It’s New Year’s Eve and I barely squeaked out this December essay, and only because I’m on EST. It has been a whirlwind of holiday festivities and things to keep me running around like a crazy woman, and now I settle into the final stretch of my winter break resting and adventuring with my kiddos at the crossroads of 2022 and 2023. We’re in an adorable beach cottage a few minutes away from the ocean, with a pirate room and cheerful colors and touches to put anyone in a good mood. We walked on the beach and I dipped my toes into the water. Then we ordered Chinese food to be delivered, and I envisioned this cozy evening eating and playing games and gently closing the chapter on another year. Well, the food came late, with the wrong dishes, and it ended up being way more expensive than going to a restaurant and nobody liked their food. It sounded good in theory, but the reality of it was a bit of a letdown. Still, we powered on, huddling around the table to play Uno and dig into our New Year’s Eve meal. Until the kids started quarreling before I was even done serving the tasteless tofu cubes over rice, and somebody put the game away before I even got my cards. At this point everyone was restless and anxious to go back to their relaxation corners of the house, and there went our idylic night together. I opened my tasteless fortune cookie and pulled out the slip of paper: “Keep on keeping on.”
Maybe that was worth the money and disappointing meal to be reminded of these words.
I explained to the kids that we try for the best, and then make the best out of whatever we get. Dinner was blah, but the rest of our day was magic. It all evens out. I think we are still way ahead.
My oldest becomes a teenager this week. I can’t believe it. It feels like yesterday that my husband took me to the hospital on our last day of winter break to address what I thought was the swine flu. I was supposed to have a home birth and I even had a midwife, but those plans didn’t materialize. Ethan was born a few hours later, weighing 2 lbs.15 oz with low Apgar scores and a team of doctors who whisked him away after giving me a couple seconds to look at my first child. I got left behind without a clear image of what his face looked like. I remember turning to look at my husband, who stood about 4 feet away from me paralyzed with fear. In that moment, I would have to comfort myself.
Ethan spent 53 days in the NICU and I thought that was the worst thing to ever happen to me, having to leave the hospital without a baby and asking permission to touch my own child while worrying if he would be okay. I went to the hospital twice a day for those two months and pumped milk every 1-2 hours while people tried to help me see the bright side by telling me at least I could rest before the baby came home (ha!). It took about 10 pumps before I got a drop of colostrum, and I was so happy I hobbled from my room to the NICU to deliver the bottle of liquid gold with his name and a heart drawn on it, his first personalized lunch letter from dear old mom.
My husband went back to work after the day of Ethan’s birth, and we had his son living with us, so that meant I spent 99.9% of the time in the NICU alone. I remember taking my CPR class and being the only person there not with a partner. I cried on the drive home. I was so angry that this was my entry into motherhood. It felt like I had been robbed. In hindsight, it was those 53 days that taught me so much about who I really was as a mother and a person.
I gave a dharma talk this week at Vista’s weekly meditation service about New Year’s feelings and gratitude. I don’t know about all of you but I find this to be a very reflective time for me, second only to my birthday. It’s closing out a year of ups and downs. It’s leaving people behind who won’t live to see a new year, like my grandma and my friend Kathie. It’s getting older. It’s the things we didn’t get to and the ones we did, a tally scorecard in our subconscious. Dreaming of what is to come, but also trying to be present in the now. Wishing for better, hoping for more, and then pulling ourselves back to reality and being grateful for everything we have. But also, wasn’t it just 1999 and all of us were getting ready for Y2K? 2023 is a visible passage of time and the brutality of impermanence.
I also think about the innocent times of 2019, a few months before COVID-19 sent our lives into a different trajectory, and how far we have come between then and now. None of us are the same people today.
I heard a podcast within the last few months on the show “All There is with Anderson Cooper.” He was interviewing Stephen Colbert, and the topic was “Grateful for Grief.”
Colbert lost his father and two brothers when he was 10-years-old. They died in an airplane crash. I didn’t know this about him until I heard this interview.
Colbert said that he loves the thing that he most wished had not happened to him. He went on to say “With existence comes suffering. There’s no escaping that. But if you are grateful for your life, then you have to be grateful for all of it. And so, at a young age, I suffered something so that by the time I was in serious relationships in my life with friends, or with my wife, or with my children, is that I have some understanding that everybody is suffering and however imperfectly, acknowledge their suffering and connect with them and to love them in a deep way that makes you grateful for the fact that you have suffered so that you can know that about other people…ultimately being grateful for the things that I wish didn’t happen because they gave me a gift.”
He said, “How can you be grateful for the death of somebody you’ve loved, or how can you be grateful for a terrible loss that you’ve experienced? I haven’t the slightest idea. I just know the value of it.”
This is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years. To be honest, a new year always feels a little daunting to me because it takes me further away from the life I had with my husband. In April it will be seven years since he passed away. Our years since then have had grueling moments, but like Colbert, when I reflect back on the horrible moments, I feel grateful for the person I am today. I do see the world differently than the naive version of myself before tragedy. I wouldn’t want to return to the previous version of myself, even though I would never choose what happened to us.
Interestingly, when you climb your own mountains and claw your way to better views, there will be others who want to drag you down like crabs in a boiling pot of water. I’ve had people over the past several years throw their daggers at me for the way I live my life. It’s as if my resilience offends them. The most recent insult came from a person who was once close to us and made a snide remark about me going on another vacation and calling me a miserable person.
In my closet, I have an index card taped on the wall. I made a chart with my husband when he was still alive. We planned our travels through 2023 with a breakdown of our ages and dream destinations. There is even a column for the fourth child who never was. I look at this list today and feel pretty damn proud that despite everything, I’ve done a really good job hitting most of our goals on my own. I’m still here. Living. Thriving. Fulfilling my dreams, even as I still carry around sadness. Both can coexist. I don’t think this is miserable or something to mock. I keep it taped up there as a reminder. I have so much to be grateful for.
I traveled at 19 by myself with my own money. I got really good at finding deals on flights and staying in hostels. I dreamed of traveling forever, even when I had kids, since grown-ups seemed to stop adventuring once they had families and I didn’t want this to happen to me. Traveling with my kids is literally my dream come true. I could never imagine putting down someone else’s dreams. At first I was offended by the comment– and all negative comments hurled at me–and then I realized that to a person struggling with their own sense of identity and purpose, another person’s joy must be blinding to them. Offensive, even. Yet we don’t really see what is going on beneath the surface of other people’s lives. While I’m out here living my dreams, I’m also doing it as a single mother with a dead husband, and like everyone else, my kids bicker, plans don’t always go as envisioned, and sometimes we get soggy Chinese food delivered on New Year’s Eve even though our Facebook pictures looked cool. It’s a reminder for myself to be less judgemental of others. Even with the people who I think I know, the reality is we never really know the scope of another person’s struggles– big or small.
I’m still working on not letting other people’s negative emotions penetrate my boundaries. I wrote in my journal today about watering positive seeds and protecting my energy as I enter a new year. When Eloise comes home with stories about the 4th grade mean girls, I tell her that those aren’t her people. Find your people, I tell her. I tell my 7th grader the same thing when a bully throws things at him in the locker room. Find your people. Those aren’t your people. Your people are out there. Yet I forget when it comes to myself. This year I want to make sure I’m surrounded by my people, and to let go of the ones who I’ve outgrown or the ones who start to resemble the crabs in the boiling water. I wrote in my journal about wanting to spend quality time with my loved ones in 2023 and to write prolifically and submit my work for publication. I want to be curious and focused, less stressed and nicer to myself, especially when it comes to my body. I’m always hating on my body, yet the other day I told Ethan the story of his birth, and how if my body hadn’t swiftly ejected him he would have died. I should celebrate that. I went on to have two more healthy children. My dreams come true. When times get tough, I need to remember what I’m grateful for. Truly, it is too much to even keep track of. And it can all go away tomorrow. Today I need to be grateful for now. There are no guarantees of anything tomorrow.
During this time of year, as we go through the gamut of emotions reflecting on our past, present and future, I think it’s important not to be too hard on ourselves about the things that didn’t go our way. The circumstances that didn’t go as planned. Our expectations that were undermined. The messy moments, sad times, misfortune, pain, suffering. Those are the experiences that make us who we can be: complex, empathetic, kind, grateful, authentic humans with a strong sense of interconnectedness.
I like this paragraph by Rennyo Shonin. It is often read in Buddhist funerals. He said, “The fragile nature of human existence underlies both the young and the old, and therefore, we must– one and all– turn to the teachings of Buddha and awaken to the ultimate source of life. By so understanding the meaning of death, we shall come to fully appreciate the meaning of this life which is unrepeatable and thus to be treasured above all else. By virtue of True Compassion, let us realize the unexcelled value of our human existence; and let us live with the nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu, in our hearts.”
I’ve spent New Year’s in Scotland, London, Barcelona, San Francisco, and Kyoto. I’ve gone to parties and celebrated with libations, but today I’m in my pajamas sipping tea, writing, hanging out with my kids, keeping it low-key and feeling like I’m just where I’m supposed to be. My cup runneth over with gratitude for this life I get to live, the good and the bad.
Happy New Year to all of you, and keep on keeping on. I hope 2023 exceeds your wildest dreams.