The Waiting

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

-Tom Petty

Last Wednesday was my late husband’s birthday. I woke up at 3AM fully alert, my body aware before my brain was cognizant of what day it was. It’s a strange feeling– feeling fine and like everything has moved on and settled into a place of calm and peace, and then the sudden reminder that you haven’t always been fine when those familiar tentacles of grief resurface and come looking for you.

It ended up being a fun day for me. Much thanks to the passing of time and all of the work I have done to accept the unexplainable horrors of a human existence. This was probably the “easiest” October since his passing.

But the next day, I felt a little conflicted.

It’s difficult to reconcile being sad about something, but still feel happy with life as it is right now, even if it isn’t what I envisioned for myself.

This got me thinking. I’ve been pondering the concept of waiting. It reminded me of the Tom Petty song, but it’s more than that. It’s about not being where you want to be and learning how to sit with that feeling. It’s about finding joy even during difficult times.

Maybe it has to do with being alone with yourself. How to be content with the present moment– with who you are right now– even when it is not necessarily your ideal version of yourself.

Mother Teresa said, “Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.”

I think this wisdom comes from the truth that no matter where you are in life– how much money, how many friends, how many material possessions– there will be something more you don’t have. Something more you could have. Something better. If you torture yourself between where you are right now to the point of where you want to be, you will have spent the majority of your life suffering instead of enjoying what you have.

When I was first widowed, the idea of life ever feeling good again didn’t seem real. It’s difficult to conceptualize happiness when you are living in a purgatory, drowning in the throes of the worst pain you’ve ever felt.

In hindsight, I wish I had more guidance in future projection. If I could go back and tell myself that opportunities rejuvenate, shift, twist, and morph into the nooks and crannies of life that is still waiting to be explored and excavated, maybe that could have eased the pain. If I had a looking mirror, I would have showed myself the new people and places and things I would be introduced to that would bring me joy. I would have poured all of the wisdom into my pain-stricken self during those early days of grief– all of that wisdom I clawed my way to learn about suffering being a normal cost of doing business as a human. I would have shown myself that suffering led me to the light and did not keep me in the darkness of my existence.

It’s the waiting that kills me the most. Waiting to figure out what to do with suffering. Waiting to meet that person. Waiting for an opportunity. Waiting for clarity. Waiting for the stars to align.

If you think about the number of highs and lows we have in our lives, in the grand scheme of our lives, they do not make up the majority of our days. I’m talking about those times of extreme pain, and the days of mind-blowing joy.

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We spend the majority of our lives in “the waiting.” Waiting for the next meteor to hit. I live in California– waiting for the next earthquake. Or waiting to get our hands on a precious moment. Victory. Success. Love. Those times of great opportunity falling into our laps.

We are pain-averse; we constantly chase good feelings. If we can’t find it the honest way, we look for ways to expedite good feelings. Pick your poison.

It makes me think about the Mother Teresa quote. Be happy in the moment.

This moment.

Just as you are. Even with the pain. Exactly as you are. No more, no less.

Mathematician Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

You have to sit in that room and not sugarcoat your reality. You have to be able to be alone and content even with your current circumstances. I think this requires that you accept life at face value.

Do you ever notice how young children accept life at face value?

They get in trouble, or they fall down and skin their knees. They get that piece of candy or they don’t get that piece of candy. They throw the fit. They move on.

Some kid hits them, maybe they cry, and the next minute they are playing together again.

Children know what it is like to be happy in the moment. They don’t care who their friends are. They can make friends with anyone. They don’t care what they have. They could live in a box. They don’t care how much money their parents have in the bank account, or where they live, they’ll love their parents anyway.

And then we grow older and we lose that ability to be content with what we have. We start reaching for more. We develop an insatiable appetite for more.

While the adults are having anxiety, feeling hopeless, lonely, and experiencing suffering waiting for their next high in life, the children play. They know how to keep moving forward. They don’t know what it is like to say yes to the weight of the world and carry it around on their shoulders. It is simply not an option for them.

Historically I have had the bad habit of torturing myself when I am waiting for something that I want. I let anxiety consume me. I want to speed up time. There are times when hopelessness, despair, and forlornness convince me that I’m not worthy of this thing that I want. It’s a gross rut to be in, and the work to dig yourself out of it feels like an endless loop of chasing your tail.

Recently I’ve been working on being more mindful about “the waiting.” I’ve been trying to find the silver-lining in situations. Every situation has the good and the bad, but it takes reflection and gratitude for me to be able to see both sides of the coin. Honestly, it takes a lot of work. I wish I were like a child with a mind that doesn’t get stuck in what I don’t have, but this is what I have to work with, and it takes effort to keep my constantly spinning brain from overwhelming the rest of myself. I have to pull the reins in on myself every hour. Every day. The rational side of me is constantly keeping my emotional side in check just like the movie Inside Out. I have to remind myself not to be too attached to expectations and outcomes. I am constantly trying to remember impermanence– nothing lasts forever.

But the thing is, I have gotten through the bad experiences 100% of the time. One of the biggest reminders I have to give myself is to simply do what I can in a day, then take a deep breath, step back, and let things fall as they may. I try again the next day. I know some people have a problem with avoidance, but I have a problem with excessive attention to every teeny tiny detail in a way that drives myself crazy interpreting what may or may not be happening. For me, I’ve been trying to do like the children do– play. More play. Doing things that I enjoy. Being very intentional about the things I like, and making sure they get priority in my schedule. This has been part of my reflection efforts.

Whoever you are, and whatever your problems, you can’t practice genuine reflection and gratitude unless you are comfortable being in the room by yourself– without the sound of other people talking, without your own self being consumed with loneliness. The solitude becomes your medicine. In that room, you create a space for personal understanding about yourself and who you truly are.

Every moment, each day, can not feel like the first bite of delectable meal. Whatever your extreme happiness feels like– that can not be experienced on a daily basis. It just can’t. We all know this, yet we chase after it like we can eliminate gravity.

Our monumental task as adults wanting to live as well as we can is to find joy and gratitude wherever we are, with whatever we have.

This doesn’t mean settling.

It means doing what we can and being content, even when we aren’t where we want to be yet. It means being satisfied with the waiting as being a part of our life journey, rather than it being suffering. It isn’t punishment. It is an opportunity.

We need to re-frame it.

If we can turn the waiting around into something meaningful instead of a place to be anxious and resentful about our circumstances, then we can maximize the human experience.

What does the waiting teach us?

For me: to appreciate what I have, to give me the gift of time with myself, to understand my priorities in life, to appreciate joy more deeply, to take pride in my independence, and to truly savor the opportunity to grow in who I am.

Spectacularly Ordinary

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Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago, I found out that a neighbor from my childhood street (where my parents have lived for the past 40+ years) was found dead.

Not just dead.

Unrecognizably dead.

Melted-into-the-carpet-dead.

As in, nobody-knew-he-was-dead-for-a-week kind of dead.

He was 76-years-old. Six years older than my dad.

I did the math and texted my sister when I realized this neighbor and my father were both younger than we currently are when they bought houses on the same street. My sister and I both agreed that it didn’t seem possible. They had both seemed *so old* since the beginning of time, and certainly *we* were not old. We did not discuss the unnerving awareness about the the way time moves at lightning speed, and how in a blink of an eye we too will reach our own mortality.

To me, my neighbor looked exactly the same in the 37 years that I knew him. Same beard. Same gentle expression. I remember his wife being a raging you-know-what who scowled at us neighborhood children and never once said a kind thing, but he was the opposite. He never raised his voice. He waved when he saw us. He knew our names. I remember the last time I saw him. His wife had been in a nursing home for years and he would sometimes seek company from my father. Loneliness and passivity had permeated his existence. He sat next to my dad on a fold-up chair in my parents’ garage with the same quiet, unremarkable presence that I knew him by. I paused in my haste to say hello, but then I was off to chase after one of my children. The story of my life: racing from one thing to another.

It’s funny how our minds search for the memory of when we last saw somebody alive. The moment is usually unremarkable and ordinary. I am reminded about how those ordinary moments carry hidden weight, and I try to keep that awareness close to my heart in my subsequent days filled with a zillion ordinary moments. Holding that truth feels like trying to keep sand from slipping through my fingers. It’s a drop of water in an ocean versus a drop of water in a barren desert. You don’t know until you are there.

I think loneliness and passivity about living is a death sentence. I fear becoming the kind of person who is resigned with nothing to look forward to. Bad things can and will happen to me, but please, please, please do not put me in a holding cell of time where I wait for the end with no purpose.

A few days after the news of my neighbor’s death, in the throes of my own personal stress and perseveration over the things I can not control in my own life, I scrawled in my journal, “I wonder how long it will take people to notice when I die?”

And then I started to have other questions, like I wonder during which month I will die? And speaking of which, how will I die?

Amin Maalouf wrote, “… we die, just as we were born, at the edge of a road not of our choosing.”

I think about the things I could not control about my entrance into this world: where I was born, my sex, the way I look, who my parents are, economics, all of the experiences and missed opportunities that accumulated– many of which were dependent upon time and place and factors beyond my control.

I know people (some of whom grew up in the same household as me) who can’t let go of these facts.

It’s always the same complaints.

If we only had _____. If ___________ didn’t happen, then _____.

If, if, if!

I try to let these thoughts pass quickly through me since you can never change those facts. Spending too much time on them only leads to personal quicksand– a place to get stuck.

So much about our death is the same as our birth: out of our hands.

How we die.

Where we die.

When we die.

Sure, there are factors we can try to influence, such as our health, but the rest is indeed a road not of our choosing.

I like to think about my options though. The things I can control. That’s the optimistic side of me, or maybe the bossy first child part of my personality asserting her will in this universe.

I want to know: if I can’t choose all of my roads, can I choose how I go down a road?

We’ve all heard the saying “life is a journey.”

Many of us suffer from destination mentality–me included. The “journey” part of living is inconsequential to our social consciousness.

We understand happiness in terms of milestones: graduation, marriage, parenthood, home ownership, retirement, whatever.

The things we check off boxes for.

One destination after the other.

It’s quietly understood that we’re really not supposed to talk about the final destination, until we get “old.” Once we’re old, we run out of destinations, so then we can sit in our recliner chair and wait for someone to call us while we watch bad television and read newspapers and maybe die and not get found for a week.

My problem with destination mentality is that it doesn’t prepare us for the in-betweens. It doesn’t explain the end. It hijacks our real purpose. It seems silly to string together an entire existence out of a few destinations. There has to be more to this journey.

Who we are is developed during those ordinary days and weeks between milestones. This is when the true journey takes place, between the bottom and the top of the mountain, and then back down again. Step-by-step. There is no journey without those steps.

There is a famous quote attributed to the great Michelangelo that says, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

People disagree about whether Michelangelo actually said that, but there is a letter he wrote in which he said, “The sculptor arrives at his end by taking away what is superfluous.”

Yes, I think.

Yes to both quotes.

Yes to being able to see something beautiful inside of you that is worth unleashing to the world, and yes to likening your role in life to that of a sculptor, living with intentionality and working bit-by-bit on your own personal masterpiece.

A sculptor.

A life sculptor.

I daydream about my life beginning as a large, hunking block of unremarkable marble. I can choose to die a block of marble, or I can chisel away until I capture the essence of who I’ve always known I am in a way that others can see too.

I feel like milestones and destinations discount the day-to-day effort we have to make to be fully engaged in living. Life isn’t a checklist. There is no cruise control option. This is the chiseling part. The sculpting. We have to continuously make friends– young and old. Living involves keeping an open mind and learning. Trying new things and seeking joy and happiness despite the suffering and pain that are inevitable in a human life. Most importantly, making an ongoing effort to love and help and connect with others. You can choose to be driftwood and get pushed along by time, but chances are high that you’ll end up tangled up in the weeds.

And yet I’m not fully convinced that this neighbor was tangled up in the weeds.

I characterized him as unremarkable and resigned in life, and there is sadness in knowing a human being died alone. But maybe it helps to know that we do not have to live spectacular lives. Maybe we just need to be kind and gentle and avoid disrupting the rotation of the earth.

There is something remarkable about the ordinary.

And if a person was kind and gentle throughout their life, maybe they didn’t do too bad after all.

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

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Photo by Isandréa Carla on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It made me think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the toughest, toughest one for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just get some confidence!

But, HOW?

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

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

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

Letting go is important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This forward motion has saved me.

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

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

But it’s my journey.

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

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

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

Either way, we have to choose.

 

Handling Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I love to collect quotes that resonate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s the thing.

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

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

And I am a terrible risk-taker.

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

But is “really like” enough?

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

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

THIS is really what we fear the most.

Starting over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I won’t sink this time either.

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

I can start over.

I will start over.

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

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

I am in the process of detaching.

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

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

But first, back to square one.

I’m ready for it.

The Recital of Life

architecture auditorium building chairs
Photo Credit: Pixabay 

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

Why was I nervous?

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

Fine.

I’m still fine.

Mom, I’m fine.

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

Nothing like me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so interesting, I thought.

Recitals.

Places of vulnerability.

How we respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the thing.

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

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

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

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

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

But humans aren’t irreparable.

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

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

It’s not about being fearless.

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

Practicing.

Learning.

Making adjustments.

Building resilience.

Getting better each time.

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

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

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

What if we stopped hiding this about ourselves?

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

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

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

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

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

Loving kindness.

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

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

 

Me and My Expectations

sevilla

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

Fast forward to 2019, 11.5 years later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

He didn’t say the right things.

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

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

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

It wasn’t romantic enough.

There was no ring.

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

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

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

Not the fairy tale I imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you can cry about it.

Stare at it in disbelief.

Feel the despair of hopelessness.

Depression.

Anger.

Resentment.

Guilt.

Sadness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean, that was amazing to me.

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

I’m 37.

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

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

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

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

Life is constant erosion and regrowth and erosion and regrowth.

It isn’t good or bad.

It isn’t happy or sad.

It’s all of it.

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

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

Have expectations, but learn when to let them go.

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