Are You Having Fun Yet?

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Me, 1999, Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

I was 17-years-old when I went on my first international trip. My mom took me and my sister to Israel. A 16 hour flight around the globe felt like a big deal. I had only been on an airplane twice before that: once to San Francisco, and the other time to San Antonio, Texas. I don’t remember having thoughts or an opinion about travel yet at that age. I just remember being thrilled about having summer plans.

That excitement shriveled like a deflated balloon once we got there. It wasn’t the scenery–that was better than I imagined. Donkeys being used to pick up trash in narrow alleyways in Nazareth. Calls to prayer echoing throughout the ancient city. Fresh bread from neighborhood ovens. Roosters crowing. Cars, church bells, street markets, fresh produce–all of it was the perfect collision between new world and old world.

You would think this ambiance would be enough to satisfy me throughout the trip, but in fact I remember being quite sullen.

First it was the brutal jet lag we had never experienced before, and then it was being dragged around to visit relatives when all we wanted to do was our own thing. It was house after house of relatives who we didn’t know. We were surrounded by language only vaguely familiar to us, sweating profusely in the hot and humid Middle Eastern summer, and all of the smiley-faced people who we were apparently related to pushing too many plates of watermelon on us at every house we visited. Watermelon we were forced to eat, because as our mother informed us, not doing so would have been an insult to our hosts. Nineteen years later, I am still leary of watermelon.

I felt like a caged animal–a hostage to my mother’s schedule. She was doing what she wanted to do. I was being dragged around and forced to comply with things I did not want to do.

I remember my sister and me fell asleep on a relative’s couch while my mom yakked away in Arabic with her cousins. We had been there longer than she promised us. Each visit transpired in this way, stretching way past the time we were told we could leave. Being captive in somebody else’s home. Planted on somebody else’s couch. Listening to a conversation we did not understand. So we fell asleep. In our minds, if our mother was going to make us stay somewhere we didn’t want to be, then we wouldn’t stay awake for it. So we slept, part out of jet lag, part of it out of insolence.

I was annoyed when we were made to hang out with people our age who we didn’t know. I resented being forced to do it.

I was mad when I had to wrap cloth around my legs at a church in Jerusalem, because…you know. Feminism! Apparently other parts of the world did not care about that, which I would learn on that trip. I couldn’t accept that my bare legs (from the knee down, I was already dressed conservatively) would be a source of shame.

I thought the pot of snails that one of our cousins boiled was horrifying.

We had to visit my mom’s crazy aunt. Aunt Victoria would sometimes visit us in the states and stay at our house. I remember she would bring her suitcase filled with random crap, which included useless items like empty Easter eggs. Her hands shook wildly (a family affliction) and when she would hug us it felt like we wouldn’t make it out of the embrace alive. Once she commented on how tasty our pet rabbit would be to eat. After that she definitely couldn’t be trusted. When my mom said we had to visit crazy Aunt Victoria way out in the rural town where my grandfather had been raised, my sister and me protested loudly. How could our mom make us do that? Gross! Even our other relatives said they would never step foot in that house. It was one more way I was convinced my mom was trying to ruin the trip for us.

I didn’t take too well to the customs and traditions and being told what I “should” do. I’ve never operated on those terms.

We did have fun on the trip. It wasn’t all watermelon and snails and being held hostage on a couch.

There was the trip to the Dead Sea, covering our bodies in mud. A foreign film festival in Jerusalem. Staying with relatives we had met before in the states. Eating good food. Staying in my grandmother’s childhood home and trying to picture her as a little girl walking around. Meeting new people. Finding the one person in 1999 who actually had an internet connection for me to check my email.

It’s funny how as a teenager, the unpleasant parts of your experience can wildly color your trip. Define it. Obscure other facts. There were many good moments, but everything that pissed me off became indelible in my mind.

In hindsight it was fortuitous that we got to meet so many relatives during that trip to Israel, especially my grandparents’ siblings, who would all die before my next trip back. My grandmother’s sister, a taller version of her. My grandfather’s brother, who put rubberbands around his hands to control his shaking. My grandfather died when I was in the third grade, so meeting his brother felt like the closest thing to meeting him. It was an amazing opportunity to see the country, to also go to Egypt and walk inside of pyramids, and to do something most of my classmates had never done at the time: get on an airplane and leave the country. It was the beginning of wanderlust I would never shake.

But at the time, I was an insolent teenager brewing over not having control over my schedule. I have never responded well to a lack of choices. I need to be in the driver’s seat. I enjoy deciding when I wake up, go to sleep, where I go, how I spend my time–I’m an active participant in my own life. It’s not my nature to “go with the flow.” I just can’t do it.

I decided after that trip I would see the world. But on my own terms.

In the past 19 years, I’ve traveled with my sister. I’ve gone with friends. I went to 4 countries alone. Later I traveled with a boyfriend, who eventually became my husband, and then we traveled with our children. When he died, I traveled alone with the kids, and later brought Madison along to help. I’ve traveled with my sister-in-law and with my mom (who was not allowed to control the schedule, haha). I’ve traveled for so many years that each trip has had different configurations with the common denominator always being me.

Recently I was driving back to our 6th floor apartment in Melbourne. We had just seen the little penguins at St. Phillip’s Island, a two hour drive each way. Every night the penguins swim back to the shore when the sun goes down and they hustle in small groups in pursuit of their sleeping spots. We had great seats where we watched thousands of the world’s tiniest penguins waddle by, literally a foot away from us. The experience was wild to be able to see the penguins in their natural habitat, in Australia, doing something we couldn’t experience at home in California. I felt lucky. I remember having a sense that I was living my life, seeing new things, doing exactly what I set out to do when I decided to travel as a 17-year-old.

The kids were asleep in the backseat of my rental car and I concentrated on the dark road back to Melbourne, still trying to get used to driving on the the right-side. Madison, my 19-year-old travel assistant/buddy, navigated alongside the spotty GPS system. We drank our McDonald’s coffees and talked.

It struck me that I was the oldest person in the group. After years of mostly being the youngest, I was finally the oldest. It didn’t seem possible. And yet there I was, driving through Australian countryside, doing the adulting, being the most seasoned traveler in the group, and most definitely not the youngest in the car.

How odd it feels when time slips by, tricking you with the illusion of slowness during your youth when the days and weeks seem to crawl by, until suddenly decades have passed, and there you are. In a place you thought would never come. Wondering how it happened so fast.

Part of you wants to rewind and go back to the glory days of being young, when you could fall asleep in the car and your parents would carry you to bed. But then there’s that side of you that feels like you’ve climbed up a steep and treacherous mountain with hard-earned survival skills, and you feel safe there. You deserve to stay there, at the summit of your accomplishments, because it was your blood, sweat, and tears that got you there. In a way it feels safer than how you felt when you were young and unsure about your place in the world. You chose to be there, at the top, with views of the valleys that you traversed below. The risks you chose to take to get there. That choice is power.

Traveling as a young adult was often stressful times. Budgets were limited. There was a lot of second-guessing. Many blunders. Disgusting hostels. Missed opportunities. Taking the cheap way. Overlooking an experience. Avoiding the uncomfortable at the expense of new discovery. Not taking enough risks. I’m a natural fretter, so I worried a lot about details. When I started traveling there was no Google Maps. No data on my phone. Just old fashion books and paper maps and internet cafes.

Traveling isn’t stressful for me anymore. I’ve done it so much that I can now do it on autopilot, even with three kids. I know what works and what doesn’t work. I know what to avoid. I know how to find deals and how I like to travel. Traveling has become second nature to me. I didn’t have that as a young traveler.

The kids, Madison, and me drove down the Great Ocean Road while we were in Melbourne. We stopped to eat in Lorne. It was a sunny day and we ate a leisurely lunch and watched the cockatoos, a novelty to people from Southern California where there are only ugly pigeons and sparrows. The cockatoos were perched in trees nearby and visibly calculating their chances of stealing our food. Next to us was an older man, bespectacled and balding, reading a newspaper with a sandwich in one hand, which he occasionally put down to sip from his small coffee. I admired the lack of urgency in his routine and the way he appeared to be eating and drinking and reading exactly what he wanted, in the exact place he wanted to be. It seemed as comfortable as sitting in a living room recliner with your slippers on. That’s what doing what you want feels like.

I had a thought in that moment. I realized that if you aren’t enjoying yourself in life–if you aren’t having fun–then you haven’t done the work to get there. This is something we learn with age and experience. When I was younger, so much of life felt out of my hands. Experiences felt tied to coincidence. External factors had more control over me. I felt powerless.

It took time to realize that I could assert my power. Only we can control whether or not we are having a bad time.

In youth, it is easy to get bogged down by your negative feelings. Fears. It is common for the weight of a world we do not yet understand to drag us down, hinder us, and make us believe that somehow we are doing it wrong.

We forget to notice the things we can control.

Age helps, but I know many people older than me who haven’t figured it out.

I think experience is more important. There are people who let the current of time push them along without attempting to take control. You can get older without accumulating diverse experiences. You need to get out there and not expect an invisible hand to create the excitement for you. Putting yourself out there requires taking risks and allowing yourself to make mistakes. And try again. And again. And again and again and again. You live and grow through trial and error. You gain exposure to new things. This is how we learn to listen to ourselves and understand what we like and do not like. We stop trying to force ourselves into an existence that does not feel true to who we are. We begin to live on our own terms with a deep understanding of what the world has to offer.

In theory this is what we figure out with age.

The question is: do we listen? Do we remember? Do we follow what we know to be true?

Do we take control over our lives?

If we aren’t happy with something, we need to remember that we can do something about it. We can battle the uncontrollable with our attitude and perspective. We can make choices within our control. We don’t have to live a helpless existence, and we don’t have to stay in a bubble.

It’s raining in Sydney today. Not ideal, but we’re going to ride trains and buses around to explore neighborhoods and maybe pop into a museum.

If it’s raining tomorrow, we’ll figure it out. We’ll get rained on. That would be okay too, because we came here to see new things. And new things we’ll see, no matter what the forecast is.

It won’t be a good or bad thing. It will be us making the most out of what we have to work with and still choosing to enjoy ourselves.

That is what I’ve learned is the building block of happiness: making the most out of what I have to work with. Letting the rest go.

Traveling has taught me so many of these lessons.

Finding Open Doors

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As summer vacation approached in the last weeks of school, when books were returned and grades were due and the countdown until graduation turned into single digits, I felt triggered.

Kenneth and I used to look forward to summer vacation together. We had our teacher routines and an internal clock that knew without a calendar that the end was near. At the end of the semester we spent our minimum days doing something together, like go to the movies. I remember spending many lunch times in the weeks leading up to our freedom grousing over how many days we had left until the last day of school and complaining about how tired we were. We brainstormed the things we would do with our free time and all of this was part of the fun–the anticipation, the fatigue, the complaining, the expectations–it was what you did in that time and space between you and your finish line, when time sometimes slowed to a painful crawl.

Summer was a promise.

Lazy mornings to run along the lagoon in weather-perfect Long Beach, carefree days of matinee showings with only two other people in the theater and lingering mornings that turned into lunch on 2nd Street and maybe early evening drinks at a favorite bar before stumbling home a few blocks and watching a movie without a looming alarm clock to tell us where to go and what to do. There were road trips to northern California. BBQs in the backyard. Summer concerts in the park with wine and crackers and cheese and friends. Later it would be camping and spending time with our kids. Garden reboots and household projects. Our annual trip to the county fair and summer bucket lists to entertain our little ones.

It didn’t matter that inevitably we would get sick of each other. It was always about the sweet promise of something better.

Kenneth died a month before summer vacation, six weeks before we were supposed to get on an airplane together and travel to Berlin and Paris. We had spent many months planning and dreaming about this trip. He used to tell me about that one time he went to Berlin with his two friends, and how they went to a gothic club that was in a castle with a moat, and he wanted to take us there so we could see it. I remember putting on the black gown that year and attending the graduation ceremony without him. I remember going on that trip, feeling the searing pain of being forced to do one more big thing without his companionship. The pain of unfulfilled promises.

His death was like going through a doorway of no return, when there is your life before and the one after. One-way only. Once you pass through the threshold, there is no going back.

We go through many of these doorways.

I remember that moment right before I got my tattoo, when the tattoo artist asked if I was ready to begin. The permanency of a tattoo weighed on my mind, but it wasn’t going to be as permanent as the reason why I was getting it. Kenneth’s words from his journal, in his handwriting, etched onto my forearm.

Ready?

As ready as I was on the day that I got married, when I was about to sign my name on a legal document that would change the direction of my life in ways I could never completely understand. Or as ready as I was on the day that I gave birth for the first time, when motherhood would stop feeling like just an idea locked inside of my swollen belly and about to get real in the most life-altering and permanent way.

In the momentum of moving through a doorway, there is a feeling of an invisible hand pushing us through–one we can not stop in that half-a-second moment when it hits us right in the gut with the realization that we cannot undo what is about to happen.

It’s scary as hell, facing the unknown of what is on the other side of the doorway. The anticipation of change, sometimes big, sometimes unwanted.

Going through a doorway of no return certainly has a strong sense of finality attached to it. Finality induces fear; we are scared of what we can not change. Death–our ultimate finality–is perhaps the biggest source of our fear. What happens when something ends? We don’t always know, and that makes us feel uneasy.

It’s the fears that can obscure our ability to see what is on the other side: more doors. More doorways to go through. There are closed doors, yes, but more importantly there are an infinite number of open doors waiting for us to see them.

Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

I still get uneasy when summer approaches. A school year compartmentalizes a teacher’s time with semesters and bell schedules and hourly periods and grading periods and such. Summer vacation denotes the end of a year and begins the build-up of anticipation for an impending new one. This was my third summer without Kenneth, and I still wish he were here. My pragmatic brain tries to be intentional about focusing on the open doors. It has gotten easier with time, mostly because I have been able to not just think about the concept of the new doors, but I have gotten to experience them too.

And there have been many.

I felt a bit melancholy in the final days of another school year without Kenneth, but nothing paralyzing. I had done it before. After crossing through that doorway we were off–to Australia! Madison, one of Kenneth’s former students, came with us. We are an odd bunch. My widowed self. Three half-Japanese children that always invite a double-take from strangers, and a 19-year-old redhead.

The other day we went to pet kangaroos and cuddle koalas. We scratched the heads of joeys who lounged in their mama’s pockets and fed hungry kangaroos who were as friendly as my pet dog. Later we drove through the countryside and saw wild kangaroos hopping in open fields. We stopped at a farm to eat potato and leek soup and toasted sourdough bread and enjoyed views of blue water and open green fields dotted with grazing livestock. We watched several different types of colorful birds we had never seen before. The kids ran around the open grassy area squealimg and laughing with boundless energy. I remember being conscious of a perfect moment and realizing that I did not immediately default to “I wish Kenneth could see this,” and instead felt content with “this is great.” Just this.

We went to see the penguin parade at St. Philip’s Island, sitting on the beach with cold Antarctic winds turning us into human popsicles, but all of us too excited to fully care because there were thousands of penguins swimming in from the ocean at sunset, waddling across the sand to secure a place to sleep. Little penguins in their natural habitat, and they were literally a foot away from us. An experience of a lifetime.

It was a two hour drive back to our apartment on the 6th floor in Melbourne. The kids were asleep in the backseat of my rental car and Madison and I talked in the dark as we sipped our McDonald’s coffees. I drove and Maddy navigated alongside of the spotty GPS. The thought struck me: whoa. I am here (and somehow managing to drive this vehicle on the opposite side of the street than what I am used to–major whoa!). I am here with Maddy, who we would have not known if Kenneth hadn’t died and she started babysitting. I am here without Kenneth. We are an odd bunch, and yet I am doing the things I always wanted to do, just in different way. A reconfigured way.

It’s the dichotomy of having terribly sad things in your life, but also so many wonderful experiences and people, and reconciling both in your mind. That is the place of your healing–a scar over the chasm that the pain carved into you–a place filled with regrowth. The wound is still there, but not in the same way, and it doesn’t hurt. Its presence reminds us of what once happened to us. We can trace the edges of the scar with the tip of our finger and feel where we were once split open and bleeding and also feel the place that is now closed by new tissue growth. It reminds us of our strength and resilience and that we are still alive. That jagged line has become something that is merely a part of who we are.

I can’t look forward to summer in the way that I used to. Even when I know I’m about to get on an airplane to explore somewhere cool and wonderful and I’m about to have two months off. It’s not that I don’t look forward to summer. I’m not being ungrateful; it’s actually quite the opposite. I recognize the amazing opportunity and I intend to fully enjoy and savor it. I just don’t have that burning desire to speed up time and be there any faster than it is supposed to happen. You won’t hear grousing out of me anymore about going to work or how long the days are. I don’t keep countdowns. Part of it is the trigger–the reminder of that special time I shared with Kenneth but no longer have–and part of it is maybe guilt that I get to have another summer and he doesn’t. It’s so many things, really. But perhaps the easiest explanation of this change inside of me is that I have learned the hard way that it is a waste of life to always look forward to weekends and summers and begrudge the time in between. Our time to live is right now.

As we go through another doorway, it behooves us to remember that our fears and anticipation about the unknown is natural, but to remember not to get completely caught up in all of that. It takes away from living right now and deprives us from the joy and excitement that the unknown can also bring to us. It’s a mental balancing act to prevent onself from teetering too far to one side.

Maybe we don’t always need to know what will happen next. It can be enough to know that in a world where we don’t have complete control, we still have options. More doors. Lots and lots of doors.

Screw the Boxes

A delayed post due to traveling to Australia. Here it goes:

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.” -Gilda Radner

We humans are somehow conditioned to expect our lives to be tidy and easily organized into compartmentalized, linear boxes that we can check off as we go through each one. When do we learn to do this?

There is an unspoken expectation about the direction of the flow in how we live. Who decided it?

We are programmed to hurriedly check off each box, lest we not keep up with this flow. Why does it matter?

When life inevitably becomes unruly and messy, when things do not go as we planned, and when we find ourselves in situations where our circumstances and outcomes do not fit neatly into those damned boxes, we are pained by the belief that we were somehow less than we should have been. We couldn’t keep up with the flow, therefore we must be bad and we must accept the finality of a wreckage.

We assume acceptance is our only choice. Somehow we deserved it–this fate of broken hopelessness.

Here’s the thing: our sense of failure was flawed at the inception of the very first belief that we could ever keep up with the flow. We were never completely in control.

I’m not talking in a religious sense.

We live in a world that is constantly changing, and impermanence is not negotiable. It can’t be stopped, and in that way perhaps there is flow. Forward-movement. An attempt to swim upstream will exhaust you and likely result in the inevitability of getting pulled into the water.

Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I was an avid soap opera fan. (It explains a lot, I know, I know.) Days of Our Lives was my favorite, and I never forgot their trademark intro, which I recently heard again on the last day of school when I got my nails done and it played in the salon:

“Like sands through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” (Said in Dr. Horton’s voice, original generation soap opera star, RIP. It’s a little embarrassing that I know that haha.)

We can’t stop the sand from emptying into the bottom of the hourglass, just like we can’t stop time from passing. The sun rises and sets and we get older and wizened, and there is not a single thing we can do to make it stop, no matter how much time and money we spend fretting about the ways we think will slow it down.

Nothing is guaranteed to us.

It is miraculous that we are even here, really. When you pause to ponder your existence and think about how much struggle it took for anything to live, if you’ve ever gone through the experience of creating new life, if you’ve ever thought about the chances for a seed to germinate and grow into a healthy and strong tree when most don’t survive and then think about all of the ways it could end in a single moment–you realize how much chance and good fortune it takes for life to exist.

And we have no idea how long we have to continue living.

Gilda Radner talked about the “delicious ambiguity.” She had been battling the cancer that eventually killed her. A diagnosis with days and months laid out in front of us reduces ambiguity. Old age also sharpens our perspective about time and makes living less ambiguous. But for the rest of us who lack the hard estimate or perspective, we often fall into the trap of thinking that we have all the time left in the world. We don’t have a sense of urgency about the way that we live. We forget that it can all be over tomorrow.

The trick, I think, is to remember impermanence. We are like beautiful and intricately shaped sand castles made with the most precise details and grandeur, only to be washed away and flattened back into the shoreline by a tide that none of us can control.

Maybe we invented the compartmentalized, linear boxes to check off and the urgency of the flow and order and direction and rules as a way to cope with the underlying sadness of nothing lasting forever.

But did we realize these rules would only make us sadder?

Did anyone ever think that the flow and rules and preconceived ideas about what should happen next only served to set us up for failure?

Our paths will not be linear. They will sometimes be ugly and sometimes give us inexplicable joy and the rest of the time will fall somewhere in between. If we can remember that the only flow we have to answer to is the forward march of our impermanence–if we can remember to be mindful– then we can savor the opportunity to be alive. Right now. In this moment. We can be able to access the deep recesses of our souls to find our personal truths about what fuels our passion and excitement about living. Our mindfulness will help us nurture the parts of ourselves that we know are important, and we can be reminded to let go of what inhibits us.

This mindfulness is what makes us resilient.

Our resilience is what helps us cope with ambiguity–that feeling of not knowing what will happen next–and we can transform it from something painful and feared into Gilda’s idea of “delicious ambiguity.” We don’t have to be terrified of the things we can’t control.

Our resilience is what helps us get through the inevitable rough parts of being alive. The rough times–those waves that knock us down and flatten our sand castles–are normal and expected. They don’t make us less than; we aren’t failures because of our brokenness. We can learn to swim and find ways to avoid drowning. We can always build more sand castles. But we can’t stop the waves from crashing–the same waves that will take us back to the ground that gave rise to our existence.

The wreckage is not who we are. It does not define us. What matters is what we did with our brokenness. Did we stay curled up amongst the shards of our pain, or did we reconfigure those pieces into something bigger and better, something that brought more goodness into the world?

I love Gilda’s quote. As she faced death, she realized there was never a perfect ending or a “right” way to live. There was never anything linear about life. The direction of the flow was a generalization, probably even a myth we were fooled into blindly accepting. Gilda realized she never knew for sure what would happen next–she never did–and she chose to embrace this not knowing as a way to make the most out of the limited time she had left.

This mindfulness can help us stop resisting a fate we have all been sentenced to.

How beautiful.

You can choose what to do right now. You can choose to make the most out of what you have, right now. It isn’t a “fly by the seat of your pants” approach, but rather an acceptance that the only thing you can do for your future is to control what you are doing right now. It is an acceptance that sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t, but as long as the sun still rises and you can still see it, you still have a chance to choose what to do next.

Screw checking off the boxes.

I give my thanks to all the Gildas and the people before me who have taken the time to share their insights before they reached their not-so-ambiguous endings. It helps me to sharpen my own perspective. It reminds me to be mindful in my own life, and that life is not guaranteed. I need those reminders.

It’s now or never.

That Thing Called Fear

 

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(My lame attempt at drawing.)

When you experience the tumultuous waves of grief that crest over your head and wipe you out over and over again, you learn to either sink or swim. Eventually, when your survival no longer feels like a daily struggle, you will find yourself with enough time and space to pause for a second and wonder to yourself: what have I been most upset about? What was the worst part of it?

Do I miss him?

Was it the end of the marriage? ‘Til death do we part.

Being a single mom?

Perhaps it’s the loneliness.

Or going to work without him, having to hear somebody new’s voice through the drywall that separated our classrooms.

It could have been the difficulty of managing our busy household on my own, unpacking lunch boxes and preparing dinner and helping with homework and giving showers and dressing kids for bed and making sure they all floss and read before lights out and then-collapse in exhaustion. Every night. By myself. It is all one can do to not succumb to the monotony, intensity, and tediousness of this role.

Maybe I’m most upset about having to figure out the finances where he left off, or becoming the person in the house who has to put out the trash cans on Sunday nights, or how I have to kill my own spiders now.

I am upset about not having that one person who was supposed to be in my corner 24/7.

And then there’s the part about not having a father for my children. He was the only other person who loved our children the way I do.

But in reality, it’s probably all of the above. Some more than others. The intensity ebbs and flows depending on the day.

Here’s the thing: there is something else causing the pain besides being lonely and having to do the carpool rounds on my own. It’s also the reason why grief eventually subsides.  

Fear.

When I analyze my feelings, it was fear that fueled the other emotions.

Three kids on my own. I don’t think I need to explain the fear in that scenario. There was also financial fears. Logistical fears. Emotional fears. Responsibility fears. If I mess this up–it’s all on me.

Marriage can be a cushion for our fears. Being an adult involves taking on a lot of responsibilities that are scary at times. But, with a partner, we can at least share those fears, and that will lessen our anxiety. We can figure out which person is better at handling what the other partner doesn’t like, and in that way the division of labor is done in a way that helps to assuage our fears and worries, even in the smallest ways. There is something about being on a team that feels reassuring–to know that you are not alone and have somebody to share the burden and experience with.

In widowhood and single motherhood, there is no safety net. There is nobody to double check the numbers or remind you to schedule an appointment or to comfort you in the moments of your despair. There is nobody to help put the kids to sleep or sit next to you during the parent-teacher conference while the teacher complains about your child and you feel like the biggest failure. There is nobody to hold your hand through scary medical situations, or to handle emergencies that might feel overwhelming. There is nobody to bounce ideas off of. There is nobody to run the errands you don’t want to do, or make the phone calls you want to avoid. There is nobody to take over parental duties when you lose your shit because the youngest child dumped his food all over the floor that you just cleaned and you feel like you’re on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s always just you.

I learned about fear in the worst way the moment I found Kenneth on the living room floor and dialed 9-1-1 with my trembling hands.

I felt the fear paralyze me in the ER as I stood over his dead body and a hospital worker entered the room and gently handed me a list of options.

Options.

As in, the options for body disposal.

I remember thinking: are you kidding?

I wasn’t prepared for that moment. Why wasn’t I prepared? We had conversations about cremation and buying a niche in the same cemetery where his parents were inurned. We talked about death more than most couples I know. But we never visualized that moment when one of us might be in the ER standing over the other person’s body while our babies slept at home, and how one of us would have to take that list of crematory options and pick one, and then go home and figure out how to host a funeral and remember to pump breast milk for the baby and keep breathing amidst the ruination of our family as we knew it. We never talked about the possibility of one of us raising our young family completely on their own.

I am doing it, somehow. But what stands out the most from that early period of grief was the bone-crushing fear that continuously hung over my head like a dark cloud. What if I chose wrong? What if I screwed everything up? What if, what if, what if?

Fear is not an emotion specific to big tragic events. We learn it early, and in appropriate doses our fears are perfectly normal and healthy.

Fear the hot pan.

Fear walking out into the street.

Fear not doing your homework and failing a class.

Fear cheating on your spouse.

There is a place for fear.

I have a recurring nightmare. I’ve had it throughout my adult life. It usually begins with me waking up at my parents’ house and realizing that although I am a grown woman, for whatever financial reason, I have to live with my parents. Sometimes the dreams involve my children. Sometimes the dreams have my husband living with my parents too. But the scariest part of the dream is the feeling of hopelessness that I have–this belief that there is no way out. I am stuck there, under their roof, with no means of leaving.

No offense to my parents, but my independence is what I treasure the most in this world. I fear not having it. My subconscious apparently worries about it too with these crazy dreams.

When I was a teenager and a young adult, my fears were not making friends. Not being the right size. Not having cool enough clothes. Not being smart enough. I worried about getting my period in a class where the teacher didn’t allow hall passes. I feared getting raped. Not going to the college of my choice. Not being pretty. Not graduating. Not moving out. Not getting married. Never having children.

In motherhood, I fear that I am messing up my children. I worry about raising wild kids whose creativity and penchant for marching to the beat of their own drums will not lead them to viable careers. I worry they will get sick. I worry that I could have done more for them. I worry about all the stupid small decisions in parenthood, like should they do after school tutoring or are they eating too much sugar? I worry that I will fail them because I am a single mother and their father is dead.  

As a woman, I’ve worried about my dress size. I worry that my midsection is too big and my thighs too wide. I’ve worried about my unruly hair and the creases appearing on my face. I worry about skin cancer and other types of cancer and whether or not my heart will explode like my husband’s. I fear for this country. I fear for the environment. I fear for all of the jobs my children will have to hold in their lifetimes just to survive. I worry that I will never fall in love again. I worry about getting older and less desirable as a woman. I still fear getting raped. I fear running out of money. I fear the next thing that will break and I will have to figure it out. I fear not being taken seriously as a woman. I fear being sexualized in society. I fear for my daughter and other people’s daughters.

What I’ve learned about fear is that it can consume us, driving us into a state of paralysis that consumes our thoughts in an unhealthy way. Inaction is exactly the conditions fear needs to grow bigger and stronger in our minds. Fear can only continue to exist when you do nothing about it.

In the beginning of this essay, I mentioned that fear will eventually subside in widowhood. That’s because over time, you are forced to take action, and each bit of action is an empowering process that will help you conquer those initial fears.

Pick a crematory.

Arrangements with the mortuary.

Clear out his closet.

Make financial decisions.

Pay bills with one income.

Take care of children on your own.

Show up to Donuts with Dad with no dad.

Be there for your children even when you feel weak.

Survive awkward and painful social encounters as you get used to this new version of yourself.

Learn to advocate for yourself.

Be awkward some more.

Cry.

Change all of the diapers.

Take care of the washer, dryer, and stove that all break in one year.

Get through the first holidays and birthdays without him.

Rinse, and repeat.

Slowly, your fears will erode, because as long as you are moving forward and taking action–no matter how big or small–fear can not continue to grow inside of you. Each bit of action makes the fear shrink, until one day you realize it is no longer there. 

Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.”

One thing that has helped me deal with my fears is to figure out what the next small step needs to be. Nothing big. Just the next little thing I can do toward progress.  I have the tendency to overwhelm myself with everything I think I have to do right in that moment. The truth is, you almost never have to do EVERYTHING in one moment. Slow and steady wins the day.

When you are feeling paralyzed by fear, ask yourself: what is the next best thing I need to do?

What can you do?

What can’t you do?

You need to be clear about each of these questions in order to know what the next step is.

One of my favorite quotes by the Dalai Lama is the following: If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”

It helps to know if there is something you can do about a problem. If there is, then do it.  

Another observation I have made about fear is that it is often the anticipation of something that hurts us the most, not the actual thing. First, we need to remember that this anticipation will pass. You will give the speech you dreaded, and then you will feel better. You will have that dreaded meeting, and then you will feel better. Being mindful of the fact that feelings don’t last forever is huge. We get bogged down in all the terrible scenarios that might happen instead of focusing on what we can do to prevent those situations from occurring. Another way to conquer our anticipation anxiety is to do the hard work to prevent a terrible situation.

Scared about giving a speech? Practice.

Scared about taking a test? Study.

Scared about failing a class? Do the work. Communicate with your teacher.

Scared that your writing sucks? Put it out there anyway. Maybe it sucks. Keep writing.

Scared that your husband will leave you? Do everything you can, and then accept that you can’t control other people and plan your next steps accordingly.

Scared of raising kids on your own? Constantly look for ways to be more organized and efficient. There is always something else to try (I am constantly working on this).

Part of dealing with fear is letting go of the desire to control the outcome. Instead of focusing your attention on what might happen, you instead shift your energy to focus on what you can do right now, and you actually do it. The “doing it” part is essential. You must take action, even in the scariest moments that make you want to pee your pants. Do not sit in your soiled pants! Take action. Take action. Take action.

There are a variety of things that I do to help myself figure out what step I need to take. I journal a lot. Make lists. Write out plans. Sketch out ideas. I write family goals and individual goals. I review the goals. I brainstorm ideas. Over and over and over again. I chart habits. I read a lot. I try to learn new things as much as I can. My goal is to constantly find ways that I can live better. I run–I get some of my best ideas from running. Listen to podcasts. Have conversations with interesting people. Go to bed early and try again in the morning. These have all worked.

But guess what? We are human. So fear will pop up again. And then you just have to squash it back down with the mighty hammer of you taking action.

One day you will realize that these small steps were your journey, not your destruction.

 

I Don’t Need Mother’s Day

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I knew since I was a small child that I wanted to have children. My sister and I played with dolls regularly. I had a penchant for Cabbage Patch Dolls, and one of the highlights of my youth was my aunt taking me to the Cabbage Patch hospital at Hobby City so my dolls could get their check-ups. I babysat a lot. Like, a LOT, starting when I was 12-years-old. At 20 I could single-handedly take care of four kids by myself for several nights. I would load them all into the Suburban and take them out to eat at Olive Garden, take them to the park, to the movies, and make sure they were all fed, bathed, and tucked into bed with a story and brushed teeth before lights out. Almost like a real soccer mom (I even kept diapers and one of those waterproof soccer mom blankets in my trunk). I’ve always loved children. It’s funny to me that my daughter doesn’t like dolls and is so awkward around babies, because I was the type of girl who begged to hold them. There was never any question in my mind; I knew I would be a mother, and I knew I would be a good mother.

I was raised to believe that children are something you have when you get married. But I worried that I wouldn’t find anyone. In my early twenties, I (prematurely) started thinking about what I would do if I never found a husband. It always felt like a distinct possibility, so I figured out what I would do just in case: I’d adopt a kid from Cambodia like Angelina Jolie did. I even looked up international adoption agencies online. I wasn’t going to miss the motherhood boat no matter what life threw at me. That much I knew with certainty.

Instead of the adopted Cambodian kid, fate ended up giving me 3 half Japanese children, all from my own uterus. Life is strange like that. Just when you think you know what will happen next, an unexpected plot twist happens and suddenly you are living a story that you never imagined in a million years.

And yet, part of my worst fears did come true: I’d be a mother alone.

I am a mother, alone.

When my husband unexpectedly passed away and left me a single mother of a 6-year-old, 3-year-old, and 13-month-old, I lost a part of my motherhood identity that I had come to believe was my world–my everything.

Married mother of 3.

Single mother of 3.

Those are two very different realities.

If I never found someone to marry, I would have adopted ONE Cambodian kid. I wouldn’t have willingly chosen to become a single mother of three. I’m not that crazy.

I think it’s safe to say that the supermajority of people do not grow up and declare an intention of being the old woman who lives in a shoe full of kids. It’s not exactly a dream-come-true.

I felt resentment toward my children in the early days of grief. I had several people tell me to my face that it would probably be impossible for me to find someone else with all of the kids I had. I mean, I wouldn’t even want to date me with three kids. Still, it felt painful to be thrust into a reality that was not of my own creation and to feel exiled yo a life devoid of adult companionship. It felt so patently unfair to do everything I was supposed to do and still get dealt this raw hand by the universe.

I spent a lot of time feeling resentful toward the universe. Toward my dead husband. Myself. Toward everyone else who didn’t have to deal with dead husbands. How could I be so stupid to procreate with a man who would die early? It must have been my fault, I thought. It had to be somebody’s fault. How could I get so screwed over in life?

It took a lot of reflection to assuage my angst over being a single mother.

I had to remember why I wanted children to begin with.

I had a realization: these are most likely the only children I will have (unless of course cupid ambushes me and knocks me over the head).

I waited my entire life to have these children, and they were each so very wanted and planned.

This is their childhoods.

Their precious, fleeting childhoods.

Now.

Their round faces and pudgy tummies and baby talk and lisps and penchant for stuffed animals and the childhood wonder in their expressions and the silly questions that they ask–all of it only lasts for a fleeting moment in the grand scheme of life.

I can’t waste any time bemoaning what I can’t change. The fact remained: I was still a mother. Their mother. This was, by my own girlhood definitions, my dream-come-true.

Yes, it’s more difficult as a single mother. It’s tedious and lonely and sometimes scary, but it’s doable. I’m making it happen. It’s not perfect and it can be messy and stressful and sometimes it feels like an insurmountable challenge that I am failing at, but we’re doing it. And we’re all mostly happy and fulfilled. That’s not guaranteed to anyone, single or married.

I had to embrace a redefinition of what my motherhood looked like. I had to let go of expectations and realize our new life would not look like our previous one–and that was okay. It wasn’t less than. Maybe it could even be better in ways that we have yet to experience or realize.

Despite how much my children can drive me crazy (I am outnumbered, after all), they are so fun and loving. Each child is uniquely their own person, and in them I see traces of their father, and parts of myself. They are my late husband’s ultimate living legacy, and I cherish that I get to continue to have a piece of him through our children.

I don’t need to celebrate Mother’s Day on one particular day. My kids show me every single day how much they love me, and on a daily basis I am struck by how much I love them, and in complete awe of the people they are becoming.

Plus, despite being a single mother, I don’t need the day off. The sitter usually comes on Sunday, but I told her she didn’t have to come this week so she could spend it with her mother.

One thing I learned when I became a single mother is that it is of the utmost importance to intentionally work on your identity, separate from motherhood. This is vital for your survival and mental health.

I do not live for my children.

That may not sound very motherly to you, but I don’t believe in sacrificing my identity for other human beings–that applies to both men and offspring.

I believe in loving my children and doing the best possible job as a mother. I believe in creating opportunities for them and exposing them to a wide variety of experiences. I devote my resources to them. I have a personal rule of not being out of the house after school and missing bedtime more than two days in a row. Flossing their teeth, reading with them, and taking them on adventures are all daily priorities. In other words, I am highly invested in spending copious amounts of quality time with my children and they have always been a priority.

Not wanting to live for your children isn’t the same as not wanting to be a good mother.

It’s just that I believe I can be a better mother if I take care of myself. I don’t think motherhood is synonymous with extinguishing our own personal goals and hopes and dreams.

I don’t believe I have to make a choice between me and them. I think a mother can take good care of both herself and her family.

I believe in living alongside of my children. Not for them. They don’t exist because I sacrificed myself at the altar of motherhood and let them drain my blood. We are all happier and stronger when our individual needs are addressed–we’re a team. They are my teammates in life. I am not just their team mom. There’s a difference.

In marriage, it’s easy to lose yourself to motherhood. Dani Shapiro quoted Donald Hall in her memoir Hourglass. Donald Hall said the following about his marriage: “We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked a a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.”

My children was one of our “third things” in my marriage. Teaching and politics were probably the other ones. But our children were our #1 thing, for sure. When I met Kenneth, he had a 3-year-old son. A big part of our relationship developed around parenting his son. Driving up north every other weekend for visitations. Going to court over custody. Dealing with his difficult ex. Raising a child with behavioral needs. Taking care of that child–his swim class, Cub Scouts, homework, and all of that. In essence, we started our relationship in the throes of parenthood. Our relationship didn’t know a time when there were no children around.

So what happens when your family–your children–are linked to your marriage identity?

That was my problem when I became a widow. How do I continue motherhood with the same enthusiasm, knowing that it was once a joint “third thing” with my husband, and now having to keep it going on my own. It’s like playing a baseball game without any teammates. How could I be the pitcher, catcher, play all the bases, outfield, and bat? Impossible. And who would be next to me to admire our great work? Or cry alongside of me. Vent. Be joyful. Who would experience the full spectrum of parenting with me? There was no replacement for my husband. When he died, I realized there was nobody who could love our children the way he did.

That’s when my resentment festered, and I had to work it out. I did a lot of journaling. Writing. Reflection. Thinking. Crying. Processing. Frustration, anger, joy–everything. I had to get it all out of my system before I could begin to reimagine the rest of my life as a mother.

I had to go back to that little girl who wanted children ever since she cradled her Cabbage Patch dolls. I had to remember why I wanted to be a mother–a love of children, a penchant for nurturing others, and a desire to make a difference in young lives.

As I revisioned who I was as a mother, I have adopted intentionality about carving out a life for myself and still being a “good” mother.

I wasn’t a priority when I was married. It was just the family–one unit. Almost everything went to the children, and whatever crumbs of my energy that were leftover went to my husband. There was nothing left for me.

But as a single mother, this was not sustainable. I knew I’d go crazy.

I began to set regular hours for the sitter to come to my house. In theory I can do anything with the standing commitment I have with myself 2-3 days a week, but in reality I usually go work at Starbucks or play tennis. Nothing wild. But it’s always what I want to do.

I bought myself a fun car.

I write buckets lists and make goals and allow myself to daydream about what I want my future to look like.

I re-did my bedroom and banned the kids from bringing their toys and junk in there. It’s my room now, intentional space for me.

I try to exercise regularly. I find that it centers me and makes me feel good both physically and mentally.

I journal. I read.

I took up playing tennis despite never having played it before. It’s sad that most adult women playing tennis for fun are, how should we say, on the end of the life spectrum when the children are grown? The sad part is that all of the younger women are probably entrenched in the tediousness of motherhood. That stage in your life when you devote all of your energy to the children and spouse. Your hobbies include watching your kids take swim lessons and driving the minivan full of kids to storytime at the library once a week and packing well-balanced lunches in between helping the kids with their homework and feeding and changing them. Oh yeah, and get the laundry folded before it sits on the couch for a week.

I have contempt when I see this now, because I recognize myself in that self-sacrifice. I used to be that woman. I used to think that this self-sacrifice was the hallmark of good motherhood. Now I think it’s foolishness.

I began to ask myself: am I working hard to raise good kids just so they can get married and have kids and no longer foster their interests and talents? To just throw it away to domesticity? Did my parents raise me to just be a slave to other people?

Don’t get me wrong. I think cooking dinner and cleaning my house is a form of a self-care. I can’t pursue all of my other interests and goals if things are a mess at home. A balance must be struck.

But there is no balance when you allow yourself to be a slave to other people, even when those other people share your DNA.

You know what I can’t stand?

The “I don’t have time” excuse.
I don’t have time.

Ha.

Lamest excuse ever.

YOU HAVE TIME.

Sometimes you have to be creative, and sometimes you have to make the conscious decision that your life is important too. Your children benefit when their parent is happy and fulfilled. I don’t want to claim to know what fulfills other people, but wiping asses and packing lunches isn’t a source of personal fulfillment. I do it out of love for my family, but it is not what defines me.

Our schedule reflects our priorities.

It’s not that you “don’t have time.”

It’s that you haven’t made yourself a priority.

I go running with a double stroller and a third kid riding his bike alongside of me. There are ways to make it happen.

It’s stressful. It doesn’t always work. I get frustrated and stressed out. But I’m here as the widowed mother of three to say it can happen. You can find time. You can make it work.

And it’s good for you as a mother.

It is all of this hard work–of redefining who I am and making a conscious effort to separate it from my motherhood–that makes me not feel compelled to do anything special for myself on Mother’s Day.

I’ve been taking care of myself as a mother, and I’m at a comfortable place. That’s the best present ever.

Mother’s Day shouldn’t just be one day a year that we give mothers flowers and pancakes and Hallmark cards.

We should be more focused on supporting mothers in the challenging endeavor of carving out lives that are authentically their own. Not as housekeepers. Not as babysitters.

Mothers need your support in the workplace. They deserve equal pay. They need to not be punished for having children in the way of getting passed over for promotions, being denied leadership positions, and being constrained by strict hours that are not conducive to raising children. Mothers have so many wonderful skills to offer the world, but they also have responsibilities at home. How can we support mothers to make them be able to do both–women with interests and goals and careers AND mothers– instead of choosing one over the other?

Let’s figure out how to make childcare more affordable.

Let’s figure out how to make healthcare more affordable. Giving birth shouldn’t break the bank.

Let’s allow women to determine what happens to their bodies, and give them the opportunity to plan their families. Motherhood is already difficult–but it’s especially bone-crushingly difficult when we have to become mothers in circumstances that we do not want, with a lack of resources.

That’s the kind of stuff I’d like to see mothers get from society. Pancakes are good, but most of us moms are already struggling to lose the baby weight, so let’s give them something that will make them feel good about themselves: independence and self-determination. Respect. Support.

Let’s treat mothers as women with their own unique interests and goals that don’t involve babbling about pee pee and poo poo. Women who have things that they enjoy that don’t involve buying diaper bags or nursing bras. Interests that go beyond being the resident housekeeper in the family

Motherhood is such an important part of who we are, but it isn’t who we are.

I’m not just a woman.

I’m not just a teacher.

I’m not just a daughter.

I’m not just a sister.

I’m not just an American.

I’m not just a mother.

Human beings are never that simplistic. We don’t have to choose this or that. We can be all of the above.

Although being a mother will have been one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had, and one in which I am honored to serve and pledge to do my very best, it is just one aspect of who I am.

I look forward to living and growing alongside of Ethan, Eloise, and Peter Jack. They are everything I have ever wanted in my life, and I am so lucky to be their mother. I will die a happy woman knowing that I got to bring them into the world and nurture and support the people they continue to become.

Anniversary Table for Four

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Saturday May 12th would have been my anniversary. Wedding anniversaries after death are tricky. Do they still exist? What do they mean?

It feels odd to treat them like an ordinary day. They seem to deserve more notice than that.

Kenneth and I got married on my grandparents’ anniversary, 64 years after they were married. My grandparents’ were married just shy of 60 years. I thought it was good luck to pick that date.

Turns out, there’s probably no such thing as good luck dates. Especially in the case of my luck, which basically sucks.

We fell into the habit of treating our anniversary like a family anniversary–the day that our family officially began. Sort of. I mean, from a legal perspective, anyway. Kenneth and I were together for 2 years before that. That’s the thing about dates. They are often arbitrary.

When Kenneth died two weeks before our 7th wedding anniversary, I decided to continue the tradition of celebrating the inception of our family, in lieu of being able to go on a romantic date with my husband. The only other option was the ignore the date, and that didn’t feel right. So off we went–me and my three kids–to dinner at a table for four.

I remember teasing Kenneth in the months before his death. “Our 7-year itch is coming. Will we last?”

“What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.

I smirked. “You know what they say. You better watch out. We may not make it past seven years.”

He got mad and told me not to say that. He didn’t think it was funny.

In hindsight, it wasn’t funny.

We didn’t last.

We never even made it to our 7-year itch, not because of divorce, but were instead thwarted by an exploding aorta.

Marriage is such a complicated thing. We enter it with blinders on. We have all of these preconceived notions and expectations about it. Sometimes we are young when we make the commitment. We almost never account for the changes that we will individually experience over time. While we inevitably change, our marriage either changes along with us, or we outgrow it.

I suspect we all face these challenges to varying degrees at some point(s) in our marriages. Some of us survive the growing pains. Some of us don’t. Some of us never have to find out because one of us drops dead first.

I don’t have the answers. The only thing I can offer is perspective about what happens when your spouse passes away and you are left in the solitude of marital reflection. I also have the privilege of having records–both my journals and my late husband’s–upon which I have pored over in my quest to examine what kind of a life we had together.

Once Kenneth asked me why I never read his journals anymore. When our relationship was new, I practically shoved a microscope up his ass and inspected all aspects of his existence. I sucked his soul dry, taking anything and everything I could squeeze out of him. I looked through his journals that he kept on his computer, and I found the Mead notebooks he liked to write in. I went through his closets. Found old emails. Text messages. Boxes of old papers shoved behind a vacuum cleaner that he rarely used in that wretched studio apartment he lived in when we first met. Everything. I learned about his crushes. Saw pictures of the ex-girlfriend posed in the same hallway I stood in, and asked him questions about what he saw in her. Back when the novelty of our love still caused the butterflies to flutter in my stomach, I was hungry to know more about him, as if it somehow mattered in figuring out how our lives fit together. I wanted to excavate the layers of his life. The child version of him. His teenage self. Young adult Kenneth. The new teacher Kenneth. His life when he had a son with the woman who posed in the hallway–the nasty email exchanges they had about custody and medical bills.

And then over time there was nothing more to know. I had looked under every rock. Heard every story. I could predict what he would say before he opened his mouth. I knew all of his habits. His passwords were my passwords. I had seen him go to the bathroom in front of me a zillion times. We shared our daily commute to work, cooked dinner together every night, and I could easily look up his internet browser history if I wanted to–but I no longer had any interest. If anything, there were many times that I didn’t want in, but rather wanted out.

We want what we don’t have.

When he was alive, I wanted my freedom. I wanted a better husband. One that listened to me and understood my desires. I wanted everything that existed beyond the borders of my world. I had an insatiable appetite for more. There was always something more to want.

When he was dead, I wanted him back. I would even take that version of him who left his dirty socks on the floor and had piles of clutter everywhere he went. I wanted anything he wrote down. I wanted videos of him speaking and felt paranoid that I would forget his voice. I wanted any crumb of a memory or connection, desperate to hold on to him as his existence slipped away from me like the sand we try to hold in our hands.

Suddenly I had many unanswered questions to ask him even though I once thought I knew everything about him. I didn’t know everything, it was just that the novelty wore off, and I somehow forgot he was still there.

Something about unavailability makes a human frantic. Like when you were a child and your mom was on the phone or in the bathroom and you suddenly needed to say something to her. Or you are somewhere without water and you start to feel the narrowing of your parched throat, convinced you might die of dehydration if you don’t drink water RIGHT NOW. The more you think about what you don’t have, the more you need it.

During our marriage, Kenneth had become one of those post-it notes that you stick onto your computer screen as a reminder of something that needs your attention. You scribble something important on it with the grand plan of making it a priority, but over time your eyes become accustomed to seeing the bright yellow square, and the effect is that you somehow stop seeing it. It blends in with everything else in the room. You just pass right by, paying it no attention. When you do happen to notice, the post-it feels a little burdensome–like it’s one more thing you haven’t dealt with but probably should have, and now it feels encumbering and you grow resentful.

That was my husband: this important thing right in front of me, but I couldn’t see it.

There were a lot of complaints in both my journals and in his. Some of them valid complaints. Sometimes vicious complaints about the other person. A lot of it was one-sided angry drivel. When I first started reading them, I felt angry. I wondered if it was actually a good thing that I wasn’t married anymore. It’s a terrible thought to have when the other person is dead–the father of your children.

I wondered if our lives had really been that horrible. Had we spent the last 9 years hating each other? The journal entries seemed to indicate this, and yet I had memories that contradicted that version of our life together. It seemed more nuanced than what our angsty journal entries indicated.

I knew there had been good times. Our trip to Paris, strolling through the Jardin des Plantes. Jogging through our neighborhood in the evenings, talking so much that the 25 minutes passed quickly, motivating each other. The night before he died, sitting out on the patio after the kids went to sleep, brainstorming the details of our upcoming trip to Berlin and then falling asleep in between the sentences we exchanged in bed.

There were good times. I wasn’t crazy.

We just apparently forgot to write them down. How stupid that we spend more time on what goes wrong in our lives, and less time nurturing what went right.

I turned to photographic evidence for more proof that I wasn’t losing my mind.

Us on the fairy tale ride at Legoland, smiling for the camera. Our daughter, Eloise, sitting next to him in the front row. The baby on my lap, and our firstborn next to me. Smiling. Happy.

Us in front of General Sherman in Sequoia National Park. We were wearing our goofy camp shirts. Peter Jack is in the baby carrier, pressed against my chest. Kenneth had Eloise on his back. We smiled big while our friend took the obligatory photo. We had no idea that this would be our last camping trip together as a family of five.

Us on the day we got married at the courthouse. Later, we met our families at a restaurant. There is a photograph of all of us, me wearing Kenneth’s black suit jacket over my white sundress. His dad was in the picture; we gave him a ride home. His dad is gone now. Kenneth is gone.

Us in front of Picasso’s apartment in Montmartre. The kids eating gelato that dribbles out of their mouths.

Us on the beach, taking our last family picture. Everyone wears color-coordinated clothes and we all amazingly are looking at the camera and smiling at the same time. This is the picture that went on the funeral announcements. It got shared online as people spread the horrible news: Kenneth Shimogawa, Dead at 52.

When Kenneth and I started dating, I began a tradition of making a scrapbook or photo album for our anniversary. It includes photographs of our year together. I have stuck to that tradition. It is fascinating to look at these albums and be reminded of the good memories–the ones that seem to be forgotten when we’re busy dwelling on the negative. Our journals recorded our hate, but our albums reveal an alternate reality. A few days ago the kids and I received our album in the mail for year #9. We flipped through the pages together, lingering over the photos and recalling the many things we managed to pack into a year of living.

“We had a great year, didn’t we?” I said to them. I often feel like I’m not doing enough. Sometimes my days are plagued with feelings of falling short and failing as a mother. But in the big picture, it looks like we’re doing okay. Better than okay.

It’s funny–we really do get to choose what our mind focuses on. Our albums always remind me that there is so much more than the small moments we get stuck in.

Recently I read an article about a mother who lost her son, entitled “I’m Not Done Being Your Mom.” The author wrote, “being your mom is one of the best things in my life, and it always will be.” It resonated.

I’m not done being Kenneth’s wife. I don’t think I ever will be. And being his wife was one of the best things that happened to me, despite all the bullshit that often made me want to run away and/or write about him in my journal. Despite the gnarliest moments of our marriage, I would do it again. I’m the person I am today because of him, and we have these fun and sweet children together. It was all worth it.

Being his wife was a bittersweet honor that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

This Saturday, the kids and I will reserve a table for 4 and commemorate the beginning of our family, and celebrate the love that we will continue to grow in ways that we probably can’t envision yet.

Happy Anniversary, Kenneth. Forever yours. XOXO.

Life Levels the Playing Field

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The van door slid open and Ethan paused before stepping into the vehicle. “Today I learned I’m not popular,” he announced, and then chucked his backpack past his younger brother’s feet and onto the floor with a thump.

I was a few minutes late picking him up from Japanese school. Not enough to really even be considered late, but enough to make me feel guilty and stressed tenfold when I spotted him in the distance, sitting alone on a bench. He had his bright yellow Pikachu backpack strapped onto his back and his shoulders were rounded in defeat.

Crap.

When he approached our van I noticed the furrowed brows and the disappointment pooling inside of his wet eyes.

I held my breath, expecting a bad behavior report. He was probably talking in class again. He was always talking.

“What happened?”

He shut the door and squeezed into the last row of the van. As he buckled his seat belt, I heard him mumble something that sounded like, “I’m not passing to the next grade.”

My heart raced. WHAT? He received a good report card a month ago. He had great attendance. Yeah, he could probably study more. But…but…but…not pass? That’s it. I’m failing as a parent. I suck at this job. I’m terrible. Terrible. I’m the worst mother in the world for not helping my kid pass Japanese class. I am raising out-of-control children. I am failing as a mother.

“No,” he snapped. “I found out today that I’m NOT POPULAR.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Oh thank goodness. He’s not popular! He’s still passing Japanese class…phew! I felt the tension in my body immediately melt away. I wasn’t such a terrible mother after all. He wasn’t a terrible student. Crisis averted.

“It’s serious,” Ethan said. “They all voted and I didn’t get chosen.”

Wait, what were we talking about? I asked him to go back to the beginning of the story. Voted for what? Who? Why?

Apparently his teacher had the class vote to determine who the three best behaved students were, and he said he never got chosen. No votes. Not a single one.

“Who cares if they don’t think you’re the best behaved,” I said. Maybe not the best thing for a teacher to say, you know, down-playing the benefits of behaving in class. But really, who cares?

“I never get picked,” he bemoaned. “They never vote for me. I’m NOT popular.”

“Why do you go to Japanese school? Why do you spend your Saturdays there?”

“To learn Japanese.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m going to be a robot scientist and do business in Tokyo.”

“Right. And someday you won’t even think about these kids who voted on useless titles like ‘best behaved.’ I don’t hang out with anyone from elementary school. Not a single person.” I glanced in the rear-view mirror to see if my impassioned speech was sticking, but he looked unconvinced.

Maybe I was being too blase about this social predicament of his. Certainly I remembered what it felt like to be unpopular. Heck, I still had moments in my adult life when I was reminded of the social pecking order. I definitely remembered what it was like as a kid to feel self-conscious about everything, and how difficult it was to coexist with peers in the fishbowl of school. At 36-years-old I have just barely gotten over the self-conscious paranoia.

It actually wasn’t until I woke up one morning to a dead husband when I realized none of the things I worried about mattered in the grand scheme of life. Everything had been in my head.

Now I wished that I could transfer this realization to my children without them having to waste painful years of their own lives trying to reach the same conclusion the hard way. I want to hand them a road map to the spring of confidence that exists within them so they can access it before the weight of the world crushes their self-esteem. I want them to always feel like they are enough. I want my children to feel empowered to make their own decisions with confidence, and for them to understand that nobody has the right to tell them who they should or shouldn’t be.

Unfortunately, these are lessons and realizations that usually come with experience. You have to grow into these truths through trial and error. You have to get your feelings hurt. Cry. Feel rejected. I can tell the kids not to touch the hot pan, but for most people, they have to touch it for themselves and feel the burn before learning not to do it again. For some people, they might need to get burned several times before they figure it out.

I wasn’t convincing Ethan with my pep talk. At least not in that moment.

I had been noticing signs of my first born’s increasing awareness about social situations. He began to measure the success of a day by his peer interactions. Who he hung out with. What was said. Where so-and-so sat. How the class stared at him when the teacher called out his name. So much of his mood had become intertwined with these encounters.

I remembered those days. I hated them. As a mother, I want my children to understand that those days don’t define us. Those people and those feelings are distorted images inside of our heads, kind of like looking into those fun house mirrors at a carnival and seeing twisted versions of yourself. Not real.

I don’t know what I was more concerned about–the fact that my son had a terrible day, or the fact that I’ve somehow become one of those old adults who espouse useless pearls of wisdom that do not apply in young social circles.

I’ve turned into my dad.

Oh my goodness. That’s it. I’m done. I’m one of “those” adults. I’ve become a obsolete voice box.

I could hear my dad’s infamous lines in my head, the ones me and my siblings would make fun of whenever he said them.

“You have the rest of your life to get there.”

“You never know the burden other people carry.”

“We’re the family that doesn’t waste anything.”

Shudder. The loathed old person telling the young what to do.

Unwilling to give up on my mission to help Ethan realize the mirage in his head for what it was, I brought up the subject the next day when I was jogging. I pushed the double stroller with two kids inside, and Ethan rode his bike next to me.

“Ethan,” I said, in between breaths. “Remember when we worked the bake sale at the Hanamatsuri festival?”

“Yes.”

“Remember when I got super excited about seeing that girl from high school?”

He remembered.

I was selling brownies and cookies with Ethan under the shade of an E-Z Up when I spotted her in the distance pushing a stroller. I did a double-take, hardly believing my eyes that somebody from my childhood would be at my temple as an adult. Sure enough, it was her. I elbowed Ethan and pointed her out, completely forgetting about my brownie-buying-customers for a few seconds. I literally stared in disbelief that the time had finally come.

One of the most popular girls from high school. I remembered how she had a Barbie doll body. Or did she?

“Our eyes and brains trick us when we’re younger,” I said.

He waited for clarification.

“I thought there was no way I could compete with her.” My former classmate had bleached blonde hair, popular boyfriends and her own phone line. She was a cheerleader. I was a nerd.

I had to explain the phone line significance. You know, back in the old days we didn’t have cell phones, so having your own phone line in your bedroom was a big deal.

“When I saw her at the festival, I didn’t feel so beneath her anymore. She’s not cooler than I am. Life leveled the playing field.” It felt therapeutic just to hear myself say those words out loud.

In short: the nerds catch up. They always do. And we all experience our own share of personal shit. None of us will escape it. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others.

Life leveled the playing field.

My big revelation out of all of this. I know experiencing the loss of my husband helped expedite this level of self-consciousness.

Carlos Castaneda said that “a warrior must focus his attention on the link between himself and his death…he must let each of his acts be his last battle on earth. Only under those conditions will his acts have their rightful power.”

As we age, we get closer to our own death. We experience the death of our loved ones. We begin to understand mortality in a way that escapes the young.

Except Ethan has a dead father. Having a dead father can be an emotional ball and chain, or it can be the motivation and the impetus to do great things.

All of the stupid noise in between our birth and death must get filtered out.

That is the greatest challenge: deciphering what is just noise, and what we should actually listen to.

I don’t spend a lot of time begrudging others for not having a dead husband like me. I didn’t even feel jealous when I saw my former Barbie classmate with her husband and young family strolling around the same festival I would have been at with my husband if he had been alive. I wasn’t jealous because I know all too well that life will level the playing field. We all have our highs and lows. We all start at different places, with different privilege and different experiences.

But the end is the same for all of us.

We are all going to die.

And because of this, I have to live in a way that makes the best out of what I have, and I have to worry about creating my personal niche in the peaks and valleys that I dwell in–a niche that will be uniquely my own. No apologies. This is the only thing that matters.

We are all running out of time.