how limited and precious our time on this earth is, and I want to make sure I maximize my own experiences.

It just wasn’t going to work with this guy and his current circumstances. Those wonderful 11 weeks came to a screeching halt.

I am still bummed out about it. I loved his kids, truly, in a would-give-them-the-shirt-off-my-back kind of way. My son told me that the guy was “so nice to us, he was never fake nice.”  My little one told me tonight, “Can’t you just like him a little bit?” It sucks to let yourself get invested for what feels like nothing.

I am a ruminator. I go over details again and again and try to analyze whether it was the correct decision.

Should I have kept my mouth shut and just enjoyed the fun we were having? Should I have pretended those red flags did not exist? Should I have given it more time? Am I overreacting? Am I making up concern where there shouldn’t be?

Ultimately it ate away at me. I felt that I might be steering my ship (the one with me and three small children onboard) toward a situation in which I would continue to get invested and the circumstances would indefinitely be unresolved. I was scared there would be a lot of people with hurt feelings. I did not feel secure in the relationship, and I worried I was maybe wasting my time. Whether that was true or not is probably up for debate, but it’s how I felt, even when I was also feeling simultaneously very happy with him.

But that’s the thing.

How do we know if we are wasting our time? How do we know hurt feelings weren’t worth the risk? How do we set aside our concerns to allow ourselves to just be happy? Where is the line drawn?

It’s one of those things we can’t fully know ahead of time. It’s all a gamble.

And I am a terrible risk-taker.

So here I sit with my decision, not sure if it was a good one, mostly confident it was the practical one, but still feeling crappy about it. It doesn’t feel good to end things with a person you actually really liked.

But is “really like” enough?

I learned in my marriage to my late husband that no, it’s not. You need to really like a person AND feel secure in the relationship. That takes solid communication and the ability to follow through with action.

I keep telling myself that I can’t be afraid to start over. Start from scratch. Back to square one.

THIS is really what we fear the most.

Starting over.

Sure, we miss the individual. But it’s so much bigger than that. It’s having to confront the daunting task of letting everything go and doing it all over again from ground zero, even when it hurts. Even when it hurts so much you just want to go crawling back to the safety of what once was.

It also opens up other cans of worms. Like, maybe there is something defective about me? Or maybe I’m just not the type of person who deserves to find someone? Or…or…or??

I remember going through all of that when my husband unexpectedly died. I distinctly remember thinking: holy shit, I’m single. What do I do with that? You get in the habit of wearing yoga pants all of the time and not caring what you look like first thing in the morning next to him, and you just take it for granted that this kind of comfort will always exist.

Until it’s gone. The security evaporates, and out comes the mean voice inside your head that tries to convince you that everything is hopeless and dire and that you will never deserve to be happy again. Maybe you will never find someone else. Maybe that is the card you drew in life. Maybe you should resign yourself to unhappiness.

And you start to get scared. You begin to guard your heart more fiercely. It’s hard to know when to risk allowing yourself to let your guard down.

Kenneth’s death shoved me into the deep end of that kind of insecurity. I’m still learning how to swim. But I know that I can swim. I didn’t sink.

And I won’t sink this time either.

You can know something but still feel sad about it. I know I will most likely meet someone really cool who will effortlessly slide into a relationship with me and I will trust him. I know one day I will be so happy it will feel like I discovered a new kind of happiness that I had never tasted before.

I can start over.

I will start over.

In anything that I do: relationships, work, projects, ideas, adventures, learning. I can start over. I have that resilience. I can start over even when it is scary as hell, and not only will I start over but I will do it better than before.

We stupid humans get attached to possibility. We let our expectations run rampant. When life doesn’t go as planned, we don’t know what to do with that disappointment and we tend to wallow in our anxiety when we are forced into a place of pain. We want to cling to the version of what was supposed to happen in our heads because that was the safe version.

I am in the process of detaching.

I am telling myself the story of how much I deserve to be happy. I will tell myself this story until I fully believe it. It might always be a work-in-progress.

Those short 11 weeks that I spent with the guy were some of the happiest summer weeks I have had in a long time. It gives me hope that there are more happy days and weeks and years in my future.

But first, back to square one.

I’m ready for it.

The Recital of Life

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Photo Credit: Pixabay 

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

Why was I nervous?

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

Fine.

I’m still fine.

Mom, I’m fine.

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

Nothing like me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so interesting, I thought.

Recitals.

Places of vulnerability.

How we respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the thing.

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

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

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

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

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

But humans aren’t irreparable.

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

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

It’s not about being fearless.

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

Practicing.

Learning.

Making adjustments.

Building resilience.

Getting better each time.

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

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

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

What if we stopped hiding this about ourselves?

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

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

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

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

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

Loving kindness.

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

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

 

Me and My Expectations

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

Fast forward to 2019, 11.5 years later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

He didn’t say the right things.

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

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

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

It wasn’t romantic enough.

There was no ring.

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

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

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

Not the fairy tale I imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you can cry about it.

Stare at it in disbelief.

Feel the despair of hopelessness.

Depression.

Anger.

Resentment.

Guilt.

Sadness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, that was amazing to me.

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

I’m 37.

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

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

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

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

Life is constant erosion and regrowth and erosion and regrowth.

It isn’t good or bad.

It isn’t happy or sad.

It’s all of it.

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

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

Have expectations, but learn when to let them go.

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

The Third Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve lived this way for three years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I am not the same person anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From your own personal wreckage you can gain newfound clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three years later: do I miss my husband?

Yes and no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve found myself grow softer through this experience.

I’ve seen myself become stronger.

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

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

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

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

I’ve redefined my boundaries.

I’ve gotten closer to my children.

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

I’ve been focusing on my own personal growth.

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

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

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

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

Our love is not a zero-sum game.

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

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

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

This is three years later.

***

A Dream Within a Dream

BY EDGAR ALLAN POE

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

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

I am a Crumpled Paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the price we pay for being alive.

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

This would be our thoughts.

What we think.

Our interpretation.

What we focus on.

Our hopes and dreams and desires.

Beliefs.

The way we internalize what happens to us.

What we do with information.

How we digest life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can rein in our negative self-talk.

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

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

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

We can use our thoughts to stop feeling guilty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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