Category Archives: happy endings

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

how to write a love letter, by Johnny Cash

In the course of my life, I have been the privileged recipient of many love letters.  Some so tender they are heart-breaking, others so sweet they made me tingle, and still others so suggestive, I involuntarily blushed while reading them.  But the best — always and without exception — were the ones that were short and simple and devastating in their sincerity.

This morning, I was rendered dumbstruck — truly, mouth gaping, breath holding, eyes wide — when I read two love letters written by Johnny Cash for his wife, June Carter Cash.  They were published by Letters of Note, a blog that is something of an altar to the written word, in all of its power and beauty.

You might remember John and June’s love story as portrayed in the film, “Walk the Line,” and you probably assumed that the love story was embellished for Hollywood’s sake, but you’d be mostly wrong.  June Carter blew him away from the beginning and Johnny Cash didn’t stand a chance of getting over her.  Despite being married, despite being a screw-up and an addict, when love hit Johnny Cash over the head, he knew it and he was utterly powerless in its wake.  For a certified bad-ass, it’s especially touching how vulnerable he was to his feelings for this woman.

I think that John’s letter to June on her 65th birthday in June 1994 is so perfect that I hesitate to dissect it too much, lest I disturb its beauty.  I think I would love it no matter what, but I am fiercely attached to it because John composed it as an ode, not to a young woman, unblemished by time or nature, but to an older woman whose spirit and soul continued to shine and entrance him.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, from Letters of Note.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

Sigh.

The second letter is bittersweet, having been written just a couple of months after June’s death in 2003.  Its simplicity conveys so much —  grief, and loss, and yearning.

June's an angel

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

John died two months after writing this note, four short months after June.  Their children expressed surprise that he lasted that long without her.

Do you suppose that June Carter Cash knew what she had?  Do you suppose that by the time they got together (he’d been married once and she multiple times), she understood how rare and priceless a connection such as theirs is? Do you suppose that she loved him back just as much?

Looking at this photo, I’d say the answer to all is a definite “yes.”

John and June

Photo courtesy of via.

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Filed under happy endings, love, marriage, relationships

“every day is a celebration”

One morning last week, as I was thumbing through my paper and munching my English muffin, I came across an article that stuck with me.  Various parts of it have been playing through my mind ever since.  It is about a local couple who are celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary.  Yes, you read that right — 70 years of marriage to the same person.  That alone is mind-boggling in this day and age, but it is other aspects of the article that I find more poignant….  and perhaps those other aspects are the explanation to the time-honored question of “What’s their secret?!”

Before I go any further, I’d suggest you read the article, here.   It’s short and it will open in another tab, so you won’t lose me!  I’ll wait.

[Cue the on-hold Muzak version of The Captain and Tenille’s “Muskrat Love”…]

Okay, now that you’re back, let’s continue…

The first time I read the article, something tugged at me, but I turned the page and put it down to sentimentalism, plain and simple.  But it was more than that, and when I returned to the article later that night, I saw clearly and with amazement the pieces that are profound and precious to me in this article.

1.  Don carries a scrapbook in his briefcase of memories of their life together.

Sure, this is a little cutesy for most people, and most guys wouldn’t be comfortable putting together a scrapbook, let alone carrying it around for years.  But the point here is that it embodies his priorities.  Just from that one fact, do you have any doubts of where his personal priorities lie?  Do you suppose his children ever wondered if their parents loved each other?

2.  Don remembers particulars about Dorothy.

Most of us sketch our distant memories in broad strokes.  It is only the truly important moments that we lock away with all of our senses intact.  I, for instance, remember exactly how Sabrina felt and smelled when they first placed her in my arms — the weight of her, the color of her hair, the pain my body was still accommodating to from my emergency c-section, the tears in my husband’s eyes, the stuffiness of the room — all of it frozen in my memory.  But Don, it seems, has many, many memories of Dorthy that are like that.  I love that he remembered “how the humidity melted her hair” when she stepped off the plane.   I am lost in imagining him watching her, absorbing her, after missing her for a while.  Sigh.

3.  Don is proud of Dorothy’s accomplishments.

Before any of you start shaking your head and saying, “Well, of course he should be!” let me point out two very important things:  FIRST, let’s remember that they were married in 1942.  They are almost two generations removed from most of us.  Feminism was not even a word then, and women’s rights still referred to the suffragette’s successful battle to obtain the vote.  This was an era and a generation when most women did precisely and only what their husbands allowed them to do.   No kidding.  And look what Don allowed Dorothy to do — to live up to her potential as a human being.  She did amazing things, in an age when only men did such things.  And she did it with a husband.  Seriously wow.

SECOND, let’s to be truthful here:  this is still rare.  I hear story after story after sad story about women who bind their lives to men who are threatened by their potential or desire to be more than a wife and mother.  Being a good wife and a good mother are both laudable goals, to be sure, but for most of us, they are not the end of our aspirations.  When I was married, had I suggested that I was going to attend a civil rights march, my husband would have looked at me like I was crazy.  It was all fine and well for me to pursue my personal interests and causes, as long as it didn’t inconvenience him too much.  And I’m not alone in having lived that at the turn of the 20th Century.

So kudos to Don, for selecting an amazing woman and then supporting her dreams.  Nicely done.

4.  When Don describes Dorothy’s attributes, he lists aspects of who she is, not what she does for him or anyone else.

This is the part that makes the romantic in me want to cry.  Don says this about Dorothy:

“She’s a caring, kind, empathetic and a super good listener.  She says very little but she’s extremely effective. She charms people and gets groups together and makes things happen.”

This is who Dorothy is as a person; he sees her fully — her abilities and personality as they stand on their own, not simply in reference to him.  There is no mention of how good a cook she is or how she starched his shirts for 70 years or how she played with the kids when they were toddlers.  But this is how we usually reference our  love for our partners — based on what they do for us, not on who they are independent of us.  Listen closely the next time someone describes their husband or wife — “He’s a good provider.”  “She’s a good mom.”  “He mows the lawn every Saturday.” “She makes a great pot roast, and that’s my favorite.”  and so on and so forth.  At first glance, this sounds sweet — don’t we all hope that the people we care for and nurture will notice and appreciate that? — but it’s actually a failure to fully see each other.  Appreciation is important, but if you look at the kinds of things I just listed, you’ll see that those are appreciation for roles we fill in our partnerships and lives, they are jobs we do, and an acknowledgment that we do them well.  Those compliments are not an acknowledgment of who we fundamentally are inside — the special parts of us that we bring to the people whose lives we touch everyday.

Now look again at Don’s list.  See the difference?  Hear the respect and admiration?  He sees her.  Fully.  And admires her.  Not for the roles she fills, but because she is those things, and she brings those things to everything she does and every role she fills because they are who she is.  It is possible that Dorothy was a terrible cook, and maybe Don would have liked a good pot roast once in a while, but how many of us want someone to choose us for our culinary skills?  Or for any particular role, in fact?  In all likelihood, she wasn’t a perfect mother (still looking for that animal…), but if she was “kind, caring, empathetic, and a good listener,” how bad a mom could she have been? Don’s description speaks of who Dorothy is in every role she fills, because it is simply who she is, period.

The difference is subtle, but very, very important, I think.  Because as we move through a lifetime together, roles may change.  Skills may be gained and even lost.  But I think what most of us want is to be loved for who we simply are, when the roles and academic degrees and accumulated professional accomplishments are stripped away.  We want to be loved for our sense of humor, our way with words, the gentleness of our caress.  Filling particular roles well can be rewarding and appreciation is always good, but to be appreciated without being fully seen is hollow at best and soul-crushing at worst.

Now, I will admit that Don is probably a bit of a romantic sentimentalist.  But the man is 90-years-old, so I am going to grant him the right to be gushy and mushy and over-the-top about the accomplishment of notching a 70-year marriage.  But really, how many of us are in a position to criticize his approach or his feelings?

Certainly not I.

So instead, I wish the Stonebrakers a very happy anniversary and many more scrapbook pages to come.

Not the Stonebrakers — but I looooove this photo! 🙂

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Filed under happy endings, love, marriage, men, personal growth, relationships

the watershed

I spent the day today making my little corner of the world just a little prettier.  Lillies and impatiens in the planter on my deck (with a pink flamingo, just for fun).  Herbs and strawberry plants in big pots on my kitchen patio.  Fresh water in the bird bath and fresh food in the bird feeder.  Patio furniture scrubbed, paths swept, and tiny lawn mowed.  A new rosebush planted outside my bedroom window in honor of my aunt, with pink blooms that perfectly match the lipstick shade she wore every day of her adult life.

My girls and I finished our spring cleaning yesterday by tackling Sabrina’s closet, which had become so unwieldy, it was like a scene from a film where you open the door and everything rains down on your head.  No exaggeration.  But our little home is all neat and tidy and sparkling clean now, inside and out.

A few weeks ago, these chores would have rested heavily and uncomfortably on my shoulders.  I would have felt dismal and overburdened by them.  Indeed, only a few weeks ago, I was feeling that life was a somewhat monotonous repetition of obligations, chores, and responsibilities.   I awoke in the mornings despairing of another busy day of nothing to look forward to, and climbed into bed each evening feeling frustrated, sad, and lonely in my life.   I plodded through everything quietly and determinedly, weighted down by a silent melancholy and pessimism born of a fear that I would always feel that way. 

And then, my only aunt died last week.

And that changed everything.

When I received the news on Monday night that she was in the hospital, in debilitating pain, and not expected to survive the week, I was devastated.  Her death Tuesday afternoon contained as much relief (in freeing her from her suffering) as it did grief.  The text informing me of her passing came from my young cousin, her grandson.  It reached me just as I was convening a very important meeting at work.  It said, simply, “Grandma went to heaven at 12:45 PM.  I love you.”    I’ve no clear memory of the subsequent two-hour meeting, although I’m told by colleagues that it went well.  Thank God for auto-pilot.

I spent most of Tuesday evening talking to my cousins and my mom, allowing them to hurl themselves into their grief and find some solace in our shared memories of my aunt.   Then later, an ex-boyfriend provided the same sounding board for me:  letting me remember all the best of my aunt and celebrate her life by sharing her with someone who’d never met her.  All last week, friends checked in and provided support and love in beautiful, small ways.

Last weekend, before receiving the news of my aunt, I’d enjoyed a four-day weekend and an amazing, soul-drenching visit from a high school friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years.   My friend, “Kathryn,” is someone who truly sees life as a glass half-full.  Not in the annoying Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy! way that makes me want to smack some people, but in a quiet, consistent way that makes me ashamed of my own tendency to host pity parties.  Whether it’s a rocky divorce, a professional set-back, or a romantic relationship with some pretty daunting challenges, she tackles them all with a cheerfulness and gratitude toward her life that is inspiring.

We spent the whole weekend talking, eating, reconnecting and rediscovering all the things we have in common.  We played tourist and exchanged advice and walked my dog and just marinated in the comfort of female friendship.  It was wonderful.

When I dropped her at the airport, I was sad, but buoyed by our time together.  My head was spinning with all that had been said and I could feel something dormant in me re-awakening…   And then my mom called with the news of my aunt.

But rather than undermining those good feelings from Kathryn’s visit, my aunt’s death actually built upon them.  In fact, the cascade of tears that I cried for my aunt this past week washed away all the negativity and melancholy I’d been carrying around.  It is as if my grief broke through some emotional levee and allowed a torrent of frustration and sadness and fear unrelated to my aunt’s death to be carried away along with my grief over her passing.  To my great surprise, I have emerged from my utter sadness over losing her more contented and peaceful and optimistic than I have been in many, many months.

It is a watershed.

I have stopped looking backward.  I have accepted where I am at this moment and am embracing it with a joyful and hearty hug.  I am mindful and aware of all the small, perfect things in my life right now — the softness of my sheets, the sweetness of waking up to dogs licking my hands, the way the aspens are leafing out on my drive up the canyon each morning, the softly tanning skin of my daughters, the amazing people that are my friends.  Each of these things is perfect, and I had stopped seeing them.

The irony here is that my aunt was also a glass half-full kind of person.  She saw everyone and every situation in the most flattering light.  She genuinely believed and lived by the adage that if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.   When life threw her a curve ball (and some of her curve balls were mind-blowingly unfair by any measure), she never asked “Why me?” but rather “Why not me?”  When offered sympathy, she would shrug and say “That’s life,” and typically recount some friend’s circumstance that was worse than her own to justify her sense of gratitude in the face of misfortune.  I’ll be honest, at times it was maddening to face her perpetual positivity, but this week I’ve remembered that she was the wiser of the two of us.  Cynicism and pessimism and anger and fear are greedy houseguests.  They leave no room or sustenance for contentment or optimism or happiness.  Being perpetually vigilant about what might next befall you or spending all your energy counting the ways that life is unfair will keep you busy, but not happy.  Definitely not happy.

Watershed moments are one of life’s small little miracles packaged as struggle or pain.  Sometimes they come in the form of job loss, or divorce, or hitting bottom with an addiction, or, as in my case, an actual death.  But regardless of the form they take, they have the capacity to shock us out of complacency or denial or fear and blow our world wide open. Sometimes the destruction is an opportunity to create something new and better; the watershed acts as a catalyst to gently resume the forward motion toward our dreams.  Other times we are incapable of seeing the opportunity before us, so busy we are staring at the closed door behind us.

I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that Kathryn visited right before my aunt passed away.  I believe that life was slapping me out of my melancholy and frustration.  I believe that it provided me with two very strong, very stark reminders of all I was missing.  I believe that each of us makes a choice how to see the world around us, and that sometimes we get lost and can’t figure out how to get back to equanimity.  And I believe that when we’re lost, life will always show us the way, if we let it.

And I believe that my aunt would agree that my new rose bush is simply perfect.

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Filed under general musings, happy endings, healing, personal growth, relationships, sadness

moments

I started my morning today with a friend who told me the story of a man she’d recently met in a local photo shop.  They started talking cameras and ended up talking about friendship.  It was one of those simple moments in which we make a connection with a perfect stranger that stays with us, even days later.  Not a romantic connection, but the kind of connection in which there is a recognition of a similar way of thinking, of a similar wanting in this world, of a similar desire for human connectedness.  Some might call it a soul connection.

As I drove to work, my mind played with the kinds of moments I’ve shared with strangers.  Some are very simple, others life-changing.  In some of those moments, I am convinced that the other person shared the experience, but in others, I suspect that I passed through their life with little impression or impact.  That doesn’t, of course, make those moments any less special to me.

Hours later, driving home from work, a song cycled through my iPhone and I was reminded of one such moment that I shared with a man, 20 years ago.  At that time I was barely 23-years-old, working in the British music industry, promoting artists to radio and television outlets.  It was late afternoon on an early summer day, and I was backstage at a radio station-sponsored charity concert, supporting one of our acts.   They finished and filed off the stage, grumbling about their performance (and granted, it wasn’t their best).  I murmured words of encouragement and offered hugs, then turned to follow them out of the stage area.  As we moved, single-file, the next band was coming on, single-file next to us in the narrow, short hallway.  From a short distance, I made eye contact with the other band’s singer.  We locked eyes, holding the gaze as he walked past me, so close I could smell him and see the flecks in his eyes.  As I passed, I craned my neck to hold his gaze, and he managed to turn himself completely around in the tight space, guitar in hand, watching me move away from him until his bandmate shoved him onto the stage.  As he struck the first chords on his guitar, my colleagues and I stepped out the door, into the blinding sunlight, and away from him.  I’d never seen him before, and I never saw him again.  But 20 years later, I still remember that moment.

Now remember, I was a young American girl in the British music industry who favored body-hugging catsuits and thigh-high boots.  Turning heads backstage was not an uncommon occurrence in those days.  But that moment was different.  Deeper.  Special somehow. What was it about him that arrested me in that moment? It wasn’t his good looks; he actually wasn’t the physical type I went for back then, and I’d never given him a second thought, despite the fact that his band was splashed all over magazines and tv in Britain at that time.  No, as I looked into his eyes, I felt something different… a pull… a desire to sit and talk to and know this person.  Likewise, in his eyes, I saw not the simple, hot, predatory hunger of lust that I was used to, but a kind of…. recognition… surprise… attraction. Later, his band skyrocketed to fame and had two gigantic hits stateside after my return.  But to me, he’s always been a pair of hazel eyes in a dim hallway.

Life is made richest by those precious, unexpected moments of connection.  Some are shared with people we already love, when we discover a new intersection of understanding or shared passion.  Others — and in many ways these are the more delightful — are shared with people we barely know.  They are reminders of interconnectedness, of the fact that we are not alone in this universe, small islands merely bumping into each other as we navigate the physical world.

I have very few of these moments these days.  My life is so constructed as to limit the opportunities for me to meet new and dynamic people.   Sometimes when I think of how many of those moments I experienced in my 20’s, I want to go back and shake that young woman.  I want to tell her how much rarer those moments become as we age.  I want to yell at her to turn around and talk to that young man backstage, to wait for his set to end and him to come find her.  I want to inform her that those are the moments that change our lives.

Then again, my life in my 20’s was very different.  When I was living in England, I was surrounded by artists of all kinds — musicians, actors, painters.  Their way of looking at the world challenged me and pushed the limits of my creativity.  I spent most nights in nightclubs and recording studios, often not arriving home until noon the next day.  When I gave that up, I plunged myself headfirst into law school.  Again, I was surrounded by people who pushed me, scared me with their intellect, and forced me to debate and defend my beliefs.  Those two periods of my life were very different in so many ways, but shared a vital similarity:  I was open and curious and hungry for the world around me in my 20’s.

In some ways, I am still that young girl.  I am still emotionally and intellectually curious.  I am still intrigued and arrested by dynamic people who can blow me away in one fashion or another.  But age has bred caution, and knowledge, and a certain disappointment in human limitations.

Even so, every once in a while, I am still blessed with one of those perfect moments.  And now, the awareness of their rarity makes them all more sweeter.

Someone asked me today what I want most right now.

Moments.  I want moments.

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Filed under friendships, general musings, happy endings, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom

always was

One cold January day in 2009, I sat in my therapist’s office and numbly contemplated the options before me.  I could leave my then-husband and break up my family.  I could stay and we could attempt couples’ counseling.  Or I could stay, not do couples counseling, and agree with my husband that it was all just a mid-life crisis that we could simply put behind us and resume life as (mostly) normal.  “Given our specific problems and their origins and duration,” I asked my therapist, “approximately how long will we have to do couples therapy before there would likely be any significant changes to our dynamic?”

She paused, obviously choosing her words carefully.  “Weekly intensive therapy with a real desire on both your parts’ to make progress… approximately 2 years… give or take.”

I think I just stared calmly at her at first.  My ears were ringing, my heart was pounding, and there was voice in my head screaming at the top of her lungs: “NOOOOO!!!  No way can I do this for 2 more years!  No way.  No how.  I won’t make it.  I swear I can’t do!”

Ultimately, I shook my head determinedly.  “No,” I said firmly.  “I don’t have enough left.  I just can’t do it anymore.”

The trouble with difficult relationship dynamics is that what we fear most is that things will be how they always were.  He will be who he always was.  I will be who I always was.  Nothing will change. What always was, will always be.

Always was is a powerful idea.

As a college advertising student, I was fascinated by the piles of psychological and sociological studies that confirmed, over and over again, in study after study after study, that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.  This applies as much to the way that we handle communication in a relationship as to the kind of toothpaste we buy.  We humans are amazingly predictable; at least from a scientific standpoint.  We are animals who fall into comfortable patterns that we cling to, even if those patterns no longer serve us.  Unlike other animals, who mostly have no psychological attachment to their pattern, we cling to ours, pulling in denial, projection, and blame to defend them.

Later, as a law student, I spent lots of time contemplating the various rules of evidence barring admission of most previous crimes and behaviors, unless they have a direct and immediate baring on the case at hand.  I sympathized with juries infuriated to learn, after issuing a Not Guilty verdict, that the defendant had been charged or convicted multiple times for similar or identical offenses.  Even some of our most poorly educated citizens know that “if he’s done it before, he’s more likely to do it again.”

But, of course, it’s not always true.  What always was does not have to always be.

I wrote a whole post not too long entitled “can people change?” and I am a firm believer in our human ability to arrest a behavior or pattern that we no longer like about ourselves and change it.  People overcome horrible childhoods, abusive relationship choices, and personal addictions everyday.  But the real tough part about change is when the pattern involves not just our own behavior, but our partner’s, as well.  That partner — and his behavior — is the uncontrolled variable in the equation.  As every successful rehab program knows, changing the addicted individual only gets you so far, if the people and influences around her remain toxic or undermine her attempts toward positive growth, she is most likely to fail in her attempts to affect real and substantial and lasting change.

Likewise, if the individual simply changes her surroundings, but not herself, the likelihood of repeating previous patterns is also high.  I think a good example of this is the woman who moves from abusive relationship to abusive relationship, always thinking that the next guy will be “different,” without ever examining her own role in those choices or that abusive dynamic.  The next guy might indeed be “different,” but if she is the same, the outcome might be eerily similar if not downright identical.

For most of us, these triggers and patterns are more nuanced than an addiction or an abusive relationship.  They manifest as small patterns in our relationships… the way we retreat or attack when hurt… how we approach conflict… what we expect in terms of attention or affection or affirmation…  how controlling or passive we are… the list goes on and on.

I recently had reason to consider my fear of what always was in the context of remarrying.  Since my divorce, I have sworn, without reservation, that I will not remarry.  Not because I am opposed to marriage as an institution, or because I don’t believe in commitment, or because of some feminist ideal, but because I came to fundamentally dislike who I was when I was married.  I see clearly the things I did wrong in my marriage, my contributions to its failing, and the woman I became during that time.  By the time I left my marriage, I didn’t really like her anymore.  She was scared and closed off and depressed and impatient and fatalistic about things.  She had sacrificed the best parts of herself to the altar of his criticisms and was left empty because of it, moving through a life that felt lonely and meaningless.  I don’t ever, ever, ever want to be that woman again.  But, I am afraid that what I always was then, is what I would always be the next time.

I watch with some degree of envy as other women assume that by trading out a mate, they are assured of creating a different outcome for their marital happiness.  I am not convinced that it is so easy.  True, the men I’ve dated since my divorce are almost complete opposites from my ex-husband in every way that matters, but that only accounts for half the equation, right?  What about me?  Have I changed enough to avoid all those old patterns?  Have I figured out alternative responses and behaviors for the triggers that made me so unhappy in my marriage?  Certainly a different partner will create a different environment and bring different trials and treasures to the table, but if I have not addressed my own dysfunctions, how will what always was no longer be?

And here’s what I realized:  I have done a ton of work on myself since my marriage ended.  I have no idea whether I would be the same person I used to be if I remarried, but if I’m really being honest with myself, I strongly doubt it. Not because of any particular partner I might someday share my life with, but because of me.  I have changed.  I’m no longer that woman I was and I can’t imagine letting her back in. Sure, I could hold onto that fear of what always was, and allow it choke away possibilities for my future, but that’s actually something that the old me would have done.  So freeing myself of that “always was” fear is yet another way to liberate myself from her influence. I have no idea if I’ll every marry again, but I guess it’s time to let go of that particular fear and acknowledge some of the progress I’ve made.  None of us gets any guarantees.  We can only do our best and keep trying to do better.

As for my ex-husband, we have now been separated for just over 3 years and he has been doing his own therapeutic work during that time.  He is also a different person than when we were married.  Could we be happily married to each other now, having both worked so hard on ourselves as individuals?  I don’t think so.  The fundamental differences in our personalities are still there and they grate in ways that are still so confounding and discouraging sometimes.  But we’re able to be pretty good friends to each other now, which might be all we ever should have been in the first place.  A few years ago, it was a friendship I might have wished for, but never really expected.

Yet another example that what always was doesn’t have to always be.

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