Category Archives: healing

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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deleted.

Adoption is such a mixed bag of blessings.  The most valuable for me as an adopted child has always been the fluidity with which I view relationships.  Family is truly those who inhabit my heart, because any other definition would necessarily create a very lonely life.  This definition is expansive, endless with possibilities and rich beyond compare.

The flip side of this approach has sometimes been that I place more importance on a particular relationship than does someone who has ample and strong genetic family ties.  I have, on more than one occasion, realized that my sense of family with someone was misplaced; in the end, I was “just a friend” or “just a girlfriend” or whatever the small, definitive category was that I occupied.  I don’t begrudge these people their categories; indeed there have been occasions when I have envied them the clear distinctions of their lives, the ease of prioritizing relationships, the simplicity of explaining how one is related to another.  But that was not the hand I was dealt, and so I have bent and manipulated common categories to suit my own needs and life.  And that approach has mostly served me well.

After I was three weeks old, I didn’t lay eyes on a single soul possessing my genetic thread for nearly 29 years.  It was then that I met my birth mother, Kathleen, after a lengthy search.  Ours was a joyful telephone reunion, followed by pages and pages of emails, futilely trying fill in the missing years since she had held me as a screaming infant in her arms.  There were early morning and late night phone calls, exchanged photographs and small gifts, and a visit by her to the home I shared with Bryce, when I was newly pregnant with Sabrina.  Later, when Sabrina was 18 months old, I traveled with her to Kathleen’s home on the West Coast for a short visit.  Sabrina charmed her new “Gran” completely, and Kathleen seemed delighted by the prospect of a grand-baby, having missed so much with me.

Every relationship has its honeymoon period and, had I read any adoption reunion books I would have known that the same applies to adoption reconciliations.  Our honeymoon period lasted longer than most, but small fissures erupted and, without the grounding of a stronger or deeper friendship, they expanded into deep chasms.  There were so many parts of me that not only reminded Kathleen of her beloved younger brother, but also of her despised older brother.  She disagreed forcefully with many of my life choices and was unimpressed by my choice of husband.  But perhaps most damaging was the fact that, aside from my skin and hair coloring, I physically favor my birth father, a man who brutally hurt her and about whom she cannot speak. So perhaps the relationship was doomed from the beginning, or even from the second beginning, but I was determined to at least keep the line of communication open, even as she clearly withdrew from me.

My first inkling that perhaps I had been abandoned by her permanently came two years ago when Sabrina was in 5th grade and completing a family history project.  I had received lots of family stories and histories from Kathleen in emails during those early, breathless days, stories I had been waiting a lifetime to hear and she’d been hoping for the chance to share.  I’d compiled them all into binders that I stored with my photo albums, the closest thing I had to a family history.  Sabrina thumbed through them, amazed to discover the richness of Kathleen’s family history, the surprising realization that we were, in fact, a Western homesteading and ranching family, and the terrific tales of Irish lore handed down.  Then she sat down and wrote Kathleen a very sweet email, telling her of the family history project and asking more questions.

Kathleen never answered her.

I was more than a little stunned as the days dragged by and there was no response to Sabrina’s email.  We worked on her project as best we could without the additional information.  I offered, but Sabrina refused to abandon Kathleen’s family and instead do something about her dad’s side, which was equally interesting.  She completed her project and received an A, but I was still reeling from the silence.

I sent Kathleen an email via Facebook, where I know she is very active, asking her to please reply to Sabrina even if it was just to say that she couldn’t provide anything else.

Silence.

As an adult, I was able to cognitively process the rejection.  Kathleen is a woman who, at least since the harrowing and unfortunate circumstances of my conception and birth, has struggled and mostly failed at maintaining relationships.  She knew she would be a poor mother, having had a very cold and critical role model to follow, so she relinquished me rather than risk perpetuating the family problems.  The quirky and interesting commonalities we shared did not bridge our larger differences.  And basically, no amount of genetic material could make up for what was lacking between us.  I knew all of this.

But, still.

The adopted child in me cried out for her.  Wondered at how she could abandon me, again.  Wondered how I could be so very flawed that, even having gotten to know me, she could reject me so completely that her rejection would encompass my innocent children.  Wondered at how blood was so thick for some people, but apparently counted for nothing in my own life.

I accepted Kathleen’s complete retreat and did not pursue the family history issue again.  I did notice, however, that she did not unfriend me on Facebook, so I assumed that she had some lingering interest in me, my children, and our lives. I continued to send her school photos of the girls, Christmas cards and presents, and a Mother’s Day card that always read, simply, “Thank you.”  I thought we had reached some kind of plateau, in which I would continue keeping that thread alive between us, and she would continue to ignore me.  I rationalized to myself that there was no harm in it; after all, it wasn’t like she could actually hurt me anymore.  Right?

One day not long ago, she posted an interesting exercise on Facebook.  It was one of those cut-and-paste, perpetuating games in which the poster asks each of her Facebook friends to leave a one-word comment below the post, describing how the poster and the friend met.  I don’t usually comment on Kathleen’s posts, but they are not usually an invitation to participate, as she is more fond of political diatribes and humorous videos.  This time, though, I thought I had a very clever contribution.  And so, because I am apparently a pathetically slow learner, in the comments section, I wrote “Birth.”

Later that day, I noticed her post on my timeline again, as our sole mutual friend had also provided her one-word answer.  I clicked on Kathleen’s post, and as it filled the screen, I saw it.  The void.  The emptiness where my comment had been.  It was gone.  Deleted.

I should not have been surprised.  You, reading this, are not surprised.  But I was.  I truly was.

I stared at it for a long time, the obvious irony settling in.  She had deleted me.  She had deleted my birth.  So swiftly and easily, with merely the click of a mouse.  And I knew, for what was probably the first time, that if she could do that for real, she would.  She really would.

I know that getting pregnant with me changed her life dramatically and my birth father’s cowardly response to the pregnancy demolished her in ways I can’t fully appreciate.  And I know that my birth nearly killed her and did disable her for a year, and that she never had a family of her own after that for reasons that only she knows.  And I know that I am not what she had hoped I would be.

But I am her only child in this whole world.  Her blood.  And she deleted me.

In the days that followed, I felt foolish for the photos and the Christmas cards and gifts that have likely met the trashcan unopened, but not too much.  I offered her as much love as I knew how and I considered her as much a part of my family as the other wonderful parents I have.  I shared the most precious part of my life with her, my children, and encouraged them to pray for her and offer her love, too.

In short, I did nothing wrong.  It was not my fault that I was conceived under such ugly circumstances.  It was not my doing that she suffered an aneurysm during my birth.  I cannot apologize for how I have turned out or who I have loved.

I wish that we could have been family.  Some kind of family.  But I know now that we will not be.  So this holiday season, I instead turned my attention fully and completely to the family that does love me, truly and deeply and without reservation.  Some ties are actually thicker than blood.  And for that I shall be forever grateful.

photo

Me, at about 2 1/2 years old.

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the fractured family

The last time I wrote, my life was floating in an odd kind of limbo, awaiting resolution of a judge’s decision on whether James’ three young children would be sent back to their mother in Georgia — the object of an abuse and neglect investigation prompted by the kids’ therapist — or whether they would stay here with us, a family complete, a family whole.

On August 12, 2013, we went to court and showed the judge everything we had.  Professionals took the stand to lay out our case, and witnesses (including one from Georgia) substantiated the claims the children had made to their therapist.  But the judge chose to disregard all of that, and instead believed their mother, who swore under oath that the children’s claims were lies fabricated by James and me.  It was her word — and her word alone — against multiple witnesses on our side.  But she pulled it off.  And so the children were sent back to Florida.

It was a stunning, unexpected defeat.  Everyone following the case, including sitting and former judges, were shocked and amazed that Carnie, the children’s mother, had managed to convince a judge to ignore all expert testimony to the contrary.  But that’s how powerful a liar she is.

The judge’s ruling came down late in the evening after a 3 1/2 hour hearing.  I will never forget reading the verdict on my iPhone while out to dinner with James and our Georgia witness, and knowing that when I turned to show it to James, I would be delivering a crushing blow.  The children were already with Carnie, as the court had ordered parenting time for her after court adjourned, and she was to regain custody, effective immediately.  She was not even required to let the children say goodbye to us.

James texted her to ask if we could bring the children some of their things from our house, and she agreed, upon the condition that she wanted to speak to him, alone, with the children.  At first he resisted, but I convinced him to go and hear what she had to say, while I waited nearby, within sight. The meeting was wrenching to watch from the sidelines, as the kids clung to him and Carnie pleaded with James to get back together with her, going so far as to get down on one knee.  He blanched, and I honestly wondered if he was going to lose his dinner all over the pool deck, but he held it together long enough to make clear that such an idea was preposterous and to end the conversation. She didn’t want to allow the children to say goodbye to me, but James insisted. I had but seconds with each of them, time enough for a few whispered words of encouragement and endearment, before she ordered them back to her side. And then we left, hearing their whimpered tears behind us, and leaving pieces of our hearts there on the pool deck.

I don’t remember much from that night after our goodbyes.  I remember calling my girls (who were at their dad’s) to tell them the outcome, and Bryn’s anguished cry when she realized that Chelsea had been ripped away from her.  Sabrina was furious, wondering how a judge could ignore the videotaped interviews of the kids, their earnest pleas to the social workers that they be allowed to live here with us and not be returned to Florida.  My girls wanted answers, and I had none.

The next morning — and many mornings thereafter — I awoke and immediately felt the heaviness of grief press down upon me.   The first few days after the hearing were nearly unbearable.  Our house was so quiet and our pain so palatable, that James and could hardly stand to be there.  We tried to distract ourselves.  We shut the doors to their rooms — left disheveled because no one expected that they wouldn’t be coming back — and tried to block out the memories of the summer.  We got random texts from them as they made their way back to Florida.  Short phrases, pregnant with their ache and loss.  And we felt helpless.

James and I both cried a lot at first.  Small reminders would reduce one of us to tears.  I had to avoid music altogether, as it brought back too many memories of riding in the car with the kids, going here or there, with the music blasting, the windows down, and all of us singing along together.  I framed lots of the art the girls had made for us over the summer, crying each time I placed another piece between glass.

We had set up new email addresses for the two oldest, Chelsea and Jay, for them to communicate with us, and during their first two weeks back in Florida, we heard from them frequently.  They used the email portal just as we’d intended — as a small way to touch back to us, to connect and feel our love without the filters their mom tries to impose.

The allegations and evidence presented at the hearing clearly frightened Carnie.  She quit her bartending job, began spending much more time at home on the weeknights, and started trying to connect with the kids in more positive ways.  The court ordered that she be randomly tested for alcohol, and as far as we know, she is complying with that order, but we have yet to see any test results.  The court also ordered another parental evaluation, to be conducted by a licensed Child-Family Investigator (CFI).  Carnie’s attorneys tried mightily to get the court to approve a CFI in Florida, but our attorneys prevailed and a local CFI was assigned.  The CFI begins her investigation next week, which will include interviewing licensed professionals associated with the case, family, and even the children.  She’ll travel to Florida to see the circumstances there and conduct interviews, and will visit our house and us as well.  It’s an intrusive, long process, designed to overturn every stone in search of any deep and dark secrets hidden beneath.  The judge — thankfully, a different one from our earlier hearing — will likely follow the CFI’s recommendation, so the outcome of the case might ultimately hinge on this one person’s conclusion of how to serve the children’s best interests.

Whether Carnie’s new-found persona as Devoted Mother will hold up over time or even convince the CFI in the short term is anyone’s guess, but for now it is having its desired effect on the children.  They have pulled away from us, for reasons we can only guess at.  Perhaps they feel let down that we couldn’t win the case and allow them live in Colorado.  Perhaps they believe their mom that we somehow manipulated them to say awful things about her.  Perhaps they are tired of all the drama and have resigned themselves to their situation.  It’s impossible to know, and heartbreaking to wonder at.

In the meantime, our home continues to heal.  The first weekend my girls spent here without James’ kids, they cried quite a bit.  Things were solemn and we spent even more time than usual together as a family.   But they are now becoming accustomed again to the relative peace and quiet of the house, as are we.  School has started and life has fallen into its familiar rhythms again, so that sometimes I can almost forget how close we came to being a whole family.

The case will likely not be fully resolved until early Winter, but I am no longer feeling certain in the outcome.  August reminded me that even “slam-dunk” cases can be lost, and those things we count as certain, upended.  So for now, we try to find the good in the moment and pray deeply for the future. And a time when we might not be a fractured family any longer.

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

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moving on and glancing back…

When the moving trucks were loaded, my car packed to the gills, and James’ pick-up truck literally overflowing with the possessions of our two houses, I prepared to the leave the home where I’d healed for 4 years since my separation. I stood in the foyer, key in hand, and allowed the feelings to flow. My mind wandered through various memories and emotions, sifting through them, noticing them and letting them go. I heard James’ voice, “Feeling a little sad?” “No,” I answered honestly. I was amazed, empowered, and excited, but not sad. No, not sad.

I stood remembering how many times I had cowered in that house – moments of sheer terror that I would not be able to do “it” – make the mortgage payment, recover from a broken heart, co-parent with a man who initially wouldn’t look me in the eye anymore, build a new life without having the slightest idea how one went about such a thing. So many “it”s that I went ahead and did. Sometimes I danced through the obstacles with aplomb, but more often I stumbled along semi-blindly, praying furiously for help from whatever source might be listening. But I did it. Over and over and over again, I did it.

One of the many casualties of my marriage was my faith in myself. Prior to meeting and marrying my husband, I had attacked the world with a kind of naïve confidence. I didn’t take a whole lot of foolish risks, but I evaluated risks without concern for my own ability to properly address the variety of obstacles I anticipated. I moved alone to a foreign country. I lived in a ghetto and pretended to carry a weapon in my pocket as I traversed to and from the local bus-stop each day. I came home to the States, got a job, and moved to a city I’d hardly ever visited. I applied to law schools without any knowledge of the process or guidance from mentors. I secured student loans and an apartment and launched my legal career. I chased down and landed a plumb job with a national non-profit. I had faith in myself to handle whatever came my way.

But Bryce changed that. At some point during our relationship, Bryce came to see me as weak. I’m not sure if it was my recurring depression or his honest assessment of my abilities, but he used to tell me that I had terrible coping mechanisms and couldn’t “handle things.” I’m also not sure why I ever allowed his opinion of me to change my own, but I did. Slowly, over time, I began to see myself as weak and incompetent. I viewed moments of evidence to the contrary of this characterization as anachronisms to my actual personality – outliers on the bell curve of who I really was.

I certainly had successes during those years I was with Bryce, but I felt that I was play-acting through them. Surely if the people around me really knew who I was and how weak I was, they would see that it was all just luck, just good fortune, that created the successes, I thought. When my small interior design business took off rapidly, I downplayed it as being “easy.” Giving myself any credit felt like false bravado.

Eventually, Bryce noticed that the bottom had fallen out of my confidence and he would make small attempts to pay me compliments, especially if others were doing so, like when I secured a big design client and my friends were so proud of me. Bryce would tell me how proud he was of me and, momentarily, my heart would fill. But quickly thereafter, criticism would follow and I’d realize that, on balance, I really wasn’t particularly special at all.

I can look back at this and see how destructive it was, and how readily I surrendered my power of self-identifying to his opinions and whims. I am not sure precisely when his opinion of me began to define my own sense of who I fundamentally was; I only know it happened.

In the brief moments that I stood in my little house’s foyer and my brain flashed through a million memories at the speed of synapses firing, I realized something: all those fearful minutes in this house had unexpectedly restored my sense of my own personal strength. I had entered this home convinced that I was incapable of being strong, and I was leaving convinced that I am incapable of being anything but strong. I am not perfect. I am not a constant work in progress. But I am absolutely, positively, most definitely strong.

And the truth is, I always was.

healing home

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the healing house

In anticipation of my upcoming move into a new home with James, I have been packing up my belongings.  On a cold afternoon recently, my friend Annie came over to help me crate my earthly possessions. As we wrapped my mother’s delicate china in newspaper and stacked books in boxes, Annie commented on how different this move was from the one that brought me to this little house.  I paused, looked around, and felt the past rush up to meet me….

In March 2009, I moved out of the house that Bryce and I had shared with our daughters and into a small townhouse a few blocks away.  I had discovered the little house a couple of weeks after deciding to end my marriage, and purchased it with the generous help of my mother.  The house closing was a blur — I sincerely don’t remember any of it, only my own numbness.  Moving day was a nightmare, truly. At the end of that long day, I slumped into a heap on my new living room floor and cried with grief and relief.

In the days since, I have painted nearly every wall in the house, imbuing it with an energy and personality that more closely matches the life I’ve created here with my daughters. I have acquired a few pieces of furniture, most notably a large orange sofa for the living room for which I had to save for many months.  I have painstakingly tended the xeriscaped back garden and the lush, flowering front courtyard.  I have hung photos and art, added rugs and curtains, and turned what was a pretty little house into a warm and loving home.

My daughters have come to prefer our little home to their dad’s much larger and more modern house, and my friends have all told me how comfortable they are here and how well my home reflects me.  These validations are gratifying, but more important has been the reality that, through the ups and downs of my separation, divorce, and subsequent dating experiences, through the parenting challenges that naturally appear, through the professional pressures and demands I endured,  I have always been glad to come home to my little house.  It has always felt good to me.  Safe.  Comforting.  Serene.  I shed more tears in this house than I could ever possibly count, and I railed at life’s unfairness all too frequently, but she has always answered back with quiet, constant reassurance.  She has granted me solace and shelter and peace from the storms raging inside and outside of me.

My sweet little house is far too small to accommodate me, James, our six children, and three dogs.   And so we have purchased a much-larger house in a neighboring town in which to create a home for our blended family.  As for my little house, we will keep her and rent her out until such time as my mother decides to move closer to us, at which time, she’ll be folded into the bosom of the house that held me safe while I healed.

I remember the day before my closing, when I walked through the house with my realtor — an acquaintance who’d become a friend.  I made an off-hand comment about growing old here, and he quickly grew serious.  “No,” he said. “This is only a stopping over place for you.  You won’t be here forever.  You’ll have another new beginning someday.”  I was very doubtful, and have never lived my life in this house as if it were anything but permanent.  And yet, once again, I was mistaken.  It was not my forever house.  Another new beginning is indeed upon me.

Annie and others have asked me if I will be sad to leave my house, but I am honestly not.  This leap with James — this wonderful, magical opportunity to create a home with a man I love more than I have known possible — this is precisely what my time in this house has been preparing me for.  All those sad and difficult times during which my little house protected me or her garden soothed me… it was all in preparation to launch me into the next chapter of my life.  I see that very clearly now.  I came here broken and fragile.  I will leave stronger and more fully myself.   This next move is a joyful one, buoyed by hope and love, and the promise of endless possibility.  How different from the move that brought me first in this front door….

The last time Annie packed my mother’s china four years ago,  she worked wordlessly in Bryce’s living room, while I shuttled boxes out of the house and into the waiting moving van and the tension around us thickened to the point of near suffocation.  This time, we packed the china together, the tunes from a favorite playlist filling the room as we chatted and laughed about our men and our children and how far we have each come since those dark days and how rich our futures look.  There was no sadness, no regret, no nostalgia.  Just friendship and gratitude and hope.

So, I shall move on with thankfulness in my heart for my time here.  The point, after all, was never to stay, but to know when to go.

IMG_1510

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intuition as faith

Last night I had a glass of Pinot Grigio with my friend “Gwen.”  Gwen is seven months into her separation and divorce proceedings, and I have watched her progress like a cheerleader on the sidelines of her life.  Gwen and I hadn’t seen each other in more than a month, and during that time, she had gracefully segued from casual match.com dating to now being in her first post-marriage exclusive relationship.

Shortly after she and her guy had the “we’re not seeing anyone else right now” conversation, he left on a weekend trip away.  And promptly fell into radio silence.  Nothing but crickets and tumbleweeds. Over the weekend, Gwen was left to wonder what had happened.  Had he gotten cold feet?  Had she made herself too available?  Was he playing some annoying power game?  Did he not really like her as much as she’d thought?  Had she been completely mistaken about the nature of their relationship??

It was the last question that nagged at her the hardest that weekend.  Gwen is a sensitive, intuitive woman with great people skills on which she has relied successfully both personally and professionally.  But as Friday turned into Saturday and Saturday gave way to Sunday, and still her guy was MIA, she began to question her gut instincts about the relationship, and, subsequently, about herself.  As it turned out, Gwen needn’t have worried — her guy finally responded late on Sunday to let her know that he’d unexpectedly been without wifi for the duration of the trip, that he was sorry, and would she like to meet up that evening?  Gwen reported feeling equal amounts of relief that he was still interested and that she hadn’t been so wrong about their budding relationship.

That nagging sense that perhaps your intuition has led you astray and so can no longer be trusted is frightening on a very primal level.  As we move from relationship to relationship and period to period in our life, the only consistent guide we really have is our own intuition.  Knowledge alone doesn’t do it, and other people can’t really do it for us.  We hold it inside and it keeps us safe.  To fear that you can’t trust it — and therefore not trust yourself — that is truly scary.  But when it’s validated, you feel empowered and less risk-averse.  You have a faith in yourself that no amount of compliments or external props can supply.

I find it interesting that this is true even when what is validated is something hurtful.  I have moved through this space recently with James as he has told me about his various feelings and actions during our on-again/off-again relationship.  Time and time again, I have had “aha!  I knew it!” moments that felt devastating in their truth, but enormously validating, too.  Feeling that you are perhaps a jealous, crazy, ridiculous girl is obviously undermining to one’s self-confidence; indeed, in my experience, it is more damaging than finding out that he did, in fact, do and feel the things I had suspected.  The relief of the validation and the return of my faith in myself far outweighed whatever pain I had from the revelations.  Because those revealed truths are all in the past; my faith in myself and my ability to read a person and situation are vital to my present and my future.

James has also been facing this personal rollercoaster of pain vs. validation.  Having been recently maliciously betrayed by a friend he loved like a brother, he is somewhat comforted by the fact that, upon first meeting that man, he knew something was “off.”  And throughout their friendship and business partnership, he could feel in his gut that something was wrong in his life, some imbalance or deception or manipulation was occurring around him, even if he couldn’t actually identify the source.  He could feel that a nasty, horrible shoe was about to drop; he just had no idea where or when.  When it finally did, he was crushed and heartsore, but remarkably unsurprised.  Because, of course, deep down, he had known…

We all ignore our intuition sometimes.  We choose to believe what we want to believe or what someone else would like us to believe.  But lurking just under the surface, sometimes even deeply in our sub-conscious, is the truth of what we know but cannot explain or defend.  And when we ignore that truth, we do so at our peril.

Gwen’s validation of her intuition came in the form of all good news — she and her guy are solid and happy right now — her fears that she’d misread the situation were unfounded.  In my case, the validation was a mixture — news that was hard to hear, but a relief at the same time — and from that validation, I can move forward more confidently now.  For James, the validation presently feels like meager consolation for what was lost.  But I suspect that, as time heals his emotional wounds, he will be increasingly comforted by the fact that he had, in fact, known what was happening, and next time he will not ignore that nagging warning in his gut.

Intuition is a tricky thing, but a rich blessing, too.  It isn’t about intelligence or education or wealth.  It doesn’t discriminate by age or sex or race.  It is there all the time, quietly watching, interpreting, and protecting us from all that might harm us.  All we have to do is be quiet and listen.

albert-einstein-intuition1

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the unlikely hug

There are so many moments, post-divorce, that are nothing short of surreal.  Sometimes precious, sometimes horrible, but never anything you could have possibly imagined as you stood across from each other and spoke the vows that should have bound you together forever.  I have stopped wondering if such moments will ever stop and have come to accept them as part of the “new normal.”

Christmas Day delivered another such moment.

My official parenting plan with Bryce dictates that we take annual turns having the girls for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, then turn them over to the other parent at noon on Christmas Day.  We’ve never stuck to this mandate, however, opting instead to share Christmas morning together with our children and parents at whomever’s house the girls are at for Christmas morning, and then depositing them at the other home after lunchtime.  Last year, Bryce’s then-girlfriend joined us, which might have been awkward, but honestly wasn’t.  This year, however, neither of us had partners there.

Our Christmas morning routine has raised more than a few eyebrows among our mutual and individual friends, but we have agreed that as long as Bryn believes in Santa Claus, we will continue this tradition so that we both get to see the girls experience Christmas morning.  Those years are certainly numbered now; in fact, I suspect we just celebrated our last Christmas morning together, as I think Bryn has begun to piece together the truth about Santa.   But if this was to be the last Christmas for our original nuclear family, plus grandmothers, to celebrate together, then I shall be at peace with it, as I think we’ve achieved our mutual goal of creating mostly conflict-free holidays for our young children.

This year, Christmas morning was over at Bryce’s house.  My mom and I attended the traditional, adrenaline-filled present frenzy and returned home to the peace and quiet of a cup of tea, the sofa, and a Christmas movie on tv.  Bryce dropped the girls and their foyer-bursting haul off at the usual time.  We had a laugh about our daughters and all their gifts, wished each other a Merry Christmas, and then, as he was leaving, it happened.

We hugged.

It wasn’t a romantic hug or a long hug or a tender hug, but it was the first time we’ve touched each other that way since I announced that I was leaving almost 4 years ago.

A simple gesture, that was profound in its simplicity.

After he left, I stood in my foyer and briefly contemplated the long road that had brought us to that hug.  Yes, the hug was spontaneous, but we are long past the slips that used to happen right after our separation — the moments when one of us off-handedly used a nickname or started to utter a habitual “Love you” before hanging up the phone.  No, this was a moment of ease mixed with intent.  It was the culmination of so many small, difficult sacrifices, compromises, and acquiesces over the past few years as we sought to forge some kind of relationship that we can both live with in the future.  One that will allow us to co-parent our children — and, hopefully, grandchildren — while still accommodating our changed circumstances.

There are a lot of books about how to have a great relationship with your former spouse.  I have read none of them.  I have tried my best to stick to one goal for my relationship with Bryce — that I might, one day, truly call him a friend.  I have not been in a hurry to reach this destination.  Nor have I taken any time to define what that friendship might look like.  No, I have simply known, since the time I realized that I had to end my marriage, that Bryce and I would have been very successful friends if we had only stopped at that crossroad all those years ago.  I would not go back and alter our past, but I felt that if we had to pick a future that did not include a lovestory for us, well then, I picked friendship.

True, it isn’t a  friendship of any ordinary definition.  There will always be things about him that make me glad he is not my husband any more, just as I am sure there are moments he is deeply grateful to be rid of me as a wife.  He is a guarded, private man, and I am no longer a confidant, which I fully accept and respect, but there are also parts of his life that I understand better than anyone, and I have noticed that he still appreciates that perspective on occasion.   There are mutual hurts between us that will probably never be healed, and disappointments that can’t be overcome, and those will likely create boundaries that friendships not borne of the ashes of a marriage do not have.  But that’s okay.

There is so much on the internet and on blogs and in books about how awful divorce is and how much anger and hatred and dysfunction it visits on everyone touched by it, that I feel consistently compelled to share with you the small ways that Bryce and I are charting a different course.  I absolutely do not mean to glamorize divorce — the pain of severing a family is one I sincerely wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy — but I also do not think that it needs to become the action that forever ruins everyone involved.  There are other choices, other paths, and other ways of being divorced.  And I personally wish that each couple had the freedom and motivation to make a pattern all their own, that works best for them and their family, to move forward through the pain and regret and disappointment.

I am enormously grateful to Bryce for staying committed to this course with me and creating a present for our daughters of which they can be proud.   As more of their friends’ parents divorce, our girls are slowly realizing that our relationship is more of an exception than a rule, and I talk with them plainly about how hard it has been at times for their dad and I to keep communicating and working on this new kind of relationship.  I want them to understand that none of us can take this for granted.

Divorce is such a strange, strange journey.  I have learned so many things that I never knew I didn’t know.  I have come to want things I never imagined wanting.  And my life resembles nothing I had ever planned or hoped for.  And yet, that is all okay, too.

Maybe it’s crazy to want to be friends with my ex-husband.  Maybe it’s ridiculous to even hope for it.  But one thing that divorce has taught me is that all the things I felt so certain about for the first half of my life didn’t hold up as I expected them to.  So now I’m exploring the stuff that’s “impossible.” And if someday, somehow, we defy the odds and I am able to call Bryce a friend first and my ex-husband second, I will simply be grateful and accepting of what we were able to create.

Who knows?  Four years ago, I’ve have bet all my chips against a hug on Christmas Day….

hugging

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give yourself a winter solstice watershed

On a snowy winter day in early 2010, I got an email from my ex-boyfriend Mike, seeking sympathy because his 26-year-old girlfriend told him on his 43rd birthday that she was leaving him and moving to Utah.  Fortunately, I was alone in the office that day, because the news struck me like a sucker punch to the gut and I spent the remainder of the afternoon fighting back tears, mostly unsuccessfully.

It wasn’t that his girlfriend was leaving him (although this was clearly the stunner for him).

It wasn’t that he was seeking sympathy from me, a woman he’d treated so poorly.

It was that he was actually over me.

In hindsight and with the benefit of intelligence unclouded by misplaced love, I can see that of course he had been over for me some time (and that’s assuming that his feelings were ever deep enough to require “getting over”).  He had been in a relationship with her almost from the day ours had ended.  Never mind that the last time I’d heard from him he’d been dismissive and patronizing when speaking of her.  He was with her, not me, and that should have screamed volumes.  But it didn’t.

Sure, I was dating and my contact with Mike was limited to the occasional text or email, usually initiated by me.  Sure, I could articulate all the reasons that he was a Grade A Jerk and why I was far too good for him.  But deep down, I kept waiting for him to be the guy I thought he could be.  I kept waiting for my Hollywood ending — you know the one! — where the guy comes to his senses and rushes to the girl to declare what a fool he’s been and how much he loves her.  Yes, somewhere, in the recesses of my heart, hidden even from my own consciousness, I was still waiting for him.

But that day changed everything.

I can’t adequately describe how I felt that day, watching as his emails kept coming with more details of their relationship and his heartbreak, as stark truth assaulted my eyes.  I felt dizzy and nauseated.  I sincerely wondered if maybe I would faint.  When the postman came into the office with our mail, I discovered I couldn’t speak.

Moving through that pain was some of the worst emotional grieving I’ve ever done.  It sounds so ridiculous to me now — that I expended so much energy on a man so unworthy of it! — but the heart is a crazy organ that doesn’t play by the rules and has no regard for common sense or practicality and no sense of proportion.  Sometimes our grieving is as much about our contextual circumstances as about the tragedy that has struck our heart, and that was the case that snowy and cold day.

The pain of Mike’s revelation opened me up.  It blew me apart in ways that went far beyond my feelings or desires for him.  It was like a catalyst that brought down a little house of cards in my psyche.  Suddenly, I was grieving not only for the loss of my dream relationship with him (indeed that pain was quickly overshadowed), but for the expectations I’d held for myself and my life post-divorce.  I had to accept that I wasn’t going to segue effortlessly from my marriage into the relationship of my dreams.  I wasn’t going to move seamlessly from owning my small business into a professional legal position that could more adequately support me and my children.  None of this was going as I had planned. Then, before I’d rummaged through that psychic junk, another wave of reality hit me — the remaining anger and disappointment and grief I felt over my marriage.  I had thought I was done with that, but here it was, bitter and sour all over again. I felt buried under my own sense of loss and confusion and foolishness.  For weeks I foundered, seeking to right myself and find some sense of equanimity.

And then it came.  And it was beautiful.

Those final tears over Mike were a crucible, forging a whole new perspective for me.  It was a watershed of feelings I’d been holding onto that weren’t serving any useful purpose and were holding me back from moving into my next potential.  In the months that followed, my life changed. Light and laughter were rediscovered in greater quantities.  New possibilities appeared.  My life began to evolve into a life that was more healthy and sustainable.  After Mike’s revelation and the subsequent tears and soul-searching, I emerged better prepared to actually have the life I wanted, rather than some Hollywood-insprired imitation.

Sometimes, the worst pain gives birth to the best new beginnings, because in passing through that suffering, we emerge completely clean and unburdened, having shed it all through the tears and grief.  Indeed, a dear friend of mine likens those moments to childbirth itself — pain so raw and powerful and grinding, that eventually yields to a softness and joy unsurpassed.

I think it is altogether too easy to lose ourselves in the darkness of temporary uncertainty, grief, insecurity, or loss.  It can be so hard to see the sunshine on the horizon of whatever storm we’re navigating.  But on this day, a solstice, a time and season of rebirth and increasing light, I am resolving to work harder next year to not lose myself in the imagined permanence of that darkness.  Whatever dark moments 2013 brings will eventually pass, just as the solstice comes in the dead of winter to begin our long, slow march toward spring.  So, today, join me in giving yourself the gift of hope and peace and light.  Let go of whatever is holding you back and imagine a life without those burdens.  Today is a chance to take one more step — no matter how small! — toward that life.  Is that not a small thing compared to the fact that our 6,600,000,000,000,000,000,000-ton planet, spinning through space, will somehow shift on its axis once again?

Think on that one.

Happy Solstice. 🙂

winter solstice

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be a warrior in your life, not just a survivor

I work side-by-side with a very sweet, warm woman who, last year at this time, underwent a radical mastectomy after being diagnosed at Thanksgiving with advanced stage breast cancer.  Within a week of “Meredith’s” diagnosis, word came from the East Coast that her mother had advanced stage pancreatic cancer. Oomph.

Meredith pulled through her surgery and the resulting complications with barely missing a beat at work.  I can honestly say that I hardly ever had to pick up any additional slack because of her illness, surgery or recovery.  I have no idea how she juggled it all.  Almost as soon as she was back on her feet and fully recovered physically, her mother passed away before Meredith could get back home.  But again, she mustered what was left of her strength and pushed through the ensuing grief and emotional pain with hardly a misstep.  Never once did I hear her complain that life was unfair or that she couldn’t go on.

I hear people refer all the time to breast-cancer “survivors” and “survivors” of violence and “survivors” of divorce — it seems to be a general term linked to the worst that life throws at us.  But, to me, it suggests a passivity that I find mildly irritating.  Because the truth is, lots of people do a lot more than survive what life throws at them; a lot of people face those challenges head-on and emerge better and stronger and more intact spiritually than they were before the crisis befell them.  Meredith did not merely survive her cancer — she kicked its butt soundly.  She refused to allow it to change who she was or to make her bitter or to define her.  She accepted it and met the challenge and pushed back with everything at her disposal.  I admire her attitude enormously.  She is definitely more than a survivor.  She is a warrior.

survivor: (n.) one who survives; a person who continues to function or prosper in spite of opposition, hardship, or setbacks.

warrior: (n.)  a person engaged or experienced in warfare, soldier; a person who shows or has shown great vigor, courage, or aggressiveness.

Which would you rather be?

Lisa Arends, over at Lessons From the End of a Marriage, wrote a great post about rediscovering her inner warrior recently. In that post, she expressed some similar sentiments and made some other, very good points.  I think how we define ourselves in the midst of our struggles is very important to how we tackle those struggles.  Are we a victim of our circumstances?  Or are we drivers on a road with many obstacles in front of us that we must do our best to go around or through?

I think that we all feel beaten down by life at times.  Sometimes really bad things happen to really good people.  None of us is exempt from tragedy or pain or suffering or illness or injustice.  They happen.  I think the real test of character is in how we handle them when they do…

My girls and I have a favorite YouTube video.  It features some cancer patients and nurses at the Seattle Children’s Hospital singing and dancing along to Kelly Clarkson’s hit, “Stronger.”  When I first saw it last spring, it gave me chills — I mean, is there anything more tragic than a seriously ill child?  Or more inspiring than that same child facing her illness with a smile and a song?  My girls and I have talked at length about the video and how and why it inspires and awes us.  Those children and the women who care for them each day are most definitely warriors.

When I look around me, I see so many amazing people with similar stories of a life dotted with tragedy or pain or failure of some sort.  And I see that most of them have not let those moments define who they are.  They, like Meredith, have refused to become identified by one moment or circumstance in their lives.  They are a tapestry of moments and circumstances, rich and layered, and stronger for the challenges put before them.  They experience fear and insecurity and self-doubt, but that does not define them, either, because they push forward anyway.

So, whatever unsavory stuff came your way over this last year, why not grab it, take one last look at it, and then let it go? Meredith and I have talked about how glad we’ll both be to see 2012 in the rearview mirror, but we’ve also talked about how it will not be the year that changed everything.  Nope.  It will simply be another year of learning and growing and facing things neither of us wanted in our lives but got anyway.

And emerging stronger because of it.

Video bonus:  Seattle Children’s Hospital’s version of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”

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the good enough thanksgiving (or why holidays are so intense)

Holidays are funny, aren’t they?  We put so much pressure on them to live up to expectations that are often unrealistic.  You can never tell when a holiday celebration will fall completely flat, or, surprisingly, exceed even your best hopes.  But it seems like most fall somewhere in between, don’t they?

I spent my Thanksgiving with my girls this year, which automatically catapults it into the “Bound To Be Good” category. We baked a pumpkin pie from scratch (yes, even the crust!) and made my yummy mashed potatoes — my former mother-in-law likes to joke that the thing she grieved the most in our divorce was the potential loss of my holiday mashed potatoes.  But she wasn’t grieving this year, because, through a series of small coincidences, the girls and I landed at her house for Thanksgiving this year.  Yes, that’s right:  I spent Thanksgiving with my former in-laws and two very nice ladies who work with my ex-MIL and were holiday orphans.  I know some of you are scratching your heads, but it was actually quite lovely, and the culmination of a full-circle acceptance back into his family that began early this year with a Facebook friend request from one of my former sisters-in-law.  To be honest, I am not sure that I would select all of these folks as my friends, but, by virtue of my children, they are family, and so I am thankful for their acceptance and forgiveness.  And so very glad to be able to give my children the gift of family holidays.

But there were aspects of my holiday weekend that disappointed, as well. I am awaiting a decision on a job that I very much want and need, and my second interview on Monday did not go as I had hoped.  So, I have been revisiting that hour all week long, torturing myself with better answers I could have given and imagining all sorts of possibilities on the part of my potential employers.

Then, on Friday, I succumbed to the stomach bug that both my daughters suffered through pre-Thanksgiving.  It hit me hard and laid me flat for a little over 24 hours.  This was not part of my carefully-constructed plans for the weekend, and I was highly annoyed at the bug’s appearance.  But then I remembered that I am lucky to have a basically healthy constitution and a body that allows me to do the things I love.  So I got over being pissy.  But isn’t it funny how indignant we get when life doesn’t accommodate our Rockwellian holiday ideals?

I also couldn’t help but to reflect on my life last year at this time and remember how happy I was to be spending the holidays with James.  But I also remembered the pressures of those first holidays together — wanting so much for them to be perfect and so worried that anything short of perfection might portend bad things for us as a couple.  As it turned out, we had a picture-perfect holiday season — truly perfect! — only to spectacularly implode on New Year’s Eve.  So there you go, I suppose.

There is something so intense about the holidays, and I think it’s about more than expectations.  I think the heightened emotions of the holidays make us more raw and vulnerable to all sorts of feelings.  The highs are higher and lows feel lower.  I think those heightened emotions can offer us clarity and hope, even in the midst of fretting or feeling anxious.  For me, really intense emotional times act as a crucible of sorts, clarifying and organizing my thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes there is joy in that clarity, other times there is pain, but either way we can use it as something positive to gain insight or understanding.

This year, I resolved to be present in my holidays, not lost in the atmosphere of what if’s or why not’s or what’s missing or wrong.  I want my holidays to be more than something to endure with a pasted smile and a fretful heart.  I do not demand or expect perfection this year.  I just want good enough.

And now, with the fire blazing and the Christmas carols filling the house, I must join my daughters to trim the tree.

What do you hope for your holidays this year?  Are they different hopes from last year?

Whatever you wish for, I hope you find it in your own holiday traditions.

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