The Rest of Your Life to Get There

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Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

We were in the middle of a long drive back to L.A. from northern California, somewhere just past the windmills near Tracey, having finally broken free from an epic traffic jam we had gotten caught up in getting out of the Bay Area. Now we were driving on what felt like an endless road that cut through neverending acres of crops and orchards, golden rolling hills in every direction, and a bright sun against a clear blue sky. The car windows were hot to touch; my AC blasted cold air into our faces and we sipped our cans of Spindrift sparkling water for something to do and played our music too loud, alternating between our favorites: Grateful Dead (my middle-of-nowhere music of choice), Fifth Harmony (Ellie’s), Simple Minds (Peter’s), and Ethan interrupting to share facts about gems from the book he was reading, pissing off his siblings every time I had to turn the volume down to hear what he wanted to say.

In the midst of what turned out to be a 9 hour drive home, I couldn’t help but notice how it felt like I was driving backwards. I try to be a mindful driver and leave a safe gap between me and the car in front. I’m not a granny driver by any means, but on the 5 freeway it is easy to feel that way with the number of cars that pass you doing about 100 mph. It’s always the same, too. The same recklessness. So much so that after a while you start to not take it personally even though they put your life in jeopardy. They do it to everyone, and many people do it. You begin to assume that there is something psychological about the other drivers’ impulse to pass cars, like the way a dog on a leash pulls to get ahead of other dogs, always wanting to be ahead of the pack. It’s primitive, and yet prevalent. The car behind you tailgates your vehicle, and then they zip over to the right lane to pass you. Inevitably they will then realize (somehow only after the lane change) that there is a big rig going much slower in that lane. But they are determined to get ahead at any costs, so instead of going back to where they were, they will squeeze between you and the car in front of you, despite the fact that there is no room. You then have to put on your brakes to accommodate their lack of impulse control, and hence the feeling that you are going backwards. It happens again and again and again.

I always feel angry that these people are putting us–my family–in jeopardy. I’ve heard too many stories about the gnarly accidents that happen on this drive. Entire families wiped out. A few weeks ago on the East Coast, an entire family except for the mother died in one car accident. I don’t know how I would continue living in that situation. Also, I’ve experienced the death of somebody close due to a car accident. It’s not fun reading the details of a police report that has eyewitness statements about a body flying through the windshield and a faint pulse when the person was found bleeding on the asphalt, but no signs of life when the paramedics arrived. Maybe that’s why I am particularly cautious about all of this.

During my road-trip-driving-vigilance, lost in my thoughts as the music blasted and the kids faded in and out of sleep, I remembered something my father told my siblings and me when we first started driving: you have the rest of your life to get there.

We used to think that saying was pretty hokey, especially coming from my dad. The homespun wisdom of Dear Old Dad.

But as the sun faded into the western horizon and darkness swept across the expanse of farmland on either side of the freeway and I passed signs showing that L.A. was getting closer, I mulled over those words. The rest of my life to get there. Not just in an actual driving sense, but existentially.

I am not in a rush. But I am in a rush. Why?

I used to think of “the rest of my life to get there” as being slow–deliberately slow. Dawdling, even. Like how my dad chooses to go the long way to every place he goes, no matter how many times we tell him there are faster routes.

In driving there are inherent dangers related to speeding and weaving in and out of traffic. It must also suck to live a life of stress to the point of feeling the need to race from Point A to Point B and not being able to enjoy your drive, listening to your music, noticing the lines of sunflowers that had been planted near the almond groves. What a way to live.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in dawdling and doing nothing too. Not in a physical sense, but at the risk of wasting your life. I balk at dawdling. Being aimless in my direction. It has always felt unacceptable to me. I perpetually feel like I’m running out of time and being productive makes me happy.

But maybe I wasn’t interpreting “the rest of your life to get there” appropriately.

Realizing that you have the rest of your life to get to a destination is somewhere between dawdling and racing, I think. It’s remembering the middle ground, being safe with oneself but still forward-moving and focused, and mindful to enjoy the journey.

There have been so many times when I’ve felt like I was failing in something. Not moving fast enough toward a goal. Not good enough. Falling short.

What if you told yourself, “Take a deep breath. You have the rest of your life to get there.” And maybe that simple phrase can alleviate stress and pressure and possibly free you to move forward with less obstacles.

Moving along at a pace that is right for you, enjoying the process and journey, without beating yourself up and going at a speed that is unsafe.

We have our favorite gas station on these road trips, and one is just past the grapevine on our way to Northern California. The kids know where the gas station keeps their display of Beanie Babies. They are allowed to choose one to purchase. They play with their beloved animal throughout the entire trip like they are the most special toys they’ve ever had. A koala for Ethan. A cat for Ellie. A dog for Peter. The kids go swimming with these “babies.” The toys get thrown around in the dirt and then washed off and dried and taken along for hikes and they sleep next to the kids each night. They are the sole object of each kids’ affection on vacation. But when we get home, the poor toys inevitably get thrown onto the heap of other toys that had once been sacred and precious at some earlier time too. Just like most things in our lives– amazing and then mundane. Everything in life is fleeting and impermanent. Immensely important one day, and buried and forgotten the next.

I know the rest stops and gas stations and fast food places and landmarks all too well on these road trips. I used to make the long haul every other weekend with Kenneth in the early years of our relationship. We would visit his son who lived 8 hours away. The long stretches of freeway and cow farms and orchards and slow-moving trucks hauling mounds of red tomatoes. There were hours and hours of conversation, usually something political or philosophical or about self-help. Kenneth’s favorite snack to buy was corn nuts, and he had his favorite Subways that he liked to patronize. Even though I enjoyed the time we had to engage in long conversations, I resented having to go on those trips, and having those trips lock us into rigid monthly schedules. Now, when I think back on that time that we had together pre-children and pre-his death, the memories feel fond and sacred. Those times went too fast. Our time wasn’t enough. Always too short–even when they feel long and stretched and laborious in the moment. I remember the homeless Korean war vet who set up near the fast food restaurants with his tent and signs. I remember running into a student at a rest stop just past Tracey. I can hear Kenneth’s voice, deep and pontificating about something important, maybe politics or school or both. His collection of CDs. I can hear Strawberry Switchblade playing or Francoise Hardy. I can see his black travel backpack where he always kept multiple flash drives in the front pocket, a first aid kit, a toy for his son, and a book he would have written notes all over.

I wish I could go back in time and tell that version of me to stop worrying about the things I needed to do next, and to just enjoy the moment. I had “the rest of my life to get there.” Yet I spent much of the time fretting about something or another. You race through time only to hit the wall of death, and then what? There is no rewind button in life. You get to experience time once.

And we have no idea how much time we have.

We don’t even exactly know where we are going. There is a fuzzy image in our head of what the road looks like in front of us, but we never really know until we drive past it. Where do we think we’re going?

Nobody knows.

The only thing we know for sure is that we have the rest of our lives to get there.

Whatever “the rest of our life” may be.

We might as well enjoy what time we have, as it happens.

Child of the World

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Growing up, I felt like I was caught in no-man’s land being half Palestinian (“Pal-a-what?” my classmates would say) and half “white” on my dad’s side. On the one hand I lived a typical white American life. Most paperwork that required demographic information placed me in the Caucasian category, but it never adequately described my identity. I had a grandmother who I called “Teta.” She made us Arabic food and called me “habibete”(sweetheart) and told me “yallah” (hurry) when I wasn’t eating her rolled grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice fast enough. My mom’s name is Halla, and she spent her childhood in another country, which was different from all of my friends’ moms, even though by the time my mom had me in her early twenties there was no trace of her former accent. Sometimes my mom made us lebani and zaater sandwiches in a pita bread for lunch, and classmates questioned what we were eating. There was always something slightly less “white” about me. I was in Ohio once visiting my dad’s family when somebody told me that I looked “exotic.” Of course. I had brown hair and olive skin in a sea of blonde heads and translucent white skin. I wasn’t that kind of Caucasian.

I usually embraced the different worlds I dwelled in. I could go in and out of those worlds whenever I pleased. I wasn’t constrained by traditions and rules; I got to pick and choose what I liked and followed, almost like a buffet table. This seemed better than being forced to adhere to the norms of a single tradition. It was definitely more interesting, even though I didn’t know anyone with my same no-man’s land predicament.

It wasn’t until I got married when I realized the extent of the no-man’s land I was in. I married a Japanese-American man. We didn’t fit in with my Arab relatives in terms of language or religion or smoking cigarettes in the garage over games of backgammon and strong coffee and a bowl of nuts. We also didn’t fit in completely with white people who generally still didn’t marry non-whites.  I became more aware than ever that I had spent my life with a leg on either side of a doorway, and when I married somebody who wasn’t white and who wasn’t Arab, I seemed to push myself further into that no-man’s land, taking my legs out of both sides.

In Israel, I am reminded of that no-man’s land. This is a place of no-man’s land. It touches upon the feelings of not relating to anyone in the dichotomy of my cultural and ethnic identity. How can this be the place of half of my Palestinian heritage, but the street names are all in Hebrew? The flag has a Jewish star and as we speak the government is back at it in Gaza, the people often referring to their ongoing issue as “mowing the lawn.” Cutting down weeds, essentially. Palestinians are weeds to them. They don’t belong. But this is my family’s homeland. How can that be reconciled?

I feel a connection to my family’s homeland, and yet it is not mine to claim since I have never lived here. Also, Palestinians don’t get free birthright trips like Jewish people. Somebody who can not even claim a single generation of family in Israel but is Jewish is considered to belong here more than my long-line of Palestinian ancestry. While I feel something special about the streets that my mother and grandparents and great-grandparents and beyond called home, there is also disconnection.

In the U.S., it is my home in every way, the place of my citizenship, my homeland, and yet sometimes I can feel like a mismatched puzzle piece over there too, never fitting in with the Arab-American crowd (as evidenced by my sheer terror whenever Arabic dancing is required at a party), and not able to relate to anyone who burns in the sun and had hair that turned green in swimming pools as a child.  

I am “American.” But this has always been a poor descriptor of who I am. Even as a child, the label never quite fit. I would ask my friends what their ethnicity was and they would often shrug and say, “American” or “white.” Just white. The alarming thing was that most of them never seemed to have the urge to know more. Either “just white” was good enough, or they believed the stories passed down to them about their origins. But mostly they were satisfied with not knowing.

Last year I took a genetic test. I expected my results to be straightforward. I hoped for a scandal though, like a long-lost relative or something. Instead, I got interesting insight about my genetic history. I expected to be 50% Palestinian/Middle Eastern, 12.5% Irish, and the rest German. At least that was what I should’ve been based on the stories passed down to me. My results came back showing almost no German, a teeny tiny pinch of Irish (despite an Irish maiden name), 14% Middle Eastern, and other random things like Balkan and even 0.1% Ashkenazi Jew. A hodgepodge of various European countries and a dash of Middle Eastern. The majority of my genes registered as Italian.

Italian. Never in my life did I think I had even a drop of Italian in me. That probably explains why I have traveled four times to Italy, and each time felt something tug at me–a connection–similar to how I felt when I drove into my grandmother’s hometown of Nazareth. It makes sense, the Italian thing, being connected by the Mediterranean Sea.

But what does any of this mean?

It is disheartening and frustrating to hear disparaging remarks in the U.S. about immigrants and refugees. The racism isn’t even masked anymore; the level of historical amnesia is infuriating. We have too many people in the U.S. who consciously and unconsciously feel inherently better than others because their cosmic roll of the dice landed them U.S. citizenship, most of the time by no effort of their own. They might point out that their ancestors immigrated legally, but when pressed about their origins, they shrug and claim to be “just white” as if that was their ticket into the land of the free (it probably was), or they might proudly inform you that they descended from a noble line tracing back to the Mayflower. Except, the pilgrims most certainly did not have a visa to enter North America when they claimed to break bread with the Native Americans.

People overlook these details though.

The “American” label is supposed to be a melting pot of every variety of human, but let’s not pretend to not know that most people consider “real American” to be white.

I wish we lived in a world where citizenship was where we paid taxes and spent our societal investment–like a Costco membership–rather than an exclusive club from which brown people aren’t welcomed.

Because you see, really, the confusion I have felt about being in the no-man’s land of cultural and ethnic identity is how I feel about existence in this world in general.

I belong everywhere, and nowhere.

I am a citizen of the world. That is what I feel. But legally, on paper, there is no such thing.

I am Italian in my DNA, but Italy won’t give me citizenship.

My 0.1% Ashkenazi Jewish heritage isn’t going to qualify me for Right of Return privileges.

I qualify for Israeli citizenship through my mother, but it is not where I want to pay my societal dues.

I am a U.S. citizen, but I don’t identify as “just white.”

I belong everywhere, and nowhere.

My children, half Japanese, half a lot of other things, are not yet confused by their mixed identities. They think I am Japanese too. The thought does not occur to them that our eyes do not look the same. They have traveled rather extensively for their ages and have seen people in various countries, ranging from Mexico to Denmark to Japan to Israel to Italy to Australia and more. We live in a diverse city and they go to a diverse school. It never occurs to them to notice how people look. To them, everyone is a human. What a gift children have, having the inability to sort other humans by color and religion and other labels that dehumanize.  

How nice it would be if everyone belonged everywhere and nowhere.

If we could see each other as purely as our children do.

If there was no such thing as a no-man’s land in identity.

If we were all just children of the world.

 

The Day I Started Quoting Chicago Songs

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I was feeling pretty defeated by Friday night. I went to bed, telling my Google assistant to play “Clair de Lune” as I slid beneath the covers, every ounce of my body exhausted, my mental energy eviscerated. You know you’re pathetic when you fall asleep to your late husband’s funeral music.

A barrage of sad thoughts did a landslide over my consciousness this past week. I’ve been mulling around in this state of mind for the last several days. I don’t always know what exactly triggers it, but it comes, like waves. These are baby waves compared to what I’ve experienced in the last two years. I can handle them. But they are still there.

Maybe it was the Fourth of July. I find holidays are difficult. I was remembering that time we were in our backyard together, bbq-ing, watching the kids splash around in their kiddie pool, our flag flapping around in a cool July breeze, all of us completely oblivious that everything would change by the next Fourth of July. Holidays are for families. Even in the best of mental circumstances, they manage to set off my triggers. It isn’t as traumatizing as the first couple of holidays as a widow and single mother, but there’s still a nagging void. Even listening to the stupid fireworks go off for hours. Those things are meant to be experienced together; they are supposed to represent joyful times, celebration, and happiness. Instead, they remind me of my exile.

I’ve been thinking about my upcoming trip to Israel. My late husband, Kenneth, wanted to bring Johnnie Walker to my cousins who hosted us for dinner when we visited four years ago. Kenneth was so impressed with the Arab hospitality that he vowed to bring back bottles as a thank you. I realized that I needed to buy some to pack and deliver to my cousins, from Kenneth. Since he couldn’t do it himself. And that made me sad. It’s just one of the many times I pause and think, shit, this is so unfair. Why did I have the shittiest cosmic roll of the dice? Why did Kenneth get this shitty fate? Why do I have to make these great trips alone now? Why am I stuck cleaning up the messes of three young children all day with no parental support? Why? Why? Why? Of course it never helps to go down this rabbit hole. It doesn’t fix anything. I vacillate between thinking it’s better to not think about it and that I should keep it all in, to believing it’s healthy to let it out every once in a while. Still, in the moment it feels gross. I give myself until the next morning to dwell in this emotional swamp, and then I cut myself off.

I was thinking about my visit with my grandma. My 94-year-old grandmother. How much longer will we have her? Each visit involves witnessing her age a little more. Loss of feeling in a finger. Slower moving. Walker-just-in-case. Definitely-need-the-walker-now. Tired. Losing weight.

I remember my grandparents coming to the courthouse during my senior year of high school to watch my Mock Trial competition. It feels like just yesterday, but also like maybe it never happened. Or maybe that’s me trying not to think about it too hard, because it hurts to remember memories that involve people who are no longer here.

I started visiting my grandparents almost 20 years ago when they moved back to California from Texas. Back then I was young, single, and a student. I would spend the night at their house and bring my homework along. My grandfather woke up early to buy orange juice and bagels for me, and he’d have it all sitting out on the kitchen table that my grandmother would later give me for my first apartment when she left that house after Grandpa passed.

I watched my grandfather pass away in his hospital room 13 years ago. My grandmother is the only grandparent I have left, and the thought occurred to me that perhaps I better start mentally preparing myself for the day when I won’t have a grandparent anymore, although I’m hoping Grandma is healthy and able to live much longer. I’m not ready for that yet. We’re never ready.

I remember visiting my grandmother with Kenneth. It was probably a lot to ask of my boyfriend (later my husband) to make the two hour trek each way to sit around chit chatting with my grandmother, but he did it dutifully. He would bring his magic set and do tricks for her. Disappearing coins. Mentalism tricks, where he would “read” her mind. She looked forward to them, and sometimes I felt like she enjoyed his visit more than my company. When he passed away, she was genuinely sad. I had never seen her sad before. Not even when we watched my grandfather pass away in that hospital room. We had visited her two days before Kenneth passed away. He had done tricks for her. He drove us home; we talked for two hours through L.A. traffic. It was an ordinary Sunday, and an ordinary visit with the family. Maybe my grandmother felt what I felt during that time: the odd realization that one day a person can be here, laughing, talking, performing magic tricks next to you, and the next day in the most unsuspecting second of our lives, that same person can be stone cold on a hospital bed. Just like that.

I guess I’m feeling a collision of emotions. Sadness that I’m about to go on another journey without Kenneth, to a place he wanted to go back to. Sadness that someday I won’t have any living grandparents. Sadness that life is so fleeting. Sad because Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now” is playing and it’s making me sad. I’m also sad that I’ve been reduced to being the kind of person who listens to Chicago outside of a department store.

Perhaps I should be grateful that I’m feeling this way. That I remember how impermanent life is. These feelings are still so close to my heart, and it makes me hyper-feely. It helps me live more fully. Through the pain, I can enjoy life with more depth and gratitude. Each blow in life is less crippling when we know what to expect. It’s not all bad, but it does ruin my Ice Queen reputation.

To make this post more terrible, I will end it by quoting a cheesy Chicago song:

When you love somebody
‘Til the end of time
When you love somebody
Always on my mind / No one needs you more than I
When you love somebody
‘Til the end of time
When you love somebody
Always on my mind / No one needs you more than I

To Be 19 Again

four person standing at top of grassy mountain
Photo by Helena Lopes

Recently I was thinking about young adulthood and had a few conversations about it. I guess I’ve been reflecting about that time and space of youth when I had feelings of uncertainty about my future, juxtaposed next to the similar but different circumstances I find myself in today.

Do you ever wonder why we spend our youth trying to get away from our parents, clawing our way to independence and privacy and the right to live however we want without shame or pressure or somebody else’s rules and worldview imposed on us, only to throw all of that freedom away by getting married and/or having children? Back to square one. It’s kind of weird, right?

I guess I didn’t think that through when I made the leap into domesticity.

Young adulthood: the period of time in your late-teens/early twenties when you lack gainful employment, a place of your own, overall life experience, and your brain is still developing. You have lots of free time and a general lack of responsibility, but you do not realize this, and therefore will probably squander it. Emotions are high and low. Everything feels like do or die–there is rarely middle ground. You are more impulsive. Unsure. Your time is spent sleeping like a vampire during the day and staying up all night, and you are often in a perpetual trance of boredom. Scarcity syndrome rules your thoughts, and it always feels like the first person you fall in love with will be the only significant other you will ever have, and that first job you set your heart on will be the only one for you, and your current friends will be the only ones you will ever have fun with for the rest of your life. Everything feels scarce, like you can’t possibly duplicate whatever feels good right now. You spend copious amounts of time listening to music in your room with the door shut, lost in thoughts that you will eventually deem trivial. You can not visualize what your life will look like at 30 or 40 or beyond. You are caught in the present, and yet you are rarely present in your mind. Your mind is like a temperamental toddler prone to tantrums. Your life is stitched together by two threads: the greatest moments ever, or those moments when you feel like your life is over. There is an entire middle between the two extremes, but you don’t see it. You will not understand the power you had in that middle space until much later in your life.

This is all normal.

It’s tough growing into adulthood. By the time you fully figure it out, you’re dead.

I am 36-years-old, but in many ways I can relate to the 19-year-olds. First, I’m not married, like many of the young adults. I can understand their anxiety about relationships, or lack thereof. And yet I’ve been married before, so I also don’t feel a burning desire to force a serious relationship, or to settle for anyone who sets off red flags. If anything, having experienced both ends of the coin, I understand the pros and cons very clearly, and it gives me a better handle on time and perspective. There is desperation in youth; I am glad to have outgrown it.

The 19-year-olds and I don’t have our own privacy. The youngsters have to worry about their parents poking around in their business. Walking into the house in the early hours of the morning to be greeted by your mom on the couch, waiting for you, asking a zillion questions about where you were and who you were with. Personal belongings are subject to search and seizure. There might be siblings to contend with. Instead of parents, I have children who stymie my privacy. I have a 3-year-old digging around in my drawers. I have an 8-year-old asking me what something meant in my inbox. I have children waiting for me to return home. I have babysitters to juggle and domestic responsibilities to cover. I am neither free nor able to live in the comfort of privacy.

I lived alone before getting married. It was a high priority item on my bucket list. I knew I wanted to be a mother and that I wanted to get married, but I also knew I wanted to travel and live alone before doing it. So I did.

Here’s the thing.

I realized I didn’t want to give up traveling once I was married and a mother. I wanted to keep traveling.

It was hard to convince my husband that it was worth the money, but once we got past the financial fog of new home ownership and the sticker shock of having children, it started to become a priority again.

I once thought that you had to pick one or the other. That you could be the traveling type who did whatever she wanted, or you traded that in to be a mother and a wife who sticks around the homestead.

I never considered the fact that maybe you don’t have to pick.

You don’t have to go from one extreme to the other. It doesn’t have to be black or white. Freedom or domestic captivity. Privacy or no privacy.

You can find a comfortable spot in the middle.

I used to love to travel. I still do, so I take my children. Some people feel it is important to inform me that my children won’t remember their travels. Why they feel compelled to tell me this, I’m not exactly sure. Maybe they are justifying their own decisions out loud and forget that I am standing there. I don’t know. Sometimes people will make comments about the money spent. They apparently think the new car or TV or the many other things they spend their money on are not up for scrutiny, but my expenditures are.  Whatever the case, our lives are made up of choices. I make mine. 

Well, the short answer to why I travel with my children is that I like to do it. I refuse to submit to domestic captivity. I am afflicted by wanderlust, and I don’t want to stop. I hope my kids will grow up with a foundation that make them also thirsty to see the world. So far it’s working. I don’t expect them to have clear memories of that time they pet a koala in Australia, but they will have an appreciation for the world.

Do you take your kids to church? Why do you bother if they won’t remember specifically what they did each Sunday? I take my kids to temple on Sundays because a) I am building and shaping their foundations in life, and b) I want to go to temple on Sundays. It’s exactly the same with traveling.

There are other things I have refused to give up. Projects. I am more productive than ever at 36, even as a widowed mother of 3 little ones. What I lack in the time that I had as a 19-year-old, I have gained in perspective, experience, and the ability to control my mind and manage my schedule.

I believe that there is a core version of me locked inside of my inner being. She has existed since my birth. This is the authentic me. She has evolved over time. This version of me exists separate from the other identities I embrace, such as motherhood, wife, widow, friend, daughter, teacher, etc.  

I have to admit that the core version of myself had been buried beneath marriage and motherhood for quite a while. Deprioritized. Ignored. It’s easy to do when we get busy, or when we live with other humans. Women are particularly susceptible to the urge of sacrificing ourselves at the altar of motherhood and marriage.

It took widowhood to shatter the life I had grown into–a version that had strayed far from who I wanted to be because I somehow believed in rules that were not real. I had to become engulfed in pain and grief to finally emerge from the damage and recognize glimpses of the 19-years-old me again–that former life before domesticity dumped a blizzard of obligations and misconceptions over my head.

That was my opportunity to rebuild. On my terms, in a way that would be authentic to the person who I had always been. A time to do what I wanted to do.

I feel like being frequently around young adults has helped cushion the blow for me.

Young adults are a great reminder that I have been in that place of uncertainty before, that I have the skills to survive, and that it isn’t a bad thing to be a beginner in life. The fears, the anxiety, the nervousness, the not knowing–these were all part of the excitement. We don’t realize it until it’s over.

My situation, in an unwanted way, let me press the rewind button and put me back in a place of being a beginner. I didn’t ask for it. I got dragged into it kicking and screaming, but when I calmed down, I was able to see that it wasn’t all terrible. There could be happiness again. I didn’t have to have the 19-year-old scarcity syndrome. I could choose to believe, based on experience, that there are an infinite number of possibilities and paths to take in our lives. 

It’s easy to forget those early experiences.

We live in a world where there are very clear boundaries between people. We get locked into worlds that are not supposed to overlap. We segregate by age. Young people hang out with young people. Older people with older people. We segregate by reproduction status. Moms with moms. By marital status. Single people with single people.

I recommend staying close to 19. And if you’re 19, staying close to 45. And 85 and lots of other ages. This business of segregating ourselves by age and marital status and reproduction status is what tricks us into thinking we don’t have anything in common when we all do.

It takes just one second on a Wednesday morning to find your husband dying to find yourself single again.

It takes one car accident to leave you without the ability to walk, and suddenly you’re thrust into a group of people with similar challenges that you never thought you would relate to.

People have lost children and found themselves suddenly child-less.

People have lost their money.

Their freedom.

Their sanity.

When you begin to understand the fragility of life, you realize that everything you have right now–these things you think define you–can all be lost tomorrow. Then who are you? Many people go their entire lives without ever finding themselves.

I think about all of this in the context of Madison, our family’s babysitter-19-year-old-honorary-family-member-too-old-to-be-my-honorary-daughter-too-young-to-be-my-sister-somewhere-in-between. (We really need to a word in English that means family, but not by blood.) Anyway, it’s fascinating to witness her stretch her wings in the adult world, as a 19-year-old. I remember what it was like. To be unsure. To venture into new territory. To be inexperienced. To not want to fail, but not knowing what to do either, and to inevitably make mistakes. Over and over again. 

The 19-year-olds remind me of where I came from. What I went through. It makes me appreciate who I am right now, and I realize that maybe I have something to offer them in terms of experience and insight. There are so many ways I can’t relate to a 19-year-old today, and numerous ways that I still can through the human experience. My older friends have life experience I can’t relate to yet, but I enjoy their company and the unique perspective they bring to the friendship. Since I have always had older friends, there have been many ways I’ve learned from them. Learned what to do. What not to do. I’ve been inspired. Disappointed. It has helped me visualize who I want to become in the future by watching my older friends experience their lives. We need people to learn from. I especially think young adults need older friends to learn from. Nobody gives us an instruction manual on how to be human. How else are we supposed to do it?

Recently I read a New York Times article about Mr. Rogers. It talked about how he viewed children as superior. Their innocence. Their lack of jadedness about life. It talked about his respect for those in need. “And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.” Even though I am Buddhist, and therefore not God-subscribing, I respect this reverence.

Removing feelings of superiority, and believing that there is something to be learned from everyone. Realizing that you can help others, and by doing so, you are also helping yourself.

We are all interconnected. We all came from the same origin of life, and we all die. We don’t control our beginning or ending, but we have power in the middle. Our 19-year-old selves didn’t know what to do with our middles, but our older selves should know better. The question is, do we use that knowledge? Those middles are meant to be shared. The middle of our lives, the time and space between our birth and death, is much better lived when we do it together, with kindness, empathy, and a heart to want to help others. The world would be a magical place if we all helped each other live our best lives irregardless of age or sex or race or economic status or religion or any of the ways that we force people into the categories of “other.”

I believe, in the spirit of Mr. Rogers, that we can start by taking small steps toward that goal.

One step might be widening your circle of friends. Talking to people–people who are not exactly like you. Share your stories. Listen to each other. Have a sincere desire to want to help people live their best lives, and to seek your own best life. Share your life with a diverse group of friends. 

I feel like all of this certainly begins with investing in our youth, but realizing that the support has to continue into young adulthood and be ongoing through the various stages of life.  Supporting each other. We are all in need of support. 

It’s a shift in our mindset, to start seeing us all as one.

The Invasion of the Fern Plant

close up photography of fern leaves

We were in the front yard on a late summer afternoon. The sun dangled low in the sky before dusk approached; the temperature was right at that sweet spot before you needed to put on another layer of clothing in the chaparral biome of Southern California. My two younger children squealed from where they played together on the sidewalk with their motorized Audi and Hello Kitty cars, requiring me to look over every couple of seconds to check that they hadn’t wandered out into the street. Ethan, my oldest, stood loyally by my side, waiting for a way to be useful in my latest garden project. I was on a rampage. It was summertime and I had the next two months off and a mile-long list of tasks I wanted to accomplish around the house. Closets to clean. Files to organize. Walls to paint. Roses to fertilize, garden beds to weed. These projects are never-ending.

Me: (on my knees, gloves on, pulling out the roots and stems of an overgrown fern plant) I can’t believe I passed by this every day and didn’t notice how it was growing over the rose bushes and the Peruvian lilies. Have you ever been so busy that you don’t notice something?”

Ethan: Um, no.

Me: Shoot. I guess that’s just a stupid adult thing?

Ethan shrugged.

The fern was stubborn, its roots firmly planted in the ground, fronds intertwined with the old thorny rose bushes that my father-in-law planted, the ones I was apparently killing with my lack of a green thumb and inattentiveness. I got too close to the thorns and scraped my elbow, drawing blood. Dirt flew into my eyes. Weird bugs crawled out of hiding. In my fury of yanking out the fern plant, I was impatient and pulled out too many of the Peruvian lilies in the process. The rainbow sorbet rose bush, the most fragrant of them all, was completely engulfed by the insolent ferns. I couldn’t believe the audacity of this uninvited plant spreading its spores on my property.

How did I not notice?

How could I walk by something every single day and not see it? It made me wonder what else I was oblivious about in my life.

When did I become a stupid adult?

I am not a handy person. But neither was my late husband, so I don’t feel completely bad. I’m trying, though. Two years into widowhood and with my youngest child finally potty trained, I am emerging from the thick fog of grief and the daze of early motherhood, ready to tackle projects on my to-do list.

I give myself pep talks. Come on, Teresa. You can figure this out. Use that college degree to problem solve. What tool in this garage will help you to pull out those damn ferns?

I use unorthodox gardening methods. Okay, okay. The truth is that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Once I had been trying to weed a planter for days. It was my first attempt in my post-fog to fix up the garden. I was barely making any progress. Days into it, my dad casually remarked that I wasn’t getting it done because I was using a square shovel–for things like cement–and I needed to use the round one.

Thanks, Dad, for waiting until day 5 and ungodly amounts of sweat to pass on that knowledge. But now I know!

Sure enough, the round shovel did the trick, and lo and behold I had it in my garage the entire time, unbeknownst to me. It’s amazing what we don’t see right under our noses. It’s also fascinating to know that with the right tools, life can be a lot easier.

A day into my fern project, my dad came around and raised an eyebrow at the sight of my gardening. I told him that despite the hack job, it was the effort that should count. I’m a gardener-in-training. I claim to be nothing more.

This fern project has been bothering me for going on two weeks now, ever since I noticed that it completely overtook the colorful flowers with its boring and intrusive green fronds. I’m still not done getting rid of it, but I’m close. There’s a big gap in the planter and I will need to buy a new rose bush to fill it in. I know nothing about roses, so it is likely I will buy something and then kill it within the first month and then have more fretting to do in the near future. I’m worried the lilies are gone forever–my father-in-law planted them, and we take them to the cemetery for Kenneth and his parents on a regular basis. There is sentimental value attached to these flowers, and I tore them out like an idiot. The fern plant basically set off a cascade of problems, and none of this would be happening if I had only seen it sooner, before the damn thing grew out of control.

I swore to Ethan that I would never, ever let that fern plant grow wayward again. Sometimes Ethan chimes in with his 8-year-old perspective when I am going over my big plans and thoughts, but often he just listens. Ethan does not understand my adult afflictions, but his presence is a useful reminder that life doesn’t have to be this way.

I thought about children in general. Recently I confiscated the Incredibles band-aids that my kids love to use for decoration (you know, like sticking them on a wall and watching me explode in all of my OCD-ness). I thought I was going to outsmart the kids for once and hide the band-aids in a make-up drawer. A completely new location. Surely this would stop the band-aids-in-random-places problem in my house.

Yeah, it didn’t matter. They immediately noticed the band-aids were missing, and they found the new location within the day. These kids are like hound dogs with excellent noses for tracking. They know when there is something new in the pantry to devour like termites. They spot a delivery box at the doorstep before I even turn the ignition off in the car. They see the lady bugs crawling on the cucumber plant leaves. They know just when I’ve made my bed, so they can run into my room and cannonball themselves onto the neatly tucked-in blankets, wrecking the pillows I lined up for aesthetic appeal. They know how to drag sand into the house–always a few hours after our cleaning people leave. I’d say it was just kids being kids, but why can’t they ever do it the day before? Why is it always the day of, as if they wait for the most opportune moment to soil a newly mopped floor? Between them and the dog, I don’t have a chance in this house.

Kids notice everything. Everything. Maybe that’s why they take it so personally when the adults overlook details in their lives.

We all start out like them: simple, slow-paced, with attention to detail (of course, on our terms). It’s amazing how a kid can spot a teeny tiny spider in the corner of the shower and use it to hold up a teeth-brushing routine before bedtime, but they can’t remember to flush the toilet. There is definitely choice involved in what children choose to acknowledge. But at least they are seeing these details and making a choice. Half the time us stupid adults don’t get that far.

Over time we leave behind our childhoods and grow into adult lives. We become busy. So busy that we frequently forget to see what is right in front of us. Sometimes we forget big things. We might neglect the people in our lives. We take these loved ones for granted. We make assumptions and get carelessly comfortable with people. Our relationships become strained by our inattentiveness and sometimes we don’t notice until it is too late.

We don’t see projects that need to be done. We might forget small things, like fern bushes and filling the gas tank and picking up those supplies your kid’s teacher requested three weeks ago, which of course is due first thing in the morning and you already have a meeting to be at.

I am deathly afraid of becoming just another stupid adult. The truth is, I’m kind of a control freak. Not in an unhealthily-attached-to-outcomes kind of a way. I have come to terms with the unexpected nature of the universe. But I am super crazy about managing my personal effort. I don’t like to live passively. I demand hard work from myself. Always. Often something like an overgrown fern plant is enough to drive me crazy with thoughts that maybe I’m not trying hard enough in my life.

And yet a fern plant seems like a small thing in the grand scheme of life, right? Like maybe I’m making too much of a big deal about it?

But I hate the idea of drifting so far away from the childlike qualities that embodies the ideal of what human beings could be. I hate to think that I am devolving into a jaded and overworked stupid adult on a fast descent toward death.

I am convinced that I can outsmart whatever it is that turns us into stupid adults. I let these questions and thoughts swirl around in my head, churning and brewing and simmering into something I can unpack in my desire to find meaning and set personal intention.

I’ve come up with a few conclusions (faster than I’ve taken out that fern plant, sadly.)

First, adults are riddled with the enormous task and stress of prioritizing our lives. We have too much to manage. Insane amounts of responsibilities. Infinite possibilities; the propensity for piling too much onto our plates. Some of this is unavoidable. I have three small children and I’m an only parent. There’s no getting around most of the work I have to do on a daily basis, but there are ways that I can be more strategic about my time. The fern plant fell off my priority radar, but I probably needed to make it at least a little bit of a priority before it got to be a problem. It was miscalibration on my part. I can do better.

That brings me to my next point. Priorities need to be recalibrated, and you have to do this often. Different seasons require new priorities. As we get better and stronger, our priorities shift. Attention should be redirected to weaknesses and places in need of growth. Some activities in our lives are temporary; projects don’t last forever. Life isn’t stagnant. Conditions are always changing and we have to be ready to respond accordingly. Recalibration is about living strategically.

I used to get frustrated with myself for having to constantly tweak my schedule and habits and perpetually feeling like I was falling short. It felt like I was chasing my tail and living as an inefficient person who couldn’t nail this adulting business. Surely I must have been doing something wrong, I thought. Now I feel like having a flexible approach that involves constant recalibration is the only way to manage an impermanent life. I’m no longer convinced that I was the problem. This is just what I have to work with.

There are general understandings about myself that I have become attuned to over time. Trial and error, the only way to live, I suppose. I get bored with monotony. Simple strategies like changing the format of my to-do list or changing the time that I go running during the day can help me stay focused on what I need to do without losing interest. Creating a short list of tasks I absolutely must do–the bare minimum– helps me feel content with my productivity for the day and can help me avoid the debilitating effect of discouragement. I track my habits, set annual goals, and make seasonal bucket lists. All of this helps. I journal and reflect often about my progress, problem areas, and what I’d like to do better.

And yet the pesky ferns still creep into my life.

Recently I was fretting over the work I wanted to get done around the house. Naturally I have a list for house projects. A list for work. A list for writing. A list for experiences. I have lists for lists for lists for lists.

My dad heard me going over the house list and he rolled his eyes again. “Teresa, Rome wasn’t built in a day you know.”

I rolled my eyes back.

But really, it’s not just Rome that wasn’t built in a day. It’s not just houses that can’t be fixed up in a day. A human being isn’t developed in a day. It takes us a while to figure out how to live. We spend our entire lives learning the ropes of how to become a fully enlightened human–some of us never figure it out– and then we die.

That’s okay, I think.

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better.”

I feel like this is all part of the adventure of life.

Keep learning. Keep doing better. Keep trying harder. Learn to spot the invading fern plants. Slow down. Be intentional. Be kind to yourself.

We don’t have to be stupid adults.

We can choose to retain some of that childlike wonder that we once embodied. Zen Buddhists refer to it as the “beginner’s mind.” This is the idea of looking at the world as if you saw everything for the first time. Noticing details. Being present for the experience and maintaining curiosity. No matter how old we are, we can still channel this beginner’s mind.

It’s just a matter of whether or not we think the effort is worth it.

I think it is.

Becoming a Lotus Flower in the Mud

aquatic beautiful bloom blooming
(Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com)

“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” -Dalai Lama

I find it difficult to digest the news since my husband Kenneth died. While many people were upset when #45 was elected, I was busy being in the throes of grief, thinking to myself two big thoughts: 1) I’m glad Kenneth isn’t here to see this, and 2) I’m already hurting so badly, nothing else can compare. I guess it was easier when Kenneth was here, because he freaked out over everything. Like…maniacally researched issues. Talked about depressing political news ad nauseam. He was all-consumed with politics. He was also enthusiastic about getting into the fight and trying to make change. As his wife, I could let him do the bulk of the worrying and just be his wingwoman as needed. I could let him carry the greater burden.

I think that’s what a lot of us want to do. Let other people worry about it. Not think about it. Be the ostrich that buries its head into the sand. It’s less painful that way. What we don’t know won’t kill us. Or maybe we just don’t want confrontation. That’s painful too. We don’t want to offend people.

It’s a fine-line between standing up for your convictions and alienating people who are probably decent individuals at their core. I believe most of us want the same basic things at the end of the day, but we get so caught up in dehumanizing each other.

There has been so much depressing news lately. I’ve been waking up to NY Times news alerts on a regular basis. I swipe those things off at lightning speed, and then feel guilty and have to go find them, and then wonder how I’m going to survive all of the depressing news for the rest of my life without a Kenneth to take charge with a protest sign.

It’s painful hearing about all the shitty things going on in the world. In the U.S. Everywhere. It can really lead a person to lose faith in humanity.

Here’s the thing: I can respect different opinions. I don’t expect all of us to agree on everything. That would be boring. That would be impossible.

But I can’t stomach opinions born out of racism. I can’t tolerate misogyny. I can’t respect an opinion if it was formed based off of viewing one news station. I’m not going to give an opinion as much credit when it comes from somebody who doesn’t bother to read and educate themselves.

I respect your right to not read. To not educate yourself. To not research. To not care, I guess. It’s your right. But you can’t expect me to take your opinions seriously.

I wouldn’t let a doctor do surgery on me if they didn’t have any background in medicine. There are ways that we build our credibility. Credibility isn’t automatic.

I also have more respect for compromise, decorum, and empathy. I respect growth mindsets. In my world, this impacts your credibility.

Recently I was at a baseball game. We were still in line when the national anthem began. People around us swiftly took off their hats and placed them over their hearts. People mouthed the words and eyes got misty. Ethan asked what was going on.

“Oh, you know. A little American tradition of acting patriotic at sporting events when most people in this stadium didn’t even bother to vote in the last election.”

He scrunched his nose. “That’s stupid.”

Yeah, basically. And I’m fed up. I can’t hide my contempt anymore.

I sat in the stadium, and people around me seemed to know all the rules of the game. They were attentive and wearing their favorite team’s colors and jerseys. They were shoveling junk food galore into their mouths and I would venture to say most of them were clearly unfit. I mention this because I often hear people bad-mouthing others with addictions and those who are stuck in hard times, and yet many of these same people can’t even kick their own food addictions. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. These are just my observations.

I’ve had conversations with my dad, where he proceeds to talk about certain groups of people who basically don’t try hard enough to get themselves out of poverty, and I point out most people can’t even lose weight. It’s not a criticism of people. It’s just a reality. I struggle with the same issues. It’s hard. Life is hard. Brains are fragile. Addictions are real–small ones, big ones. It’s not easy to break bad habits, which is why we shouldn’t throw stones.

But it wasn’t just the gross consumption of junk food that ruffled my feathers. It was the attentiveness and enthusiasm for the game that really got to me. And that damn national anthem.

Let me just say that I like baseball and I also like baseball helmets full of nachos. This isn’t a hate-on-baseball post. I also like the national anthem. It’s a pretty little song. I’m patriotic, but not in a blind consent kind of way. I’m patriotic in the never-have-missed-an-election-in-18-years kind of way. I’m patriotic in the donating to causes kind of way. In the precinct walking kind of way. In the volunteering kind of way. In the research, reading, educating kind of way. I love my home and my community. I appreciate my privilege. I love the Constitution. I also love equality. Liberty and justice for all. I’m a big fan. I get pissed off when people from other countries bad-mouth us. You know, I can talk crap about my family, but you can’t. That kind of thing.

I guess I was just feeling like I couldn’t be the only one who is disturbed by how readily people accept sports as a distraction and diversion from real life–to the point of easily rejecting participation in democracy. Basically ignoring it.

I know criticizing sports is taboo in American society. I don’t necessarily think sports culture is worthless. If something is entertaining and fun, go for it. We all need pleasure in life. What I’m saying is that there is a problem when people manage to make time to show up to a sports game on time, know all the rules, keep track of how the team does and where they are playing–and yet can’t be bothered to vote. Doesn’t want to follow the trail of legislation and court decisions. Would rather be spoon fed tidbits of information.

What’s worse–treating politics like a sporting event.

Treating political parties like their favorite team. Acting like a couple of jerks fighting over the Dodgers and the Raiders. Talking crap about the other. Viewing people as The Other.

Unfortunately, democracy is a little more complicated than team rivalry. It also requires a little more education and more time than what most people are willing to invest.

I guess this post is for those of you who are feeling discouraged in life, whether it be because of political reasons, personal reasons, or maybe both.

I get it. I’ve been discouraged over and over and over again in the last two years. It’s been difficult to feel hopeful since Kenneth died, when I found myself a single mother of three little ones. Hope has been a difficult thing to scrounge up in my circumstances. But, I’m here to say that it is possible. It’s there. You do have to work to find it. Nobody delivers it on a silver platter to you. Prince Charming and the Fairy Godmother won’t be knocking on your door.

Something I learned the hard way is that out of the pile of crap you find yourself under, you can find light between the cracks–hope–and use it to fight for the life you want. You don’t have to settle for a pile of shit. Out of the mud, the lotus flower grows. Its beauty emerges from something that is ugly–in fact that ugliness is the nourishment that helps it grow. When it rains, and it will rain over and over again, the lotus has petals from which the water easily slides off. That is our resilience.

We begin by looking at what we can control. It’s pointless to dwell on what we can’t control–that list is daunting. We need to focus on what we can do. What choices can we make today, right now?

Who are are allies? We need to build a tribe of people who inspire us.

How can we get better? How can we grow? What do we need to learn?

I quoted the Dalai Lama at the beginning of this essay. We have to use tragedy and disappointments and setbacks as our greatest teachers. Challenges–not death sentences. These are the moments when we tap into our resilience and we work for a better tomorrow. The alternative is to roll over and be miserable. That would be a disaster. Tragedy isn’t necessarily the last nail into our coffin. Tragedy can be the fire under our asses that get us out there fighting for a better tomorrow.

I’m not rolling over. I’m too damn stubborn for that. I want to live on my terms, and for that to happen I need to keep pushing forward. There are too many great things to experience in the world. I still have a lengthy bucket list that I am working on. For every bit of pain, there is double the amount of pleasure to be enjoyed. There is happiness, but happiness takes work. It involves experiencing pain. You get knocked down, you get back up. That’s how it works.

And guess what? Ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the sand. They actually make holes and stick their heads inside to turn their eggs. They are WORKING to preserve life. All great things require our work. Blood, sweat, and tears.

So no more hiding out. Splash around in the mud and figure out how to stretch yourself toward the sun. Beautiful things happen that way.

As for me, I’m going to make a list tonight of everything that concerns me. My fears. Worries. Anxiety. And then I’m going to make a list of what I can do to address these emotions RIGHT NOW. This week. Next week. In the immediate future.

And then I’m going to do those things.

Buckets are filled by drops of water. I need to figure out all of the tiny ways I can work toward moving forward.

That’s my plan. I want to model that for my children. I want to build their hope and resilience. They will need it.

(FYI: Ice cream is a good back-up plan too.)

26 Months

If it were a baby, he/she would be in preschool and potty trained by now. Talking, playing, becoming more independent. Yelling “no” in my face while throwing a plate of food off the side of their high chair, and laughing as it splatters everywhere. Not a baby anymore, but still requiring my energy.

Except I’m not talking about a baby today. I’m talking about my grief, 26 months after my husband unexpectedly passed away. But it’s kind of related, because grief actually feels like a plate of spaghetti thrown over the side of a high chair, the kind that laughs at you as you stoop down to clean it up, again and again and again.

In three days, it will have been 26 months since Kenneth died. Two years. Roughly 780 days. 112 weeks. Three cycles of summer. Two winters. A kindergarten graduation. A preschool graduation. Missed milestones: lost teeth and toothless smiles, two toddlers learning to talk, hearing Peter Jack say “How dare you?” and “You’re not my friend anymore.” Eloise learning to read. Swim classes. Vacations. I celebrated two birthdays without him. I replaced a washer, a dryer, a stove top, windows, and had the house re-painted–all without him. So much water under the bridge in two short years. It sometimes feels like maybe none of my memories from that previous life were real. It could have been all in my head.

It has taken me longer than usual to write in the last few weeks. I haven’t posted lately. That’s because I had terrible jet lag after coming home from Australia. And then summer. Summer has gotten in the way for sure, spending time with the kids, loving it, wishing for the school year to start, but loving summer, and also wistful for daycare…you know. Always a ticking time bomb of contradicting emotions.

I remind myself that I have to enjoy each season as it comes. There are pros and cons to everything. I have to remind myself of this fact over and over again. I know and believe in this truth but it takes a lot of reflection to be present. It’s easy to forget.

Summer means lots of time off with my kids because I am a teacher. I’ve been completing many of projects, and these projects are actually related to my grief. I am getting through the final stages of sorting out my life from before Kenneth died. 780 days later, I might finally be getting my shit together.

The other day I stayed up until 2AM clearing out the closets in my bedroom. One closet used to be Kenneth’s. I got rid of a lot of his stuff in the months after he passed away to make room for my clothes and shoes, but a person’s junk is like sand…it gets everywhere. It’s hard to sweep it all up. There are traces all over the place. I’ve been trying to determine what to do with the grains of his existence for over two years. Figuring out what to keep. Deciding what to pack into boxes, and what should be thrown away. I’ve gone through several of these grief-fueled purges, and each time it gets easier to part with items. At first it is painful to throw away the person’s favorite shoes and clothes, or even to touch their closet and mess with the order (or disorder, in Kenneth’s case) of their personal belongings. But it gets easier with time. The more cleaning purges I have, the more ready I am to let go of things. Progress has been slow, but it’s happening.

In the latest purge I came across random things that managed to survive the other cleaning frenzies.

I found pictures. One is of Kenneth as a child, his two siblings, and their father. They are all posed with their Welsh Terrier somewhere out in the desert.

There was the button his mother got the day he was born with the name of the hospital and “It’s a boy!” in faded letters.

His Social Security card, the one he blamed me for losing (it was in the file the entire time).

I found lots of paperwork. So much paperwork. That pile of junk was partly my fault. In the fog of 2016 I just stuffed things into a box, not willing to deal with it. That’s what happens with grief. Certain tasks become too painful to deal with.

There was the printer I bought during that fog, the one I could never figure out how to work. I got rid of it. My dad asked why I didn’t figure it out, and then he made a comment about how we waste a lot of things by not keeping track of user manuals and getting them set up. But that’s normal logic. Grief logic doesn’t work that way. Grief makes your mind as slow as molasses, and you can’t process details. You get amnesia. There are big chunks of time and moments I absolutely can not recall from the early days of widowhood. My memory is spotty. Grief amnesia–it’s totally real. You aren’t in your right mind. In fact, I just found a document from 2017 that said “Very Important” in big bold letters that I somehow just stuffed in the box with all of the papers I didn’t want to sift through. This move was totally unlike me–I’m usually pretty organized. Now I have to make a phone call to my CPA and figure out if I really did forget something. Chances are he will tell me it was already taken care of, and I will sit there feeling stupid but having absolutely no recollection of any of the details. Or he will tell me that yes, it was Very Important, and now I owe a bazillion dollars. And I will worry about this, like so many things that I have worried about since Kenneth died. But for right now–the printer–it had to go. If anything, I needed to not have the reminder of that fog.

Here’s the thing about my experience with grief. It collided with the fog of motherhood. Kenneth died when I was still nursing the baby. We were 7 years into the blur of pregnancy, breastfeeding, babies, diapers, toddlers. A hectic life with three little ones. Even on a good day the best we could hope for was a barely manageable hot mess.

Let’s just say the last two years have been rough. If you’ve seen me smiling, it’s because I’m really good at stitching myself together and trying to put everything into perspective.

But it’s getting better. My closets are organized now. I’m checking items off my to do list and I am not as resistant as I once was to dealing with things. I finally cleaned out the sandbox that hadn’t been used in 6 years and hauled 300 lbs of sand into my backyard so the kids could have fun. I cleared out Kenneth’s overgrown garden beds and have actual plants growing. My junk drawers are no longer stuffed with Kenneth’s belongings. I have completely reclaimed my bedroom. I bought a new filing cabinet and will have total control of my filing for the first time in over ten years.

Other aspects of grief have changed too. The kids and I don’t visit Kenneth’s niche as often, mostly because of the kids. They’re lazy. It’s boring. “We have some of his ashes at home,” Ethan will say. “Let’s just leave flowers by the avocado tree or his picture.” 1/10 of his ashes are in a biodegradable urn beneath the avocado tree. The kids will use that as an excuse not to go to the cemetery, but I never see them paying attention to the avocado tree either. Sometimes it feels like they would rather not be reminded of this part of our lives. I am constantly teetering on a tightrope, trying to find the balance between a healthy amount of talking about “our situation” and ignoring it. Nobody gave me a manual on how to do this. I’m really just winging it.

But we still go to the cemetery. Recently, we went for Father’s Day. Three days early, because I wanted to beat the holiday rush at the cemetery. I took pictures of the kids next to their father’s niche. We used to do that when we would visit his parents, except back then it would be Kenneth holding the kids, posing next to his parents’ plaque that read their names and important dates. Now it’s our kids in front of his niche. I take the pictures because it’s the only way we can take pictures with their father, and I’m using them as a measuring stick of time.

Kenneth’s columbarium is in front of the grave of a 7-year-old girl, and every time we visit him we stop to leave her a flower too. Each time I re-read the dates on her gravestone, and each time I experience the gut-wrenching reminder that the universe could be a lot more terrible to me, so I hold my breath and hope that it thinks I have been served enough bad luck for one lifetime, even though I know this is foolishness. There will be more heartbreak. More tragedy. More loss. I am prepared for it, but I don’t want to think about it. I am more squeamish than ever about the possibilities, because now I know what it’s like to have your head squeezed between the vice of life, and I know how fast everything can change in a second.

Recently a person we met in the last few months found out that my husband is dead. I guess I assumed she knew, maybe by the lack of a father attending the kids’ tennis practices, or I don’t know? I guess I forget that “new” people in our lives don’t know our story, and that I have to actually tell them. It somehow came up in our conversation, when I blurted out the “after my husband died” part of the story I was telling. Her face stiffened and she asked me to repeat my last sentence. After my husband died. Then I had to tell her the details. I am not one to clam up. I will tell you all of the gory details if you are interested, so I’m not sure why it felt a little weird. Maybe it’s because we’ve gotten further and further away from that day. Maybe it’s the way I can tell a new person the details completely devoid of emotion while they tear up and I smile and shrug it off. Maybe it’s the realization that there are people in my life now that Kenneth will never know, and they will never know Kenneth.

People ask me how I am doing. Not as much as they did in the beginning, but I still get asked.

You know. It’s fine. Really. I’m used to wrangling three kids on my own now. The dust has settled. The missing is still there, but most of the emotions have been digested and the intensity is gone. My brain and heart have accepted and stopped fighting the reality imposed on us. Now any sadness is like a few scattered clouds instead of a complete storm.

I know we struggle as humans with “why” questions. Sometimes we’re like stubborn toddlers wanting to know “why, why, why?” An answer of “because” would not be sufficient. But sometimes I think “because” is perfectly fine. Why do I have this life? Because. Why did he die? Because. Who knows. It just is. Because.

I’ve found comfort leaning on the fact that we always have choice. Even if the choices are not the ones you wanted. Even when our choices are limited. Even when the playing field isn’t fair and you seem to get the short end of the stick compared to everyone else. You still get to steer the direction of your ship, irregardless of the weather forecast. I’m definitely not using this analogy to take away from people who have experienced terrible circumstances. I would never suggest that we shouldn’t create an ocean where everyone’s boats can float. It’s just that in my tiny part of the world, with the cards that I hold in my hands at this present moment, I find it comforting to know that I can choose my next move. So I’ve made choices. Namely, I spend my time doing things that I like, and I have focused on raising my children. A zillion people ask a zillion times about whether or not I am on dating apps or “putting myself out there.” Look, I just got Peter out of his damn diapers. I’m probably having about as many romantic dates as I would have had with Kenneth around. It’s funny how people wonder and expect certain things. Maybe quickly finding somebody is a way of wrapping up a terrible situation with a nice bow. It’s funny how I myself worried about this when Kenneth died. But two years later, I don’t really care. I haven’t made it a priority. If it happens, cool. I’m not opposed. I’m just not going to make it my full-time job, and I’m not going to settle for less because I actually really like my own company. Sometimes being alone at Starbucks and playing tennis and having nobody to bother you after the kids go to bed is pretty darn sexy.

I guess that’s the biggest change in the last two years: I am much more in tune with myself. I actually like to live alone (I lived alone before I met Kenneth!). Granted, when I talk about living alone, it’s about as alone as you can get with three kids. But I still get to call all of the shots. Okay, okay. Not really. I’m a slave to three tiny dictators.

I feel like when you are alone, there is a greater burden to figure out your own happiness. When you have a partner it is easy to pawn off the responsibility to the other person, or to attach happiness to the family unit. There is less personal responsibility and less individuality in how you approach life when you are in a relationship. When you are alone, it’s all you. You have to work harder to create your own happiness. The consequence is that in many ways I feel greater happiness, because I was in control of it. All of it. I was the architect. Life on my terms. In my next life with a partner, I will make sure I am intentional about my individual happiness, and try not to fall back into the trap of happiness codependency.

Enjoying being alone is not me saying that I would rather be a widow than a married woman. It’s just making the best out of a shitty situation, and acknowledging that there are silver linings to everything, and we can’t exactly sort life into “good” or “bad” categories. Most of the time it can be both.

My current life is good and bad.

My former life was good and bad.

Every single moment is composed of good and bad.

You maximize what you can do in your current circumstances with your current resources and current knowledge, and you move forward. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.