Category Archives: sadness

gossamer threads of comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I will grieve all over again.

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

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

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

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

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Filed under sadness

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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Filed under blended families, healing, parenthood, relationships, sadness

the not enough place

There is a very dark place inside some of us.  I think of it as the “not enough” place.  It is a space in our psyche in which we are consistently less than adequate, always falling short of expectations, never quite good enough for the task or person we are striving toward.   This place has no light.  It is heavy, pregnant with expectations never met, people never pleased and ideals fallen away.

For some people, this place was constructed early, as part of some childhood experience — an emotionally distant or highly-critical parent, physical abandonment, or unstable family dynamics.  For others, it appeared suddenly, maybe even overnight, the result of an intensely traumatic experience that shattered their sense of personal safety and value.  Whatever the cause of its appearance, once present it is a difficult place to dismantle.

The not enough place is where all our worst personal demons are housed.  Once in the room, we are treated to a litany of our short-comings, a veritable laundry list of all the ways in which are less than we should be.  Our imperfections, in all their stark, harsh realness are on display, brightly lit for all to see who enter.  It is in this space that we are told that we are now and always will be unworthy, unlovable, not necessary, a human mistake.

Sadly, it is often those we trust most who first thrust us into this place, slamming the door behind us and subjecting us to the torment of our worst thoughts about ourselves.  Parents, extended family members, teachers, coaches, boyfriends, spouses…. The people whose esteem we value and strive for most are the very people most capable of creating the darkest corners of our psyche through their mistreatment or neglect.   Some of them constructed the not enough place intentionally, believing that it would help us to see ourselves more clearly or avoid the pitfalls of hubris or relinquish fanciful self-concepts.

Some people are blessed to travel through this life without more than a cursory visit to the not enough place.  They don’t stay long enough to absorb any of its poison, but instead are strong enough to resist its sirens’ song of denigration.  They blithely move on, secure in their self-worth and sense of place in this world.  They are the truly lucky.

But others are not so lucky.  Some fight a lifelong battle with the not enough place, boarding it up time and again only to sneak back and re-open its dark chamber once more.  Others succumb to its thrumming mantras of self-loathing, giving up entirely on their sense of self-worth and hiding fearfully behind a mask of their own making, hoping desperately that it never slips and reveals their unworthiness to the entire world.  Then there are the few, so ravaged by the beatings endured in the not enough place, that they surrender completely to the madness.  These are the Sylvia Plaths of the world, for whom no amount of external validation can convince them that they are worthy of love, or friendship, or even breath.

The holidays can be a magical time, but for many, they can also be a time of considerable stress, emotional highs and lows, and a readjustment of all kinds of expectations.  I suppose that I am publishing this tonight as an homage to those feeling let down, perhaps most of all by themselves.  If you have a not enough place in the deepest recesses of your heart, please stay away from it this season.  I guarantee you that there is at least one person in your world who believes you worthy, and lovable, and valuable, and irreplaceable to them.

I have, on my bedroom wall, a prose poem called The Desiderata, given to me by my dear friend Caitlyn some 20 years ago.  When the not enough place starts  its infernal pestering, I remember and recite these lines:

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.  You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.

The trees and stars do not have to ask if they are lovable or worthy or valuable.  And neither should we.

shooting star and tree

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Filed under personal growth, sadness

breakups are harder on men? let’s revisit this one…

My last post, breakups are harder on men? who knew?, prompted some interesting comments, including one from French blogger Lady E, who raised some  points that I suspect would have been echoed by others had they taken the same time to comment.  Her comment was very thought-provoking to me, and enjoyably so.  I was about to reply, but decided instead to address her salient points in a post.

Here is her comment:

Biochemistry is all good and well, but extrapolating data from animals to humans who have an altogether different psychology, and have such a range of genetic make-ups (there is more variability within the male or female population than between any “average” male and female), not to mention the way more important experiences and cultures can be precarious, hence why when Glamour writers, who do like to select and misinterpret evidence, which backs up say their intuition : It’s not science. Not that it’s not interesting, because gut feelings, experience and personal wisdom are interesting and valid in their own way, but have virtually nothing to do with science.
Anyway, sorry, let me me get off my soap box, vasopressin playing a role in men’s sense of property, why not ?
But breakups being harder on men ? That would truly contradict my intuition that men land back on their feet way faster than women.

I understand the inherent dangers in extrapolating data from animals to humans, but I also know that a lot of respected biochemical psychology research is being produced in the States right now and subjected to the same scientific standards as other research, including being peer-reviewed and published (like the study quoted in Glamour, which was harvested from the Journal of Health and Social Behavior).  Not being a social scientist myself, I have only my natural skepticism and experiences to color my digestion of this research, and the startling aspect of it (to me, at least) is how the physiology of attraction or love or whatever can override the psychology.  In other words, our biochemistry is stronger at some times and in some regards than our psychology, causing us to do things and react in ways without any awareness of the “why.”

The science of brain chemistry is interesting to me not because I think it dictates how we behave, but because I think it influences us in ways of which we are completely unaware, regardless of intelligence, unless we know about it. Barring the scientifically-educated, most of us wander through our lives assuming it is free will that guides our choices, completely oblivious to why we like a particular person’s scent or body shape.  I first became opened to the idea of brain chemistry as it relates to human relationship behaviors, shortly after my separation, when I read The Female Brain, by Dr. Louann Brizendine, a UC Berkeley- and Yale-educated neurobiologist and medical doctor.  Her book, written in terms that every lay person can understand, amazed me and sparked a curiosity that has continued in the years since.  There is obviously much research to be done in this area, but I find it fascinating to watch it unfold.

Certainly, as with other aspects of biology (like heart health or female menstruation patterns), specific socio-geographic and cultural elements can strongly influence populations and change the nuances of the physiology.  Cultural differences likely play a strong role in modulating the influence of those chemicals in the brain.  It’s probably not without some degree of merit that we tend to stereotype Italians and Greeks as emotionally passionate, and Germans and Japanese as less so.  But, as is the case with all my posts, I’m writing from an American perspective, for an American audience, so it is the American experience that I am observing and on which I’m commenting.  I recognize that this is a limitation of my perspective.

But Lady E’s point that really arrested me (and one I’d expected to hear from more women, frankly) was made in the last line included here:

But breakups being harder on men ? That would truly contradict my intuition that men land back on their feet way faster than women.

This was exactly my sentiment when I first picked up the article, and I still feel it with some degree of persistence.  I think most women have shared the experience of watching an ex out gallivanting around with something in a mini-skirt, while we are still sitting at home, going through gallons of Haagen-Dazs and chick flicks.  And I think our impressions of that are not altogether wrong, but I think it’s worth asking why men seem to get over things faster, rather than assuming that they are simply cold-hearted jerks bent on turning our hearts into hamburger.  Here’s my hypothesis:  it’s because they aren’t necessarily in love when the breakup occurs.  In other words, I have a sneaking suspicion that men who are simply dating or messing around don’t have the experience of the woman becoming “home” to him, and therefore they aren’t going to suffer the breakup repercussions discussed in the Glamour article.  The article doesn’t explicitly lay this out, but when I read it, I assumed the study’s authors were considering only subjects who had been in committed, medium to long-term relationships.  It seems logical to me that there must be some duration of the relationship necessary to create the vasopressin-induced bonding that leads men to the breakup blues, but again, I’m just guessing here.  I also (again, perhaps wrongly) assumed that the male subjects were either broken up with or involved in a mutual break-up, and I think that this point would also greatly affect the man’s ability to “get over it.” Depending on the circumstances, most of us move on more easily when we’re the ones in control of the decision.  Finally, I think that the breakup studies likely did not include marriages or other long-term relationships in which one or both of the parties had grieved the relationship prior to the actual breakup.  Grieving the end before it occurs would surely diminish many of the effects of the subsequent breakup.

I think, however, that one more factor may be in play when Lady E and other women snort at the vasopressin/home concept, and that is this:  I have long thought that men take longer to get really, truly invested in a relationship.   And by longer, I’m not talking in terms of weeks or even months.  I’m talking years.  I’m not implying that men are cavalier about relationships, just musing that women seem to sink into a relationship sooner and reach their commitment equilibrium earlier on than men.  And maybe men sink more slowly as time goes on over many, many years.  In other words, I’m wondering if women are as in love and committed as they’re ever going to be fairly early on, whereas male commitment and bonding deepens over the years until it matches their mate’s.  I think that men who are recovering from the end of a really long-term marriage are just as shattered — if not more so — as their female counterparts, but men rebounding from a relationship of a year or two (or even less) seem to bounce back more easily than their exes.  I have absolutely no scientific proof of this theory as it is entirely anecdotal, but I won’t be surprised if the next round of scientific studies on the effect of brain chemistry on relationships bears me out.

Certainly there are so many variables at play in how relationships end and how we process that ending; it is part of the complexity of humanity that keeps us interesting.  And part of me hopes that science never fully unravels the mysteries…

And now, just for fun, some Google search results on this topic. Clearly more than one woman shares Lady E’s skepticism…

Do Men Go Through the Same Breakup Stages as Women?

Yahoo Question on “Ask”:  Attention Men! Do you cry for a break-up?

AnswerBag Question:  Do guys really feel hurt after breakups?

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Filed under dating, divorce, healing, men, relationships, sadness, single mom

heart of stones

Earlier this year, a young mother drove her small Subaru from the larger city down below, through the canyon and up the mountain to the little town where I work.  She parked her car in a dirt lot and climbed out into a night that was cold and dark.  The spring thaw had come astoundingly early, sending the snow from the mountainsides melting into the creeks and lakes, swelling them to unusually high levels, but the nights were still freezing.  The mother sat at edge of the creek for some time.  Then she filled her pockets with the heavy river rocks that line the creek bed and banks, and waded into the icy water.  Fed by the melting glaciers of the Continental Divide and rushing toward the reservoir 100 yards downstream, the creek water was cold enough to induce hypothermia in a submerged body within a minute.  The rocks did their job, and the young woman was dragged down, but not before she’d had a change of heart.  Clawing desperately at the steep embankment, she struggled to pull herself from the rushing water.  But ultimately she succumbed.  And in the early light of dawn, her body was discovered nearby, facedown in the water, by hikers who alerted town officials.

When the police chief informed my office later that morning, we all stood and stared at each other.  We are a very small group, working in a very small town, and no tragedy passes unnoticed.  This was particularly painful to absorb:  a young mother in her twenties, going through a divorce, leaving two small children behind in her death, so desperately sad that she chose a terrifying and permanent solution to her pain.

Perhaps the next day, perhaps the day after, a young man appeared at the site along the creek where the mother’s body had been recovered.  He sat on the shore, in the bitter cold, and cried.  Then he came back the next day, and the next, and the next after that.  Until we all in town came to expect his daily vigil.  Sometimes he was alone, other times he was with his parents or just his father.  Occasionally a friend accompanied him. His grief was public and overwhelming.  Residents reported that he often seemed to sit there all day long, crying.  The police were dispatched to help.  They determined that the young man was her estranged husband, father to her children, grieving a loss he could neither understand nor accept.

As the days passed, the young man continued his vigil, but also brought with him his wading boots.  Despite the chill, he waded into the creek and created a large heart — approximately 5′ tall x 4′ wide — in the creekbed where his wife’s body had last rested, using the same kind of stones that had sealed her fate.  He stacked the stones five or six high in order that they be seen above the top of the water.   The task and its completion seemed to offer him some solace, and his grief resolved itself into a quiet sadness.  But still he came.

In the weeks that followed, a small makeshift memorial grew on the edge of the creek, with a cross, laminated letters, photos, and personal touches.  Some locals added to it, others merely stopped by to offer a prayer or meditation in front of the heart of stones memorial.  A few residents complained to me that the memorial was “in poor taste” or “unseemly” or that it “made people uncomfortable.”  I listened to their complaints, then told the police chief and town manager that I did not plan to remove the memorial.  Death makes people uncomfortable, for sure, but I’m not sure how making that discomfort go away is my responsibility.

So, on my order, the memorial stands.  I have proposed a memorial policy that will allow the family to install a commemorative bench on the site.  I visited it today, for the first time, to document in photographs its existence for town records.  We are now in the waning days of summer in the mountains, with sunny, warm days surrendering to chilly nights.  The creek is at nearly its lowest ebb, and the heart of stones stands in strong relief to the shallow waters around it.

While I was standing there, a young man turned the corner from the parking lot and approached me, smiling tentatively.  I could tell by his attire that he had come a long ways to reach this spot.  I stepped aside and he walked to the edge of the creek, where he squatted.  His lips moved silently, as if in prayer, as he gazed at the heart of stones.  I turned away, offering him some privacy.  Then he stood, and I turned around.  He smiled at me, and his somber eyes said thank you.  He walked away and I was left alone again.

I did not know this woman, nor did I know anyone who knew her.  I don’t think I ever saw her husband or his family or their friends.  But her death affected me this spring.  It reminded me how much each life — and sometimes its end — touches so many people.  How can we possibly fully appreciate the ripple effect of our choices?  How do those choices permanently alter the direction of someone else’s life?  It’s impossible to know, isn’t it?

Everytime this spring that someone came into town hall to tell me that the man and his family were still there, I wondered about him.  Why did he keep coming?  Had he still loved her so much?  Was his grief based on regret… remorse… guilt?  What story had they shared?  What will he tell his two small daughters?

And what of that young mother, who made a choice she could not repeal — From wherever she was, could she see the pain her death had caused?  Was her soul at peace or was it anguished?  Had she had any idea how many people loved her — those ones who traveled so far to create a personal monument on a creekbed in a strange town?  What does she think of the beautifully poetic memorial crafted in her honor on the site of her last breath?  And what will become of her memory when, next year at the thaw, the force of the creek scatters her stone heart?

The answers to those questions don’t really matter, but they are the things I pondered occasionally as the winter gave way to spring and then spring to summer here in the Rocky Mountains.   I hope that her family finds peace soon, and that her soul does likewise.  I will not likely forget her anytime soon, this young woman I never met.  I wish so much that she had made different choices that cold March night, but I understand the world is unfolding around me just as it should, and that my lack of understanding does not make that any less true.

And I hope that someday, when I die in my comfy bed of natural causes as a very elderly woman, someone who loves me builds me a heart of stones in a beautiful creek somewhere.

Don’t you?

The Heart of Stones Memorial

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Filed under divorce, healing, love, marriage, relationships, sadness

the abyss that is depression

I began this post multiple times over the last couple of months.  The most progress I made on it prior to this weekend was a late night writing session following three vodka tonics, which sufficiently braced me to put letters to screen about a subject I find particularly painful and shameful.  I know this post is lengthy, but I believe this issue is deserving of the time and space, so I hope you’ll bear with me.

Much of this year has found me facing a daily struggle within myself.  I was unable to write.  Unable to play my guitar.  Unable to enjoy many of the things that I used to enjoy.

Because I was severely depressed.

Those of you who have experienced depression are already nodding along sympathetically.  You know the heaviness of it, the hopelessness of it, the monotony of it.  You know how it robs you of any optimism or happiness.  You know how it makes you irritable, critical, and jealous of the good fortune of others.  You know the tears that appear out of nowhere and the endless sense of grinding through day after day.

Those of you who have not been intimately acquainted with this particular demon are likely wondering why I couldn’t just snap out of it — go do something fun!  Go dancing or to yoga or on a date!  Watch a bunch of funny movies, take a bubble bath, bake some banana bread!

But that’s the problem, and that’s why I decided to finally write this.  In the hope that someone would find an understanding they hadn’t had before… and that someone who might be suffering would realize they are not alone in their silent pain.

Let’s be very clear:  Depression is not sadness.  Oh no.  I wish that it were.  Sadness is painful and acute and sharp.  It is felt and experienced and then overcome.  It can be addressed with fun times and laughter with friends.  It can be overcome with sunshine and delicious food and lots of hugs.   Sadness is usually the result of something happening: a break-up, a death, a terrible day at work.  It can be cognitively processed and massaged away with good feelings and good times.  Sometimes it lasts moments, other times weeks, occasionally even months.  But it has a quality that tells you that it’s temporary.  And, more than anything, sadness makes sense.

Depression is not sadness.  It is dull and slow and heavy.  It feels like it will never go away; indeed, hopelessness is one of the keystones of depression.  Being depressed, even if you’re “functional” as I have always been, is like slogging through quicksand.  All day, every day.  Merely going about the most basic functions of a day until it’s time to sleep like the dead for as many hours as possible leaves a depressed person physically and emotionally exhausted.  The body feels achy and stiff and sore; the brain fuzzy and distracted; the soul empty and dead.

Depression is like an emotional cancer — it eats the very parts of you that could best defeat it.  There is no energy to do the things that might help you feel better.  And like an anorexic who looks in the mirror and truly sees a fat person, clinically depressed people are fundamentally unable to envision a better time, a time when the depression has lifted.  The underlying, cold fear is that life will always be this way, that you will succumb to the depression and dissipate over time, until you are a lonely, isolated shell of your former self.

I am well-acquainted with depression.  I first experienced depression as a teenager.  Like many young women, the onset of puberty ushered in an unsteady emotional time, and my life circumstances during my teens and early 20’s worsened the depressive episodes.  But they were still relatively short-lived.  The birth of my second daughter was followed by a vicious case of postpartum depression that necessitated, for the first time, the use of medication in order to defeat my demons.  But worst of all was an episode  toward the end of my marriage that was so long and dark that my doctor actually evaluated me for hospitalization.

Yes, depression is  a familiar enemy.  I can see it coming… creeping up on me like a figure emerging from the shadows.  Over the years, I have come to recognize the cocktail that is most dangerous for me:   one difficult, sad event (a break-up, a death, some enormous, temporary stressor) that I could otherwise manage as well as anyone else, coupled with an underlying emotional struggle of some magnitude that is already sapping my energy (ongoing difficulties at work, trouble in a relationship, health issues, etc).  The one-two punch, so to speak, knocks me far enough off-balance that the nasty ephemeral figure of depression is able to get a firm grasp on me.  With my depleted emotional reserves, I cannot fight him off, and I succumb.  And I can literally feel vertigo as I tumble into the black hole of the depression.

I have been more fortunate than many people, however, in that my depression has never been debilitating.  I have never not been able to get out of bed, or go to work, or care for my children.  I have never lost friends, or boyfriends, or jobs because of my depression.  I have always managed to function well enough to conceal — oftentimes from even my closest friends — the depths of my despair.

And I have also been fortunate to have had the kinds of friends and family who have propped me up and encouraged me and held me when I cried senselessly.  I suspect that those who lose their battle with depression to suicide feel so isolated by the disease infecting their soul that their friends and family cannot break through to reach them.  I have never gone that far into the dark, and I pray that I never will.

Due to its classification as a mental illness, depression still carries some stigma, and I will admit that I am even guilty of stigmatizing myself.  When I get depressed, I am ashamed of myself.  Ashamed that I didn’t see the monster coming, didn’t fight off his grasping, icy hands as they dragged me down.  Terrified that my friends and family will cease to regard me as a strong, accomplished woman.

But I also wholeheartedly believe that depression IS a mental illness, although perhaps a temporary one for most people.  It is irrational and sometimes disabling.  It alters your sense of what’s real and true and possible, and, if left untreated over time, it can destroy the best and brightest parts of even the most amazing person.

My exit from a depressive episode is typically prompted by some triggering event that serves as an emotional course adjustment.  Such an event, along with the help of therapy, medication, friends, and some proactive personal choices, enabled me to emerge from the black pit I was in for so much of this year.  But each visit to that place takes its toll.  I am tired and a little unsteady and still recovering, as you might be if recovering from a lengthy and debilitating physical illness.  But I am also peaceful and secure and genuinely feeling hopeful and empowered again.

Many mental illnesses have an upside (yes, you read that correctly).  Some of history’s greatest minds and artists likely suffered from bi-polar disorder and, during their manic phases, created some of the most original work and art known to man.  Similarly, I have discovered the silver lining of my depressive episodes:  I emerge from them with increased clarity.  It is like someone has wiped clean my third eye, allowing me to see perfectly clearly the people and situations before me so that I can chart a considered and thoughtful path based on rational reasoning and authentic intuition.  I am not sure that I can say that the benefit of this clarity is worth the suffering of depression, nor do I have any idea if others experience this after a depressive episode.  But I do, and I am grateful for it.

I fully recognize that I am not forced to write any of this.  I get to choose what of my life remains private and which persona I chose to share or create for my blog readers. And certainly, for those who do not know me personally, it could be fun to be the blogger with the answers — the easy, breezy, confident woman who saunters through life and work and relationships with nary a misstep or hesitation.  But that is not me.  And I don’t actually have any desire to be that woman because I suspect that that woman would neither relate to nor provide any real value to the wonderful souls who read the words I share.   Easy and perfect are not useful or instructive; it is only through our shared struggles and accomplishments that we experience our true humanity.

And so, if I have shared too much here… if I have alienated or disappointed some of you with this revelation, I am sorry that you have experienced this post in that manner, but I am not sorry for having shared.  Because I sincerely suspect that for every person who doesn’t understand, there is another who does and finds solace in being understood and acknowledged here.  And to those souls I say this:

If you are depressed right now, you are not alone.  Your current situation will not always be so.  Life will change, eventually and with certainty.  Hopelessness is a symptom of the disease, not a part of who you are.  Just do your best each day, in whatever small way feels like a victory, and be gentle with your struggling soul.  Seek help — tell friends, call your doctor, call a therapist.  Don’t allow the isolation to swallow you whole.  Don’t allow the depression to rob you of your life.  You are beautiful and you are loved and you have a future in front of you that you cannot imagine right now.

Please try your best to remember that the sun will come out again.  I promise it will.  It always does, if only we hang on long enough.

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Filed under healing, personal growth, relationships, sadness

please welcome our newest member

Last week I went to a concert with a woman I have known for 5 years and not spent more than 5 minutes alone with.  She emailed me, pretty much out of the blue, and asked if I’d like to go to this concert with her.  Her daughter had told her how much I love music (I’m famous among my daughters’ friends for playing my music loud and often and encouraging sing-a-longs in the car), so she thought of me when she realized she had an extra ticket.

Hmmmm…..

Turns out that was only half the story.

On the evening that we sat on the lawn, dining on Noodles & Co. prior to the show, she confided that she and her husband had just separated two weeks ago.  She had been in full agreement on the separation, but he had now announced that he wanted a divorce, and fast.  She was adjusting and processing all this information and her situation.  A whole new life was in front of her and she had lots of questions.  So, of course, since I was pretty much the first of our acquaintance to go through this (and therefore a veteran, right?), she called me.

I looked at my new friend (whom I’ll call “Gwen”), and was struck by the gulf of experience that lay between us.  She was mildly frightened, tentatively hopeful, and completely unaware of the emotional war zone she was about to wade into.  Gwen is a very intelligent, compassionate woman with two children and an 18-year marriage coming to a close.  She is not patently naive nor foolish, but it is nearly impossibly to appreciate what awaits you in Divorceland before you enter it.

I listened as she explained how it had come about and what their circumstances are now.  I saw her fervent hope that somehow this would be civil and they could still be friends, and I heard her enormous reluctance to do anything whatsoever that might anger her soon-to-be-ex-husband and threaten that future possibility of friendship.  I gently shared some basic framework of the road ahead and reminded her that she cannot control him or his feelings, and to take care of herself.

I didn’t share the ugly details of how disappointing it is to see your former spouse morph into someone you neither know nor respect.  I didn’t tell her how painful it can be to watch your children acclimate to their new normal.  I didn’t dismay her with tales of dating woes. Because she didn’t need to hear all of that.  She’ll find out soon enough.  Perhaps hers will be the divorce that is truly and completely amicable.  Maybe her children won’t struggle and dating won’t take the wind out of her.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Regardless, her future was not to be altered by my words, and I didn’t want it determined by them, either.

She relayed to me how someone close to her had cynically told her how horrible her separation and divorce were going to be and how foolish she was for thinking it could be otherwise.  My heart went out to her and I assured her that her story would be hers and her husband’s alone.  Not mine, not her other friend’s, not anyone else’s mattered.  Because that’s the truth, isn’t it?

Yes, divorce sucks.  There’s not much good to recommend the whole process.  But this is where she is now and scaring her silly is only going to make her situation worse.  None of us make our best decisions out of fear, so the longer she can avoid that particular zone, the better off she is. The other side — when she finally gets there — will be much better than where she is now.  But, damn, is there a lot of muck between here and there.  It’s kind of like having a baby:  if you really knew the pain of labor without the joy of the newborn, you might not have gotten pregnant that first time.  And the hard fact is that Gwen is already pregnant with her divorce proceedings.  There’s no going back.  Better to just hold her hand and remind her to breathe through it.

As the sun set and the opening act warmed up the audience, we talked about what her life might be like when it was all over.  I made her laugh and kept her focused on the possibilities in front of her.  She told me how much better she was feeling, and I was glad. We talked about the importance of female friendships and the need for community when going through something life-changing like this.

In the week since then, we’ve exchanged a few emails and I have noticed things that take me back to when I was newly separated.  The plot is so much the same, even if the story is unique.

Sometimes I am still surprised to realize that I am divorced — “What?!  When did that happen?!” — but then I look around me and the events of the last 3 1/2 years come rushing up to my consciousness and I remember that at some point, I joined this club.  It’s a strange club.  No one ever wants to join, or imagines that they will be a member someday.  And yet here we are.  Moving forward, glancing back, pushing on.

And reminding each other to breathe.

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Filed under divorce, healing, love, relationships, sadness, single mom

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.   I wrote my previous post — cat in the bag —  nearly 2 1/2 weeks ago, in the midst of struggling with those emotions.

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

cat in the bag

When I was growing up, my mom and I would occasionally visit the cousins I thought of as our Dirt Poor Cousins.  This nomenclature came about not because I was mean-spirited, but because, at one point, they literally had a dirt floor in their little home.  There were a lot of kids, they all looked alike, and I was fascinated by their life.  Jimmer was the one closest in age to me.  I’m sure his name was actually some variation of James, but they all had hillbilly names and, until we ran into each other at college, I never heard him referred to as anything other than “Jimmer.”

(You’re beginning to get the picture, aren’t you?  And for those of you who know me, no, these were not my West Virginia cousins.  They were worse.  Trust me.)

Anyway.

I liked playing with Jimmer because his games were always fun and imaginative.  We’d scamper around the woods and the barn, pretending to be settlers, Indians, wild animals.  We’d pick strawberries, jump in the “swimming hole,” and chase frogs.  The kind of good, clean fun that you see on The Andy Griffith Show.  But there was one game that I didn’t like.  Jimmer called it “Cat in the Bag.”  In this game, he and his siblings would capture the ornery barn cat, toss it into one of the canvas feed bags, and tie a quick knot.  Predictably, the cat would screech and howl and thrash around inside the bag, as everyone laughed and I yelled at Jimmer to release him. “Aw, he deserves it!” Jimmer would counter.  “He’s a mean old cuss!” True enough, but it was hard for me to tell whether he got tossed in the bag because he was a mean old cuss or if he was a mean old cuss because he got tossed in the bag.

The barn cat would fight mightily against the bag, claws bared, scratching and heaving itself against the bag, until eventually it exhausted itself, and then it would lie quietly.  Jimmer would untie the bag and release the cat, usually receiving a good clawing for his trouble.

I hadn’t thought of that old barn cat in a long time, but the memory of it resurfaced the other day.  Because there are times in my life when I am like that old barn cat in the bag.  I heave and hurl myself against the constraints of my life, howling at the unfairness or sadness or sameness of my life, until eventually I tire and sink into it.  My life, like the bag, resists but doesn’t fight back.  It simply holds me, contains me, preventing both escape and mortal harm.

In the times I visited them, the barn cat never seemed to figure out that battling the bag was futile.  It never once escaped the bag.  It never once was released until it quieted and relaxed.  And it never once seemed to realize that the faster it surrendered, the faster it would be released from the bag.

I am, I think, at least smarter than that barn cat.  But perhaps not by much.

Because I am only now learning that when I have those feelings, those moments of thrashing around and screaming silently, the only way out of them is to surrender.  To sink quietly and calmly and peacefully into them.  To allow myself those emotions, being mindful of them so as not to inadvertently scratch anyone else with my bared claws and sharp teeth.  To simply sit quietly and observe myself and the circumstances around me and allow that time to pass, holding faith that the bag will eventually open. Only after I have sunk into the moment and the feelings does the sweet release appear.

Having this knowledge is one thing; putting words to screen is easier than putting them into action.  Sinking into it is hard.  Acceptance is grudging.  Acknowledging a lack of control is bitter.  But it is the only way.  We have to let go and relax and wait for some mystical hand to unknot the bag and let the sun shine on our face again.

It is the only way out of the bag.   An ornery barn cat taught me that.

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Filed under healing, personal growth, relationships, sadness

sunset

I was walking one of my dogs when the phone call came.  It was almost dusk.  A beautiful sunset after an unseasonably warm day.  Walking by the creek, I felt the damp coolness in the air that only comes from being near water derived from glaciers miles away.

I almost didn’t answer the phone, so sweet and still was the moment.  I was feeling peaceful for the first time a long, long time.  But it was my mom, and I hadn’t talked to her all week, so I took the call.

Isn’t it funny how you just know?  As soon as you hear the voice, you know.  Someone has died or is dying.

She is my mom, so she asked pleasantly after my daughters, how my weekend was, even how my dog was, before finally saying, with a catch in her words, that she had some bad news.  My aunt — her only sister and my only aunt in the world — was in the hospital and not expected to survive the week.

I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, and it’s always the same:  the words hang in the air and somehow I manage to say all the appropriate things.  I asked after my mom, then my cousins.  I listened while my mom cried and I made the sympathetic murmurs of reassurance that you make when someone’s grief is primary over your own.  During our conversation, I finished my walk, let myself into my house, hung up with my mom, and transferred a load of wet laundry into the dryer.   Then I stood in my foyer and tried to remember what I was supposed to do next.

Without thinking, I picked up the phone and dialed my old phone number.  My youngest daughter answered and I asked to speak to my ex.  As I explained to Bryce what was happening and how I might need to get on a plane on short notice to attend the funeral, I cracked.  Before I knew it, I was slumped against the wall, choking out the words through sobs.   He wasn’t the person I’d have chosen to lose my composure with but he handled it well and with compassion, thank God.

Since that phone call, I have pushed myself through my evening chores as if moving through molasses.  I had forgotten how heavy this kind of grief is.  How it settles on your heart like a rock.

And then the memories started.  My aunt, whom I just spoke to on Thursday, is not yet dead, but my mind is already combing the recesses of my memory for all the clips that include her.  And there are a lot of them.

In fact, my very first memory is of my aunt.  I was standing at her kitchen counter as she chopped some kind of vegetable — I want to say carrots — for dinner.  Her blonde hair was in a 1960’s style chignon, and a polyester dress with a large floral pattern hugged her perfect figure.  She talked to me while she chopped and handed me pieces of vegetables every once in a while.  I was so small that I couldn’t see over the counter… possibly age two?  Three at the most.

As a young child, I thought her impossibly glamorous and beautiful.  Her house in Southern California seemed like the coolest and most modern home imaginable.  They had a trampoline 30 years before doing so was fashionable.  My aunt was hipper than Mrs. Brady.

My aunt took me to Mexico for the first time when I was only about 7 and Ensenada was a yet-to-discovered tourist destination.  Twenty years later, she took me to Cancun after I passed the bar exam, and introduced me to the resort we still go to every year.

The summer I was 16, Katrina and I went to her house for a week.   I learned to drive a stick shift that week in a old Toyota Tercel whose transmission was, I’m sure, never the same again.  As I slid out of her driveway, gears grinding and car lurching, my aunt stood on the sidewalk, smiling and waving us off, as if such automotive behavior was perfectly expected and acceptable.

My aunt helped me pick out my prom dress — a dreadful Jessica McClintock lavender and white concoction that looked like it came off the wardrobe truck for Gone With The Wind, but was surprisingly stylish for 1985.  And it was while visiting her house a year later that I bought my first shockingly small bathing suit.

When my mom and I didn’t speak for several years, it was my aunt who tended to me, calling frequently, cheering me on, reminding me how much everyone loved me.  And when my marriage ended, it was my aunt who reminded me all the time that lots of great people end up with failed marriages.

I will remember her laugh and her love of children and her beautiful eyes.  I will remember how dogs delighted her and how she loved amusement parks and how good her cooking was.  I will remember that she used to make homemade greeting cards for every occasion and that she always made everyone feel welcome at her house and that I was her only niece and therefore always special.

Over the next week, as her body gives up and her soul makes other plans, I will be, I am sure, inundated with memories of her.   Her passing will remind me of my own mortality and how very soon it will be my generation that will be burying each other.  I will move through my grief and tears and goodbyes and emerge in a world slightly altered by her absence.

Death necessarily follows life, but it also intrudes on it, cleaving a canyon through the lives remaining behind in its wake.  And no matter how many times I wander through this particular canyon, the landscape never ceases to feel surreal, the air heavy, and the path rocky, my step all the less sure in the dimming light.

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Filed under sadness