Valentine’s Day with Myself

vday.jpg

Pictured: Our last Valentine’s Day together, 2016. We were in Playa del Carmen celebrating my sister’s wedding. The kids were taking a nap when this photo was snapped. Not long after this I was walking around, trying to rock the baby to sleep. Read: not a very romantic V-Day. 

Disclaimer: I apologize in advance to the people who love Valentine’s Day who I am about to offend. But just so you know, this isn’t exactly a bash-on-the-holiday post. It’s more about why we shouldn’t be sad if we’re alone this year.

***

For the record, I haven’t cared about Valentine’s Day for a long time, even when my husband was alive. I don’t like being told what to do, and Valentine’s Day feels like a societally-imposed obligation to buy store-bought chocolate, flowers, and exchange sappy cards. It’s like we’re being told to look madly in love and happy and we have to keep up with what everyone else is doing.

No thanks. Please don’t tell me when and how I should show my affection.

As a kid holiday, sure. It’s kind of nice exchanging cards and treats with classmates. I’m not thrilled about the candy part of it and I was that mom who got non-candy items for her kids to exchange at school. But it’s a cute kid holiday.

As an adult, I think the entire day is silly.

First of all, when you’re not in a relationship, you have to feel bad about not having someone to get the flowers and the chocolate and the sappy card from. I remember many years ago feeling a little depressed that my friends got roses from their significant others and I wasn’t in a relationship.

If you’re in a relationship, you might have to deal with the other person not delivering the exhibition of love that you expected. Maybe there were no roses. Maybe the sappy card wasn’t sappy enough, maybe he/she didn’t think about making dinner reservations, or maybe you got stuck with a cheap bastard. I don’t know. It just seems like even if you have someone to pretend to be over the moon in love with, there is still a lot of room for deflated expectations.

As a widow, I feel like this is supposed to be a triggering day for us sad souls. We’re supposed to be devastated that our significant other isn’t here to lavish us with a dozen roses and fine dining. Widowhood is a little different than just being single because if our significant other were here, they would probably do something for us. But they aren’t. So here we are, alone.

I cared about Valentine’s Day so much this year that I made my weekly work schedule, arranged childcare, and then realized days later that I booked myself at the coffee shop to work on love day.

Well, that sounds exactly where I would want to be. I subconsciously did exactly what I wanted.

But maybe I should be at home watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, eating barkThins with a tissue in hand because surely I’ll sporadically burst into tears over not having my beloved here to give me that sappy card.

Yeah, not gonna happen.

I had a husband who actually did remember to buy me flowers throughout the year, just because. It was a lovely gesture. I appreciated it. He gave me sappy cards (year-round) and even enjoyed watching romantic movies more than I did. He did a good job in that department.

And now he isn’t here to continue showering me with his affection. But I’m not sad about it. That might seem cold, but I think it’s actually a coping strategy.

I had to make a decision about what to do with my sadness. I could let it fester and gnaw away at my insides, especially on triggering days that would remind me of my solitude, or I could do something else with it.

After my husband died, I learned that when life disappoints us–when something happens that ruins our expectations, something that derails the life we planned for–there is an alternative to our sadness.

We can choose to let go of the expectations that cause us pain.

There is more in life to experience. There are multiple sources of joy and contentment. Love can come in many forms. There are different paths to take, and they might be just as fulfilling or even more so than the one that didn’t work out for you. It’s not game over. We don’t have to settle with a death sentence of sadness.

I think it’s a matter of thinking strategically. Instead of having scarcity mentality that all of our joy and love is gone, we can choose to believe that we have the power to continue creating more experiences and more love. There isn’t a finite supply of any of these. It’s limitless.

I mean, I can buy my own flowers just fine. I can arrange my own entertainment. I don’t need a sappy card to validate that I was loved, am loved, and will be loved. I used to buy my own birthday presents, even when Kenneth was alive. I could never understand the song and dance we do with our partners, where we either a) expect them to read our minds and guess the perfect gift, or b) tell them exactly what we want and let them buy it for us, even when we could just as easily order it on Amazon.

I’m probably romantically stunted, but that didn’t happen in widowhood. I’m pretty sure I was born that way. I just don’t get it. (FYI, I make a really cheap date.)

Maybe in lieu of having my husband around, I’ve opted for a different kind of relationship. The most important relationship there is: one with myself.

If you think about it, you’re the only person you’re guaranteed to spend your entire life with.

Dare to be madly in love with yourself.

The Selfishness of My Grief

selfishness of grief

There is so much about grief that can often feel beyond your control, especially when it is a fresh wound in those early days and weeks and months. After my husband passed away, I lost almost 20 pounds within a few weeks. I call this the Grief Diet. You have no desire to eat and food becomes about as appetizing as cardboard. The numbness somehow travels down to your stomach and emptiness fills your insides in a way that feels perversely satisfying in the throes of grief-induced pain. Other symptoms included difficulty remembering basic things, only sleeping 3-4 hours a night, and a perpetual feeling of tightness in my chest that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. I also didn’t get my period for 6 months. I thought I was either pregnant or dying, either of which would have killed me. It’s a good thing it was just “this.” Just grief, as if.

They classify “this” as a temporary psychological disturbance. You won’t usually get diagnosed with depression because of it. Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her memoir A Widow’s Story about how she had her doctor prescribe meds to ease her pain. Maybe I should have done that, but I gave birth to three children without meds, including a 10 lb 3 ouncer. Of course I would choose to go through grief the natural way, even if it had me writhing on the floor in agony. I’m a glutton for punishment.

Over time, the experts were right. “This” began to ease up, and I didn’t feel depressed anymore. Slowly, like the first seedling to break through a frozen ground after a long winter, there were glimmers of life coming back. It would never be the same, but at least I was still alive.

When the initial fog from the trauma of loss begins to dissipate, that’s when you begin to suspect that grief is a selfish bastard.

It often isn’t just about the person who died. It becomes more about losing the life you had. As much as that sounds terrible and selfish, it’s true.

Of course I loved my husband. He wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t always like him. But I loved him. While we were married, there were many times when I asked myself if I really loved him. Two strong-willed, opinionated people, one person a Type A personality, and the other Type Do Whatever I Want, which inevitably led to numerous battles of the will. When Kenneth died, I felt riddled with guilt for ever questioning if I loved him. But I know now that I l truly did.

I know that I loved him because of how much his loss has impacted me.

I know how much I loved him through my commitment to our children and how they love him, even though they can’t remember him.

I know that I loved Kenneth because I had his writing tattooed on my arm, despite a needle-phobia, and not a single day has passed in almost two years when I don’t look at it with a feeling of tenderness, like I somehow cheated the system by keeping an extra part of him permanently etched onto my body.

When you lose a spouse, there’s a lot involved that I think people who have experienced other types of loss maybe don’t understand. I know you’re not supposed to compare grief. However, losing a dog doesn’t impact your annual income. When you lose your spouse, you lose your emotional support. I lost the rock in my life, the person who I thought would always be there for me. The person to tell me how beautiful I am. The person to zip up my dress for me and to be the one to take our paperwork to the CPA every year. I lost the person who believed in my abilities and potential. I lost the co-parent who could help strategize how we would get Ellie to the doctor for her 4PM appointment and Ethan to his Cub Scouts by 7:30, while somehow figuring out dinner and wrangling Peter Jack. When Kenneth was alive, our method was divide and conquer. I would have taken Ellie to the doctor. He would have taken the boys home and made dinner before Cub Scouts. Now, I have to do it alone. It is tedious and often soul-draining work. Nobody else has to care about any of it. Nobody is obligated to help. There is nobody I can count on with 100% certainty in dealing with matters related to my children; there is nothing comparable to their father.

I don’t have Kenneth to listen to my complaining. He would often respond with something annoying to say. God, I would take his stupid comments now in a heartbeat instead of “this.” After he died I found a note in his journal that basically said: When Teresa starts complaining, do not say anything. She just wants you to listen. KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT.

(But he never really remembered to do it.)

😦

There are so many things I would do differently. Maybe that’s the silver lining to all of this: I get to live an improved life because of everything I lost. I just hate that it had to come at his expense.

But this is all about MY feelings. A lot of my grief is about the way the loss has impacted my life.

I have to be the only single parent at a kid’s birthday party and that makes ME feel shame.

Kenneth isn’t here to talk to ME anymore.

I don’t have him to recommend Netflix movies or actually go to the movies with ME, and that makes ME feel lonely.

How could this happen to ME and not someone else?

I don’t have him making MY coffee and doing the dishes, and that inconveniences ME.

The kids don’t have a father. That makes ME sad.

It’s hard raising kids without their dad, and that’s unfair to ME.

I’m pretty annoyed that I have to care about MY personal appearance now that I am a single woman. It’s probably selfish to be depressed about having to shave my legs again when, you know, my husband is DEAD. But now you know that I am a self-absorbed brat.

I know that Kenneth was deprived of a long life and that he won’t even see his children graduate from kindergarten. It is brutally unfair. He didn’t deserve this fate.

And yet, somehow grief always makes it about me again. Grief should be about the person who is gone, but it isn’t.

At least not entirely.

Although we do think about how much it sucks for the dead person, that lasts about 1.5 seconds before we’re crying about how much it sucks for us.

Cemeteries are for the living. They allow us to go through rituals to process our grief. They give us a place to tend to our pain. But then, over time, we don’t hurt as much. We stop bringing flowers like we did in the beginning. The flowers eventually cease, or perhaps only happen on special occasions. Cemeteries are filled with flowerless graves and niches because it was never about the dead. It was always for the living.

A few days ago I had just pulled into the parking lot at work in the morning when I got notified that Ellie had a fever and I needed to pick her up. Ethan still had to be dropped off at school. I had stuff to do at work. I wanted to scream. I have a finite amount of sick days and way too much potential for a flu to come in and wipe them all out. Kenneth had a boatload of days saved; mine had been whittled away by childbirth. I felt like I was constantly putting out little fires that popped up like a game of whack-a-mole in our busy one-parent family.

I dropped Ethan off and picked up Eloise. I carried her to the car, feeling the heat emanating from her tiny body. She needed me. But I was always needed somewhere else at the same time and it is hard to not feel resentful. I even felt angry at times toward Kenneth for leaving me in this situation, even though he didn’t choose it either.

Back at home I realized it was cleaning day. That meant I couldn’t put my pajamas on because there were other people in the house. I couldn’t do my workout video. I had to tend to Eloise and try not to get in their way.

Whine, whine, whine, whine.

It’s so easy to get sucked into feeling sorry for yourself.

I had to tell myself to STFU. How could I be complaining? I should feel lucky. I had cleaning people at my house! I freaking HAVE a house. Everything could be so much worse and things could go south in the blink of an eye. Logically I knew this, yet I easily slipped into whining mode about what I didn’t have, and oh yeah, GRIEF. Grief had been an uninvited house guest that I just couldn’t evict.

Why did this happen to me?

I don’t think there is a good explanation about why it happens to anyone, other than the universe doesn’t give a damn about who you are. In life, shit just happens.

I think it’s important to respect how you feel. It’s all okay, especially when you have to deal with mind-bending, painful realities that death forces on you. But even the best reasons wear thin, and eventually you might realize that it is not productive to dwell in certain feelings. Nobody else cares, and you end up shooting yourself in the foot with your really great excuse. Only one person will get hurt in that scenario.

That’s when your logical side has to interject and tell yourself to STFU.

Just STFU, you selfish brat. You’re still alive. You have this nice house and three healthy, fun kids, and your life is filled with purpose. You just need to STFU. And find a new path.

I think as long as I am moving forward in some way, however small, that’s a good thing. Keep moving forward, and along the journey I will sometimes have to remind my selfish self to STFU with the tough love of a pragmatic ice queen.

And that’s how I deal with the cold truth of the selfishness of grief.

PD Day

13267696_10154098926261063_1715708787958921908_n

The end of January is when we have our professional development day for the teachers in my district. Today marked #14 for me. I had to help with the agenda and be one of the facilitators, so it wasn’t one of those days when I could slide into a seat somewhere in the back of the room and put on cruise control.

It’s actually a bittersweet day for me.

Eleven years ago something happened on our January PD day that would change my life forever.

I was a presenter that year. I had only been teaching at the school for three months. I probably only knew a handful of names on campus. My co-presenter and I had to teach a couple sessions about cooperative learning, and we used my classroom for our presentation. After the first session, I distinctly remember getting bombarded with questions by a particular math teacher.

“How can I do any of this in a math class?” he pressed, staying behind after everyone else had moved on to their next destination on the agenda. “It doesn’t apply at all to what I teach. Maybe you can do it in a history class, but it doesn’t work for math.”

He kept going on and on, not willing to leave until he adequately berated me for the useless strategies I had the nerve to teach them. I remember him standing a little too close, and me trying to inch away so I didn’t have to smell his breath.

The second session went smoother. I eyed the clock toward the end, counting down the minutes until lunch time. No more presentations after that. I was so new on campus that I didn’t know anyone to eat lunch with and I planned to eat alone in my classroom and do my grading.

The bell rang and all of the teachers scuttled out of the room almost faster than the students did when it was lunch time. My co-presenter left to go have lunch, and thankfully there weren’t any math teachers looking for blood. I could take a deep breath and decompress before our next staff meeting.

Except one person lingered.

The teacher next door. He had been sitting in the back, near the door with his friends. I barely recognized him, even though we shared a wall between our classrooms. I couldn’t even spell his last name. Shim-A-Something? I knew that he came to work right before the bell rang every morning, because I heard his door open as I would be writing the agenda on my whiteboard. After school I heard him make a mad dash out of the classroom along with his students. We never ran into each other. The few times that I did see him he wore all black, had his ears pierced, and he had a jet black faux hawk. I thought maybe he was gay, but I didn’t know him well enough to conclusively say either way. Honestly I didn’t really think much about him. I was just trying to survive as the new person at a fairly large school with too many faces and names to remember.

The first time I spoke to him was on Halloween. I stood at my door during passing period wearing my costume. I had only been working at the school for a few weeks, but I went out on a limb and dressed up anyway. Mr. Shim-A-Something came out of his classroom and leaned against his door. He was dressed as Indiana Jones and the movie soundtrack blasted from inside of his classroom.

“What are you supposed to be?” he asked.

“A Victorian queen,” I said, diverting my eyes.

“Oh.”

That was all he said. Then the bell rang, and I wouldn’t see him for another several days, but sometimes I heard him through the walls. Classrooms are weird like that. When we close our doors we can easily get lost in our own worlds.

A few weeks later I had to go inside of his classroom. The computer teacher told me that Kenneth was the last person to have the Easygrade Pro CD that I needed to start keeping grades for my classes. Having started at the school a month after the school year began, I was behind in everything and desperately needed the CD.

It was between class periods when I decided to go into his classroom. Students were starting to arrive to class. I found him standing at his podium. I explained why I was there.

“I don’t have it,” he said, not even looking up from his computer.

“But they told me that I could find it here,” I said.

“I don’t have it,” he repeated, still not making eye contact with me.

I left his classroom feeling like I had just bothered him. That night I had to buy an $80 copy of the software. (Years later, he would admit that he found the CD somewhere in his messy desk.)

About six weeks later, it was winter break and I brought my younger cousins to school to help me work in my classroom. I heard him in his classroom, so I thought I should say hello, even though I still couldn’t remember his name. It seemed like the polite thing to do though, especially being the new girl in the department. Kenneth mumbled a disinterested hello, and that was that. I went back to my classroom to work, and at some point he left and didn’t say goodbye. (He later told me he didn’t pay attention to me because he thought my 4 cousins were my kids.)

It was a surprise to me when he lingered in my classroom on the professional development day, seemingly wanting to talk. After months of being ignored, I wasn’t even sure if he knew I existed in the room next door. I doubted he even knew my name.

As it turned out, Kenneth was very engaging in his conversation skills when he wasn’t mumbling disinterested one-word responses. He kept pelting me with interesting topics, from politics to poetry to books to philosophy to traveling to…everything. I felt like he grabbed my hand and took me on journey after journey through our conversation, not letting my mind rest for even a second. I hardly realized that an hour passed and it was time to go to our next meeting; I did not eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich that day.

We became inseparable.

One day he came into my classroom after school with a big black book of poetry.

“I don’t like poetry,” I said, always one to ruin a romantic moment with my big mouth.

“You’re such a knucklehead,” he said, laughing. He proceeded to read it anyway and ignored my grimacing.

I had to admit that I was enthralled by the way he read the words with intensity. He did everything he cared about with intensity. Kenneth had a soul ablaze with passion. It was contagious. There was no turning back.

My soul became melded to his.

And then, just as fast as he came into my life, he was gone.

It’s true that I never liked poetry (except when Kenneth read it to me), but when he passed away I found myself starving for the words to explain the hollowness inside of me. There was no adequate way to capture and convey the gnarled, agonizing pain with words alone. But I wanted a method to quantify my anguish. I wanted to be able to categorize my despair. I needed to define my brokenness. But there never seemed to be the right words to match the feelings.

It was poetry that helped me fill in the blanks and somehow gave me multiple ways to express what words alone could never achieve.

I still have Kenneth’s big black book of poems at home, like a sacred bible that reminds me about how all of this all started.

I almost forgot the significance of the PD day this year until the day before it happened, when I looked at the agenda in the afternoon and it hit me.

Grief is like that. Just when you think you are fine and the worst days of grieving are over, it punches you in the gut out of nowhere and forces you to acknowledge it. A constant reminder that you will never be completely okay.

I spend so much of my time trying to be pragmatic about my life. I try not to dwell on the crap I’ve been dealt. I try to be forward-thinking. I try not to linger in the past. I worry about spending too much time stuck in the details of my memories, so I often force myself to be present.

This strategy works until the flood gates open, and they inevitably open whether you consent or not. Once they do, you find yourself knee-deep in your grief.

I can see him in my classroom, sitting near the door with his friends, watching me with budding interest. I can picture the excitement on his face as he talked to me about politics and the way he moved his hands around as if he were in the middle of an important lecture. I remember going home that day and feeling excited, like I had just caught something electric that buzzed inside of me. I can see him as clear as day in my mind, and yet sometimes I wonder if he was even real.

On that professional development day 11 years ago, I remember only feeling like I wanted to talk to him again. That I didn’t want to stop talking to him. It didn’t matter that I had never contemplated dating an Asian single father, 18 years my senior, who had his ears pierced and wore True Religion jeans. None of that mattered. Kenneth had this intellect energy that I immediately knew I wanted to be around, and it didn’t need to make sense.

Today was the second professional development day without him. I didn’t know what to expect, but I anticipated sadness. I was short with the kids in the morning during our commute to school, but I think it was because of my own stress in dealing with this day. I arrived on campus a little early. I had a conversation with another teacher about something work-related, and then I eased into my world of teaching with a second nature that develops over time. I didn’t feel sad. I wasn’t bothered. It’s almost as if life had changed so drastically that it didn’t feel like my old life, and therefore could no longer remind me of the life I once shared with him.

Bittersweet is the only way to describe it.

And I’m not as much of a pragmatic ice queen as I try to be. Sometimes I let myself be a sentimental fool. I wore his shirt today.

I miss my buddy. He was always my biggest fan.

Reserving Judgment

IMG_20140707_182417

***This all started as I thought to myself one day: we’re all on different journeys, at different rates, with different abilities and resources. I have to stop being so judgmental. I then decided to write this super long essay that somehow connected these thoughts to plants.

***

I’ve grown plants from seeds before. You fill a seed tray with fresh soil from the garden section of Home Depot and feel like a domestic goddess while doing it, wearing your new garden gloves that you bought while waiting in the check-out line (because you can’t find the other pair you never used). As you drive home you imagine all of the things you will grow for the gourmet meals you don’t even know how to make. Once you’ve distributed enough soil, then you carefully push a seed down into the middle of each cup–not too far down–but enough so each seed can be covered. Then, firmly pat the soil down before sprinkling a little water to moisten it. You will feel like a rockstar with a green thumb for successfully making it look like something that might actually be viable. Next: your vigilance for a few weeks to make sure there is enough water and plenty of sunlight (but not too much!). Assuming you didn’t mess up any of the steps, one day you’ll go outside and find tiny seedlings poking through the dirt. Each successive day will bring more growth, until one day you have proper plants in need of transplanting.

At this point I should disclose that this isn’t an essay on gardening. To tell you the truth, I suck at gardening. I have only grown sunflowers and strawberries with consistent success, but only because they are very forgiving plants. I just wanted you to have the image of the seedlings in your mind.

Here’s the thing about the seedlings: they are all guaranteed to grow differently. Some will never push through the dirt. There will be robust seedlings that grow quickly. Some will be the late bloomers. Even for the stronger ones, there is still a long journey ahead of them. They have to survive being transplanted. There will be more growing to do. It’s hard to say which ones will produce the prettiest flowers or the juiciest fruits or the crispest vegetables. Only time will tell. Also, a gardener has to consider numerous external factors that impact the plants, like insects and disease. Nothing is guaranteed–the seedlings could easily end up in a compost pile, decomposing amidst a heap of food scraps.

I was thinking about the seedlings in the context of our human lives.

I’m a really judgmental person. I’m trying to curb this. I want to get better. I want to have more restraint in the way that I tend to jump to conclusions. But here’s the thing: how can I not judge somebody for espousing rhetoric that is hurtful to other people?

Recently somebody posted on a mutual friend’s Facebook saying that women should be submissive to men, according to his interpretation of the Bible. Nobody else said a word on the string. Now, maybe people were just avoiding an internet flame war, but this wasn’t just trouble-making snark. This was a real conversation in which the individual truly believed that a higher being created females to be obedient to men. I can’t accept teachings that a person should be submissive to another person because of their sex. That’s absolute medieval hogwash and I find it difficult not to judge the man who said it, or the people who said nothing.

It’s hard to not judge people who have made hideous mistakes. The crack addicted parent who is negligent of their child, for example.

People who seem to constantly make bad choices that perpetually complicate their lives. I know you know those people. I know them too.  

Politicians who say racist things and make decisions that hurt people.

The people who vote for those politicians, the ones who stay silent even when other people are hurt.

People who exploit others.

Anyone who causes other people pain.

Dishonest people. Vain people. Greedy people. Lazy people. Shallow people. Fake people.

Even the jerk from this morning who kept weaving in and out of traffic and cutting people off. And the punk who parked behind me this afternoon and wouldn’t move.

The list could go on and on.

Still, even when I feel justified in judging another person, I need to get better at reserving my judgement.

I have to remind myself that I can not judge a life that I have not lived. It reminds me of what my dad used to tell us when we were kids: you never know the burdens that other people carry.

It’s not easy. We are human beings and we form opinions. I have a lot of opinions. I’m constantly having to remind myself to hold back, although I am getting better with age.

But how can I not form an opinion about people, thereby judging them? If somebody says or does something that hurts other people, or hurts me, I am going to have an opinion. If I stay silent, I feel like I am passively agreeing with their opinions. If I don’t say anything, I silently convey to the other person that it is okay to keep doing what they are doing, or saying what they are saying. If I turn the other way, it is a form of empowering the other person. But on the other hand, if I am quick to fire off my opinions, I will come across as judgmental. People don’t like judgmental. Judgmental shuts doors. It makes people clam up and not want to talk to you. If they don’t want to talk to you, then you’ll never have a chance to engage in dialogue that may lead to common ground, and then we find ourselves in a polarized society that no longer embodies our human strengths.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Things that matter.

I guess that’s the starting point. We have to figure out what matters, and then choose our battles accordingly. But like a child in a classroom who feels lost when their teacher says “only highlight the important points,” but never really feeling like they know what’s important without guidance, we too can find it difficult to discern what matters and what doesn’t matter. It is often easier to opt for “doesn’t matter” because that’s the path of least resistance, and we as humans tend to be prone to want to avoid confrontation, even at the detriment of others. It’s our selfish human nature. It’s something we have to learn to control rather than succumb to.

I think it’s a fine balance. People who stand for nothing are terrible in my book (there I go again judging!), but I can understand why a person may not stand for something important. I don’t condone it. I don’t promote it. But I can understand that they may have reasons.

I can’t stay silent about it.

Therein is the conundrum. How can we change what we don’t like without being judgmental?

I think it comes from our modeling–how we live our lives. How we treat other people. How we connect with other people. The value we contribute to society. A steadfast commitment to helping others and being willing to learn and maintain a growth mindset.

I like to think that’s what MLK Jr. meant when he mentioned silence. It’s not about your words. You can engage in internet flame wars and you can tell off your uncle at Thanksgiving or banter with your neighbor–words often do nothing but inflame. Actions are different. Actions show investment in your beliefs. Taking action shows a commitment. People respect action. People pay attention to the ones who are more than just words.

I’m not talking about the Westboro Baptist Church kind of taking action.

I’m referring to the kind of action where somebody stands up for another person’s dignity. Action that involves respect, love, empathy, and caring for others, even when things don’t necessarily directly impact us. Taking action to help people feel safe and included in society. Taking action to leave this world a better place for the generations to come–caring for people and animals who have not even been born yet.

I have to remind myself that people are just like the seedlings and they don’t all grow at the same rate. For humans, I’m not referring to physical growth, but rather their emotional intelligence, ideas, knowledge, perspectives, opinions, and experience. All of the stuff inside of us that make us who we are.

Somebody once mentioned adults not having any excuses because they are “fully cooked” compared to a child. I pointed out that I knew a lot of “half-baked” adults. There is no magical bridge you get to cross from childhood to adulthood where you become suddenly enlightened about everything in life. It’s a lifetime journey with no guarantee of any enlightenment.

I think about my own life, and how much I’ve learned from 20 years ago, 10 years, 2 years, even yesterday.

The problem is that we all experience life differently. Some people have terrible trauma as children that impact their development. Others, like myself, were lucky enough by some cosmic roll of the dice to live in households where we enjoyed vanilla upbringings and were able to grow in the cocoon of a safe childhood. We all inevitably experience our lives not going as planned, but for some people it happens later than others. For me, I didn’t feel that kind of significant pain until my husband died and left me a single mother when I was 34 years old. Ultimately pain impacts our identity. Our experiences, knowledge, relationships, and the good old fashioned trial and error–it all shapes who we are, and no two people will have the exact same experience. Even siblings who grow up in the same household will not have the same experiences.

I have a fondness for senior citizens. It sounds weird, but as a Girl Scout we would visit senior homes. I also have years of experience visiting my grandparents, much of those visits occurring in senior complexes. Senior citizens are fascinating to observe. At a certain age they all start to look similar with their wrinkled skin and white hair and the common ailments that make them dependent on walkers and hearing aids and such. I’ve observed how people become the neighbors of other people who they would have never associated with earlier in their lives. At the senior complex everyone lives in one place. They eat at the cafeteria together. Play bingo together. This would not have happened when they were younger and more judgmental about their relationships. There is something about aging that levels the playing field.

We start out that way as children. Children will play with anyone. They don’t see income or race or gender or anything. Children only see other young human beings. That’s enough for them. It’s ironic that it takes us a lifetime to revert back to our open-minded origins. 

No matter who we are, what color our skin is, how much money we have in the bank account–nothing changes the fact that we are all on a journey headed in the same direction.

And we travel at our own pace. We grow in our own way. Like the old proverb suggests, the best thing we can do is “bloom where we are planted.”

When I think about people in this context, it helps me soften my judgement toward them. Some people may be still half-baked. Be gentle. We all at our cores have fragile egos, no matter how tough we pretend to be.

Life is hard. Our hearts and minds are not shatterproof.

Recently I listened to a podcast that discussed meeting people “where they’re at.” I think that’s where the gentleness comes in. Big stick diplomacy never usually works. You can’t drag somebody alongside of you.

By not judging people, it isn’t that we agree with their choices or actions. It’s about giving people the space to continue learning and growing. Judgment writes a person off. Open-mindedness and respect gives another person the chance to do better.

We don’t do any of this through our silence. Rather, as Dr. King implied, we must take action in the fight for justice. Our actions and modeling are the most powerful things we can do to influence others. It is only through our action will somebody else want to walk beside us. People don’t follow words. They follow movements that resonate with their values.

Now I can’t help but think about people as seedling, with a judgey voice whispering into my ear (the one that isn’t supposed to be judgmental):

You got too much water.

You’re going to be a beautiful sunflower.

You’re going to survive…barely.

You won’t.

You need more time.

You’re a fighter.

You’re a fragile one. 

You’re a late bloomer.

But aren’t we all late bloomers in something? I know I am. A proud late bloomer. Proud to keep growing, because I know if I’m growing, that means I’m still alive. If I’m still alive, then there is always hope for sunnier days.

***

For those of you who didn’t see social media last week, I had an essay published on Tiny Buddha. The Betrayal of Expectations: Coping When Life Doesn’t Go to Plan. Check it out!

Taming of the Longing

painted ladies

A few days ago, I was in Alamo Square Park in San Francisco with my three children. It’s a beautiful park perched atop a hill with views of the bay and the city, famously next to the historic Painted Ladies, which are the colorful Victorian houses that San Francisco is known for.

The park has a nice playground where my children were digging in the sand. I watched them with a sense of contentment, admiring their youthful energy and enthusiasm about such simple pleasures. Earlier in the day we had fun walking around Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, stopping to watch the barking sea lions and eating sourdough bread. We took a bus up Fillmore Street to the park, and we had plans to finish the night with Vietnamese street food for dinner. A perfect way to spend our final hours on the last day of a good trip.

I thought about how Kenneth brought me to that same park when we were single and had just started dating. I remembered bringing his son to the playground. Later, we brought our firstborn, Ethan, placing our hands near the small of his back as he toddled up the stairs of the slide. Kenneth and I smiled knowingly to each other, unable to believe that we were actually there as a family. The last time we visited was when Eloise was a baby. She was tucked inside of a baby carrier, pressed against my chest on a chilly February day four years ago. Now the children and I were there without Kenneth, our family having grown and shrunk since that time, and sometimes that truth still felt surreal no matter how much I had become at peace with it.

Eloise saw a French girl playing near the slide and I watched her abandon her brothers, scampering over to see if the little girl would play with her. There was a language barrier, and the French girl turned away and called out for her parents. Eloise’s face crumpled. She lingered for a few seconds and then climbed off the playset, returning to the sand that her brothers were shaping into a cake and putting sticks onto as pretend birthday candles. Eloise is always looking for little girls to play with, a problem when you are the only girl wedged between an older brother and a younger brother, and most of our friends have sons. A few weeks ago at a Christmas party she put on make-up with another little girl and reveled in the chance to be with her female peers. As I observed her on the playground, noticing the way she kept a watchful eye on the gate so she would know if any little girls came to the area, it made me think about longing.

I am also riddled with longing. After 5 days in the city with my children, and after 20 months of widowhood, I long for adult companionship. I remember when Kenneth and I used to drive up north every other weekend to visit his son. 8 hours each way. We never ran out of things to talk about in the car. I miss that. He was my best friend who would tell me how pretty and smart I was. We shared ideas and exchanged information, constantly learning from each other.

And now there was an intellectual and physical void in my life, and I longed to fill it. The problem was finding who could–not an easy feat.

It doesn’t matter what we are longing for. We are all longing for something at any given moment.

My kids long for their father. Other kids long for food on the table and a stable home.

I long for time to myself and to not be an only parent. Other people long for a child of their own.

Relationships. Love. Jobs. Friends. Places to live. Money. Status. We often confuse lacking any one of these in our lives with personal inadequacy.

There must be something wrong with me because I’m single, for example.

But when I was married, I felt longing. Sometimes deep longing. Sometimes all-of-the-time longing. I wanted my husband to be a better listener. I wanted him to stop making messes around the house. I wanted him to stop arguing with me. I wanted time to myself. I longed to be free.

Before marriage, there was lots of longing too. Longing to find a significant other. Longing to find “the one.” Longing for a career. House. Children.

My longing has always been an elusive shapeshifter.

It doesn’t matter if I am single or married, younger or older, richer or poorer, a parent or not a parent, fatter or thinner, the longing never goes away. The finish line of complete fulfillment is a mirage. A lie. There is no such thing. Every feeling, no matter how wonderful or terrible, is ultimately fleeting. Feelings are not sustainable; they slip out between our fingers like grains of sand no matter how desperate we are to keep them in our clenched fists. We simply can’t have them forever, for better or worse.

I’ve come to the conclusion that longing is just a part of being human. There is always something to want. You can spend your entire life feeling like you don’t have enough. Perhaps feeling like you are not enough.

Since we can’t get rid of our desire for something more, maybe the secret is to tame your longing. To see it for what it is–endless. Natural. Unavoidable. And then rein it in. Guide it. Mold it into something positive.

Longing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes our longing motivates us to accomplish great things. Other times it causes us depression and sadness when we let it become gnarled and overgrown inside of us. Taming our longing means becoming skilled at knowing when to let certain feelings go.

I am reminded by an important quote by the Dalai Lama. I try to remember it during stressful times in my life. The Dalai Lama said, “If there is no solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it.”

We often get consumed by our worry that we will never have something, or that something will last forever. The pain we feel comes from our fears.

It is more productive to be objective and tactical about our longing. Whatever I desire, I have to assess whether or not it is attainable. If it is, then I need to devise an actionable plan. If it isn’t, then I need to let it go.

It’s the idea of approaching our feelings with a strategy. Jealousy, desire, hopelessness–so many emotions can cause us varying degrees of pain. Getting stuck in a feeling doesn’t bring us any closer to solving what causes us the pain to begin with. There has to be a more practical and useful approach.

It is hubris to believe that we can control everything in life, or that we can have everything that we want at the snap of our fingers without putting in the work and effort.

I am reminded of the sentence tattooed on my arm, my late husband’s favorite affirmation.

“I am responsible.”

For remembering that I have yet to experience a life where I haven’t had longing, so I might as well recognize it as a known entity instead of a source of inadequacy.

For remembering an ability to adjust my perspective.

For remembering what I have.

For working toward changing anything I don’t like.

And working for what I want.

For understanding that there are factors beyond my control.

And knowing that I am responsible for always choosing the next right step. And that the next right step is never usually sitting on the ground in defeat.

By taming my longing, I can have the clarity I need to take action. Otherwise that longing, if left unchecked, may obscure what I see and how I live.

I’m too bossy to empower one feeling to dictate the terms of my life. I like to manufacture as much of my own destiny that I have reasonable control over.

 

This Time Last Year

…we were in Japan! Timehop reminded me.

tokyo 2016

I tucked the kids into our hotel bed in Tokyo on the 15th floor after a long flight. I read the safety manual left on the desk, lingering over the information about earthquakes. I noted where the emergency flashlight was located (always mounted on the wall by the door in Japan). About an hour after I snapped this photo, I forced myself to go to bed. 30 minutes later I was startled awake when a 6.3 earthquake had the building rolling back and forth for at least 30 seconds. I suddenly acted like I didn’t grow up in California and had never felt an earthquake in my life.

My evening of studying the emergency preparedness manual had me jumping into action. I began to move the kids away from the window.  I could hear the automated voice echoing from the hallway: Do not be alarmed. You are experiencing an earthquake. This building is earthquake-proof. Please stay calm. 

I realized, holy crap, I took a vacation to an island that has tsunamis and earthquakes and has had lots of really bad, unfortunate things happen to it in its history. Definitely symbolic of my 2016.

This is what I posted last year when I returned from the trip in early January. It’s still relevant.

***

I spent New Year’s in Japan. It felt right to get the hell out of here. Start a new year a 12 hour plane ride away. So we did. The three kiddos and I.

20161230_162622.jpg

Kyoto, Japan

Japan was more than I ever dreamed it could be. It was magical.

What I wrote on our last day there:

1. Japanese culture has some issues (sexism, workaholics, mental health issues/suicide, they’ve got your usual dose of corporate corruption, and judging by the anime porn it seems they need to get a real BF/GF)…BUT…there are so many amazing things about the people here. They are kind, courteous, smart, elegant, classy, hard-working, organized, innovative, creative, and so many other wonderful attributes.

2. The best thing about the Japanese people that inspires me: their resilience. Through atomic bombs, war, earthquakes, tsunamis, whatever– they persevere. They rebuild and move on. They aren’t quitters. I feel it everywhere, woven throughout the fabric of their civilization. It’s exactly what I needed to start my new year.

20170103_120854

The atomic dome in Hiroshima.

The shikata ga nai is strong. “It cannot be helped.” 98% of the population is Buddhist, which comes out in their reactions to life, their attitudes, and dispositions. I need to be more mindful of my own thoughts.

3. I love the Buddhism traditions found everywhere, especially in Kyoto. There are temples and shrines everywhere. I love the incense and chanting.

4. Super kid-friendly. Nobody glared at me or made me feel stressed when Peter cried in public. Facilities were kid-friendly (changing tables, stroller friendly, etc.) The only downside was that playgrounds are scarce around here.

5. Culturally rich. This is an ancient civilization and us westerners are barely exposed to it. I feel like I stumbled upon a rare gem. I’m kind of bored of Western culture. We need to learn about different ways of living. We are ants in this big, interesting world. There is so much to learn and experience.

20170101_132956.jpg

Himeji Castle

6. Simplicity and purpose. Everything is so thoughtful down to the warm toilet seats to the pretty packaging of the most mundane purchases. But it’s simple too. Not excessive. If you buy snacks, they are individually packaged with just the right amount.

7. They are healthy and fit. Obesity is not the norm here. It makes you wonder…WTF are we eating in the USA?! The food has been great .

 

20161231_141758.jpg

Petey enjoying his giant bowl of udon in Kyoto.

20161231_111020_HDR.jpg

Chion-in Temple in Kyoto

20161229_105606.jpg

Hello Kitty Land, Tokyo

 

Holidays after Death

xmaspics2017.jpg

I have come to the conclusion that I’ve been preparing my entire life for all of my tomorrows. Some of it has been purposeful, like going to college. But most of it has been a natural consequence of living. It’s an interesting thing to think about.

Maybe something doesn’t feel significant in the moment, but everything we do becomes a part of our foundation. New layers on top of old layers. Everything has something to teach us.

Disappointment. The big types and the micro-disappointments–it adds up over time to build tolerance for its more serious and life-altering cousin: pain.

Death: walking with my grandmother at the age of 12, coming across the scene of a young woman who seconds prior jumped off the edge of the parking structure. I remember her long hair soaked in blood.

Death: seeing my great-aunt die, one of her daughters telling her that she will soon see my grandfather. I silently wondered how that could be true.

Death: my paternal grandfather, bright green liquid coming out of his mouth like a scene out of the Exorcist, and then a flat line.

Death: my husband on the ground, face-down. On the phone with a 9-1-1 operator, but it was too late.

I’ve developed an ear for the final, prolonged exhale of life. It’s like going into labor. You spend months fretting about how you will know when it is time, but when it happens, you know.

I remember Christmases as a child, when there was family drama and this aunt or that uncle didn’t come to the holiday. I remember feeling sad, noticing the emptiness at the table. The times that my stepson didn’t come for the holidays. Having to celebrate Christmas without my grandfather offering everyone eggnog, or not having my grandmother stirring a pot full of Arabic rice over the stove.

I wasn’t entirely unprepared for the pain of an empty seat when Kenneth passed away. It’s just that his passing impacted me on a deeper level than any other loss, because his passing came with so many dashed dreams for the future. Losing my husband meant losing the life I thought I was going to live. But unbeknownst to me I had been preparing for it my entire life.

Holidays without a loved one hurts no matter how strong you try to be.

I suppose how to celebrate the holidays after death is really the last of my concerns in the grand scheme of life. But holidays are so emotional. They are anchored to memories and people and experiences. Consequently, holidays can be some of the worst triggers for a grieving person.

My first Christmas without Kenneth: I felt a looming storm inside of me over a month before it was time. The pain was gnarled and deep, intertwined with every fiber of my being. The memories of our past darted in and out of my mind, and I continued to try to reconcile what I knew to be true in my brain with what my heart still clung to from the past.

Us: our first Christmas together in the teeny tiny studio apartment in Belmont Shore. He held the camera and we took a selfie in front of the first Christmas tree that we got together. Our future was still big question marks, but the unknown had felt exciting back then. Not like our current unknowns.

Us: that time we filled his car with Christmas cheer and drove 8 hours north to see his son, before we had a family of our own. Watching my stepson open presents at a table in Starbucks. Both of us agreeing during the solemn drive home that we needed a proper Christmas next year.

Newlyweds: our first couple of Christmases, sitting on his parents’ couch while his dad took a picture for us to use on our Christmas cards. Colorful and loud wallpaper behind us on walls that would eventually become ours. Ten years ago, but it feels like more than a lifetime has passed.

Family: the Christmas when my stepson and Ethan wore matching Christmas pants that I sewed (the one and only time!) and opened identical amphibious tanks on Christmas Day. We walked to the lagoon and the boys laughed and laughed as they tried out the tanks in the sand and in the water, shooting tiny pellets at each other. I wasn’t sure who was more excited: Kenneth, or the boys?

Kenneth: wearing his blue teacher’s union shirt on Christmas Eve. “Dress up,” I admonished him, horrified that he chose to wear the same t-shirt he always wore. “Why?” he said. “I don’t want that stupid shirt in our pictures,” I said. He rolled his eyes, and didn’t change. There is a picture of us, me pregnant with Peter, our 2 other kids sitting on our laps, and him wearing that damn blue shirt.

Kenneth: shirtless, sitting on the ground, pieces of the dollhouse Santa was supposed to bring Eloise the next morning spread out all over the place. He was complaining about how much he hated that stuff. I took out my camera to snap a photo of him and he scowled, unamused. I laughed. That was the last Christmas he would ever assemble presents for our children.

Oh, Christmas. Now that I think about it, you are a source of immeasurable pain.

And yet so much joy.

I know I can’t give up on you.

I expected our first Christmas without Kenneth to be difficult. First, it was terrible that the children didn’t have their father. What a cruel world where small children wake up on Christmas morning and their father is still dead. They were so young that first Christmas without him: 6, 3, and 1. This is the age when parents are supposed to watch in amusement as their babies squeal in delight, ripping open wrapped boxes full of toys. When your babies sink their teeth into one more cookie and you let them. Instead of sitting on their Daddy’s lap, our children had to bring him flowers to the cemetery. This is a difficult reality to embrace.

Another major source of pain for me was having family events shoved in my face. Not on purpose. Everyone was just living their lives as usual. But I’d have to watch couples exchange gifts. I’d have to watch husbands help load Christmas presents into the car. I’d have to see intact families right in front of me while mine was broken and hurting and I had to digest the unfairness of it all, alone. Always alone.

The best advice I can give to others suffering from the anguish of grief during the holidays is that you just have to persevere. It’s okay to feel angry and sad and lonely. Give yourself permission to feel everything.

My strategy for our first Christmas without Kenneth was to overcompensate. I thought it was a brilliant plan. I bought the kids too many presents, lavished them with a party and outings and a trip to Japan, and that was how I got through the pain. I wouldn’t say that it was a bad plan. We had fun. We were distracted. We were creating new traditions and memories.

It just wasn’t sustainable. That’s the problem with band-aid solutions. They eventually come off.

I didn’t want to raise children who were addicted to consumption and overindulgence. Year 1 was my grace period of pain. Year 2 had to be different.

This year I don’t feel the agonizing pain cresting over my head like I did last year. The other families aren’t triggering me as much. I didn’t cry before taking family photos as a single mother like I did last year. In a bittersweet way, it is becoming our normal. Not ideal, but it doesn’t sting anymore.

We’ve kept a lot of the same traditions, and there are many new traditions being added. This year we’re celebrating with his family on Christmas Eve for the first time. For Christmas Day I ordered fake snow for the kids and I’m going to make them German apple pancakes, which I like to envision will be something I do forever, even as a white-haired grandma when the family comes over. I keep searching for something I can be good at–something I can duplicate year after year. I’m still searching for the perfect annual traditions. This year for Christmas we will have the quietest, most protected time ever with just us. We will take flowers to the cemetery. And then, a day of rest.

We started celebrating Hanukkah-style after Kenneth died, where the kids open up presents starting a week before. I started this last year, and I like the ability to focus on one gift, taking time together to really enjoy the present instead of getting overwhelmed by too much stuff.

I’ve been decorating the house a little different than when Kenneth was here, but we still put up his stocking. We still collect a new Nutcracker every year, and we set them next to Kenneth’s dad’s, and the other ones that have the year we got them scribbled in Kenneth’s handwriting underneath. Old family ornaments hang on the tree: some with my stepson’s name, some with Kenneth’s, some with just those of us still living in the home. Evidence of a family that has changed. Grown and shrunk and grown and shrunk. The ebb and flow of life.

My current survival plan is to continue blending old with new. To do what feels right. To continue evolving. Like birth and death, sometimes you have to just do what feels innately right.

My big planned step of progress is to take the kids to San Francisco. I haven’t stayed in the city since we went as a family a good 4-5 years ago. Kenneth and I used to go twice a month, back in the days when we drove up north to visit his son every other weekend. We have memories all over that city. When he died, I felt an aversion to it. I didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to be reminded of the park we walked through, or the restaurant where we ate, or the place where we went to the club on 80s night. There were too many painful reminders.

But now I think it’s time to reclaim my favorite city. I’m ready. The secret to dealing with grief is taking the next right step when you are ready, and then creating new memories. I will take my small people and show them some of my favorite places and try new ones. We will ring in the new year symbolically, with a little bit of old and a lot of new, ready to embrace all challenges and adventure, together.

IMG_20141225_073647.jpg

IMG_20151223_203853.jpg

20171124_140018.jpg

IMG_20141224_184357

xmas 2009

(Our 1st family X-Mas Card Pic. That wallpaper, haha.)

xmas 2009 2