“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
― Albert Camus
My last post was about my husband’s deathaversary, and this next one is inspired by our would-have-been 12th wedding anniversary, which would have been tomorrow, May 12th. We got married on my grandparents’ anniversary, and I had high hopes that their long marriage would have been good luck for mine. It didn’t turn out that way. But! In the last five years of sad milestones and would-have-beens, I have learned that there are seeds of new beginnings buried inside every experience. There is always something blossoming in life, even when other parts are withering away. Today’s essay is a happy one.
Sometimes we get stuck in a season of reminders, patches of previous bad luck and triggers, reminding us about what we don’t have. It was really hard to watch other people reach marriage milestones knowing mine was frozen in time. There were birthdays and gatherings, places and things to trigger my feelings of loss and anger, constant reminders of my pain. We bash our heads against immovable walls demanding explanations for the unfairness of it all, but there never seems to be a satisfying answer to our emptiness. It just is.
This can lead to us getting stuck in negative feelings. Through trial and error, many tears, meltdowns, and extreme wallowing, I learned that the best I could do was find perspective. Then, I could begin to weave meaning out of my pain, and that could become a guiding light for me. Whenever I stepped into a personal landmine that triggered my emotions, I wanted to become curious about what it was teaching me.
I am grateful and appreciative for all that I have learned. It has helped me in new chapters, and I imagine carrying and building this resilience into old age– I hope. The broken pieces of one chapter taught me how to be more intentional in the aftermath when gluing together the shards of my former self. I think it has made me evolve into a better version of myself. All of those negative feelings can be used to find purpose, passion, and most importantly the vision to curate the life you want to live. None of your feelings or experiences are ever wasted.
I’ve learned that the universe doesn’t promise us anything.
Nothing lasts forever.
We suffer less when we learn to adopt flexible expectations.
Authenticity is important.
Take nothing for granted.
Gratitude softens the rough edges.
And never, ever give up on the idea that there are more experiences to be had, new joy to discover, and untold surprises to stumble upon. We can not completely conceptualize what tomorrow will look like, and this is both scary and thrilling. It is all a part of the journey.
One thing I think about around my anniversary is the movie “Up”. It was released the same month we were married, and I remember taking my younger cousins to see it in the theater with my new husband. The movie is about a cantankerous man named Carl. He lost his beloved wife Ellie (this is where I was inspired to later name my daughter Ellie!) and he lived alone, angry and grieving while the world around him mercilessly kept changing. Carl and his wife had always wanted to travel to Paradise Falls in South America, but life kept getting in the way and they never made it. They were also never able to have children. Carl was completely alone in the last chapter of his life, living in the shadows of his former happiness.
Carl represents those of us– all of us– who find ourselves stuck and feeling conquered. I think about those moments when my life felt insurmountable, or the times when I felt like my chances were over. This is the level of despair we see in Carl, who is practically waiting to die. It is resignation and defeat. A mental trap.
As Carl is about to have his house taken over by developers against his will, he uses balloons to float away (with his beloved house) toward Paradise Falls. He believes this is his last act of rebellion, tinged with desperation. Unbeknownst to him, the pesky neighborhood young scout was on his front porch, and he finds himself on an adventure with this boy who challenges him to let go of his stubborn old ways.
Carl learns so much on his adventure. He learns that new relationships are possible– meaningful ones. Love can manifest in inconceivable ways, like in the stray dog you never thought you wanted, or in the chance to be a father-figure when you never thought you’d ever want to live for somebody else again.
He learned there was more to look forward to in life, even at his age. There were opportunities he would have never guessed in a million years, and assumptions he held that were false. In Carl, we see ourselves and our own unforeseen opportunities, unpacked joy, hidden treasures.
There are many other takeaways that we as the viewers learn from the movie, like not waiting to start living your life. Carl and his wife kept waiting and saving and preparing for the opportunity to travel to Paradise Falls, but it never happened. We often get too caught up waiting for the perfect moment to accomplish our goals, or we delay our dreams for something else. There is always something else. As someone who also lost a spouse, I think about how mine never got to see his native Japan or experience the paradise of Hawaii, and I think about the moments he could have gone but waited, choosing something else, assuming there would be more time. I think about lost opportunities we could have had together. It makes me want to seize opportunities right now, to suck the marrow out of life because we never know when it will all be over.
In this movie, we are reminded that it is never too late. Carl was an old man and assumed his life was over. But it wasn’t. He still had new beginnings he could embrace. Whenever I feel pressure about what I should have, could have, would have done by this point in my life, I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that there is no timeline. And I am so inspired by older people achieving new goals, reaching for more dreams. That’s what I want to be as I age– someone who is a life-long learner and dreamer, capable of following my own path instead of the stereotypes.
“Up” teaches us about living in the moment. On that adventure to Paradise Falls, Carl was able to release the baggage of his past and the negative feelings he clung to, allowing himself to enjoy what was right in front of him for the first time in a long while. This helped him open his mind to new possibilities. The movie is colorful and delightful to the eyes, and it symbolizes all of the things we can notice if we let ourselves notice the tiny bits of joy that can be found anywhere.
I didn’t know it at the time when I was in the movie theater, newly married, just how much I would have in common with Carl sooner than I would have ever expected.
Spring is in full force around here. We have beautiful petunias and snapdragons in various colors growing like weeds. Our pink primrose has taken over a planter in the backyard. Lettuce plants are flowering with tiny yellow buds, roses are blooming, and we are picking blackberries by the handful. A volunteer sunflower lay dormant all winter and surprised us in a random garden bed. It is like a prelude to summer after the starkness of winter, sunshine waiting to unfurl. I find my garden carrying us through the last stretch of this tedious school year, giving us hope in bursts of color, something to tend to and take care of, nurture, love, watch with anticipation as life blossoms around us. It’s hard to stay in a bad mood in this environment.
This past weekend we celebrated Mother’s Day. I feel my kids are like my garden, a boundless source of hope and joy, watching them grow and stretch into more mature versions of who they were yesterday, blooming. Of course, much like tending to our gardens, parenthood is a lot of work. We can’t always control outcomes, but it seems the more we invest in taking care of them, nurturing, tending, observing, learning, and growing alongside them, the better the results. There is a quote I really love by Alexander Den Heijer: “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” This keeps the gardener busy trying to find a balance that will lead to thriving plants.
I try to live by that as a mother. What are the small tweaks I can do to make our household environment more conducive for everyone’s personal flourishment? It is a balancing act, each child is unique, the circumstances and environment ever-changing. New seasons and chapters bring uncharted challenges and ups and downs. My only hope is that I have been able to nurture and build resilience in my children so they can weather whatever comes their way, blossoming to their full potential.
I recently finished the book “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyễn Phan Quế. It is a beautiful story about a family in Vietnam who go through the Vietnam War, multiple experiences with colonialism, Land Reform, and so much trauma. The story is told through the lens of two characters: the grandmother and granddaughter. Multiple perspectives are covered and I learned that my American education pretty much taught me nothing about Vietnamese history. It’s a shame, because I believe our stories are crucial for building empathy and understanding amongst our fellow humans. NPR described the novel as, “help[ing] all of us see ‘the enemy’ not as abstract or demonic, but corporeal, even familial.” In the story, there were the obvious ups and downs, different seasons, new beginnings, more chapters, and life not going as planned. There was a ton of resilience and moving forward, even with the ball and chain of suffering and loss weighing on them. I find these stories interesting. It is the perspective I crave whenever I find myself sinking to low points, whenever I begin to wallow. Human beings have never been guaranteed an easy journey, but knowing these stories exist help us feel less alone in our personal suffering.
Pandemic life is beginning to shift; more people are vaccinated, numbers of COVID cases have dropped substantially in my state. I am seeing people I haven’t seen in a year. Going places I haven’t been to in ages. Feeling a bit more free. I even shed my pandemic joggers I always wore, jumping back into life with regular pants and make-up and accessories, no longer content with being unseen. I also recently got my hair done, which only sounds exciting when you understand pandemic life. Also, I’ve been growing my hair out since I became a widow. It had gotten quite long, but in the last few months I began to feel an itch for change. I thought I had heard before that Native Americans grew their hair long because it told a story, and in my hair I had seen five years, trials and tribulations, unimaginable sadness and unbelievable joy– all of it. I kind of wanted to emerge from the fog of quarantine with everything behind me. I was ready for a new season. A new chapter.
Then I learned that Native Americans cut their hair to separate themselves from the past, signifying future change. I really liked that. So I cut off half my hair, imagining the release of past thoughts and actions, building space for new growth and intentionality.
Because really, in the past five years, something has shifted. It is my would-have-been anniversary tomorrow, and maybe I should feel sad, but I don’t. I have since changed the meaning to be a day celebrating the beginning of our family. Not the sadness of what could have been. Just like Mother’s Day no longer contains the searing pain of single motherhood, or the constant reminder of what I have been forced into. It has become a day to reflect about my own unique journey. We had a lovely Mother’s Day, doing exactly what I wanted to do at that moment. That’s the best I can ever ask for, right?
You learn how to manage your triggers by walking through the pain; embracing it. Over and over again. It knocks you down, and you get back up only to get knocked down again. You do this until you stop resisting this part of your story– your journey– and you develop ways to lean into the discomfort, knowing that there will be bountiful springs after long winters, new normals after global pandemics, ever-changing circumstances in an impermanent universe. You were never promised anything to begin with, and although our lives are finite, opportunities are not. This doesn’t mean we won’t get knocked back down again, it simply means we develop a commitment to keep getting back up.
Spring is definitely a mood– one that I hope to return to whenever life feels hard. And one of my go-to mantras when I was really at my rock bottom: it can only be up from here.
The symbolism of the movie “Up”, looking upward, reaching toward the light and our dreams, watching what unfolds in the hope that we nurture– it is profound.
“Happiness follows sorrow, sorrow follows happiness, but when one no longer discriminates between happiness and sorrow, a good deed and a bad deed, one is able to realize freedom.” -Dhammapada