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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Photo by Voicu Oara on Pexels.com

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.

Wear the Coffee Pants

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We squeezed in two international trips as an intact family before my husband died. I have memories of my oldest son playing with the sailboats in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris with my overprotective husband hovering nearby. We sipped wine in the evenings at a sidewalk cafe. My son lost his stuffed animal in the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore across the street from the Notre Dame. My husband jogged there and back to retrieve the green turtle from where it had been accidentally left behind on a shelf of books. Those memories will always be emblazoned in my mind–one of the few things that can not be taken away from me.

When Kenneth passed away, we were a few weeks away from a trip to Germany. My three children were all six and under in age–the youngest still a nursing baby. I had to use the non-refundable plane tickets and went anyway, even though my grief was raw and it felt as if I were emotionally hemorrhaging. That trip marked one of the first big things I would do in our new family configuration. My first practice in the art of moving on with my life.

People ask me why I travel with the children. They question my motives as if I am doing something reckless. I get asked about the costs, as if nobody has ever heard of budget priorities. They wonder how I can possibly enjoy myself. I’ve been told more than once that my children will never remember these trips. I also have people who say they love that we travel and wish they were brave enough to do it, and some of them do.

When I was younger, my goal was to travel as much as I could before starting a family. Domestic life appeared to be a big black hole where people disappeared into once they “settled down.” I assumed you traded in your traveling cards for motherhood, and that the two didn’t coexist. Hence my plan to take advantage of my freedom while I still could. I crammed in a respectable amount of travel into those single and pre-kid years, walking on the Great Wall of China, crying in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, gazing up at the Sistine Chapel, sleeping in overcrowded hostels and seeing many new places. I had no regrets.

I finally experienced the mythical black hole of domesticity when I got married, but it came in the form of a mortgage and daycare expense. For seven years we did not go anywhere, and year-after-year I felt the unhappiness and discontent grow and expand inside of me despite also feeling generally happy and fulfilled as a mother. Both feelings coexisted even though I spent my entire life believing there was no room for both.

I am glad that I nagged my husband until he finally agreed that traveling was just as important as our retirement accounts and emergency funds. We would have never had the two trips to remember if he didn’t. When I watched him take his last breath, in that final exhale I also saw all of the missed opportunities that he would never experience leave his body too.

I continue to travel. I choose to travel while I am still young and healthy and alive. I go to as many places as I can, and most of the times with my children.

Traveling is a great experience as a family. Being away from home, disconnected from the daily grind and housework and neverending obligations–this is a freeing place to be with your children. It is an opportunity to be in the present moment, focusing only on basic needs and pleasure. Having time to read and talk and meander. To see the world with beginner’s eyes–something the children always do, and now you can share it with them, together. Dealing with the uncertainty of a new place. Packing. Carrying luggage. Time schedules. Transportation. Deciphering where to go, what to say, what to do. Asking for help. Getting the children involved in these necessities.

People stare at me as a single mother with three young children. They ask if my half-Asian children are really mine. I am regularly reminded of my dead husband when I see the other intact families and couples together. I continue to struggle with these reminders, even when I’ve consciously decided to accept my reality and move on. Solo parenting is hard. Parenting is hard. Having young children is hard.

What I’ve found is that the tediousness of parenthood exists whether you are at home or abroad. It exists whether your are married or single. Life is tedious and hard and good and bad and everything in between, but these are all true in any situation. Single parenthood is grueling, but I wasn’t going to let it derail my traveling. If motherhood wasn’t going to stop me, I couldn’t let widowhood either. Sometimes you have to claw your way to happiness.

We were at the airport this past summer, about to fly home. I was running on four hours of sleep. When we finally got through the security and check-in rigmarole, I settled the kids down at a table with breakfast and drinks and their tablets so they could implode into Netflix and I could have a moment to drink my coffee. My oldest son offered to take a picture of me, and since there are so few photos with me in them, I agreed. When I decided that I didn’t look like roadkill in the photo, I decided to post it on social media and began to type a caption for the post. Everything was going great.

Until two seconds later when my toddler accidentally knocked the coffee into my lap, mid Instagram-caption-writing. My pants were soaked. I was about to board a 17-hour-flight home, and while I had spare pants in my backpack, they were for the toddler.

I deleted the caption. All was not well anymore.

I wiped up the coffee. Bought another one. Sat down for my second attempt at having a moment to myself, and then I took a deep breath.

The reality was that I would have wet pants wherever I was. This kind of stuff happens all of the time. Daily. Sometimes hourly.

I had a choice though. I could stay home with wet pants, or I could seek out new adventures abroad with wet pants. It could be hard at home, or it could be hard in a foreign country with cool things to see and experience.

We often can not avoid the coffee pants, but we can decide what to do while wearing them.

When you travel with children, there will be meltdowns. You can expect it. You can write off being able to go clubbing at night or doing anything wild and impetuous. The children will require naps and full bellies and sometimes they will whine. Let’s be honest–there will be a lot of whining, and sometimes they won’t be the only ones doing it. A trip to the museum might turn into a drive-by visit that involves lingering near the water fountain and telling the kids to stop touching the water. Anything is possible, but most of the time it will be manageable chaos. Most of the time.

There will be amazing moments too. The expression on your son’s face when he gets to see a rare opal in Sydney. Everyone’s joy at a savory meal in Italy. Swimming in the warm Mediterranean Sea. Walking barefoot across the cold wooden floors of a temple in Kyoto on New Year’s Eve. The memories and pictures that will keep you forever anchored in those experiences.

I want my children to know that there isn’t one definitive way to live. I want them to identify suffering with their own eyes. I also want them to know that there is more good than bad in the world, and to understand that kindness is found in different languages and cultures and food and traditions. I want my children to realize that they can choose to be a part of the love that exists in humanity. This is why I think traveling is so important.

Our years are too few. Time is fleeting. I learned the hard way that the future is brutally uncertain, and we have to deal with a lot that is beyond our control. But we also get to make choices, and this is where we have power. We can live our best lives even with coffee pants. Best doesn’t mean “without pain.” There will be many bumps in the road. But, the trip and the scenery will be worth it. We just have to choose to do it.

 

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A New Season

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Photo by le vy on Pexels.com

When someone who you love dies, especially when that person was an integral part of your day-to-day life, something about the world shifts in ways beyond the actual loss. Sure, you miss the person. Sometimes you miss them so fiercely that the loss feels impossibly crushing and the future hopelessly long and empty without them. There are logistical things that you might miss too. A warm body next to you. Someone to do the dishes and pick-up the kids from school. Your Netflix buddy. I think those are all of the things you would expect to miss and feel.

But that’s not the shift I am talking about.

Grief moves something bigger inside of you. It carves into your soul. It changes your thinking and feelings and every fiber of your being. This movement permanently alters the way you live in this world.

Time feels like it passes faster than ever for me. The moments stitched together to make the tapestry of my days and weeks and years have become more precious than I would have expected in my previous life. I am hyper-aware that tomorrow might not happen. Sometimes I am terrified by this fact. Nostalgia oozes out of me. An understanding of an impermanent world makes me cling to the things I overlooked in my previous life. A simple trip to the grocery store might trigger my emotions, because you know, what an amazing opportunity that I can be at that grocery store, touching food that I am about to buy to share with my family, and what if this opportunity doesn’t exist tomorrow? 

New feelings emerge in this Great Shift. I can feel simultaneously sad and also immense joy and appreciation all in the same moment. In my previous life these two feelings would have never coexisted, but this is my new reality. There is no one without the other. Things are always good and bad. I guess you can say everything is bittersweet. Bittersweet is better than terrible. I don’t question it; I take bittersweet and all of its contradictions because if tomorrow is not a promise, then I want to collect whatever opportunities present themselves. I have become a hoarder of life’s mundane and exciting and everything-in-between moments. 

Change is hard for a grieving person. Change and the passage of time come hand-in-hand. Nothing stays the same. Change is evidence of a world that is different from the one you shared with your lost loved one. Change is everyone and everything moving on without your person. A new season. Bittersweet. You welcome it and cry about it. There’s nothing else you can do. You certainly can’t stop it.

I used to partake in the usual “Uuuughh I don’t want to go back to school,” grumbling with my husband (we were both teachers). We did our fair share of summer countdowns. And winter break countdowns. And “Is it Friday yet?” whining.

This doesn’t happen after the Great Shift. Another weekend is one more weekend that places me further away from the moment when my husband died. The passage of time makes my life with him feel less real and more of a distant memory. The reality we shared together seems like a fading dream that maybe never happened. Was it real? I don’t know. Your brain plays tricks on you. Another summer means I am getting further and further away from that old reality. This year was our third summer without him. The numbers stack up. One day, if I am lucky to live a long life, I will wake up and it will have been 20 or 30 or 40 summers ago, and will I even remember him at that point? The idea of a person is very different than an actual person. Things change. Memories fade. Time has a way of distorting facts and altering our consciousness. These numbers are a reminder of the growing distance that stretch and expand and isolate us in the most numbing ways. Numbers hurt. Who am I without that previous reality?

The Great Shift gives you no choice but to view the world differently. Changing seasons can’t be dreaded. We have to welcome the opportunity to live in a new season. It’s now or never. We have to enjoy right now, precisely because we don’t know what our tomorrows will look like. In the end, the only thing we are guaranteed is what we have in the moment. When you truly internalize this truth, you can’t help but become a different person.

The kids and I had a great summer, jam-packed with the things that we love to do. Traveling. Lots of traveling. We pet kangaroos in Australia and swam in the Mediterranean in Israel. We went horseback riding in Northern California and I caught up with domestic tasks like re-doing my filing system and getting some beautifying projects done around the house in the few weeks that we were actually home. Our summer cup of living was full. Overflowing, even.

I am happy that I strategically traveled a lot in my pre-kids, pre-marriage days. I am equally happy and proud that we managed to do a few trips as an intact family with my late husband, and that I have continued to travel as a widow and single mother. I often go back and forth with myself about budget priorities, wondering if I should ease off the traveling schedule and maybe travel less and save more. I often conclude that both are important. Maybe I’m foolish, but I think my traveling is a little more of a priority. There are certain things in my life that I have felt an urgency to pursue with a strong feeling that I am running out of time. Traveling is one of them. Even more so after Kenneth died. My gut feeling tells me that I need to do it while I can. I watched my husband take his last breath, and with that final exhale all of the lost opportunities dissipating into a world that would eventually forget him. I know what I am doing. I have to trust what I feel.

The end of this summer did not make me feel sad. School is back in session, and we are gradually easing into our new-old routines of schedules and lunch-packing and bedtimes and commutes and what we typically refer to as the “daily grind.” Yes, it can be tiring. Tedious. But I like the changing seasons. The new challenges and even the growing pains–all of which make me feel alive. It helps me appreciate my vacation time. When I am at work all day, the opportunity to eat dinner with my children in the evening is sacred. I want to savor their childhoods. I want to cling to the details of what we are going through each day. Our time together is limited and precious. That’s what changing seasons and life are really about: scarcity. We don’t have an infinite number of days and weeks and months. Could this be my last school year? My last winter? My last summer? Maybe I’ll have many more. Maybe I will have more than I ever need. But I will never be able to re-do this year with a third grader and a kindergartner and a chubby preschooler. I have one shot at it.  I’m running out of time with the things that I have right now. This is what matters.

That’s where I am at right now. Busy running a large household and working and living. Happy to do it. Sometimes cursing the late husband for leaving me in this situation, but on most days always hovering somewhere between sadness and joy, and acutely aware that everything can be much worse in a split second, so I hold my breath and try to be grateful. 

Before I know it, we’ll be on an airplane going to our next summer destination. Sometimes it literally feels like a blink of an eye and the season has changed. But for right now, I work on my fall and winter bucket lists and goals. Halloween costumes. Christmas plans. Family movie nights on Fridays. Making pancakes for the kids before temple on Sundays. Little bodies pressed against me at night in my giant bed, wondering when they’ll start sleeping in their own rooms, but knowing that their desire to be with me will wane. Taking big, deep breaths when the world feels too difficult. This won’t last forever, and that realization is so brutally bittersweet.