Tag Archives: sadness

30 Days of Truth Challenge – Day 6

Day 6:  Something you hope you never have to do.

Boy, they really don’t make these challenges easy, do they?

My rule with this challenge has been to go with whatever my first gut answer is to the Day’s question.  So, my answer today is that I hope I never have to break someone’s heart again.  That may sound shallow or self-serving, but I promise you it’s sincere.

I know that I have hurt people in my life, and those actions and their consequences truly haunt me.  I’m not talking about small offenses or the kinds of momentary hurts that we all shrug off almost immediately.  No, I am talking about the kind of pain that is life changing and heart-altering.  Indeed, my nightmares of late seem to be a catalog of apologies that I cannot possibly offer enough, wrongs that cannot be righted.  For the most part, I have not been callous or cold in my life, and I can offer arguably justifiable reasons for many of my actions that hurt others.  But in my heart I believe that we are responsible for all the pain we cause, justified or not, and that the tally of heartbreak we accrue in our lifetime will come back upon us at a later time.

Having said that, it’s not some fear of karmic retribution or hellish damnation that drives my sense of remorse.  And I don’t actually believe that anyone is anywhere in this world hating my guts or cursing my name.  I think my remorse is simply an evolving understanding of how harmful some hurts are and how difficult it is to fix them in any real sense of the word.

To the extent that I can, I have offered sincere apologies to everyone that I can. But knowing how deeply some of my own emotional injuries go, I know that I cannot erase the pain of another.  I am grateful when an apology is accepted, but I know that the past cannot be changed and the wounds still bear scars.

So, while I know I will screw up and do the wrong thing sometimes, I do most deeply hope that my screw-ups don’t ever result in true and deep heartbreak for another person.  Ever, ever again.

im-sorry

3 Comments

Filed under 30 Days of Truth Challenge

after the fairy tale

Some lessons are harder to learn than others.

And some of us are just slow learners.

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

Like me.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is where things sit, my friends.

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

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

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

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

amazing-trees-1-1


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

 

14 Comments

Filed under love, relationships

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

17 Comments

Filed under personal growth, sadness

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

5 Comments

Filed under divorce, healing, love, marriage, 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.

12 Comments

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.

9 Comments

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.

7 Comments

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.

7 Comments

Filed under sadness

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…..

9 Comments

Filed under dating, divorce, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, sadness, single mom

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.

8 Comments

Filed under divorce, general musings, healing, relationships, sadness