gossamer threads of comfort

Monday night I fell into bed, completely drained from a weekend plus a day that had left me emotionally raw and physically exhausted.  After tossing and turning, taking my melatonin, and trying to meditate, I finally said a short prayer:

Dear God, I need comfort tonight.  Please let me sleep and feel loved and appreciated and safe. Amen.

And, as is usually the case after praying, I fell promptly to sleep.  But what happened next was definitely not typical.

That night — last night — I dreamed one of those perfect dreams.  Sweet, simple, uncomplicated, without a hint of sadness or anger or fear or loss.  It was a dream of pure happiness.  I dreamed of a dog I once owned, whom I”ll call “Ranger.”  The plot of the dream doesn’t matter, but what mattered was how real Ranger was to me in that other realm of consciousness.  I could feel his thick coat, short and somewhat coarse.  I could smell his distinctive scent and hear his panting that sounded like an old man chuckling.  In my dream, I learned that I was mistaken about his death; he was alive and when I found him again, he leapt about joyfully, as he had when he was younger, before arthritis and tumors robbed him of his deer-like gait.  He ran this way and that, smiling his panting smile and wagging his inefficient  fat stub of a tail, so unique to Australian Shepherds.

I felt flush with happiness and blessed with good fortune — he was alive and healthy, after all this time!  I had a second chance to spend time with my dear friend!  I hugged him and we played and I recognized the funny way his left ear was bent and the beautiful, soft, white, scarf-shaped coloring he had around his neck that always gave him the look of a dandy, even when he wasn’t wearing his beloved bandanas.  I put my arms around that neck as I’d done so many times before, and he wrapped his chin around my neck in an unmistakable hug.  I remembered briefly how many times I had cried silently into that furry neck and how he’d patiently licked the tears from my face.

In my dream, Ranger came to live with me again, following me around endlessly, always right under my feet, just as he’d always done, even when he was old and frail and stairs had become an enormous challenge.  But unlike in our previous time together, I didn’t snap at him when I tripped over his long legs.  I didn’t complain about the tufts of hair he was always leaving behind on my hardwood floors.  I fed him the blueberries and bacon and carrots that he so dearly loved.  I took him to the dog park and in the car and to Home Depot where the orange-aproned employees fed him dog treats.  I made the most of every minute, every second, because I knew, like I hadn’t known before, how much I would miss him when he was gone.

I am ashamed to admit that the last couple of years of Ranger’s life were not very good.  Those years coincided with the last years of my marriage, and I was irritable, distracted, and depressed.  Ranger was so attuned to me, I feel certain that his rapid decline was tied to his anxiety about me.  I hate remembering how few walks he got during those last years, how many times I barked at him to get out of my way, how infrequently I laid on the floor and cuddled him until he purred like a cat.  I hate acknowledging the relief I felt when he was finally at peace, eternally asleep in his bed next to mine, courtesy of the vet’s dreaded needle.  I will forever wonder if I ordered that needle when I did because of his pain or mine.

No human ever had a more loyal, more attentive, more empathetic companion than I had in Ranger.  The fact that he is the one who came to me last night, when I most needed comfort, should not surprise me.  When I woke up this morning, I struggled to hang on to the dream, clinging to those gossamer threads of comfort Ranger offered, silently apologizing, as I have a million times before, for not deserving his devotion in his final years.

All day today, I have walked around with the memory of the dream fresh and tangible in my consciousness, the peace and serenity it brought to me still soothing my soul.  I have reflected on so many precious moments I shared with a dog who carried me through some of the darkest days of my life. I have thanked the heavens over and over and over that I was blessed to know such a loving and kind being.

But tonight, as I write this, I am fighting sleep.  I do not want to succumb to the night’s slumber because I know that in doing so, I will lose Ranger again, and it may be years before he next visits.  I have spent the whole day feeling close to him and comforted by his presence, but all of that will be wiped clean by another night’s sleep.  And I do not want that. I don’t want to let go this time. Ranger left me long before I stopped needing him.  And when I finally surrender to the demands of sleep, he will leave me again.

And I will grieve all over again.

"Ranger," all dressed up in a bandana.  He loved wearing them and being fancy.   He had bandanas for all occasions.

“Ranger,” all dressed up in a bandana. He loved wearing them and being fancy. He had bandanas for all occasions.

"Ranger," with his favorite snuggle toy, Wally the Rat.

“Ranger,” with his favorite snuggle toy, Wally the Rat.

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Filed under sadness

a list of things that didn’t kill me

I work in a library now, and one of the great things about it is that I am surrounded by books. I am a bookworm like some people are foodies.  My boyfriend James can spend literally hours perusing a grocery store, handling the meat, sniffing the spices, eyeing the seafood.  I am the same about books.  So, sometimes, when I am muddling through a creative block or need a walk to clear my head, I will wander the shelves and lose myself in the books.

I have already developed favorites — book covers or titles or authors’ names that intrigue me for one reason or another.  Books that serve as a time machine, transporting me back to my childhood, or some poignant period of my adolescence, or, occasionally, the period immediately after my divorce during which I read rapidly as an escape.

But the book that is my current favorite, the one that I revisit frequently in my mind, although I have not yet even opened it, the one that intrigues me so much that I do not dare read it because I already know that it could not possibly live up to my expectations is one titled “A List of Things that Didn’t Kill Me.”

I suppose it’s not profound, but the idea of a list of things that didn’t kill us is fascinating to me.  I wonder at how easily that list would capture our individual trials and triumphs, moments of bravery, incredible losses, and bottomless grief.  The first day I walked past that book, I couldn’t help but wonder at what might be on my own list.  A few particularly painful episodes immediately sprang to mind, and in the short walk back to my desk, I contemplated how amazing it was that I had, indeed, endured and survived such things. Me. Just me.  A normal, unremarkable person with a pretty normal, unremarkable life.

And now, it has become my own little ritual.  Every time I pass the book on the shelf, I mentally add another thing to my list.  At some point, obviously, I will have exhausted my list, and that is okay, but right now I am enjoying my little validation game.

So what about you?  If you had to create an actual list of things that didn’t kill you, what would be on it? What parts of yourself would it reveal that maybe you have stopped appreciating?  What hardships have you overcome and internalized to the point of almost forgetting about them and how dramatically they changed you?  What horrible moments have helped define and mold you into the stronger, more capable person you are now?  How many of these moments fortified your character, solidified your integrity, and taught you some immeasurable lesson?  What would be missing from your life if these experiences had never crossed your path?  Who would you be without them?  How are you better for them?

So, humor me and take a minute.  Think about it.

What changed you forever? What did you think you couldn’t survive but did? What didn’t kill you?

A list of things that didn't kill me

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Filed under healing, personal growth

friends and lovers

Earlier this year, as I sat on the hard, wooden bleacher bench and watched my daughter’s volleyball team be destroyed by their opponent, a man sat down next to me. He smiled and said hello.  I smiled politely and felt a nervous flutter in my gut.  He turned his attention to his daughter, a teammate of my daughter’s, and only occasionally glanced my way.  I did my best to avert my eyes and avoid conversation, afraid that something I did might belie the nervousness I felt.  He was handsomer than I had remembered, and fitter than I’d expected. Although, in fairness, I’d never seen him up close and in person before. He seemed relaxed and at ease.  Happy, even.  I kept telling myself that there was no way that he could know that I know what I know.

Because what I know is that 6 years ago he cheated on his wife with a good friend of mine.

My town is just small enough that if your daughter is between the ages of 12 and 14 and plays volleyball competitively, she’s probably on my daughter’s team.  And so here we sit, Casanova and I — on a cold, hard bleacher bench, with the cold, hard truth resting resolutely between us but only I am aware of our shared secret.

When my friend Izzie first met Sergio, she and I weren’t really friends.  We were more like acquaintances.  Our friendship grew as our marriages failed and pretty soon we were sharing all sorts of intimate stories over coffee or (more frequently as time wore on) margaritas.  The first time Izzie met Sergio, she told me later, was like falling off a cliff.  The attraction was immediate and deep and shattering.  It went beyond the physical and into the complicated realms of respect, admiration, and genuine appreciation.  Within months they were crossing lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and Izzie was hopelessly and completely in love with Sergio.  Every last part of her behavior with him was wildly out of character for Izzie, and she wrestled with all sorts of guilty demons, but her heart was determined and single-minded.

There were a lot of things that predestined the unhappy ending of their story, but primary among them, even more so than the fact that both were still married, was Sergio’s professed fondness for “the European way of approaching these things,” as he euphemistically put it to Izzie after she was already too far gone to retreat.  See, Sergio was raised in Europe, amongst money and wealth, and was of the belief that marriage was not necessarily about fidelity but about being partners in raising children and maintaining a family.  He suggested to Izzie that affairs were necessary simply — and only — to have needs met that weren’t being met within the marriage.  And as time wore on, it became clear that such a set-up — a long-term, no-strings-attached affair — was all that he was prepared to offer or consider with Izzie.  Faced with this truth, she was totally crushed, and I was silently outraged (as every good friend is, right?).  It was beyond me how he could see my smart, beautiful, open and loving friend and not want every last thing she was willing to offer him.  I was appalled and frustrated and furious on her behalf, even as the rational part of me knew that, of course, this is how these cookies usually crumble.

Izzie moved on with her divorce and slowly, with a strength that I admired and tried to emulate, put her past behind her.  She displayed remarkable grace and kindness toward Sergio when she heard from him or ran into him, and despite feeling some lingering sense of want, she never wandered one step down that path again.  It seemed that perhaps Sergio and all the messiness from that relationship was behind her, and therefore, me.  Much later, Izzie heard that Sergio’s wife had finally filed for divorce, and that the two were separated.  And time did it’s predictable, comforting march away from that time and pain.

Until Sabrina decided that she wanted to play volleyball.

I saw Sergio’s last name on the team roster and called Izzie.  She confirmed that it was, indeed, Sergio’s daughter on the roster, and we both made the usual “small world” comments.  I didn’t think much of it until the following weekend, when I found myself standing awkwardly at the snack table next to Sergio’s wife.  She tried to make small talk with me, and I, probably quite rudely, walked away.  All I could remember was how much Izzie and I had wondered about this woman all those years ago.  What was she like?  Did she know of Sergio’s affairs?  Did she suspect?  Did she care?  What was wrong with her that he looked elsewhere? (This last was, admittedly, horribly unfair, but a product of the mindset we were in at the time.) And now here I was, forced to make small talk with her, and — gasp! — maybe even grow to like her.

Competitive volleyball is a grueling sport for parents — two to three practices a week and weekend tournaments that start at 8 am and don’t end until almost dinnertime.  There is lots of waiting around between matches and lots of coordinating food and travel.  After a season of this, I have realized the utter foolishness of my earlier belief that perhaps I could simply avoid Sergio and his wife for the year or two that our girls might play together.  I can no more avoid them than I can avoid my own daughter at matches.  It’s impossible.

And so I have done the unthinkable:  I have sat and talked with Sergio’s wife at length at matches.  We have emailed occasionally to confirm practices or set up tournament details.  And I have grudgingly come to like her.  But we have not shared a single interaction during which her husband’s betrayal did not lurk right under the surface of my consciousness. I wish that it would go away, but it won’t.

As for Sergio, he probably thinks me somewhat aloof; certainly he has not guessed at our connection.  My last name, unlike his own, is very common, and I have been careful to avoid mention of Izzie’s name in conversation with or near him.  Still, I find myself unfairly disliking him.  More so than Izzie, I cannot seem to forgive him for causing her tears and heartbreak.  Yes, I know they were consenting adults making a mutually inadvisable decision, the outcome of which was not likely to be good, but I cannot help but lay the blame at his feet.

And I find that it is not just Izzie over whom I feel protective, but Sergio’s wife, too.  I do not know her well or even consider her a friend, but I like her, and I hate that I know this about her marriage and she probably does not.  I hate to imagine that she would likely feel humiliated and betrayed by my silence, too.  And so I blame Sergio for all of it. For Izzie’s tears and his wife’s ignorance and my strange, awkward position.  It’s probably not fair, but I do.

I know for certain that I will never, ever, in any small or large way, betray what I know to Sergio or to his wife.  I would not violate Izzie’s trust in that manner under any circumstances, and I have no wish to cause possible pain to Sergio’s wife.  Instead I will continue to sit through practices and tournaments, musing silently to myself about how far and wide our choices resonate.  Nothing that we ever do is completely over.  It is there, always, reappearing in surprising places and with never-anticipated results.  Our pain, our mistakes, our lapses, all there, capable of being discovered at any given moment and inflicting further pain even years and years later.

I will keep my thoughts to myself.  I will wonder at the possible irony of someone in the gymnasium knowing something equally painful and unexpected about me or my life.  And I will continue to sit on the hard, wooden bleacher bench, watch my daughter’s team, and silently contemplate my friends and their lovers.

affairs

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Filed under divorce, relationships

unlovable

My cousin Brady and his girlfriend Allyson are expecting babies. Twins, to be precise.  He’s 26, and she’s 24.  They found themselves on the unexpected end of a positive pregnancy test after Allyson became one of those women to defy the birth control odds and become pregnant while taking the Pill.  So, they have moved in together and are planning for their family.

But the babies aren’t the problem.  It’s the history that predates their conception by many, many years that is. Brady and Allyson’s mutual histories are fraught, but the details are not really relevant.  What is relevant (at least to me, at least today) is that Brady is scared to death of losing Allyson and (in his own words) doesn’t understand why she won’t let him love her.

Fortunately today he called the right person to talk about this one.

As Brady began to describe Allyson’s behavior, the things she is says to him, and her overall demeanor, I felt, with a sinking heart, the recognition of an old and powerful foe.  Allyson is making demands of him and, when he complies, making more.  She is throwing down the gauntlet, and when he refuses to pick it up and submits himself to her will, she is enraged.  She constantly tells him that he needs help, that he is messed up, that he needs to work on himself, and when he does, she is not mollified for even a moment.  The more he tells her he loves her and wants to be close to her, the more she pulls away and gives him more lists of things he’s doing wrong.  Even as she acknowledges that he is trying and doing a good job meeting her demands, she cuts him down and threatens to leave.

He is, understandably, a bit confused.

I’m not.  Because I understand Allyson perfectly.

Allyson has abandonment issues.  Serious, deeply-rooted, abandonment issues from a personal history guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes.  I know, in the core of my being, that Allyson is testing Brady because she is scared to death.  And the biggest, worst, most unforgivable thing he has done is to believe himself capable of loving her.

Because, you see, Allyson believes that she is unlovable.

Somewhere in the darkest parts of herself, Allyson does not believe that she is worth loving.  Her life history has proved this to her subconscious, and a subconscious stubbornly clings to the defenses it believes will protect us from future wounds.  It sees truths where there aren’t any, because it seeks the simplest and most obvious answer to every pain.  When people who are supposed to love us by the simple laws of nature do not, then clearly it is because we are unlovable.  The laws of nature cannot be wrong, certainly, so it must be us that is lacking, unworthy, flawed in the worst way.

Therefore, it logically follows, the subconscious tells us, that anyone who could possibly love us is horribly flawed themselves.  Obviously, there is something terribly wrong with them if they believe that they could love us, that we are worth loving.  They must be awful themselves, because no sane, emotionally healthy person could find us worthy of true, unconditional love and acceptance.  So it is up to us to figure out what is so wrong with this person and do it before they figure out for themselves how worthless we really are.  It is a race to push them away before they discover the truth about us and inevitably leave, disgusted and appalled that they ever considered making a life with us.

Of course, the subconscious does its devil’s work without consulting the conscious part of our brain.  That’s the part that really, really, really hopes that this person is true and honest and so wonderful that he has seen something in us that is so perfect and special that we are actually deserving of love after all.  We hope against hope that he is right and we are wrong and somehow he will rescue us from our self-imposed exile from love and intimacy.

Because, let’s just acknowledge the obvious here:  real intimacy isn’t possible with truth and vulnerability.  Innately we know this.  It is why, early in relationships, we all share our stories and hear theirs and gauge reactions and are buoyed by every acceptance of every little quirk and shortcoming.  We know instinctively that the only way to get close to someone is be vulnerable in that moment and see them accept our vulnerability and whatever weakness it allowed them to see.

Adults with abandonment issues are not always closed off.  In fact, I think what confuses the heck out of the people who do love us is that some of us (Allyson and myself included) share a lot of ourselves.  We seem open and forthcoming and the types who proverbially wear our hearts on our sleeves.  We also tend to be initially very accepting of others’ flaws and emotional baggage.  I believe this is because subconsciously we’re hearing their stories and thinking “Hell, that’s nothing.  Is that all you’ve got?  I’m a freak of nature.  I’m unlovable.”  People — friends, lovers, spouses even — are sucked in.  They, understandably, are comforted by the acceptance we offer and reassured by our own apparent willingness to share.  We seem to, as a friend once described me, “incapable of having a superficial relationship with anyone.”

And it’s not an act.  I swear on a stack of Bibles that it’s not.  Our acceptance and our willingness to share are real and honest and well-intentioned.  We do sincerely want to be close to other people.  We do sincerely accept their short-comings.  We aren’t acting or manipulating.  I promise, and if you don’t believe me, read the psychiatric journals and you’ll discover I’m telling you the truth.

But, inevitably, when the person we are getting close to begins to truly care about us, the subconscious sends up the flares and sounds the alarms.  What is wrong with this person?  And we begin to dissect them, searching frantically for clues as to how they could believe us worth this attention and caring.  We are some of the friends, lovers, and family members you have known who seem to self-sabotage Every. Single. Relationship.  We can run off a good man faster than you can say “What the hell was wrong with that one?” And we can stay and defend a total loser for decades if we have deemed him as unworthy as us and therefore our perfect fit.  We are the women who date the users and players, and the men who pamper and coddle the princesses and manipulators.  Our emotional brethren are those who have been beaten and abused; in fact, sometimes we start out as one and end up as the other.  Some of us engage in breathtakingly self-destructive behavior in a pathological display of self-hatred.

What makes this insecurity so insidious is that it is deeply buried.  I am quite sure that were I to say all of this to Allyson, she would have one of two reactions.  She would either a.) be appalled and defensive and tell me that it’s ridiculous because of course she is lovable.  She would point to all the people who love her and list her achievements and accomplishments and reassure me sincerely that she values herself.

Alternatively, she would b.) be shocked that I had seen through her myriad of protective layers and discerned her truth.  She would dissolve into tears and stammer through an explanation of why she isn’t truly lovable, with her subconscious swimming to the surface to offer into evidence the many reasons for her unlovableness.  She would acknowledge that it sounds ridiculous, but explain how and why it is true.  She would apologize — for what, precisely, would not be clear — and she would assure me that she doesn’t expect me to understand.

And no amount of love or reassurance or sympathy or empathy on my part would pierce the carefully constructed and defended self-concept created by her subconscious many years ago and supported and reinforced in relationship after relationship that she has likely self-sabotaged.

But the remarkable thing about humans is our capacity to grow beyond our emotional limitations.  We have the innate ability to identify and correct wrong mindsets and patterns.  It isn’t easy, of course, but it is, in all likelihood, the answer to the greatest existentialist question of all, “Why are we here?”

I don’t know what it would take for Allyson to break down her protective walls, allow Brady in, and accept her own worth in his eyes.  It has taken me more than 40 years to understand the problem.  It might take me another 40 to fully understand the solution.  One thing I do know, however, is that once the truth is out, once you are able to say all of this for the first time to someone you love, the ramparts begin, slowly, to crumble.  The moat of fear surrounding your vulnerability starts to fill in with all of the love and warmth and caring that people have poured into your soul for years. And gradually, glacially, that reeking, rotting layer of your self-concept begins to shift.

Alter.

Heal.

I have no idea if Brady will have the patience, maturity, and love to stick it out with Allyson as she thrashes and rages and battles with her own sense of self-worth.  I can’t say whether his own difficulties and history will interfere with his ability to understand and appreciate her feelings.  I do hope, however, that there is some kind of happy ending waiting for these two at the end of the story.  Because I love happy endings.

Especially for the unlovable.

unlovable

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Filed under relationships

the sins of my past

In case you had any doubts, I’m here to tell you that there isn’t much good about being broke with no financial or professional prospects. It pretty much sucks just as much you might imagine.  Watching what was once an impressive career draw its last, dying breath is uncomfortable under any circumstances but horrible beyond belief when that career is your own.

Of course, I can’t speak for anyone else who has crashed and burned her own shining career, but in my case, it didn’t happen overnight.  But sometimes it sure does seem that way. One day I had a big office near the Potomac River and the next time I took a good, long look at my career, I was scraping by and teetering on the brink of being Terminally Unemployable.  I spent many, many quiet moments of panic and self-loathing, contemplating my slow reversal of fortune, and my own complicity in it.

I think that it is objectively fair to say that my career peaked when I was 27-years-old and working DC for a national non-profit. I was flying around the country, appearing on national morning news shows, and pulling in more money than before or since. From there, my career involved a series of choices that took me further from power and money and ambition, including a six-year stint as a Stay At Home Mom with a part-time small business.

When I was fired from my last full-time job in February of 2013, I found myself involuntarily unemployed for the first time in my life, but the funny thing was, I wasn’t worried. At all. Seriously.  I had never, ever had to worry about finding work. Or money, for that matter. Whenever I needed an opportunity, one had always presented itself, and, even at my youngest and poorest, I had always been able to pay my bills. I felt confident that everything would be just fine.

Well.

Days turned to weeks. Weeks gave way to months. Months somehow slid into a year, and I was not any closer to a full-time job with benefits. I tried, honestly I did. I sent out resume after resume and tried all kinds of networking groups, online and off. I wrote and rewrote my resume to tailor it for every job I was conceivably qualified to do. I considered going back to school (!) to get some kind of certification or degree that would better position me. Caving to pressure from nearly everyone around me, I seriously explored hanging out my shingle as a sole practioner of law, only to suffer a few sleepless nights that made me realize that I’d be happier as a Starbucks barista than as an attorney. I completed the online application for Target and then realized that the shifts I would be given initially would require me to hire a nanny who would be making more per hour than I would.

In almost two years, I had two interviews and no offers.

I hid my despair from nearly everyone, putting on a brave front and reassuring my friends and family that something would surely come up. But I saw my own doubts reflected back to me in their eyes, and heard the silent question echoing in the space between us: “What happened to you? You used to have so much… promise.” Some of the younger women I had mentored for years fell away, and many of my professional contacts subtly distanced themselves from me. After all, it was fine to be fired from a politically appointed position, but to be unemployed for more than a year, well, surely there must be something wrong, no?

I didn’t blame them. I had the same doubts about myself. I cobbled together some writing work and interior design projects that, along with semi-regular withdrawals from my 401(k), kept me afloat. I worked every moment I could and literally said a prayer of thanks every time I deposited a check. (I was probably quite a picture at the ATM.) On the outside, I was “being creative” and “taking initiative” and “carving out an interesting little niche for myself.” But inside, I was terrified and couldn’t even admit it to myself, except in the middle of the night as I lay in bed and imagined losing my home and everything in it.

One of the things about working for yourself is that you have lots of time alone. And I used all of it to try and answer that silent question that hung in the air. What had happened to me? Where had my promising career gone? Who would I be professionally if I wasn’t the sharp, young wiz that everyone admired and respected?

What the hell had happened to me??

And I gradually realized that, for nearly 20 years, I had been apologizing, in one form or another, for my career choices. Offering justifications and explanations and reasons to assure everyone – including myself – that I hadn’t just made one sad mistake after another. I felt foolish as I accepted the truth: the question wasn’t new at all; only my conscious awareness of it was.

And then one day, as a bitterly cold 2014 melted into a milder 2015, I found my answer.

Life. Life had happened to me. Except that it wasn’t a passive thing. It didn’t just “happen.” I had engaged my life and made my decisions to the best of my abilities at the time. Each and every one was made with the best of intentions and with the best information I had at the time. I revisited my decision to leave DC and move to Colorado, knowing now that that single move downshifted my career in very obvious and meaningful ways. I examined my decisions to hop around, trying this job and then that one, and the experiences I gained from each. I remembered the heartache and fear of having a sick toddler, and the relief at watching her get well. I noted for myself some of the friendships I made being a Stay At Home Mom and how well those friendships served me later during my divorce. But overall, what I really did was simple: I forgave myself.

I forgave myself for essentially throwing away a very expensive education to follow my fancy down other paths.

I forgave myself for sacrificing my career altogether at the altar of motherhood.

I forgave myself for not having the driving ambition to match the opportunities provided to me.

I forgave myself for getting older and surrendering the Young Crackerjack title to other, younger, less seasoned people who are just as likely to make dubious choices as I was.

And I cannot tell you how wonderful that was. I felt so free from guilt and explanation and justification and that incredibly heavy burden of “What If.”

Surely there will always be people who hear about my career and wonder, “What the hell happened to you?” but the people who seek an explanation will never truly understand, because they will always judge me by the words on my resume instead of the life I’ve created and the lessons I’ve learned. And the ones who do understand me don’t ask for or need an explanation.

Remember how I said that some of the young women I mentored drifted away slowly after my firing? Well, there were some exceptions, and one in particular inadvertently helped me reach my peace with my past. For some reason, we had become much closer as my unemployment dragged on, and I confided occasionally in her of my fears. At the last lunch we had in 2014, she said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you’re much more interesting and inspiring now than when you supposedly had it all together. Or at least, you are to me.”

Her words stayed with me, sitting lightly on my heart, and made me wonder if maybe there was something better than having it all together.

I don’t know for sure what I was supposed to gain from my long, terrifying journey through unemployment and self-employment, but I think it’s pretty clear that in order to find any real professional satisfaction again I was going to have to make peace with my past. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life apologizing to others and myself for choices that were not inherently wrong. I had to forgive myself for making the decisions I had and fully acknowledge the realities of the circumstances that had created those choices.

I don’t know if I’ve fully forgiven myself yet, but I have deliberately replaced my self-loathing with a renewed appreciation for what I gained from all those years. I have a job now that I love and want to do for a long time. I am not ashamed to tell people what I do, even when I see a glint of surprise or superiority in their eyes. I am grateful for the opportunity I have and the work I am given and the paycheck that accompanies it. But most of all, I am at peace with all that has gone before in my professional life. It has been a wild and unpredictable ride, but it has been my ride. And that’s really the best thing that any of us can say at the end of the day, isn’t it?

I Am

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Filed under happy endings, parenthood, working mothers

judgey, judgey me

I have noticed myself being very judgmental lately.  Not in general, but in particular.  And the person in particular who has been the subject of my judgment is my ex-husband’s new wife.

I know, I know, I know.  This story is as old as divorce and remarriage.  The first wife resenting the second wife, feeling that she doesn’t measure up, that she is the recipient of everything denied in the first marriage, that she does not deserve the opportunity to raise the children of the first marriage.  Honestly, I know the song and dance, and I get it.

But I still want to shake her sometimes.  Hard.

I didn’t always feel this way.  One thing I credited my ex-husband with was the propensity to select a suitable woman to enter my daughters’ lives.  Bryce has always valued smart, capable, successful women; he is not a man predisposed to bimbos, tramps, or gold-diggers.  So after our divorce, I really didn’t worry at all about whom he might bring into the lives of our daughters.

Indeed, his very first girlfriend after (or before?) our separation was a woman I knew from our tennis and swim club and liked very well.  I told my friends that it was shame that she was the Rebound Woman because I would have been very happy with him settling down with her.  But, of course, she didn’t last.  Then there was Debbie, Bryce’s foray into the Younger Woman category.  She seemed very nice, and I thought my daughters liked her very well, but I found out differently once she and Bryce broke up.  And then came “Mariah.”  At first I was grateful for her presence.  She is older than Bryce, with one child in college and another about to graduate high school.  She’s a successful career woman and seemingly smart, attractive, and classy. When they got engaged in late 2013, I was genuinely happy for them both, and I told them so.  But that was before she shared a house with my children…

I am of the firm belief that Mariah married Bryce in spite of his children, not because she loved them as well as him.  This sad truth is blatantly apparent in the choices that she and Bryce have made as they’ve blended their families into a single home:  from creating a bedroom for my daughters to share out of a dark basement space, to refusing to buy foods that my daughters in like in favor of shopping lists prepared around their step-sister’s preferences (and, no, she doesn’t have food intolerances or allergies), to a strict dress-code that I’m sure Mariah borrowed from the Mormons, to taking a “family trip” to Europe over the summer without my girls (who are being shipped off to their grandparents for a week instead).  My daughters are not a high priority for their step-mother, nor, it would seem, for their own dad sometimes.  Sabrina has informed me that her dad rationalizes his refusal to challenge Mariah on her dictates because he wants to make her happy, something he believes he had failed at with me. So, my girls know that they are not a priority at his house, and I know it, and it makes all of us sad.

I’m not naive about divorce and blended families.  I expected different rules at the two homes, and I knew that some new and different values would be at tension with how Bryce and I had originally raised our girls together.  But I honestly never anticipated a step-mother who so obviously did her best to tolerate them only.  In all their lives, I have so rarely run into adults who didn’t seem to genuinely like my girls; the idea that I now have to share them with a woman who doesn’t is heartbreaking.

But, really, it should be okay that she doesn’t like them.  I remind myself that we all connect differently and with different people.  Just because I like (or love) someone does not mean that you would equally as well or even at all.  My girls are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea anymore than I am, and that I know and accept fully. Or at least theoretically. But what I simply can’t get my head around is this:  Why in the world would you marry someone who had two relatively young children (ages 11 and 13 at the time) with whom you don’t want to be involved and maybe don’t even particularly like?

I try — SINCERELY! — to remember that not everyone approaches relationships and blended families as I do.  Even James has struggled to care for my daughters in the same manner and with the same depth of emotion as I care for his children.  But if I didn’t like his kids, if I’d just been biding my time until they grew up and moved out, if I found their behaviors, habits, and manners so irritating and aggravating, I couldn’t have made a life with him.  So Mariah’s decisions and motivations are a mystery to me.

People who know both Bryce and I have speculated that Mariah married him to enjoy the financially comfortable lifestyle he is so capable of providing, and perhaps this is true to some extent.  They do have a newly renovated showcase home on an acre of land in an expensive enclave of an expensive town.  Bryce did purchase Mariah a ring just this side of Kardashian-land.  And she is enjoying lavish vacations.  But still, how is that enough if you don’t want his kids around fifty percent of the time?

I remind myself that I do not know her whole story.  I do not know what her own childhood was like.  I do not know if her formal and rigid nature is a vestige of the way she was raised or maybe a defense mechanism acquired later.  I remember to be glad that she is not outright mean or cruel or vindictive toward my children.  Because even if she were, my options would be meager.  But she’s not.  She’s really not.  She’s more indifferent than anything.

So why can’t I just accept that she is different from me and different from my girls and that’s okay?  Why am I so disturbed by the fact that she is marginalizing them when it could be so much worse?  I mean, seriously, who died and made me judge of anything? What right do I have to cast stones in anyone’s direction?  Why am I so decidedly unable to practice the values of no judgment and bountiful compassion toward her?

I have examined my feelings from multiple angles.  I have questioned whether I am jealous of her relationship with my ex, and concluded that while it is occasionally painful to my ego to have it confirmed for me that Bryce’s depth of love for me was no deeper than mine for him, I do not begrudge her anything that she shares with him.  I am grateful that he is happy and settled, and equally grateful that I am no longer with him but with James.  I have also wondered if I am jealous that she is another “mother” to my girls and concluded that that is not it, either.  My relationships with my daughters are secure and stable and deep and mutual; no one in the world can take that or change that but us.  Everyone else who might love them can only be a good thing in their lives.  And so, I am left feeling icky and judgey and petty without fully knowing why. I wish that I did not dislike her.  I wish that I were, at least, indifferent to her.  But if I’m honest with myself, I know that I’m not.

I’m just not.

And it makes me want to shake her sometimes.  Hard.

Love is the absence of judgment

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Filed under blended families, parenthood

the ability to fail

Last night, I went to my daughters’ middle school for Bryn’s 6th grade choir concert.  My girls love to sing, so I’ve sat through my share of school choir concerts.  Sabrina also takes private voice instruction and has performed solo in recitals that I have never missed.

In my experience, middle school choir concerts are typically a crap shoot.  Generally there is lots of semi-off-key singing, a few solos that you can hardly hear because the singers are too nervous to breathe, and the occasional stand-out voice that catches the audience by surprise and generates more than polite applause.   So, when I settled into my seat next to Sabrina, I figured I knew what was coming.  This wasn’t my first rodeo, after all.

The first two songs the 6th grade choir sang were typical – a folk medley, followed by a musical version of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  The next song was the choir’s hotly anticipated interpretation of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” made all the more exciting because Bryn had her first ever solo.  As the singing started and my spunky ginger-haired daughter made her way to the microphone at the front and center of the stage, I leaned forward and held my breath.  And then it happened.  Bryn opened her little mouth and, loudly, clearly began singing her solo part.

And she was terrible.

Not just terrible in the way that most 6th grade singers are terrible, but truly atrocious.  From her mouth emanated sounds for which there are no words.  Tones that are not associated with musical notes except in the loosest terms.  My little girl was completely, hopelessly tone deaf.

In the 30 seconds or so that it took for Bryn to finish her solo, I consciously worked to keep my face neutral and avoid Sabrina’s eyes.  I didn’t breathe and sat stiffly waiting for the aural torture to end.  When it did, I promptly got up and made my planned exit, shaking my head incredulously as I made my way across the parking lot.

See, the thing is, Bryn is the kind of person who, when she applies herself to a task, is nearly always highly successful.  Her smarts, determination, and sheer Irish stubbornness serve her well.  She has not yet encountered an academic subject, sport, or hobby that she couldn’t master, and I have always admired her for it.  She may not be the best, or the fastest, or the most knowledgeable, but she has always managed to acquit herself admirably.  It’s something that I’ve come to love and expect from her.

But singing, that which comes so easily and naturally to her sister, is clearly out of reach for Bryn.  She has spent nearly three years now singing in choirs, but without making any recognizable improvement in her voice techniques.

On the drive home, I began to wonder how Bryn would handle this realization when it finally dawned on her.  How would she take it?  Would she collapse in tears and shame?  Would she promptly give up singing, despite her love of it, in order to avoid future embarrassment?  Or would she be galvanized and apply herself even more vigorously to singing?

To be truthful, it won’t matter.  My beautiful daughter has many, many talents, but after last night, I am positively certain that singing is not one of them.  It is clear to me that inasmuch as Sabrina was blessed with perfect pitch, the ability to sight read, and a delicate, clear tone that sails through the air and settles on the heart, Bryn was gifted by nature with none of these things.  She can sing songs, yes, but she will never be the songbird her sister is.  No amount of training or practice will close the gap between them.  And, really, truly, that’s totally okay.  In most everything else that they have mutually attempted, Bryn easily surpasses her sister’s achievements.  So it is perfectly just for Sabrina to have this one thing at which she is plainly superior.

I’m not sharing this to shame Bryn, or to unfairly compare my daughters. But it caused me to consider the power and potential value of failure.  What happens when we want so much to be good at something, to excel in a particular direction or at a particular skill, but we are faced with the reality that we may eventually be okay at it, but we’ll never truly master it?  How many of us are able to be bad at something and still enjoy it?  How many of us can acknowledge and accept shortcomings in our abilities or natural talents that are other than we might wish? How do we perceive a failure to achieve and how does it affect our future efforts to achieve?  Do we embrace the opportunity to develop resiliency or become annoyed, frustrated or dismayed and give up.

In our society, we are told to never, ever give up.  We are supplied ample examples of people who refused to accept a limitation and overcame monstrous obstacles to achieve miracles.  I am inspired by those stories as much as the next person, and I know myself capable of substantial perseverance.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned through the years that there are some things that I am simply no good at.  Rollerblading, grilling steaks, and doing the splits, for example.

I, for one, have definitely been guilty of discarding or giving up on something once I discover that it’s truly not in my wheelhouse.  If it doesn’t come relatively easily, I’m likely to drop it.  The exception to this is when I derive so much pleasure from the act itself that my success at it is irrelevant.  However, if I don’t love it deeply and I have applied myself to the best of my abilities and I still haven’t achieved anywhere close to the success I would have liked, I move on.

And what of the people who fail and fail again and still persist at something until they become leaders above everyone else in their field, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?  Is their persistence the reason for their success?  I actually think not.  I have this little theory that there is some deep intuition that drives us when everything else seems to suggest we won’t succeed, some sense that we are meant to do this thing and do it well.  I, for one, do not have the natural aptitude to be a master computer programmer – my brain simply doesn’t work that way.  But then again, I can take words and convey meanings that others can’t, so I tend to think that life balances out.

I also know that there are plenty of things that I can do but not do especially well, and that I still enjoy.  Just because I’m not good at them doesn’t stop me from quietly enjoying them on my own time.  Gardening and cooking are in this category for me. With age, I have decided that this is what hobbies are for – those things we can do and enjoy, but not do well enough to ever do it professionally or to really shine at it.  In this vein of thinking, I hope that when Bryn is forced to relinquish her dream of being the next Katy Perry, she does not also set aside her true love of music and singing. I hope that she is able to enjoy singing for her own pleasure, even if no one ever pays to hear her.  And I hope, sincerely, that she confines her singing to the shower, car, and her bedroom, sparing the poor ears of those of us who love her deeply but never, ever, ever need to hear her sing publicly again. <3

failure

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Filed under parenthood

retrospective.

5 Months and 26 Days.

That’s how long it’s been since I last curled up with my little MacBook Air and poured my thoughts into this blog. Writing used to be habit, meditation, and prayer all melted into one, a late-night respite and means of organizing the thoughts colliding in my head all day. Since I’ve been writing for a living, however, I have found myself hard-pressed to embrace it after a long day of working, parenting, and partnering.

But my soul misses this blog. I miss the self-discovery. I miss the insights that unfold. I miss the marking of time passing and lessons being learned. And I miss the human connections with my readers through the gossamer threads of the internet.

As my regular readers know, I have never been one to simply journal here. In part because I am not comfortable sharing every corner of my life and in (bigger) part because I don’t believe that my life provides enough interesting tidbits to justify writing about. Having said that, however, i believe that readers of future posts will benefit from some contextual background.  So please bear with me, as this is a spectacularly long post.  So, grab yourself a cup of coffee and a Danish and settle in. Here we go…

Love Story

James and I have been in couples counseling with a new therapist since August. As indicated in my last post, all those months ago, we’d hit the make-or-break point and threw a Hail Mary pass in the direction of a couples therapist who came highly recommended. We had worked for a full year with our previous counselor, but with very limited long-term success. We agreed it wasn’t her fault, but we also agreed that we weren’t making enough progress to justify continuing. So we stopped in January of 2014 and gradually watched our relationship take two steps forward, three steps back over the next eight months. By the time August came around, it really did feel as if we’d lost our way and were hanging by a fraying thread.

But then a strange thing happened. Still madly imperfect, but using some of the understanding and tools that we acquired during our counseling sessions with the new therapist, we began to recover from mutually-inflicted wounds more quickly and more completely. There were definitely difficult disagreements and hurts during the fall and holiday season, but I noticed that we seemed better able to find our way back to each other. Our commitment seemed more solid beneath us, and I felt like fewer small things were blowing up into big things.

I have consciously wondered to myself if this is what it’s like for couples who stay contentedly married for many years… Perhaps they have the same grievances and difficulties as the rest of us, but they recover from them more quickly and without inflicting the deep cuts that are so very hard to heal later. I don’t know really because I wasn’t in one of those couples in my marriage. But I do know that what I have with James feels completely different from what I had with Bryce. I think Bryce and I worked at it because it was the right thing to do and because we so desperately didn’t want to end up divorced, like our parents. But I think that James and I work at it because we just plain love each other. Corny, I know, but sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.

Family Affair

2014 was, for me, a year of extended family drama. It began before 2014 actually did, in December of 2013, when James and I decided to offer my young cousin Brady the opportunity to move from Southern California to Colorado and work for James at his company. Brady has always been special to me, having arrived in this world on my 20th birthday. He had a tough time of it as a kid. Born to two addicts (one recovering and one not), he was raised mostly by my dear aunt, but was nonetheless an addict himself by his early teens. For nearly 10 years, he was almost completely lost to our family, but then, at 22, he asked a judge to order him to rehab. The judge obliged and Brady spent many months locked in a room at a low-grade state rehab facility, reading and praying and avoiding the drugs that were more plentiful inside the facility than out. When he got out, clean for the first time in about a decade, I sent him tickets to visit me in Colorado. He spent three weeks with us and fell in love with the area. And I was delighted to see the sweet boy I’d once known re-appear in his clear blue eyes. So, in December of 2014, when James said he was having a hard time finding good workers for his company, I proffered Brady, and after some consideration, James agreed.

Now, we all know it’s a bad thing to mix family and business, right? And it’s also a bad idea to mix business and homelife, right? Sure, we do. But that didn’t stop James and I from inviting Brady to move to Colorado, work for James, and live with us until he got on his feet.

Yeah, I know, I know. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Brady arrived in mid-March, but within a few short months, James and Brady’s relationship had rapidly deteriorated at work, spilling over into things at home. I increasingly found myself feeling caught between my soulmate and my little cousin. It was frustrating for all of us. Brady finally moved out, with considerable prodding from me and James, in June, after James’ kids arrived for the summer. Brady continued working for James, but even that crumbled by the mid-fall. James eventually asked Brady to move on to another job, and we made the difficult transition of separating from him professionally and staying close to him emotionally. That’s not easy in the best of circumstances, but in the midst of this painful separation, Brady had a serious car accident, totaling his car. To say it was a stressful period is a gross understatement.

Right after Brady arrived to work for James, my dad’s health took a very serious turn for the worse, and by April, I was heading to Seattle to be with him for three weeks and help my poor step-mom, who was exhausted and barely keeping things afloat. His situation was so serous that on the plane ride to Seattle, I prayed that my dad wouldn’t die before I got there. Three weeks, five doctor appointments, one surgery, and 1½ weeks in a rehabilitation care center later, my dad was well on the road to recovery and I was back on a plane for Denver. But the emotional roller coaster of it all, including the ever-possible drama with my step-brother, left my tank on empty.

As it turned out, my Seattle trip had repercussions through the rest of my year. Within weeks of my return home, my mother’s health seemed to nosedive. Her phone calls became increasingly alarming. She was in so much pain. She was depressed. She was lonely. She missed her granddaughters and wanted to be near them. She hated Southern California. She felt that she was probably going to die soon. Gravely concerned, I booked a flight in October to my mom’s dusty town outside Palm Springs to ascertain the situation in person. When I arrived, my mom was pale, achingly frail, and seemingly in constant pain. As an only child, I had always known the day would come when I would have to step in and take care of my mother. Apparently that fateful day had arrived.

I began making plans to move my mom to Colorado. We reviewed her finances, talked about putting her tiny house up for sale, and discussed the necessary medical care she would need. I lined up various doctors, a home health nurse, and a realtor to make my mom’s transition as seamless as possible. I moved James’ youngest daughter Chloe out of her room and prepared it for my mom to occupy until she found a permanent place of her own. After her house sold unexpectedly quickly in November, she packed up the rest of her belongings, but refused to ship her car to Colorado after hearing horror stories of cars that were shipped but never arrived at their intended destination. At her request, James and I flew to California and drove her car back to Colorado in advance of her arrival. It should have been a fun and restive road trip, but the timing and circumstances mostly prevented that. Even so, we got her 20-year-old Honda to our house 24 hours before she arrived by plane in mid-December. I took a deep breath and thought that the hardest part was surely over.

Exactly 26 days later, my mother boarded a plane and moved back to California. Don’t underestimate her, though. In those 26 days, She had inconvenienced me, James, and the kids, threw a few obligatory tantrums at various holiday functions, and then floored us all by announcing that was moving back. Less than a week later, she was gone. And I was left wondering what the hell had just happened.

In the days immediately before and after her departure, I began to unravel the craziness that had just blown through my life, leaving a swath of wounded feelings, bewilderment, and exhaustion a mile wide. Based on things my mother said to James during her final days in Colorado, I abruptly realized that the drama around her health had originated, consciously or not, with my trip to Seattle. My mother’s intense resentment of my dad and anger at my relationship with him prompted nothing less than outrage that I had spent three weeks in Seattle and only a few days visiting her during the same calendar year. So, consciously or not (and I choose to think, not), she had created a whirlwind of need and anxiety around her, prompting us all to figuratively and sometimes literally drop everything and focus on her. It was, of course, the kind of drama she had been concocting for much of her life, but I, in my distracted state, had failed to recognize it for what it was. My mom likes to tell people now that she “simply made a mistake,” as if she’d worn unmatched socks for a day. But the truth is, at some point in our lives, each of us has to be responsible and cognizant of the effects our actions have on others. Apparently that time has yet to come for my mother.

So, since her departure, I have worked to remind myself that she is on a different journey from me; to forgive myself for being taken in, yet again, by her ridiculousness; and to recreate the healthy boundaries that protected me from her machinations through most of my adult life. I manage these things with more or less success, depending on the day. And so it goes.

A Penny Earned

For me, 2014 was the year of living dangerously. At least in a financial sense. Never in my life did I have so many financial responsibilities and so little certainty that I could meet them. While in Seattle, I read a fascinating article about women who crafted a “career” out of several small jobs (in some cases, as many 15), rather than relying on a single job for financial security. Most of these women were stay at home moms, had been laid off in middle age, or had personal constraints on their lives that necessitated a high degree of flexibility. Inspired, I spent many late nights in my dad’s guest room in Seattle brainstorming about how I could do something similar, and when I returned home, I set my plan into action. I created a new umbrella LLC and spent the rest of 2014 freelance writing, providing life skills coaching for a young woman with substantial ADHD issues, and doing the occasional interior design job. I had a selection of business cards for different tasks and mostly worked non-stop. And when I say non-stop, I really mean it. My family became accustomed to me sitting in front of the TV at night, typing away as we all watched TV or they played games.

In fairness, however, my ex-husband Bryce ended up helping me out financially, although not exactly by choice. At the end of 2013, as my unemployment benefits were winding down, I attempted to engage my ex in some re-negotiations about child support. He brushed me off, and I reluctantly let it go. But then he did the thing that he shouldn’t have: he suggested that I wasn’t pulling my weight financially with the children and asked me to contribute more. Now, let’s remember, folks: I had been unemployed (and actively looking for a job!) for nearly a year, I’d run through my savings, and had begun to dip into my retirement accounts on a too-regular basis. Bryce earns a healthy salary in the six figures, and he wanted more money from me? I was incredulous.

Now, my ex-husband’s mistake was understandable, in a way. When I was married to him, I pretty much caved to his demands, so perhaps it was natural for him to assume that what he said, would go. But things had changed. I had changed. Unbeknownst to either of us at that point, in the time it had taken him to consider and refuse my initial request for a small increase in child support,  a new law had taken effect that completely revised the child support guidelines. In my favor. So, instead of being a good girl and going along nicely, I gathered all my legal wits about me and filed for an increase in child support. After my attorney buckled to Bryce’s demands (Bryce is a far superior attorney), I fired him and spent most of a weekend negotiating the fine print with Bryce directly. When the smoke cleared, I was set to receive nearly double the amount of child support to which I had previously been entitled, and significantly more than I had originally asked for. Bryce was annoyed, but resigned. After all, if he had simply acquiesced to my initial request and/or not insinuated that I was somehow financially negligent toward my children, he would be paying considerably less. But he didn’t. And my children and I gained.

And so I paid my bills. Not without a little anxiety and a lot of creativity, but hey, what does that matter? They got paid.

Kali Comes

For my birthday last month, just days after my mother left us, my 11-year-old daughter Bryn gave me a pendant of the Hindu goddess Kali. She mistook Kali for Sarasvarti, the Hindu goddess of music, writing, and creativity, who is something of a totem for me. As it turns out, Kali was a more appropriate choice given my circumstances, because she is the goddess of destruction, transition, and new beginnings. I wasn’t sure how or why this beautiful Kali pendant had found its way to me, but I embraced it, slipping it on a silver chain and wearing it next to my heart.

Within days, I had my first job offer since my firing in February of 2013. After careful consideration, I concluded that by accepting the position, I would actually be in a worse position financially than I was on my own. I had built a strong client base with good job security, and, while it wasn’t making me rich, I was paying my bills and enjoying a lot of flexibility that enabled me to spend time with my girls and James’ kids. That realization gave me a renewed confidence and sense that perhaps, finally, the worst really was over.

And then two weeks ago, I received another job offer, this time for a position that was a truly perfect fit for me right now. It’s 75% time, with good pay and benefits, doing creative and interesting work. I will still be able to keep my favorite freelance writing client, doing the work some evenings and weekends. And, maybe best of all, I probably won’t have to hire a nanny to be with my kids.

Ever since I got the offer, I have been walking on clouds. My first week of work – precisely two years after my firing – was challenging and exhausting but also fun and dynamic. I truly cannot imagine a job I would want more right now. After wondering, off and on for two years, if I might have become one of the terminally unemployable, I now find myself like a child on Christmas as I head to work in the mornings.

So, life at the moment, perhaps courtesy of Kali, appears to be in transition, but for the first time in a very, very long time, my intuition is at peace. And now that I am no longer writing nonstop for money, I am hoping to return to writing for the sheer joy of it.

If you’ve actually read this whole saga that I call a post, thank you.

Next time we’ll return to our regularly scheduled program.

My Kali pendant from Bryn.

My Kali pendant from Bryn.

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after the fairy tale

Some lessons are harder to learn than others.

And some of us are just slow learners.

Or perhaps we’re stubborn, or maybe it’s persistence, or optimism, or hopeless romanticism.  Whatever it is, some of us seem biologically incapable of letting go sometimes.

Like me.

I wish more than anything that I could write of how wonderful and perfect my life with James is now.  How happily we have merged our families and how blissfully in love we are.  How I now have everything I ever dreamed of when I broke my marriage apart.  But of course I can’t do that.  Because Cinderella isn’t real and neither is Prince Charming.

I have not written much since James and I reunited and moved in together.  At first, it was because I genuinely was so blissfully happy I didn’t want to sound like a horrid braggart at my good fortune.  Then, later, it became about not wanting to disappoint my readers, and later still, about not wanting to admit that I might have made an enormous mistake.  The conclusion I have reached now, however, is that I love writing and I love this interaction with all of you, and I love knowing that — just possibly! — I might put something into words that someone else can relate to and feel understood by or reassured by or empowered by.

And so I am picking up my keyboard again and going to try to write about a love that is terribly flawed, potentially damaging, and possibly beyond salvation.


With age has come the wisdom that it’s usually pretty impossible to pinpoint the precise moment that signals the beginning of the end of something.  I cannot exactly remember when I first wondered if James and I had made an awful mistake buying the house and moving in together.  But I know that, as often happens, that unwelcome thought has become more and more present and persistent in my head, culminating this summer with me making plans to move out and going so far as to look at several houses and inquire about financing. (That was an adventure in itself.  I was reminded that when a rental ad says that a property “needs some love,” you’d best expect broken floor boards, inoperable windows, and peeling paint.)  It was sad to admit defeat and contemplate separating, yes, but things were so very bad that there was also some relief in the idea of a small place of my own for me and my girls and the assurance of peace in my life.

The rub was that I still love him.  Perhaps I shouldn’t, given the things he has said over the past year, but I’ve never been a big fan of “shoulds.”  So before I took the leap into one of the houses that needed some love, I sat down and examined what it would take for me to stay.  I examined this question from a very pragmatic perspective — not what would I have to feel, but what he (and I) need to do in order for me to stay.  Actual, concrete steps or actions or promises.  So, because I’m a list-maker and addicted to my iPhone, I made a note on my phone containing my list.  Then I slept on it for a couple of days, revised it, and finally told James (via text because we were hardly speaking) that I had a final proposal to make to save our relationship, and if he was interested in discussing it, he should let me know.  I sent the text just days before his children left us to return to their mom’s for the school year, so I didn’t expect to hear anything back right away, and I didn’t.

The day his children left, I spent the day back-to-school shopping with my girls and returned home just before dinnertime.  James said he’d like to talk, made us some cocktails, and we went out to our balcony.  Then, using my iPhone list as a guide, I walked him through my proposal.  It included some relatively easy demands, including “No serious discussions before I’ve had caffeine in the morning,” as well as some more difficult ones, including couples counseling with a therapist of his choosing, and if he didn’t seem engaged in the process, I would not go or pay for it.  Given that James is quintessentially the man who does not like being told what to do, I was fully prepared for him to say, essentially, “No way, no how.”  I really was.  I had absolutely no expectations beyond being able to know that I had played my best hand at the end.

But he didn’t say no way, no how.  He agreed to my proposal, and I agreed to halt my moving plans.

It has been a long enough road for us that I knew not to be too optimistic about our commitment to this new path.  But, we did find some equanimity after that conversation.  We went away for the weekend to his eldest daughter’s college graduation and had a truly nice time together.  So nice, in fact, that I dreaded coming home.  I just wanted to stay in that warm cocoon of ease and peace for as a long as possible.  But when we returned, I was further heartened when James found the name of a counselor we had interviewed back in March and ended up not revisiting because she doesn’t take insurance, and called her for an appointment.  He also located the paperwork she’d given us at the time and started completing it.  So I did, too.

The first time we saw the counselor, Liz, she talked to us briefly about our goals for the therapy and how she typically works.  Some of it we remembered from our appointment in the spring.  At the end, she asked us to take two online tests that would help her understand our personalities better, how we probably relate to one another, and how she could best support us.  She wanted us to complete them and send her the results before our next meeting, four days later.  I could tell that James was loath to take the tests, but was pleased when he did the very next day.  The results were fascinating and we spent the better part of that day comparing our results and discussing how they made us feel.***  Again, I was heartened — this alone was progress!

Our next meeting with Liz — our first real counseling session with her — also went well, and we left feeling, I think, like we might be able to actually do this.  That perhaps we could be one of the couples who bucks the odds and saves our relationship!  I think we both knew how dire our straits were, so I don’t mean to make light or understate the depth of concern and fear that our relationship was beyond saving, but I also think that we were increasingly hopeful.  Unfortunately, she was leaving to spend a month back East and so our next session seemed far away.

My friend Annie has always described my relationship with James as taking two steps forward and one step back, and James and I are apparently slaves to our pattern, for not long after that counseling session we had another disagreement that culminated in him suggesting that we sell the house.

And that is where things sit, my friends.

Over the past six months or so, I have had some personal growth spurts unrelated to my situation with James, but those have served to better inform me of my own short-comings and blind spots.  I have tried to figure out what the wisest course of action is with regard to me and James.  I have tried to analyze what is right for my girls.  I have tried to dig deep and ask my heart what it truly wants.

But I don’t have any clear answers.  Because here is all I know:  No one ever said it was supposed to easy, but it shouldn’t be too hard, either.  I know that if we manage to make this work and grow old together, we will be one of those couples that signifies the value of hard work in a relationship, and this whole period will be told and re-told of evidence that relationships require work to survive. But if we don’t make it, we will both likely be saying, to others sometime in the future, that we should have pulled the plug sooner and not wasted so much time.

In my marriage, I knew when it was time to go, and once I knew, I hardly glanced back.  That almost unwavering certainty was of enormous comfort to me during the darkest days of my divorce, and the lack of it is what paralyzes me now.

So I wait.  I wait for a signpost signaling the next right path.  I wait for my heart and mind to synch up.  I wait for a certainty that won’t betray me later on.

amazing-trees-1-1


*** The personality tests that James and I took are called the RHETI Enneagram test and the Instinctual Variant Questionnaire (IVQ).  They are similar to the Myers-Briggs tests, but simpler and, for us, more accurate.   They can be found on the Enneagram Institute’s website.   The full RHETI Enneagram test is 145 questions and costs $10.  The IVQ is much shorter and costs $8.  The results can be emailed to you and do not require a therapist’s interpretation to be useful.

 

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Filed under love, relationships

me, too.

When I began this blog in February of 2011, my mantra was to live an authentic life and to manifest that intention here, in writing and sharing.  Living authentically sounds nice and good and pretty simple, and it is all those things, but it is not easy.  Or, rather, it was not easy for me.  The mask was more familiar.  And much safer.

When I was married, it was very important to my husband that we not “air our dirty laundry” with others.  This included sharing our problems with friends, or really anybody at all.  He saw my tendency to share as a weakness, as a means to seek validation or sympathy or… something.  No matter how minor it was, it always felt like oversharing to him.

So I stopped sharing my true self.  I became the world’s best listener and advice-giver.  Our friendships were based on shared interests, our children’s friendships, and our work connections. Is it so  surprising that over time, no one really knew us?  True, they didn’t know our problems, but they also didn’t know us.  We were simply the construct that we created for them, the masks we wore, the facade we carefully maintained.  The perfectly matched couple with the peaceful, supportive, and easy marriage.  Our children were well-behaved and lovely, our home warm and welcoming.  Our friends had problems that they confided to us openly, and we counseled them with the confidence and self-assurance of the righteous.

But all of that was unreal, fake, a fraud that we were so accustomed to and so frightened to let go of that at some point we genuinely began to believe in it as much or more so than those close to us.

It was neat.  It was tidy.  It was pretty.

And it was so god-awful lonely.

What a relief after my separation to finally begin to make friends again to whom I could confide!  That I could tell my darkest, dirtiest, most horrible thoughts to!  Who could truly know me and still love me! How wonderful to no longer put so much energy toward the impression of a perfect life, to throw open the windows and let the truth pour out…  How liberating, inspiring, and energizing to be real, authentic, and open again!

It seems to me that there are a lot of studies being released recently proving that social media is our latest means of crafting the perfect image to those around us.  The smiling family photos, the perpetually-happy status updates, the tweets cataloging all the wonderful, perfect moments in our lives.  And there also seem to be an equal number of studies telling us that the more time we spend on social media, the worse we feel about our own lives.

Ugh.  That kind of news is very sobering to me and very discouraging, too.  Why do we do this to each other?  I honestly understand not wanting to be the Twitter Debbie Downer or Chronic Facebook Complainer.  I get that nobody wants to log on to be force-fed negativity.  But what happened to authenticity or balance?  Why are we so afraid to show people the messy parts of our life?  What exactly are we so afraid of?

I can answer my own questions, of course, because I was long one of those people.  I can only imagine how some people must have felt sickened by me and my “perfect” little family, and I don’t blame them at all.  I realize now that at some point I’d bought into my husband’s flawed dogma that if people see your mess, they will judge you and they will discount you and they will no longer respect you.

That’s true, of course.  People do all those things when you show them your messy life.  But not all people.  And not all the time.  And the ones left in the room after we dump our mess all over the place are the ones that we need to fight for and hang on to.  The rest were just taking up space anyway.

I know that some mothers will suffer bouts of maternal envy on this Mother’s Day.  I know that because I have been one of them.  I have a long history of difficult, discouraging, and frustrating Mother’s Days.  I even wrote a post about it last year that called the anti-mother’s day.  And I am here to tell you that that post generated a massive amount of hits.  I think it’s because, if we’re being honest, we can all relate.  Kids aren’t perfect, and parenting is a lesson in imperfection, so the odds are against having a great Mother’s Day each and every single year.

Similarly, my rant why I hate being a stay-at-home-mom is poised to become my visited post ever.  That means it will surpass worst. sex. ever. and all the salacious thomas murray posts I’ve written.  Go figure, right?

Well, actually, it makes perfect sense if you think about it.  Because I genuinely believe that what we all want, more than anything else in this world, is to be known and understood.  We don’t really need someone to tell us what we’re doing wrong; I think most of us have a pretty decent grasp on that.  And we don’t really need someone to lecture us about how we can do better; deep down, I think we have that one figured out, too.  What we need, what we crave, what drives us to turn to the internet late at night or when we’re all alone, is to have someone say to us, “Me, too.”

I am having an unexpectedly amazing Mother’s Day today.  Truly.  I can’t remember ever having had a better one.  So, to those moms breathing a sigh of relief that you’re not facing a trip to the ER today or having to clean dog puke off your new rug, I say, “Me, too.”  But to those moms who are wondering why the hell they ever got out of bed today and why isn’t it bedtime yet, I say, “Me, too.”  Because I’ve been there.  For sure.  It’s no fun, but it’s okay.  It doesn’t mean anything except that you had a bad day that happened to fall on the second Sunday of May.

Life is messy, and that’s really okay, too.  It’s supposed to be.  And anyone that tells you otherwise or tries to sell you an air-brushed version of their life has deeper problems than you can probably imagine.  So be authentic.  Embrace the mess.  Say “Me, too.”  I think you’ll be glad you did.

life-is-messy

 

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Filed under parenthood, relationships