Good Grief

Good Grief

On August 6, I lost my favorite person on the planet.

She was ready in June.  She graced us with her smile and laughter and love and beauty at my young cousin’s wedding, somehow radiating and vivacious even from her wheelchair in the scorching hot Illinois summer heat.  Later that night, just the two of us were alone in her bedroom, putting on pajamas for what would be our last sleepover together at her farmhouse.  She was quiet then looked at me and said, “I don’t know why God’s keeping me around so long.” 

She’d said it before (it made her kids mad), but in this private moment, in this intimate space, I heard it differently, and it occurred to me to ask “Are you ready to go?”  She knew what I meant (she always knew my heart) and barely hesitated before answering gently, “Yes. I’m tired.”  This beautiful creature I was beyond grateful to have had in my world for all of my 36 years…she was ready to leave us.  I felt warm tears stream down my cheeks as I looked at her with a great abundance of love.  My heart clenched, and sadness welled up inside me like a great wave, but I heard her, and I understood.  Time seemed to stand still as the next few minutes etched themselves on my heart.

While I write this, I can barely see through my tears, but in those moments, I didn’t break down.  I hope I didn’t scrunch up my face at her.  What I truly wanted was to hold space for her feelings, her truth.  She was sharing with me what was on her heart after 94 years of life.  And I’d wondered how she felt about aging, what is was like to be in the very late stages of a life well-lived.  I’d gotten the sense her kids took offense at her working through the feelings aloud, but I felt secure in the knowledge of her love and so abundantly grateful for the life she’d shared with us and wanted only to honor her as she sensed her end was near.  She’d have spent a million more nights in pajamas with me; this had nothing to do with her wishing to leave us.  But these were her very real, very raw, very honest musings, and I’m so grateful she shared them with me.

I’d sensed for some time that she was winding herself down.  She was sleeping more – a lot more – and I believe she hoped she might go quietly in bed without pain or struggle.  She wanted to take one last big breath then settle into eternal rest like she’d seen my grandpa do.  We wished that for her too.  It wouldn’t be how she’d pass…but that’s what she hoped for that night when she opened her soul to me, and I’ll be forever grateful she trusted me enough to answer my question (Are you ready to go?) with the honesty she knew might break my heart. 

In the moments and days and weeks that followed, I began preparing to let her go.  I knew she’d pass soon, and her revelation had opened up in me the space to begin grieving what would be my greatest loss so far in life.  I was very sad, but that sadness came from my own selfish desire to keep her here in physical form, and I longed to look past that to her greater good.  After all, this wasn’t about me.  It was her life (and would be her death), and I wanted to honor its timing.  She gave me a gift in letting me begin grieving with her by my side.  I told friends I was “ready” to let her go, though they knew – and I knew – this readiness would waver.

Maybe, so too did Grandma’s readiness waver.  Once she was checked-into her final hospital stay, it took her 17 days to die.  They were some of the most difficult days of her life – and heart-wrenching for our family.  But in the weeks since we spoke our final farewells to this beautiful creature’s earthly presence in our lives, I’ve wondered if there was some purpose to that time (if everything, even timing, really does happen for a reason).  I don’t believe it’s what she wanted for herself; she wasn’t selfish in her end.  Maybe she stuck around for us, to give us something, and maybe we have to look past our grief to see the goodnesses she shared with us in that. 

I wondered if I should travel home from Oregon to Illinois to tell her goodbye, and I wasn’t certain because we’d shared those beautiful moments in June, and I feared they somehow might lose their…comfort to me if I tried to recreate them in a different form.  Part of me wanted to remember her just as she had been then – in her house, in her bed, instead of in the sterile, fluorescent environment of the hospital.  Still, when I crawled into bed with her and took her sweet face in my hands, I knew I’d made the right choice in coming home.  As she opened her eyes with my mom’s waking her, she looked right at me and lit up with all the joy she could muster, whispering what would be one of her final words, repeated a few times over the coming days – love.  “Love, love, love,” she would say.  That sparkle in her eye and those words were all the assurance I needed to let me know I was exactly where I should be.

In the days that followed, I saw (and felt) waves of emotion flood through her kids and grandkids.  I saw tenderness where I hadn’t seen it before, and for me that tenderness gave way to forgiveness of past hurts.  I saw vulnerability make its way through and across the generations.  Mustached farmers who rarely smile for pictures weeped at Grandma’s bedside, all the time touching her, caressing her, speaking the kindest of words to her.  One took care to put Chapstick on her dry lips and Vick’s VapoRub (her favorite) under her nose whenever the old had worn off.  (Another would sing “Amazing Grace” aloud by her bed after she passed.)  There was still bickering, and there were conversations had in louder voices than I would have liked for Grandma’s sake, but there were fewer unkind words, and they seemed to be forgotten sooner than they had been before.  There were more comforting touches, more hugs, more thoughtful moments and conversations.  A more gentle spirit filled the room (perhaps it was Grandma’s, sneaking out of her body and into our hearts), and there was much beauty in it.  If it hadn’t been for those 17 days she lingered, some of this may have been lost.  There was goodness in the grief that filled the room and those weeks, and she had given us that.

Grandma had nine grandkids.  Five of us were close growing up (one was older and too cool for our Cousins Who Care Club).  We “middle kids” played games, ate pizza, and had sleepovers with Grandma and Grandpa then later just Grandma.  We made lots of memories over the years, but we were heading off to college and life beyond by the time our youngest three cousins started coming of age.  I was traveling back and forth to the hospital with one of them when he told me they’d had a very different experience than we’d had growing up.  The extended family didn’t get together as much as the years passed, and there wasn’t as much cousins time spent at Grandma’s.  He knew her well and adored her (he and his brothers lived nearby and visited often), but he didn’t share the group memories the others of us did.  He was just out of college and job hunting during Grandma’s hospital stay, and I was without a car, 2000 miles from work and the rest of my life, so we were uniquely available night and day and spent a lot of our time together.  We did crossword puzzles and played piano; joined another cousin for an outdoor concert; talked about our lives over donut holes and scrambled eggs and pizza and ice cream; and went on a memorable 18-mile bike ride which would have given Grandma quite a laugh.  We got to know each other under unique circumstances only she could have gifted us.  And we made memories we otherwise wouldn’t have shared. 

One of my favorite memories of our time spent in the hospital is of painting Grandma’s fingernails.  It was just me and this younger cousin in the room with her, and I’d brought her favorite shade of rose polish.  When I whispered in her ear to ask if it was okay, she nodded, and I asked her to please hold her hands really still for me.  I painted while he held the bottle of polish, and when I finished her first hand, he gently blew on her nails to dry them.  She made a funny face and shook her hand around as if to shoo him away.  Whether it startled her or felt uncomfortable to her frail skin, it gave us good laugh.  She was spunky even in her restfulness, in the quiet of her winding down toward the end.  Those simple, intimate moments will stay with me forever.  And they are, for me, some of the goodnesses to be found in our time of grieving.

Our family is full of big personalities and has frequent disagreements, so when one of Grandma’s nurses said “I want to be part of this family,” I was shocked.  I actually laughed out loud.  And questioned her judgement.  In retrospect, I’m grateful she saw the good in us.  For all our faults and all our flaws, in that space, we must have represented Grandma well, and she’d have been so proud of us for that.  There’s something to be said about the 17-day vigil loved ones kept in her room.  She was never alone.  She was surrounded by family and tremendous love.  We doted on her and kissed her and cherished her every moment of every day.  And the hospital staff saw this and, in doing so, reflected back at us the very best of us.  I hope we can hold onto that and allow Grandma to live on in the love we show each other and the world.  She would want that.  And it seems like the least we can do for her after all the goodness she brought us. 

I suppose we’ll never really know if the time it took Grandma to pass was just her body’s holding on longer than her spirit or if it really was by design, if we were indeed meant to have that time together – crying and laughing and, for some, bickering and…just being.  In my heart, the time was significant; it mattered.  It was very difficult – exhausting and at times disparaging – but it also felt purposeful.  For me, there was much goodness to be found in our grieving.  Grandma was full of goodness.…so it makes sense she would keep sharing goodness with us, even in her holding on longer than she may have wanted. 

A couple of days after I first visited her in the hospital, she opened her eyes to look at me as I sat on the edge of her bed holding her hand.  Quietly she whispered, “Pretty.”  Yes you were, Grandma.  So. Very. Pretty.  The prettiest woman I’ve ever seen. You left us with a radiant full moon, and every time I see that moon, I’ll see you, shining down from the night sky with love and grace, dazzling there just like you always did on earth.  I feel much grief at having lost you, but I feel so much more goodness for having known you. 

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Reason, Season, Lifetime

Reason, Season, Lifetime

Someone very dear to me recently ended our friendship because I disappointed him.  I was very sorry for the damage I’d unintentionally caused a relationship that had been special and significant to me, but my honest revelation about the whys were lost on him.  He was finished.  And that hurt.  But, surprisingly, it didn’t hurt as badly as I might have thought it would.  Another friend asked “Aren’t you going to try talking with him?  Surely this is just temporary…”  No, in my heart I sense that it’s permanent – and I really am okay with that. 

I can’t remember who told me this or where I read it, but I once encountered a concept that struck me, stayed with me, and has significantly impacted my thinking over the years: people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.  That is to say, relationships come and sometimes go.  They’re not all meant to stay with us forever…and that’s okay.  It’s more than okay, really.  It’s normal, healthy, and meaningful.  It’s also very very practical. 

I remember the words of a Girl Scout song I learned in elementary school: make new friends but keep the old; one is silver, the other is gold.  At age 8, I surely didn’t have the insight to think through all the practical implications of this notion, but even then I remember running over and over those words in my head.  Somehow they perplexed me – and I think my hanging on them may have come from feelings of fear and maybe even dread.  How could I possibly hold onto all my friendships forEVER?  Where and how on earth would I keep them all?

A man told me on a first date that he knew his last relationship was over when his partner said “This shouldn’t be so hard.”  He went on to say Relationships are hard.  All of them.  Friendships, romantic endeavors, work arrangements; all of them require time, energy, and investment.  Relationships take work, sometimes a lot of it.  This idea resonated with me, and I was impressed by the emotional intelligence he exhibited in acknowledging it.  I was surprised a few weeks later when he told me he was really looking for something “light and fun with low expectations.”  But you said… Never mind. 

Bob Marley said “If [it’s] easy, it won’t be amazing.  If [it’s] amazing, it won’t be easy.”  He said this about women in particular, in the context of romantic relationships, but I believe the sentiment resonates more generally.  In my experience, we get from relationships in direct proportion to our giving to them.  

According to the reason, season, lifetime “principle,” sometimes we get and/or give for a specific reason.  People come into our lives at just the right time, to fulfill needs we may or may not know we have or to help us learn important and timely life lessons…and when we show up genuinely and honestly for others, sometimes our timing is similarly perfect, whether or not any of us know it right then.  I happen to believe some higher power (my Universe) plans these connections out for us.  They’re a matter of synchronicity, or “meaningful coincidence” (a concept of Carl Jung).  We may sometimes overlook the opportunities we’re presented, but when we’re open to and engage with them, our lives are enriched. 

Sometimes we give and get a season.  We might work together for a few years then lose touch; we may have gone to school together and bid farewell at graduation; we may live in the same city or neighborhood then move in different directions.  We don’t necessarily fall out or come to a screeching halt in the form of disagreement (though we may), but perhaps we just…drift apart, likely because we no longer share common ground, common space, or common experience (it’s interesting how Facebook serves to “extend” our seasons).  Perhaps we break-up; dating can certainly be seasonal in nature.  It seems to me our companions for a “season” tend to outlast those of reason, but any and each lasts only so long as everyone feels fulfilled and is taking away from the relationship in what feels to be equal accordance with giving (or is satisfied with any imbalance) and so long as circumstances are conducive. 

From researching the grooming habits of monkeys, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar came to discover that the larger a primate’s brain, the more capacity s/he has for social connection.  He went on to determine that, on average, humans have the bandwidth for about 150 relationships (the Dunbar Number) at any given time.  Many are casual; around fifty are intimate enough for dinner parties and holiday cards; fifteen are close friends; and five are the most intimate of connections, ones we’d be devastated to lose.  More social folks may foster a great number of relationships, while more introverted personalities tend toward fewer total connections. 

The point is that our capacity for connection – for social commitment – is limited by both cognitive constraints and by the more practical matter of our having limited time to invest socially.  In other words, there’s only so much of us to go around.  My 8-year old self recognized this truth when she tensed at the notion of keeping all her friends forever.  It’s just not possible. 

Indeed, I don’t remember all of my scouting companions.  A few I could name and am still connected to in one way or another, but only one or two significant friendships remain from all those years ago.  The relationships were significant to me at the time (central to my life and connection with the social world, in fact), and they are no less important because they were relatively short-lived.  They were building blocks of my life and provided me with my earliest examples of community.  I learned and grew from them.  But they had their time, and it passed.  They fulfilled their purpose (or perhaps completed their season). 

I’ve pondered my recently-departed friend and the season I shared with him, and I find myself wondering about its reason(s).  I don’t believe this person came into my life by happenstance.  Our connection felt more significant than that, and I at least took more away from it than I’ve taken from much longer-term connections.  I don’t yet know why the relationship revealed itself how and when it did or why its time was cut short, but I believe it served a purpose.  And that purpose may or may not be revealed to me in time. 

Reason and season relationships aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.  They can and certainly do overlap.  Though sometimes for me, the category in which they fall is apparent.  And the point may very well be that it’s all okay. I’m very grateful for myriad wonderful people who’ve come into and touched my life.  And I’m certainly not looking to eject anyone (though there must be something to this since I sometimes see folks announce on social media that they’re cutting back their friend lists…).  I seldom, though I can’t say never, enter relationships fully-intending them to be temporary.  Instead, like with so many other things in life, I think they’re best allowed to ebb and flow naturally over time.  I don’t think they’re meant for us to cling to at any cost or knock ourselves out trying to sustain once they’ve had their time. 

For me, lifetime connections are meant to be shared with a special few.  They are uncommon gems of people we find with whom we connect on multiple levels – emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.  Our pinnacle relationships bring to mind the theme song of “The Golden Girls” because they’re the ones in which we “travel down the road and back again.”  We stay with them and they stick with us through many seasons and probably for a variety of reasons.  It’s with these folks that we bare our souls, to them we reveal all of ourselves – the good, the bad, the ugly.  Sometimes it’s in testing the waters of trust and companionship – the stuff of vulnerability – that we come to identify our reason and season people (we don’t stick with everyone through their baddest and ugliest because this investment is the greatest)…and then other times, this proves the very source of lifelong connection.  In presenting the most unedited versions of ourselves, we are occasionally met with similarly beautiful and messy versions of others, and it is here we sometimes chance to find our truest and most steadfast confidants.

It seems to me the reasons and seasons all come together across a lifetime in a lovely twist of fate that plays out exactly as it should, allowing us to connect and disconnect in just the right ways, at just the right times, with just the right people.  And it’s all okay.  In fact, it’s kind of amazing, however not easy it might sometimes be.  My friendship for a reason or season lasted exactly as long as it was supposed to, and for that I’m grateful.  For a time, to me, it was amazing.  And still, I’m grateful for its giving way for new connections to come along just as they should.  May I be open always to the reasons, seasons, and lifetimes that come my way.

My Heavy Blanket

My Heavy Blanket

A friend recently posted on Facebook “My best friend lost his battle with mental illness today.”  He committed suicide, and this revelation cut me to my core.  I didn’t know the man, never even knew of him until I found out he was no longer living.  Still, my heart ached (and aches) for him.  I’m certain he was in great pain, a kind and intensity of pain with which I’m intimately familiar.  I don’t blame him for what he did.  He was tired.

And I know this weariness well.

I had my first “encounter” with depression my sophomore year of college.  I remember the time and place of it like it was yesterday – and even still today as I reflect on it I can feel those first moments – the emptiness, the confusion, the loneliness and desperation.  Sadness swept over me like a wave, and the lights went out all around me.  And, more painfully, the lights went out inside of me.  I had no idea what was happening, and I certainly didn’t know what to do about it.

My official “diagnosis” followed shortly.  A doctor, upon first meeting and talking with me for less than an hour, told me I was suffering from depression.  She didn’t need to tell me I was suffering (I was acutely aware of that), but the label was new to me.  She explained that “the condition” and its symptoms result from chemical imbalance and prescribed medicine to treat it.  I later questioned the diagnosis, insisting I should be tested for said “imbalance.”  I couldn’t believe the pain I felt was really rooted in my chemistry.  I thought it must be something I was doing wrong, something I needed to work at, a challenge for me to overcome.  And I set about doing that.

(A spinal tap is the procedure the doctor might have recommended, if this were medically advisable.  I’ve since learned that the medical community doesn’t know what “normal” brain chemistry looks like.  There’s no magic measure.  Doctors medicate symptoms of the imbalance they’ve identified through research and observation.  This bothers me.  I want facts, figures, measures – tangibles.  I want experts who understand exactly what’s going on because I can’t.  When I hear “we treat symptoms,” I hear “we’re not sure.”  Sometimes, what I crave the most – what feels like my only hope – is certainty.  Apparently, this isn’t realistic.  And I really hate that.)

Since the first wave knocked me down when I was 19, I’ve experienced a number of extended periods of great sadness which I’ve come to label “my bad times” or “my bad place.”  Close friends know what I mean when I tell them I’m in this state: it means I’m not available; I can’t make plans; I might not leave my house; and I simply have nothing to give, as I’m using every bit of energy and strength I can muster to piece myself back together in the midst of what feels like a shattering of my whole being.  I become solitary, and it’s in this space I fight my battle. 

Sometimes the “times” impact me physically (I can’t eat or I eat too much – mostly sugar; my body aches, and I’m so tired).  Always the waves grip my emotions, alter my mental state, and mangle my sense of self.  I sleep a lot because it’s the only sure way I can escape the torment.

It feels at once like something outside of me taking complete control of who I am and something possessing me from the inside, like a foreign entity has taken up residency in me.  I’ve likened the sensation to tendrils or tentacles stemming from my psyche, entangling themselves in my brain, gripping my heart and soul, and twisting my gut into knots.  It feels like a cancer growing and out of control, and I want to reach in and tear it out.  Other times, it’s more like I’m being blended with a hand mixer: my head is mixed up, my heart is mushy, and my stomach churns.  Sometimes my thoughts race, my chest feels tight, and nausea overwhelms me.  This is the “panic” portion of the condition, another byproduct of the presumed chemical “imbalance.”

In the worst of times, it feels like I’m lying face down under a big, heavy blanket.  Folks might say “Get out from under it; just push it off of you and stand up.  Shake it off already.”  Oh, that it were that easy!  I’m suffocating, and I want more than anything else to feel relief, to just find my breath…but the blanket is bigger than me; it crushes me, and I feel powerless underneath of it.

Usually, it’s loss of some kind that triggers my struggle – loss of status, loss of routine, loss of relationship.  The pain and upset I feel related to the loss become greater than they could be, should be, or would be to someone else.  This baffles me, and I hate the weakness I feel in it.

Rarely are my bad times unprovoked by some outside factor or circumstance, which is why I’ve taken much of the sadness and turned it inward, blaming myself for my reaction to life’s inevitable ups and downs.  If only I were stronger; if only I were more realistic.  Life challenges all of us, after all, and my struggles are no greater or more relevant than anyone else’s.  Why do they overwhelm me?  I want to be stronger, more capable, more resilient.  I wish for more grit.  Other times, I wish to be less – less sensitive, less emotional, less feeling.  In her song “10,000 Stones,” Adrianne sings “Some people don’t feel a thing, some kind of blissful dream; I wish I could live that now.”  I wish for that often, some middle place where I know I’d feel less joy but I’d be so relieved to feel less sorrow.  I long to be…just medium, not too much and not too little.

I feel tormented, tortured.  I feel like I’ve lost my mind because I’ve lost all control of my thoughts and feelings.  It’s like they’re not even mine anymore.  It’s terrifying and debilitating.

It’s exhausting, and I fear it will never get better, like the pain may never go away.  Sometimes this feeling lasts a few days, sometimes for weeks, sometimes it goes on and on for months.  It’s during these periods that I feel so far away from myself that I can’t remember who I really am.  I don’t know how to get back to “normal,” and the longer the feelings last, the more terrified I become that they’ll never go away, that I’ll never really be me again.  I’m tired.  So very tired.

A friend tells me she misses me.  Not nearly as much as I miss me, I tell her. 

Over the years, I’ve lost friends (it’s too much; I’m too much; I’ve cancelled too many plans); I’ve missed opportunities; and it’s a wonder I’ve never lost a job.  I’ve always exhausted my sick bank and rarely not tapped into vacation time for staying home, hiding out, resting to recover.  Thankfully, I’ve been blessed with knowing and sometimes unknowingly supportive managers.

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown points out that in our culture, we often celebrate stories of overcoming challenge but we do very little talking about hurt and failure and loss and what those states of being feel like when we’re in the thick of them….and this can make it hard for us to feel a sense of connection in our most difficult seasons.  If no one’s talking about the “face-down times,” as she calls them, how’s anyone to know that other people experience them at all?  Indeed, it’s easier to talk about the bad times as a “blip on the radar,” a past set of circumstances we muddled through and overcame, hopefully emerging stronger from the struggle of it.  Still, maybe there’s something to be said about the sharing, as tough as that may be. 

This isn’t hard for me to write; it’s cathartic (I journal incessantly during bad times because I’m desperate to sort things out, make sense of things, try to understand where my devastation is coming from and work toward resolution), but it’s extremely difficult for me to share.  It’s raw and intimate, gritty, and it feels rather like a confessional (in some sense, maybe it is).  It exposes a part of me I’m embarrassed about – ashamed of even – and this terrifies me.  Still, seeing that post, I felt compelled to share my experience.  Elsewhere on Facebook, friends have posted about the Suicide Awareness Movement and urged others to reach out to them in times of need.  I know these folks have been affected by the harsh realities of mental illness; they’ve seen people lose their battles.  I wonder how they’d respond to someone’s calling out for help.  In my experience, folks are rare who respond well (compassionately, patiently, effectively).  I called a friend once late at night when the struggle was overwhelming me.  She told me she was tired, can we talk about it tomorrow?  Ultimately, I know I’m alone in my feelings, no matter who can relate, who reaches out, who sticks in.  Still, I’m grateful for the people who stay with me, who try to understand, who listen and care and love me through it.  You know who you are.

I’m writing this in hopes it might help someone better understand the struggle we face.  For folks who know and love us but can’t understand.  And for those who’ve become too tired from it all.

Roots & Stress Wood

Roots & Stress Wood

My favorite yoga position is the tree pose.

For the non-yogis out there, this is what’s called a “balancing pose.”  It’s a one-legged posture achieved by bending one knee outward to place the bottom of that foot on the inner thigh of the opposite leg.  In my favorite variation of the pose, I stand with my arms and fingers spread wide above my head, imagining myself rooting into the ground and branching out into the sky. 

My first yoga instructor used to tell us as we practiced balance poses like tree, “Weebles wobble but don’t fall down.”  In fact, sometimes we did fall out of our poses, but his words affirmed us in our strongest stances and reassured us when we sustained inevitable fumbles and falls.  From him, I learned to be confident in my poses, trusting that sometimes I’d feel sturdy, and other times I’d sway and even stumble, and all would be well with my practice either way. 

I recently started doing energy work with a Reiki master and am amazed by the changes I’ve felt in my body and emotions as a result.  I started my first session in tears and ended with a sense of peace.  For me, the shift was nothing short of extraordinary, and the master herself said she’s rarely seen such a striking transformation.  It certainly gave me a sense of the power of energy forces.

From Reiki work and study, I’ve learned about the body’s seven chakras or energy fields.  I’m especially tuned into the root chakra, and this makes sense because it’s our “base” chakra, our first and primary chakra.  It’s located at the base of the spine and its development begins with our earliest primary caretakers.  Throughout our lives, it represents our foundation and our connection to Mother Earth and the natural world.  Its energy extends into and helps shape our connections and relationships within the social world.  If it’s out of balance, so is everything else.

One way to strengthen the root chakra is to stand barefoot in nature and envision sending the center of yourself down into the ground as a root, then drawing up from that root the strength and support of the earth.  Last weekend I visited the Neskowin ghost forest and stood on the trunks of trees which survived 2000-some years of being thrown into the Pacific Ocean by an earthquake, buried under water and sand for centuries, then later uncovered by storms. Their root systems remained intact, and they stand firmly as tides ebb and flow day after day after day.

How incredible it was to imagine myself tapping into root systems so strong and deep and secure as this!  If the trees had souls, these stumps must have laughed at the littleness of me, at how relatively insignificant my time on earth will be compared to theirs, at how trivial my trials and tribulations are compared to the perils they’ve endured.  And survived.   As I stood on those trunks, the waves coming and going and sand rippling and shifting all around me, they held me steady as they held tight to their foundation deep below the sands.  Their steadfastness inspired me.  And gave me pause.  If only I might draw up a fraction of their enduring strength!

In October of 2013, when I decided to take a solo vacation to Portland, Oregon, some of my people in the Midwest were shocked and concerned.  Why would you go alone?  You’re staying with strangers (i.e. Airbnb)!?  Someone even suggested I was putting myself at risk of getting chopped up into pieces and scattered in the forest.  (What!?!)  Still, one wise friend offered a single word of advice.  On a winged notecard, she simply wrote “Fly.”  When that trip inspired me to uproot my life and move across the country, this became my life theme, if you will: flight. 

“Take these wings and fly,” my friends encouraged.

The last six months have been difficult ones for me.  To say that I’ve felt uncertain, unsteady, incapable is an understatement.  When it was suggested to me that I regain my footing by planting imaginary roots in the ground, I was intrigued.  I love the outdoors; it’s much of why I moved to Portland.  Its greenness beckoned me.  Living and driving and working amid the nation’s largest urban forest preserve and being a short drive from mountains, the ocean, and a variety of terrains and climates feels like home to me.  Nature is where I go to rest, refresh, and rejuvenate.  Why wouldn’t I take a chance on going there to steady myself in the midst of an emotional storm?

My life theme shifted, and for now I’ve traded in my wings for roots. 

In Oracle, Arizona in the early 1990s, a self-contained ecosystem was created for the purpose of studying the interrelations of lifeforms and the potential for creating mini replicas of Earth in outer space.  For two years, eight humans lived in this Biosphere 2, which contained mini rainforest, savannah, desert, marsh, and ocean habitats.  The experiment wasn’t especially successful overall for a variety of reasons, but at least one major new discovery came from it. 

During the first year of research, trees within the Biosphere grew bigger and faster than trees in nature outside of the dome.  During the second year, the trees showed signs of weakness, and some even fell over.  As it turns out, a lack of exposure to wind (which wasn’t replicated inside the dome) prevented the trees from developing something necessary to their growth and survival: stress wood.  In the real world (Biosphere 1), when trees are exposed to wind and storms and earthquakes and snow, they grow “reaction” or “tension” wood of a different structure than their “original” wood, and it’s this wood that gives them strength to withstand the tumults of nature, even allowing them to contort themselves to grow in the direction of optimum light and resources.  Trees within the closed system failed to thrive precisely because they weren’t challenged. 

Hmm.

In tree pose, I experience a sense of grounding and the confidence to reach skyward.  My root chakra represents my foundation; realigning it through intentioned energy work and nourishing it outdoors revitalizes my spirit.  It’s only as a result of difficult circumstances that trees grow in the direction of achieving their full potential…and maybe some of that potential is realized under the feet of one young woman’s standing on petrified trunks and looking out into the ocean, thinking about all that’s come before her and all that will come after and what she’s to do in her fleeting meantime. 

Thank goodness for the maybe-souls of trees and everything I have to learn from them.

Quiet Please

Quiet Please

There’s a little yellow house at the bottom of a big hill near where my grandma lives in Ipava, Illinois.  It’s not in the middle of nowhere, but it’s much closer to that middle than my condo in Portland, Oregon.  It’s in terrible disrepair, as it’s been empty as long as I can remember.  And all the time it’s been empty, I’ve painted it into a snowy winter’s scene in my head and lived inside it for a quiet season.

Whenever I see the house in my mind’s eye, it’s adorned in Christmas lights – big colored bulbs – with smoke coming out of the chimney.  I’m not sure it has a picket fence, but I picture one.  In the enclosed porch at the front of the house, there’s a swing, like the one my grandpa used to rock me in while he played guitar and sang me to sleep.  I see the house from the outside, but I’ve always known I’m inside, wrapped in a blanket reading a book or piecing together a puzzle.  And, of course, there’s a fire. 

What appeals to me most about the house right now is that it just feels…quiet.  It’s set back from a graveled country road and surrounded by trees on three sides – not like trees of the landscaped variety but trees of the forest variety, big old trees.  All of it looks so peaceful to me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about noise lately.  My upstairs neighbors are obnoxiously loud, to the point that I sometimes have to wear earplugs to get any peace and quiet in my own house.  Traffic is loud, both outside my window and in the busyness of trying to get around in it.  And there are just so many of us living in what feels like a smaller and smaller world that sometimes I feel like I’m crashing into people all over the place.  And I hear clamor. 

The recent election cycle was exceptionally loud.  While politics is something I typically relish following, pondering, and discussing, there came a point in the process when I literally checked-out all together.  Friends tried to engage me, and I shut them down.  It made me sad, and I even felt a little guilty about it, like I was shirking my civic duty somehow, but I just couldn’t engage. 

I’ve been going through a tough time personally.  This year has been one of surprises, some wonderful and others…not so much.  I’ve been doing a lot of looking back and looking forward and also just trying desperately to stay present somehow.  I read recently that we shouldn’t hope and we shouldn’t fear because neither does us any good.  They just steal away our now (from Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart).  It’s a great theory, a tougher philosophy to practice.  Still, in the rare times I’m successful (sometimes mere seconds at a time), avoiding these tendencies does quiet my mind. 

I was interested to find my seeking self drawn home to the country not just once but twice this fall.  Somehow, it felt like that’s where I most belonged, a place of comfort, healing, and also…quiet.  (If I could have stayed in the yellow house, I would have.)  I told almost no one of my visits because I wanted to disconnect, to be still.  It was during harvest, my favorite time of year there, and it felt familiar and safe, in a time when those were the things I needed most.

A couple weeks back, I even went camping by myself.  I bought a tent, my first “grown-up” sleeping bag, and a lantern and picked a site miles from the city, yards from a rushing river.  It was an experience both lonely and enlightening.  I cried some, I felt a little scared…and I relished in a night that was quiet except for the river, which sort of sounded like my own lifeblood rushing through me.

I love music of all kinds, and I take a lot of comfort in it, especially when it’s relatable.  At almost any point in time, there’s a song or two that really resonate with where I’m at in life, and I listen to them over and over.  This summer I saw the Australian artist Missy Higgins perform locally.  These lyrics from one of her songs really spoke to me:

When everyone’s waiting,                                                                                                                            It makes it harder to hear what my heart keeps saying.                                                             Turn it off, I wanna turn it all off. 

I’ve always been one to look to friends and other confidants for advice, for guidance, for validation, but lately I’ve found myself wanting to avoid all of that, even at times resenting it if I’m completely honest.  Well-intentioned companions have offered insight, some of it quite wise I’m certain, but I’ve asked them to be still.  I’m needing to make my own sense of things, find my own path and search for my own truth.  A friend calls this “seeking your own counsel,” and for maybe the first time ever, I’m trying to do that. 

As I continue to sort through the things in my world that seem to have fallen apart, another line from Missy’s “Everyone’s Waiting” replays in my head: I hear that answers appear when you just stand still.  I’m seeking that stillness in the quiet of my yellow house, even if that place only really exists in my imagination. 

Owning My Pink Letter

Owning My Pink Letter

Last August, when Planned Parenthood was steeped in controversy over supposed fetal tissue sales, I posted a pink-tinted “frame” around my Facebook profile photo, an act of support for and solidarity with Planned Parenthood.  It featured the hashtag #StandwithPP and only got eight likes.  I suspect many people didn’t know what it meant, weren’t aware of the “controversy” surrounding the organization, and/or didn’t care.  Still, for me, “hiding behind” that rose-colored frame seemed safer than making an actual statement of support.  That felt too controversial.

It’s not like I make a practice of avoiding controversy, necessarily, though it is certainly true that I dislike conflict, and sometimes it follows conversations about Planned Parenthood and a “woman’s choice.”  Where the topic of abortion is concerned, I have strong feelings.  I don’t shy away from sharing and even exploring these feelings in private conversations, but “outing” myself in social media felt like…opening myself up to public scrutiny.  It was like “speaking my truth” would destine me for branding with a scarlet letter “A” not unlike Hester Prynne’s.

While I smiled safely behind pink-tinting, an op-ed piece from the New York Times appeared in my newsfeed entitled “How to Really Defend Planned Parenthood.”  It featured a sketch of a homely, dare-I-say manly-looking woman wearing a Pro-Choice shirt and hollering into a tiny megaphone.  She was ugly, and, honestly, I didn’t want to look like her…but I read the article that followed because I needed to know what to do, how to step out from behind my pink curtain.

The author of the piece, Katha Pollitt, explored reasons why the so-called Pro-Choice Movement always finds itself on the defensive – most striking to me, because pro-choice people are way too quiet.

Uh oh.  Guilty as charged.

The truth about Planned Parenthood is this: The majority of reproductive care the organization provides is preventive, intended to help “prevent unintended pregnancies through contraception; reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections through testing and treatment; and screen for cervical and other cancers.”  Opponents would have you believe it’s all about abortion.  It’s not.  In fact, only three percent of all PP health services are abortion services.  Three percent.  And, next to none of those services are funded by federal dollars.  (Two programs – Title X and Medicaid – help finance Planned Parenthood.  Title X allows no federal funds to be used for abortions.  Medicaid provides extremely limited funding for abortion services – and even then only in cases of rape or incest and when abortion is necessary to protect the life of a mother.)

Still, supporting PP equates to taking a pro-choice stance since access to safe and legal abortion is a component of women’s reproductive healthcare – and, as such, is a procedure I “support.”  That’s what I’m “coming out” about here – my support for PP and for abortion itself.

My truth, simply stated, is this: I believe that women should individually and solely control their reproductive destinies [with input from and support of their partners if they so choose].  I believe that children deserve to come into the world fully-desired.  And I believe that American society at large benefits from the availability of safe and legal abortions.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, about half of women will experience an unplanned pregnancy by the age of 45.  One in three women will have an abortion. 

One in three.  That’s a lot of women.  A lot of quiet women, Pollitt points out. 

I’ve only been in one setting in which women touted previous abortions.  It was a progressive event of some sort, maybe a war protest (I can’t even recall for sure), but I remember being taken aback by the cheers one woman received when she told of having an abortion.  I didn’t cheer.  I wasn’t happy she’d had an abortion.  I didn’t envy her position in that time and place.  She said it wasn’t difficult for her, that she didn’t have any regrets, but still…it wasn’t a scenario I exalted any woman finding herself in.  But I was certainly grateful she had the choice.

And looking back, I admire her for speaking up. 

I’ve not got much doubt that one in three women I know have had an abortion (especially since it’s likely I’m not aware of all who have).  Friends who’ve shared their stories have done so in hushed tones over coffee or glasses of wine.  I haven’t cheered.  But I’ve been damn grateful.

Why?  Because they weren’t ready.  They weren’t in a position to give a child the life he or she deserved.  And that alone is reason enough for me.  Because it’s not just about the women.  It’s also about the children.  Sometimes, my support has more to do with them than with their mothers.  Have you ever known a child whose parents didn’t want him or her?  I have.  And those are pretty terrible circumstances to view from the outside.  I sure as hell can’t imagine living them.

That said, I’m certainly not of the belief that all unplanned pregnancies result in children living lives tormented by their mothers’ not wanting them.  Still, for me, being pro-choice has a lot to do with believing children have the best chance at good lives when they’re welcomed into the world not when they’re unwelcome en utero and potentially beyond.  I appreciate this sentiment from Joycelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General: We really need to get over this love affair we have with the fetus and start worrying about children.  Yes, yes, yes.

(To the folks out there who’ve adopted children, I applaud you.  If only all babies who were unwanted from conception got to exit the womb into your loving and open arms – or those of others in your generous community – what a difference that would make!)

Women have ended unwanted pregnancies for centuries through a variety of both safe and reliable and unpredictable, unsafe methods – by inserting crocodile dung (read: poop) into their vaginas, for example, by drinking toxic teas, and by purposefully introducing infection into the uterus to induce miscarriage. Jamming coat hangers through the cervix into the uterus was not uncommon in America prior to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision ruling state bans on abortion a violation of a woman’s Constitutional right to her personal “zone of privacy.”

And there’s that: as far as I’m concerned, women’s private parts are just that – theirs and private – even when occupied by clusters of cells that might potentially someday become a baby.  Prior to the point at which those cells can exist independently of uterine walls, they’re still an extension of a woman and, as such, her concern.

Roe v. Wade didn’t introduce abortion to America.  It certainly didn’t inspire women to get abortions.  [And, if it were ever reversed, women would return to such unsafe methods of avoiding unwanted births; that’s how much this matters to them, to us.]  What the seminal decision did was make abortion safer.  It allowed women a legal medical alternative to so-called “back alley” abortions.  And women living in an advanced, civilized society like ours deserve that common and decent regard to their health and safety.  Planned Parenthood helps to ensure it.

I saw a bumpersticker once that said “Don’t agree with abortion? Don’t have one.”  That’s good stuff.  It’s the stuff of “You take care of you; I’ll take care of me,” and I guess that’s how I sum up my thinking with regards to women and abortion.  I care about kids and want them to be wanted.  I care about women because, well, I am one…and because I treasure the women in my life and want the very best for them.  And if I extrapolate that beyond my social circle, I do want the best for all women.  We represent 51% of the population after all.  But with less than 25% of us in political leadership nationwide, it occurs to me – and terrifies me – that if I don’t speak up, I might someday be sorry. 

(It’s worth noting here, at the suggestion of one of the Y-chromosomed among us, that PP doesn’t just serve women but men as well.  Still, women are my focus here.)

You don’t have to agree with my perspective or my support of Planned Parenthood and its myriad services.  I’m not trying to change your mind or beliefs.  This essay is by no means exhaustive.  With Pollitt’s nudging, though, I’m choosing to “come out” from behind my pink-tinted frame and wear my letter “A.”  I dedicate my branding to all the women – within and outside my circle – who speak in hushed tones or not at all.  My voice is for you.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business

I’ve always wanted to be a wife and mother.

For as long as I can remember, this has been my life’s goal.  I’ve dedicated more time, energy, and passion to this single pursuit than to any other aim.

It’s been an exhausting and often devastating pursuit.  I’ve felt like I failed because my life doesn’t look like what I always imagined it would.  I’ve blamed myself, questioned my worth, and resented friends and even strangers who’ve found the relationships and built the families that have seemed ever-elusive to me. 

I can’t begin to quantify the time and moneys I’ve put toward the goal of finding a mate.  A few weeks ago, I was ready to spend $2800 on a match-making service that could only guarantee me 4 dates in 6 months.  That’s $700/date.  With, of course, no promise of connection. 

Then, a friend gave me a very stern talking to.  She told me what my “quest” looked like from the outside, essentially, told me how futile it seemed and how exhausting she observed it to be.  She also said “You’re better than this.”  I’d heard it before, but I’d never really heard it the way I heard it then, in the aftermath of yet another failed relationship. 

It hurt.  Her words felt harsh and uncaring.  But I know her heart, and I know they came from a place of great caring.  So, I shed some tears, took some inventory, then deleted my dating apps and decided, at her suggestion, to do the unthinkable: for six months, I’m abandoning my search.

The prospect of this is terrifying.  When another friend suggested some time ago that I should “just stop looking,” I told her she was crazy.  What would that even look like?  How could I possibly separate who I am – how I live – from everything I’ve ever wanted? 

Well, that’s what I’m about to find out.  Or give a good shot at anyway. 

Someone asked me recently “Do you ever think maybe you haven’t met your mate because you haven’t done all the stuff you’re supposed to do before you get to that phase of your life?”  Well, no, I’d never considered that, or if I had, I’d left it at that – a consideration, nothing to actually act upon.  But maybe, just maybe, I’ve got some unfinished business I’m supposed to tend to. 

The morning after “the talk,” I read an article in The Atlantic about mid-life career change.  Currently, I’m seeking such a change, so the read was well-timed.  The article spoke of passion and purpose and got me thinking about how these qualities of life can intersect with career and/or be separate from and supported by career.  I’m not sure which “route” I’ll take – seeking a career that aligns with my passions or finding a career that satisfies me and leaves me with enough energy to pursue my passions outside of it – but either way, I’ve never paid much attention to career pursuits because, well, isn’t that what husbands are for?  Kidding.  Kinda.

For the next six months or so, I’m gonna do me.  I joined a dragon boating team.  I registered for my first trail run.  I’m taking rock climbing classes.  I’m remodeling my kitchen and bathroom.  I plan to join a book club, do more yoga, and enjoy my dinners out without constantly looking around for the next best thing (er, man) to come through the door. 

I’m also finally starting the blog I’ve been talking about for way too long.  My posts won’t always center on my not searching…but it’s that not searching that’s finally giving me the bandwidth to explore my love of writing…and, perhaps, the courage to share it.

Here’s to facing my fears.  And finally getting around to finishing some business.