To Be 19 Again

four person standing at top of grassy mountain
Photo by Helena Lopes

Recently I was thinking about young adulthood and had a few conversations about it. I guess I’ve been reflecting about that time and space of youth when I had feelings of uncertainty about my future, juxtaposed next to the similar but different circumstances I find myself in today.

Do you ever wonder why we spend our youth trying to get away from our parents, clawing our way to independence and privacy and the right to live however we want without shame or pressure or somebody else’s rules and worldview imposed on us, only to throw all of that freedom away by getting married and/or having children? Back to square one. It’s kind of weird, right?

I guess I didn’t think that through when I made the leap into domesticity.

Young adulthood: the period of time in your late-teens/early twenties when you lack gainful employment, a place of your own, overall life experience, and your brain is still developing. You have lots of free time and a general lack of responsibility, but you do not realize this, and therefore will probably squander it. Emotions are high and low. Everything feels like do or die–there is rarely middle ground. You are more impulsive. Unsure. Your time is spent sleeping like a vampire during the day and staying up all night, and you are often in a perpetual trance of boredom. Scarcity syndrome rules your thoughts, and it always feels like the first person you fall in love with will be the only significant other you will ever have, and that first job you set your heart on will be the only one for you, and your current friends will be the only ones you will ever have fun with for the rest of your life. Everything feels scarce, like you can’t possibly duplicate whatever feels good right now. You spend copious amounts of time listening to music in your room with the door shut, lost in thoughts that you will eventually deem trivial. You can not visualize what your life will look like at 30 or 40 or beyond. You are caught in the present, and yet you are rarely present in your mind. Your mind is like a temperamental toddler prone to tantrums. Your life is stitched together by two threads: the greatest moments ever, or those moments when you feel like your life is over. There is an entire middle between the two extremes, but you don’t see it. You will not understand the power you had in that middle space until much later in your life.

This is all normal.

It’s tough growing into adulthood. By the time you fully figure it out, you’re dead.

I am 36-years-old, but in many ways I can relate to the 19-year-olds. First, I’m not married, like many of the young adults. I can understand their anxiety about relationships, or lack thereof. And yet I’ve been married before, so I also don’t feel a burning desire to force a serious relationship, or to settle for anyone who sets off red flags. If anything, having experienced both ends of the coin, I understand the pros and cons very clearly, and it gives me a better handle on time and perspective. There is desperation in youth; I am glad to have outgrown it.

The 19-year-olds and I don’t have our own privacy. The youngsters have to worry about their parents poking around in their business. Walking into the house in the early hours of the morning to be greeted by your mom on the couch, waiting for you, asking a zillion questions about where you were and who you were with. Personal belongings are subject to search and seizure. There might be siblings to contend with. Instead of parents, I have children who stymie my privacy. I have a 3-year-old digging around in my drawers. I have an 8-year-old asking me what something meant in my inbox. I have children waiting for me to return home. I have babysitters to juggle and domestic responsibilities to cover. I am neither free nor able to live in the comfort of privacy.

I lived alone before getting married. It was a high priority item on my bucket list. I knew I wanted to be a mother and that I wanted to get married, but I also knew I wanted to travel and live alone before doing it. So I did.

Here’s the thing.

I realized I didn’t want to give up traveling once I was married and a mother. I wanted to keep traveling.

It was hard to convince my husband that it was worth the money, but once we got past the financial fog of new home ownership and the sticker shock of having children, it started to become a priority again.

I once thought that you had to pick one or the other. That you could be the traveling type who did whatever she wanted, or you traded that in to be a mother and a wife who sticks around the homestead.

I never considered the fact that maybe you don’t have to pick.

You don’t have to go from one extreme to the other. It doesn’t have to be black or white. Freedom or domestic captivity. Privacy or no privacy.

You can find a comfortable spot in the middle.

I used to love to travel. I still do, so I take my children. Some people feel it is important to inform me that my children won’t remember their travels. Why they feel compelled to tell me this, I’m not exactly sure. Maybe they are justifying their own decisions out loud and forget that I am standing there. I don’t know. Sometimes people will make comments about the money spent. They apparently think the new car or TV or the many other things they spend their money on are not up for scrutiny, but my expenditures are.  Whatever the case, our lives are made up of choices. I make mine. 

Well, the short answer to why I travel with my children is that I like to do it. I refuse to submit to domestic captivity. I am afflicted by wanderlust, and I don’t want to stop. I hope my kids will grow up with a foundation that make them also thirsty to see the world. So far it’s working. I don’t expect them to have clear memories of that time they pet a koala in Australia, but they will have an appreciation for the world.

Do you take your kids to church? Why do you bother if they won’t remember specifically what they did each Sunday? I take my kids to temple on Sundays because a) I am building and shaping their foundations in life, and b) I want to go to temple on Sundays. It’s exactly the same with traveling.

There are other things I have refused to give up. Projects. I am more productive than ever at 36, even as a widowed mother of 3 little ones. What I lack in the time that I had as a 19-year-old, I have gained in perspective, experience, and the ability to control my mind and manage my schedule.

I believe that there is a core version of me locked inside of my inner being. She has existed since my birth. This is the authentic me. She has evolved over time. This version of me exists separate from the other identities I embrace, such as motherhood, wife, widow, friend, daughter, teacher, etc.  

I have to admit that the core version of myself had been buried beneath marriage and motherhood for quite a while. Deprioritized. Ignored. It’s easy to do when we get busy, or when we live with other humans. Women are particularly susceptible to the urge of sacrificing ourselves at the altar of motherhood and marriage.

It took widowhood to shatter the life I had grown into–a version that had strayed far from who I wanted to be because I somehow believed in rules that were not real. I had to become engulfed in pain and grief to finally emerge from the damage and recognize glimpses of the 19-years-old me again–that former life before domesticity dumped a blizzard of obligations and misconceptions over my head.

That was my opportunity to rebuild. On my terms, in a way that would be authentic to the person who I had always been. A time to do what I wanted to do.

I feel like being frequently around young adults has helped cushion the blow for me.

Young adults are a great reminder that I have been in that place of uncertainty before, that I have the skills to survive, and that it isn’t a bad thing to be a beginner in life. The fears, the anxiety, the nervousness, the not knowing–these were all part of the excitement. We don’t realize it until it’s over.

My situation, in an unwanted way, let me press the rewind button and put me back in a place of being a beginner. I didn’t ask for it. I got dragged into it kicking and screaming, but when I calmed down, I was able to see that it wasn’t all terrible. There could be happiness again. I didn’t have to have the 19-year-old scarcity syndrome. I could choose to believe, based on experience, that there are an infinite number of possibilities and paths to take in our lives. 

It’s easy to forget those early experiences.

We live in a world where there are very clear boundaries between people. We get locked into worlds that are not supposed to overlap. We segregate by age. Young people hang out with young people. Older people with older people. We segregate by reproduction status. Moms with moms. By marital status. Single people with single people.

I recommend staying close to 19. And if you’re 19, staying close to 45. And 85 and lots of other ages. This business of segregating ourselves by age and marital status and reproduction status is what tricks us into thinking we don’t have anything in common when we all do.

It takes just one second on a Wednesday morning to find your husband dying to find yourself single again.

It takes one car accident to leave you without the ability to walk, and suddenly you’re thrust into a group of people with similar challenges that you never thought you would relate to.

People have lost children and found themselves suddenly child-less.

People have lost their money.

Their freedom.

Their sanity.

When you begin to understand the fragility of life, you realize that everything you have right now–these things you think define you–can all be lost tomorrow. Then who are you? Many people go their entire lives without ever finding themselves.

I think about all of this in the context of Madison, our family’s babysitter-19-year-old-honorary-family-member-too-old-to-be-my-honorary-daughter-too-young-to-be-my-sister-somewhere-in-between. (We really need to a word in English that means family, but not by blood.) Anyway, it’s fascinating to witness her stretch her wings in the adult world, as a 19-year-old. I remember what it was like. To be unsure. To venture into new territory. To be inexperienced. To not want to fail, but not knowing what to do either, and to inevitably make mistakes. Over and over again. 

The 19-year-olds remind me of where I came from. What I went through. It makes me appreciate who I am right now, and I realize that maybe I have something to offer them in terms of experience and insight. There are so many ways I can’t relate to a 19-year-old today, and numerous ways that I still can through the human experience. My older friends have life experience I can’t relate to yet, but I enjoy their company and the unique perspective they bring to the friendship. Since I have always had older friends, there have been many ways I’ve learned from them. Learned what to do. What not to do. I’ve been inspired. Disappointed. It has helped me visualize who I want to become in the future by watching my older friends experience their lives. We need people to learn from. I especially think young adults need older friends to learn from. Nobody gives us an instruction manual on how to be human. How else are we supposed to do it?

Recently I read a New York Times article about Mr. Rogers. It talked about how he viewed children as superior. Their innocence. Their lack of jadedness about life. It talked about his respect for those in need. “And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.” Even though I am Buddhist, and therefore not God-subscribing, I respect this reverence.

Removing feelings of superiority, and believing that there is something to be learned from everyone. Realizing that you can help others, and by doing so, you are also helping yourself.

We are all interconnected. We all came from the same origin of life, and we all die. We don’t control our beginning or ending, but we have power in the middle. Our 19-year-old selves didn’t know what to do with our middles, but our older selves should know better. The question is, do we use that knowledge? Those middles are meant to be shared. The middle of our lives, the time and space between our birth and death, is much better lived when we do it together, with kindness, empathy, and a heart to want to help others. The world would be a magical place if we all helped each other live our best lives irregardless of age or sex or race or economic status or religion or any of the ways that we force people into the categories of “other.”

I believe, in the spirit of Mr. Rogers, that we can start by taking small steps toward that goal.

One step might be widening your circle of friends. Talking to people–people who are not exactly like you. Share your stories. Listen to each other. Have a sincere desire to want to help people live their best lives, and to seek your own best life. Share your life with a diverse group of friends. 

I feel like all of this certainly begins with investing in our youth, but realizing that the support has to continue into young adulthood and be ongoing through the various stages of life.  Supporting each other. We are all in need of support. 

It’s a shift in our mindset, to start seeing us all as one.

The Invasion of the Fern Plant

close up photography of fern leaves

We were in the front yard on a late summer afternoon. The sun dangled low in the sky before dusk approached; the temperature was right at that sweet spot before you needed to put on another layer of clothing in the chaparral biome of Southern California. My two younger children squealed from where they played together on the sidewalk with their motorized Audi and Hello Kitty cars, requiring me to look over every couple of seconds to check that they hadn’t wandered out into the street. Ethan, my oldest, stood loyally by my side, waiting for a way to be useful in my latest garden project. I was on a rampage. It was summertime and I had the next two months off and a mile-long list of tasks I wanted to accomplish around the house. Closets to clean. Files to organize. Walls to paint. Roses to fertilize, garden beds to weed. These projects are never-ending.

Me: (on my knees, gloves on, pulling out the roots and stems of an overgrown fern plant) I can’t believe I passed by this every day and didn’t notice how it was growing over the rose bushes and the Peruvian lilies. Have you ever been so busy that you don’t notice something?”

Ethan: Um, no.

Me: Shoot. I guess that’s just a stupid adult thing?

Ethan shrugged.

The fern was stubborn, its roots firmly planted in the ground, fronds intertwined with the old thorny rose bushes that my father-in-law planted, the ones I was apparently killing with my lack of a green thumb and inattentiveness. I got too close to the thorns and scraped my elbow, drawing blood. Dirt flew into my eyes. Weird bugs crawled out of hiding. In my fury of yanking out the fern plant, I was impatient and pulled out too many of the Peruvian lilies in the process. The rainbow sorbet rose bush, the most fragrant of them all, was completely engulfed by the insolent ferns. I couldn’t believe the audacity of this uninvited plant spreading its spores on my property.

How did I not notice?

How could I walk by something every single day and not see it? It made me wonder what else I was oblivious about in my life.

When did I become a stupid adult?

I am not a handy person. But neither was my late husband, so I don’t feel completely bad. I’m trying, though. Two years into widowhood and with my youngest child finally potty trained, I am emerging from the thick fog of grief and the daze of early motherhood, ready to tackle projects on my to-do list.

I give myself pep talks. Come on, Teresa. You can figure this out. Use that college degree to problem solve. What tool in this garage will help you to pull out those damn ferns?

I use unorthodox gardening methods. Okay, okay. The truth is that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

Once I had been trying to weed a planter for days. It was my first attempt in my post-fog to fix up the garden. I was barely making any progress. Days into it, my dad casually remarked that I wasn’t getting it done because I was using a square shovel–for things like cement–and I needed to use the round one.

Thanks, Dad, for waiting until day 5 and ungodly amounts of sweat to pass on that knowledge. But now I know!

Sure enough, the round shovel did the trick, and lo and behold I had it in my garage the entire time, unbeknownst to me. It’s amazing what we don’t see right under our noses. It’s also fascinating to know that with the right tools, life can be a lot easier.

A day into my fern project, my dad came around and raised an eyebrow at the sight of my gardening. I told him that despite the hack job, it was the effort that should count. I’m a gardener-in-training. I claim to be nothing more.

This fern project has been bothering me for going on two weeks now, ever since I noticed that it completely overtook the colorful flowers with its boring and intrusive green fronds. I’m still not done getting rid of it, but I’m close. There’s a big gap in the planter and I will need to buy a new rose bush to fill it in. I know nothing about roses, so it is likely I will buy something and then kill it within the first month and then have more fretting to do in the near future. I’m worried the lilies are gone forever–my father-in-law planted them, and we take them to the cemetery for Kenneth and his parents on a regular basis. There is sentimental value attached to these flowers, and I tore them out like an idiot. The fern plant basically set off a cascade of problems, and none of this would be happening if I had only seen it sooner, before the damn thing grew out of control.

I swore to Ethan that I would never, ever let that fern plant grow wayward again. Sometimes Ethan chimes in with his 8-year-old perspective when I am going over my big plans and thoughts, but often he just listens. Ethan does not understand my adult afflictions, but his presence is a useful reminder that life doesn’t have to be this way.

I thought about children in general. Recently I confiscated the Incredibles band-aids that my kids love to use for decoration (you know, like sticking them on a wall and watching me explode in all of my OCD-ness). I thought I was going to outsmart the kids for once and hide the band-aids in a make-up drawer. A completely new location. Surely this would stop the band-aids-in-random-places problem in my house.

Yeah, it didn’t matter. They immediately noticed the band-aids were missing, and they found the new location within the day. These kids are like hound dogs with excellent noses for tracking. They know when there is something new in the pantry to devour like termites. They spot a delivery box at the doorstep before I even turn the ignition off in the car. They see the lady bugs crawling on the cucumber plant leaves. They know just when I’ve made my bed, so they can run into my room and cannonball themselves onto the neatly tucked-in blankets, wrecking the pillows I lined up for aesthetic appeal. They know how to drag sand into the house–always a few hours after our cleaning people leave. I’d say it was just kids being kids, but why can’t they ever do it the day before? Why is it always the day of, as if they wait for the most opportune moment to soil a newly mopped floor? Between them and the dog, I don’t have a chance in this house.

Kids notice everything. Everything. Maybe that’s why they take it so personally when the adults overlook details in their lives.

We all start out like them: simple, slow-paced, with attention to detail (of course, on our terms). It’s amazing how a kid can spot a teeny tiny spider in the corner of the shower and use it to hold up a teeth-brushing routine before bedtime, but they can’t remember to flush the toilet. There is definitely choice involved in what children choose to acknowledge. But at least they are seeing these details and making a choice. Half the time us stupid adults don’t get that far.

Over time we leave behind our childhoods and grow into adult lives. We become busy. So busy that we frequently forget to see what is right in front of us. Sometimes we forget big things. We might neglect the people in our lives. We take these loved ones for granted. We make assumptions and get carelessly comfortable with people. Our relationships become strained by our inattentiveness and sometimes we don’t notice until it is too late.

We don’t see projects that need to be done. We might forget small things, like fern bushes and filling the gas tank and picking up those supplies your kid’s teacher requested three weeks ago, which of course is due first thing in the morning and you already have a meeting to be at.

I am deathly afraid of becoming just another stupid adult. The truth is, I’m kind of a control freak. Not in an unhealthily-attached-to-outcomes kind of a way. I have come to terms with the unexpected nature of the universe. But I am super crazy about managing my personal effort. I don’t like to live passively. I demand hard work from myself. Always. Often something like an overgrown fern plant is enough to drive me crazy with thoughts that maybe I’m not trying hard enough in my life.

And yet a fern plant seems like a small thing in the grand scheme of life, right? Like maybe I’m making too much of a big deal about it?

But I hate the idea of drifting so far away from the childlike qualities that embodies the ideal of what human beings could be. I hate to think that I am devolving into a jaded and overworked stupid adult on a fast descent toward death.

I am convinced that I can outsmart whatever it is that turns us into stupid adults. I let these questions and thoughts swirl around in my head, churning and brewing and simmering into something I can unpack in my desire to find meaning and set personal intention.

I’ve come up with a few conclusions (faster than I’ve taken out that fern plant, sadly.)

First, adults are riddled with the enormous task and stress of prioritizing our lives. We have too much to manage. Insane amounts of responsibilities. Infinite possibilities; the propensity for piling too much onto our plates. Some of this is unavoidable. I have three small children and I’m an only parent. There’s no getting around most of the work I have to do on a daily basis, but there are ways that I can be more strategic about my time. The fern plant fell off my priority radar, but I probably needed to make it at least a little bit of a priority before it got to be a problem. It was miscalibration on my part. I can do better.

That brings me to my next point. Priorities need to be recalibrated, and you have to do this often. Different seasons require new priorities. As we get better and stronger, our priorities shift. Attention should be redirected to weaknesses and places in need of growth. Some activities in our lives are temporary; projects don’t last forever. Life isn’t stagnant. Conditions are always changing and we have to be ready to respond accordingly. Recalibration is about living strategically.

I used to get frustrated with myself for having to constantly tweak my schedule and habits and perpetually feeling like I was falling short. It felt like I was chasing my tail and living as an inefficient person who couldn’t nail this adulting business. Surely I must have been doing something wrong, I thought. Now I feel like having a flexible approach that involves constant recalibration is the only way to manage an impermanent life. I’m no longer convinced that I was the problem. This is just what I have to work with.

There are general understandings about myself that I have become attuned to over time. Trial and error, the only way to live, I suppose. I get bored with monotony. Simple strategies like changing the format of my to-do list or changing the time that I go running during the day can help me stay focused on what I need to do without losing interest. Creating a short list of tasks I absolutely must do–the bare minimum– helps me feel content with my productivity for the day and can help me avoid the debilitating effect of discouragement. I track my habits, set annual goals, and make seasonal bucket lists. All of this helps. I journal and reflect often about my progress, problem areas, and what I’d like to do better.

And yet the pesky ferns still creep into my life.

Recently I was fretting over the work I wanted to get done around the house. Naturally I have a list for house projects. A list for work. A list for writing. A list for experiences. I have lists for lists for lists for lists.

My dad heard me going over the house list and he rolled his eyes again. “Teresa, Rome wasn’t built in a day you know.”

I rolled my eyes back.

But really, it’s not just Rome that wasn’t built in a day. It’s not just houses that can’t be fixed up in a day. A human being isn’t developed in a day. It takes us a while to figure out how to live. We spend our entire lives learning the ropes of how to become a fully enlightened human–some of us never figure it out– and then we die.

That’s okay, I think.

Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better.”

I feel like this is all part of the adventure of life.

Keep learning. Keep doing better. Keep trying harder. Learn to spot the invading fern plants. Slow down. Be intentional. Be kind to yourself.

We don’t have to be stupid adults.

We can choose to retain some of that childlike wonder that we once embodied. Zen Buddhists refer to it as the “beginner’s mind.” This is the idea of looking at the world as if you saw everything for the first time. Noticing details. Being present for the experience and maintaining curiosity. No matter how old we are, we can still channel this beginner’s mind.

It’s just a matter of whether or not we think the effort is worth it.

I think it is.

Becoming a Lotus Flower in the Mud

aquatic beautiful bloom blooming
(Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com)

“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.” -Dalai Lama

I find it difficult to digest the news since my husband Kenneth died. While many people were upset when #45 was elected, I was busy being in the throes of grief, thinking to myself two big thoughts: 1) I’m glad Kenneth isn’t here to see this, and 2) I’m already hurting so badly, nothing else can compare. I guess it was easier when Kenneth was here, because he freaked out over everything. Like…maniacally researched issues. Talked about depressing political news ad nauseam. He was all-consumed with politics. He was also enthusiastic about getting into the fight and trying to make change. As his wife, I could let him do the bulk of the worrying and just be his wingwoman as needed. I could let him carry the greater burden.

I think that’s what a lot of us want to do. Let other people worry about it. Not think about it. Be the ostrich that buries its head into the sand. It’s less painful that way. What we don’t know won’t kill us. Or maybe we just don’t want confrontation. That’s painful too. We don’t want to offend people.

It’s a fine-line between standing up for your convictions and alienating people who are probably decent individuals at their core. I believe most of us want the same basic things at the end of the day, but we get so caught up in dehumanizing each other.

There has been so much depressing news lately. I’ve been waking up to NY Times news alerts on a regular basis. I swipe those things off at lightning speed, and then feel guilty and have to go find them, and then wonder how I’m going to survive all of the depressing news for the rest of my life without a Kenneth to take charge with a protest sign.

It’s painful hearing about all the shitty things going on in the world. In the U.S. Everywhere. It can really lead a person to lose faith in humanity.

Here’s the thing: I can respect different opinions. I don’t expect all of us to agree on everything. That would be boring. That would be impossible.

But I can’t stomach opinions born out of racism. I can’t tolerate misogyny. I can’t respect an opinion if it was formed based off of viewing one news station. I’m not going to give an opinion as much credit when it comes from somebody who doesn’t bother to read and educate themselves.

I respect your right to not read. To not educate yourself. To not research. To not care, I guess. It’s your right. But you can’t expect me to take your opinions seriously.

I wouldn’t let a doctor do surgery on me if they didn’t have any background in medicine. There are ways that we build our credibility. Credibility isn’t automatic.

I also have more respect for compromise, decorum, and empathy. I respect growth mindsets. In my world, this impacts your credibility.

Recently I was at a baseball game. We were still in line when the national anthem began. People around us swiftly took off their hats and placed them over their hearts. People mouthed the words and eyes got misty. Ethan asked what was going on.

“Oh, you know. A little American tradition of acting patriotic at sporting events when most people in this stadium didn’t even bother to vote in the last election.”

He scrunched his nose. “That’s stupid.”

Yeah, basically. And I’m fed up. I can’t hide my contempt anymore.

I sat in the stadium, and people around me seemed to know all the rules of the game. They were attentive and wearing their favorite team’s colors and jerseys. They were shoveling junk food galore into their mouths and I would venture to say most of them were clearly unfit. I mention this because I often hear people bad-mouthing others with addictions and those who are stuck in hard times, and yet many of these same people can’t even kick their own food addictions. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. These are just my observations.

I’ve had conversations with my dad, where he proceeds to talk about certain groups of people who basically don’t try hard enough to get themselves out of poverty, and I point out most people can’t even lose weight. It’s not a criticism of people. It’s just a reality. I struggle with the same issues. It’s hard. Life is hard. Brains are fragile. Addictions are real–small ones, big ones. It’s not easy to break bad habits, which is why we shouldn’t throw stones.

But it wasn’t just the gross consumption of junk food that ruffled my feathers. It was the attentiveness and enthusiasm for the game that really got to me. And that damn national anthem.

Let me just say that I like baseball and I also like baseball helmets full of nachos. This isn’t a hate-on-baseball post. I also like the national anthem. It’s a pretty little song. I’m patriotic, but not in a blind consent kind of way. I’m patriotic in the never-have-missed-an-election-in-18-years kind of way. I’m patriotic in the donating to causes kind of way. In the precinct walking kind of way. In the volunteering kind of way. In the research, reading, educating kind of way. I love my home and my community. I appreciate my privilege. I love the Constitution. I also love equality. Liberty and justice for all. I’m a big fan. I get pissed off when people from other countries bad-mouth us. You know, I can talk crap about my family, but you can’t. That kind of thing.

I guess I was just feeling like I couldn’t be the only one who is disturbed by how readily people accept sports as a distraction and diversion from real life–to the point of easily rejecting participation in democracy. Basically ignoring it.

I know criticizing sports is taboo in American society. I don’t necessarily think sports culture is worthless. If something is entertaining and fun, go for it. We all need pleasure in life. What I’m saying is that there is a problem when people manage to make time to show up to a sports game on time, know all the rules, keep track of how the team does and where they are playing–and yet can’t be bothered to vote. Doesn’t want to follow the trail of legislation and court decisions. Would rather be spoon fed tidbits of information.

What’s worse–treating politics like a sporting event.

Treating political parties like their favorite team. Acting like a couple of jerks fighting over the Dodgers and the Raiders. Talking crap about the other. Viewing people as The Other.

Unfortunately, democracy is a little more complicated than team rivalry. It also requires a little more education and more time than what most people are willing to invest.

I guess this post is for those of you who are feeling discouraged in life, whether it be because of political reasons, personal reasons, or maybe both.

I get it. I’ve been discouraged over and over and over again in the last two years. It’s been difficult to feel hopeful since Kenneth died, when I found myself a single mother of three little ones. Hope has been a difficult thing to scrounge up in my circumstances. But, I’m here to say that it is possible. It’s there. You do have to work to find it. Nobody delivers it on a silver platter to you. Prince Charming and the Fairy Godmother won’t be knocking on your door.

Something I learned the hard way is that out of the pile of crap you find yourself under, you can find light between the cracks–hope–and use it to fight for the life you want. You don’t have to settle for a pile of shit. Out of the mud, the lotus flower grows. Its beauty emerges from something that is ugly–in fact that ugliness is the nourishment that helps it grow. When it rains, and it will rain over and over again, the lotus has petals from which the water easily slides off. That is our resilience.

We begin by looking at what we can control. It’s pointless to dwell on what we can’t control–that list is daunting. We need to focus on what we can do. What choices can we make today, right now?

Who are are allies? We need to build a tribe of people who inspire us.

How can we get better? How can we grow? What do we need to learn?

I quoted the Dalai Lama at the beginning of this essay. We have to use tragedy and disappointments and setbacks as our greatest teachers. Challenges–not death sentences. These are the moments when we tap into our resilience and we work for a better tomorrow. The alternative is to roll over and be miserable. That would be a disaster. Tragedy isn’t necessarily the last nail into our coffin. Tragedy can be the fire under our asses that get us out there fighting for a better tomorrow.

I’m not rolling over. I’m too damn stubborn for that. I want to live on my terms, and for that to happen I need to keep pushing forward. There are too many great things to experience in the world. I still have a lengthy bucket list that I am working on. For every bit of pain, there is double the amount of pleasure to be enjoyed. There is happiness, but happiness takes work. It involves experiencing pain. You get knocked down, you get back up. That’s how it works.

And guess what? Ostriches don’t really bury their heads in the sand. They actually make holes and stick their heads inside to turn their eggs. They are WORKING to preserve life. All great things require our work. Blood, sweat, and tears.

So no more hiding out. Splash around in the mud and figure out how to stretch yourself toward the sun. Beautiful things happen that way.

As for me, I’m going to make a list tonight of everything that concerns me. My fears. Worries. Anxiety. And then I’m going to make a list of what I can do to address these emotions RIGHT NOW. This week. Next week. In the immediate future.

And then I’m going to do those things.

Buckets are filled by drops of water. I need to figure out all of the tiny ways I can work toward moving forward.

That’s my plan. I want to model that for my children. I want to build their hope and resilience. They will need it.

(FYI: Ice cream is a good back-up plan too.)

26 Months

If it were a baby, he/she would be in preschool and potty trained by now. Talking, playing, becoming more independent. Yelling “no” in my face while throwing a plate of food off the side of their high chair, and laughing as it splatters everywhere. Not a baby anymore, but still requiring my energy.

Except I’m not talking about a baby today. I’m talking about my grief, 26 months after my husband unexpectedly passed away. But it’s kind of related, because grief actually feels like a plate of spaghetti thrown over the side of a high chair, the kind that laughs at you as you stoop down to clean it up, again and again and again.

In three days, it will have been 26 months since Kenneth died. Two years. Roughly 780 days. 112 weeks. Three cycles of summer. Two winters. A kindergarten graduation. A preschool graduation. Missed milestones: lost teeth and toothless smiles, two toddlers learning to talk, hearing Peter Jack say “How dare you?” and “You’re not my friend anymore.” Eloise learning to read. Swim classes. Vacations. I celebrated two birthdays without him. I replaced a washer, a dryer, a stove top, windows, and had the house re-painted–all without him. So much water under the bridge in two short years. It sometimes feels like maybe none of my memories from that previous life were real. It could have been all in my head.

It has taken me longer than usual to write in the last few weeks. I haven’t posted lately. That’s because I had terrible jet lag after coming home from Australia. And then summer. Summer has gotten in the way for sure, spending time with the kids, loving it, wishing for the school year to start, but loving summer, and also wistful for daycare…you know. Always a ticking time bomb of contradicting emotions.

I remind myself that I have to enjoy each season as it comes. There are pros and cons to everything. I have to remind myself of this fact over and over again. I know and believe in this truth but it takes a lot of reflection to be present. It’s easy to forget.

Summer means lots of time off with my kids because I am a teacher. I’ve been completing many of projects, and these projects are actually related to my grief. I am getting through the final stages of sorting out my life from before Kenneth died. 780 days later, I might finally be getting my shit together.

The other day I stayed up until 2AM clearing out the closets in my bedroom. One closet used to be Kenneth’s. I got rid of a lot of his stuff in the months after he passed away to make room for my clothes and shoes, but a person’s junk is like sand…it gets everywhere. It’s hard to sweep it all up. There are traces all over the place. I’ve been trying to determine what to do with the grains of his existence for over two years. Figuring out what to keep. Deciding what to pack into boxes, and what should be thrown away. I’ve gone through several of these grief-fueled purges, and each time it gets easier to part with items. At first it is painful to throw away the person’s favorite shoes and clothes, or even to touch their closet and mess with the order (or disorder, in Kenneth’s case) of their personal belongings. But it gets easier with time. The more cleaning purges I have, the more ready I am to let go of things. Progress has been slow, but it’s happening.

In the latest purge I came across random things that managed to survive the other cleaning frenzies.

I found pictures. One is of Kenneth as a child, his two siblings, and their father. They are all posed with their Welsh Terrier somewhere out in the desert.

There was the button his mother got the day he was born with the name of the hospital and “It’s a boy!” in faded letters.

His Social Security card, the one he blamed me for losing (it was in the file the entire time).

I found lots of paperwork. So much paperwork. That pile of junk was partly my fault. In the fog of 2016 I just stuffed things into a box, not willing to deal with it. That’s what happens with grief. Certain tasks become too painful to deal with.

There was the printer I bought during that fog, the one I could never figure out how to work. I got rid of it. My dad asked why I didn’t figure it out, and then he made a comment about how we waste a lot of things by not keeping track of user manuals and getting them set up. But that’s normal logic. Grief logic doesn’t work that way. Grief makes your mind as slow as molasses, and you can’t process details. You get amnesia. There are big chunks of time and moments I absolutely can not recall from the early days of widowhood. My memory is spotty. Grief amnesia–it’s totally real. You aren’t in your right mind. In fact, I just found a document from 2017 that said “Very Important” in big bold letters that I somehow just stuffed in the box with all of the papers I didn’t want to sift through. This move was totally unlike me–I’m usually pretty organized. Now I have to make a phone call to my CPA and figure out if I really did forget something. Chances are he will tell me it was already taken care of, and I will sit there feeling stupid but having absolutely no recollection of any of the details. Or he will tell me that yes, it was Very Important, and now I owe a bazillion dollars. And I will worry about this, like so many things that I have worried about since Kenneth died. But for right now–the printer–it had to go. If anything, I needed to not have the reminder of that fog.

Here’s the thing about my experience with grief. It collided with the fog of motherhood. Kenneth died when I was still nursing the baby. We were 7 years into the blur of pregnancy, breastfeeding, babies, diapers, toddlers. A hectic life with three little ones. Even on a good day the best we could hope for was a barely manageable hot mess.

Let’s just say the last two years have been rough. If you’ve seen me smiling, it’s because I’m really good at stitching myself together and trying to put everything into perspective.

But it’s getting better. My closets are organized now. I’m checking items off my to do list and I am not as resistant as I once was to dealing with things. I finally cleaned out the sandbox that hadn’t been used in 6 years and hauled 300 lbs of sand into my backyard so the kids could have fun. I cleared out Kenneth’s overgrown garden beds and have actual plants growing. My junk drawers are no longer stuffed with Kenneth’s belongings. I have completely reclaimed my bedroom. I bought a new filing cabinet and will have total control of my filing for the first time in over ten years.

Other aspects of grief have changed too. The kids and I don’t visit Kenneth’s niche as often, mostly because of the kids. They’re lazy. It’s boring. “We have some of his ashes at home,” Ethan will say. “Let’s just leave flowers by the avocado tree or his picture.” 1/10 of his ashes are in a biodegradable urn beneath the avocado tree. The kids will use that as an excuse not to go to the cemetery, but I never see them paying attention to the avocado tree either. Sometimes it feels like they would rather not be reminded of this part of our lives. I am constantly teetering on a tightrope, trying to find the balance between a healthy amount of talking about “our situation” and ignoring it. Nobody gave me a manual on how to do this. I’m really just winging it.

But we still go to the cemetery. Recently, we went for Father’s Day. Three days early, because I wanted to beat the holiday rush at the cemetery. I took pictures of the kids next to their father’s niche. We used to do that when we would visit his parents, except back then it would be Kenneth holding the kids, posing next to his parents’ plaque that read their names and important dates. Now it’s our kids in front of his niche. I take the pictures because it’s the only way we can take pictures with their father, and I’m using them as a measuring stick of time.

Kenneth’s columbarium is in front of the grave of a 7-year-old girl, and every time we visit him we stop to leave her a flower too. Each time I re-read the dates on her gravestone, and each time I experience the gut-wrenching reminder that the universe could be a lot more terrible to me, so I hold my breath and hope that it thinks I have been served enough bad luck for one lifetime, even though I know this is foolishness. There will be more heartbreak. More tragedy. More loss. I am prepared for it, but I don’t want to think about it. I am more squeamish than ever about the possibilities, because now I know what it’s like to have your head squeezed between the vice of life, and I know how fast everything can change in a second.

Recently a person we met in the last few months found out that my husband is dead. I guess I assumed she knew, maybe by the lack of a father attending the kids’ tennis practices, or I don’t know? I guess I forget that “new” people in our lives don’t know our story, and that I have to actually tell them. It somehow came up in our conversation, when I blurted out the “after my husband died” part of the story I was telling. Her face stiffened and she asked me to repeat my last sentence. After my husband died. Then I had to tell her the details. I am not one to clam up. I will tell you all of the gory details if you are interested, so I’m not sure why it felt a little weird. Maybe it’s because we’ve gotten further and further away from that day. Maybe it’s the way I can tell a new person the details completely devoid of emotion while they tear up and I smile and shrug it off. Maybe it’s the realization that there are people in my life now that Kenneth will never know, and they will never know Kenneth.

People ask me how I am doing. Not as much as they did in the beginning, but I still get asked.

You know. It’s fine. Really. I’m used to wrangling three kids on my own now. The dust has settled. The missing is still there, but most of the emotions have been digested and the intensity is gone. My brain and heart have accepted and stopped fighting the reality imposed on us. Now any sadness is like a few scattered clouds instead of a complete storm.

I know we struggle as humans with “why” questions. Sometimes we’re like stubborn toddlers wanting to know “why, why, why?” An answer of “because” would not be sufficient. But sometimes I think “because” is perfectly fine. Why do I have this life? Because. Why did he die? Because. Who knows. It just is. Because.

I’ve found comfort leaning on the fact that we always have choice. Even if the choices are not the ones you wanted. Even when our choices are limited. Even when the playing field isn’t fair and you seem to get the short end of the stick compared to everyone else. You still get to steer the direction of your ship, irregardless of the weather forecast. I’m definitely not using this analogy to take away from people who have experienced terrible circumstances. I would never suggest that we shouldn’t create an ocean where everyone’s boats can float. It’s just that in my tiny part of the world, with the cards that I hold in my hands at this present moment, I find it comforting to know that I can choose my next move. So I’ve made choices. Namely, I spend my time doing things that I like, and I have focused on raising my children. A zillion people ask a zillion times about whether or not I am on dating apps or “putting myself out there.” Look, I just got Peter out of his damn diapers. I’m probably having about as many romantic dates as I would have had with Kenneth around. It’s funny how people wonder and expect certain things. Maybe quickly finding somebody is a way of wrapping up a terrible situation with a nice bow. It’s funny how I myself worried about this when Kenneth died. But two years later, I don’t really care. I haven’t made it a priority. If it happens, cool. I’m not opposed. I’m just not going to make it my full-time job, and I’m not going to settle for less because I actually really like my own company. Sometimes being alone at Starbucks and playing tennis and having nobody to bother you after the kids go to bed is pretty darn sexy.

I guess that’s the biggest change in the last two years: I am much more in tune with myself. I actually like to live alone (I lived alone before I met Kenneth!). Granted, when I talk about living alone, it’s about as alone as you can get with three kids. But I still get to call all of the shots. Okay, okay. Not really. I’m a slave to three tiny dictators.

I feel like when you are alone, there is a greater burden to figure out your own happiness. When you have a partner it is easy to pawn off the responsibility to the other person, or to attach happiness to the family unit. There is less personal responsibility and less individuality in how you approach life when you are in a relationship. When you are alone, it’s all you. You have to work harder to create your own happiness. The consequence is that in many ways I feel greater happiness, because I was in control of it. All of it. I was the architect. Life on my terms. In my next life with a partner, I will make sure I am intentional about my individual happiness, and try not to fall back into the trap of happiness codependency.

Enjoying being alone is not me saying that I would rather be a widow than a married woman. It’s just making the best out of a shitty situation, and acknowledging that there are silver linings to everything, and we can’t exactly sort life into “good” or “bad” categories. Most of the time it can be both.

My current life is good and bad.

My former life was good and bad.

Every single moment is composed of good and bad.

You maximize what you can do in your current circumstances with your current resources and current knowledge, and you move forward. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.

Are You Having Fun Yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We forget to notice the things we can control.

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

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

In theory this is what we figure out with age.

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

Do we take control over our lives?

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

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

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

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

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

Traveling has taught me so many of these lessons.

Finding Open Doors

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

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

Summer was a promise.

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

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

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

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

We go through many of these doorways.

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

Ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there have been many.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screw the Boxes

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

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not talking in a religious sense.

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

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

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

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

Nothing is guaranteed to us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This mindfulness is what makes us resilient.

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

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

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

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

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

How beautiful.

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

Screw checking off the boxes.

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

It’s now or never.