Tag Archives: healing

the sins of my past

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

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

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

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

Well.

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell had happened to me??

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Am

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Filed under happy endings, parenthood, working mothers

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. 

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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elevator wisdom

My mother has a boyfriend.  It seems odd to say that of a 73-year-old woman, but what else do you call a man she’s dated for the last 10 years, but isn’t married to and doesn’t live with?  So, “boyfriend” it is.

But really, he’s a member of our family.  I’ll call him “Ted.”  Ted is a wonderful man:  kind, generous to a fault, patient, gentle, but also a “guy’s guy” who has slowed down athletically only because time has insisted upon it.  Ted is like a father to me and a grandfather to my children, and my ex-husband admitted that he was sad to lose Ted in the divorce.  I’d have been, too, if I were him.

Every year, my girls and I vacation in Cancun for a week with Ted and my mom.  It is Ted’s gift to my family, and we all look forward to all year long.  Coming from a land-locked state, my girls have grown up with those white sands and turquoise waters as their beach, and I have relished the giving them that experience.

Ted and I had an instant rapport.  We have some obvious commonalities — similar education, being an only child, same sense of humor — but, more importantly, we just seem to “get” each other.  There is an understanding there that has bound us together for many years now, facing my mother’s health crises, my divorce, his daughter’s addictions.  Despite our difference in age, we give each other advice, and respect it more than either of us does from most people.

One day when we were in Cancun a year and a half ago, I was struggling.  I’d awoken that morning from difficult dreams highlighting the hard choices I’d made recently with regard to my marriage, my children, my work… I felt lost and wondered if I was rushing headlong to disaster.

We were all sitting by the pool late that morning, when Ted announced that he was returning to his villa to retrieve his sun hat.  I took the opportunity to accompany him inside and check my email at my own villa.  As we stepped into the elevator, Ted turned to me, looked me squarely in the eye, and began speaking as if he were resuming a conversation we’d just paused in.  He said this:

Here’s the thing.  My dad wasn’t the smartest guy about some things, but every once in a while, he was pretty wise.  And he used to tell me that once a choice is made, there’s no going back, only forward.  Any choice can seem like a bad one in hindsight, and any choice can seem like a good one.  It depends on how you’re determined to see it.  The trick, he’d say, is to stop thinking of it as a choice once it’s made.  The guessing, the thinking, the analyzing, all that is over.  The choice isn’t a choice anymore; it’s a decision.  Treat it like a foregone conclusion or a mandate from God or however you have to think of it, but don’t look back, only forward.  Seek the opportunities hidden in it and remain open to the possibilities.  Second-guessing will only slow you down, and you’ll especially need the forward momentum if it really was a bad choice.  No matter.  It’s done.  Just look ahead and keep moving.  Okay, here’s my place.  See you down at the pool.

And then he exited the elevator, and I was left, mouth agape, wondering how in the world he’d known what I was struggling with that morning.

Ted was right, of course, and I’ve thought about his words often in the time since.  It’s so easy to play the “what if” game with the benefit of additional information and experience and wisdom, but where does it get us really?  Reflection from a distance can be useful, definitely, but not when it stalls our progress.  Not when it mires us in self-doubt and uncertainty that is likely borne more of fear and insecurity than of a truly rationale evaluation of our earlier decision.  If a decision was truly wrong, we usually know it immediately and can correct our course in that short timeframe.  Revisiting an old decision is usually nothing more than a way to give power to our fears.  Most of us make good decisions, for us, for that moment.  They may not take us where we’d thought they would, but they probably take us where we need to be.

Ted’s advice was exactly what I needed to hit my internal reset button and push past the moribund wallowing in which I was engaging.  Relinquishing the weight of self-doubt and second-guessing frees up so much energy and stamina and clarity to identify and tackle the good stuff that might be just around the corner.

Plus, it gives me time to try and figure out how Ted managed to frame and solve my emotional crisis in the span of a 5-floor elevator ride…..

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moments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Someone asked me today what I want most right now.

Moments.  I want moments.

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always was

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

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

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

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

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

Always was is a powerful idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the dream house that nearly was

I spent the day today with a friend who is looking for a new home for himself and his kids.  The home he currently lives in is very beautiful and suits him perfectly, but he was forced to sell it in his divorce settlement, so at some point in the not distant future, he and his children will need a new home.

Property in our area is quite expensive, so our scouting expedition took us practically the entire length and breadth of our county, plus some short forays into neighboring counties.  We climbed roads accessible only by 4×4 vehicles.  We rode switchbacks that made me carsick.  We got out and walked through high prairie scrub to views that were truly breathtaking.   And then we’d get back in the truck and keep looking.

Last month he had a contract on a house that, almost as soon as I saw it, I pictured him comfortably in it.  He withdrew the contract because the house — once owned by the infamous “Marlboro Man” of advertising history —  is seriously dilapidated.  Too unique and perfect in some regards to simply scrape, it would require mountains of cash and construction expertise to rehabilitate.  Even so, there is something about the property — the  house, the barns, the trees, the views all the way to the Back Range of the Rockies — that makes me think he may yet wind up there.

The interesting thing about making these drives with him is that I have watched him building new dreams, post-divorce.  The house he lives in now was a boring, dark ranch-model home when he bought it for his then-new family.  He lovingly turned it into a dream house, complete with a man-made freshwater pond in the backyard for swimming and a giant deck for entertaining.  But that home is no longer his, and his family is no longer what it was.

Over the last year or so since we’ve been looking at properties together, I’ve watched him become increasingly comfortable with the idea of letting go of his current home and starting afresh.  I watch him survey a prospective piece of land or house, his arm arching the sky, describing what he’d build and how it would look.  I can see the memories he’s imagining that he and his children will make in each place.  I observe him moving forward, onward.

On our drive today, we passed a large farmhouse that is probably close to 100-years-old.  It sits solidly on its flat lot East of the foothills, facing the looming mountains across its fields.  The trees surrounding it are large, probably nearing the end of their lifespan, and the house itself has seen better days.  But it is solid.  It has, as we like to say, “good bones.”  As we motored past, I stared at it wistfully.  Renovating an old farmhouse was something I’d always dreamed of, and it was one of those dreams that seemed attainable, especially after I started my own interior design business.  I think I always kind of thought that someday my ex-husband and I would do that together, and then grow old in that mythical house, with grandchildren running about the yard.

But it turns out that Bryce never really liked home improvement projects much, and so that work fell to me.   And now, given my markedly different financial situation, the likelihood of my ever having a little farmhouse to renovate is decidely slim.  That dream  is yet another casualty of my divorce.

Rolling along today in the sunshine, I experienced a moment of deep melancholy.  Perhaps that is the most difficult part of divorce — relinquishing dreams that you held so dear, some of which were so close, but only just out of your grasp.  Some of those dreams are huge and profound — like the idea of celebrating a 50th anniversary with your partner for life — while others are simpler and smaller — like being able to sit together as one family at your daughter’s wedding.  But big or small, they are the dreams that we pin our hopes to, hitch our stars to, and throw ourselves headlong into life in order to —  just maybe! —  grasp them.

I think sometimes we don’t even realize that the dream is gone, until it suddenly hits us on a sunny spring afternoon, with the truck kicking up dust on the unpaved road.  As I craned my neck to look back at the farmhouse, I silently said goodbye to yet another small dream from my hope chest that slipped quietly away when I was wasn’t looking.

It’s easy to hold too tightly to those dreams that evaporate when we divorce.  We could spend years, or even a lifetime, looking back on what was lost.  But in doing so, we lose all possibility for creating new dreams and chasing those down. I had to remind myself of that as the road turned and I lost sight of that old farmhouse today.  There’s no use looking back and pining for what might have been.  Not when I could use that energy to manifest dreams that are possible on the road in front of me.

I asked my friend once if he was going to be sad to leave the house he’d built as his dream home for his family.  He was quiet for a just moment, and then he said, “Sure.  I’ll probably cry like a baby.  But then I’ll move on.  Because that’s over, isn’t it?”

Indeed.

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sucker punch

I took my labelmaker (yes, I’m the kind of mom who has a labelmaker) to work this morning so that our receptionist could label some things around the office.  But after only one label, it ran out of ribbon (yes, it was that kind of morning).

Arriving home late in evening after helping a work friend with an errand he needed to run, I headed to my craft box and began pawing through it, looking for the extra label ribbon that I knew was in there (yes, I’m the kind of mom who has extra label ribbon).   I couldn’t find it, so I took the box to the dining room table and dumped the contents across its surface.   Then, poking through the markers and paints and glues (aha!  I knew I had extra label ribbon!), my hand froze on a tube of paint, I felt the air sucked out of my lungs, and the memory washed over me….

It was Christmas Eve and I stood in front of James’s hearth, fingering the Christmas stockings hanging from the mantle.  Five identical stockings, plain and  unadorned.  I looked across the room at James and pointed to the stockings.  He crossed the room and explained that his ex-wife had taken all the stockings when she’d left.  “Well,” I said, “When Christmas is over, you need to let me take these and decorate them, personalize them.  This looks sad.  I’ll fix them up!”  He shrugged.  “Okay, sure.”

And so, in the days immediately after Christmas, still on a happiness high from my amazing holiday weekend, I went out and bought tubes of paints in Christmas colors, plus puffy white paint to mimic snow, and silver glittery paint to make them festive.  I found an old t-shirt and spread it on the dining room table and starting practicing all the letters in their names, drawing snow flakes and holly leaves, ornaments and gifts.  I was determined to make those stockings perfect.  When the kids arrived at their dad’s next Christmas, they’d find pretty stockings, decorated with love.

But I never decorated those stockings.  By the end of that week, my relationship with James was blown apart, all my hopes for shared holidays to come, dashed.

I don’t remember cleaning up the paints or the practice t-shirt.   I must have done it when I was still numb with pain.  I had forgotten about all those colorful tubes, about my silly plans, about my offer to James to help make things special for his children.

Until tonight.

It’s so unfair how life can sucker punch you.  There you are, moving along pretty much okay, trying to just put everything behind you, letting go of what you never really had, and WOOMPH!, a sucker punch from left field ushers in all the grief and loss all over again.

I wish that I had decorated those stockings.  I wish that those children had some tangible token of my love.  They would likely never realize, or probably care, who had decorated them or why, but I would know.  I would know that each Christmas, a little tiny piece of me would be there, loving on them still.

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