image of a multicolored compass

Alvesgaspar, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Some people begin their year with a specific word in mind that grounds them and serves as a compass of sorts. It’s not something I’ve ever done with any regularity, and I doubt I’d have been able to really intuit one in January that would have been accurate in any way, but now that we are nearly at the end of this year, I can look back and see that most everything I did and thought about and experienced this year boils down to relationship.

It seems odd, given that most of my time has been spent without the physical presence of loved ones and the work I have done is remote and facilitated by technology. Neither of those things seems particularly conducive to creating relationship, but I have learned more about the power of connection this year and focused on the qualities of relationship that are most impactful more than I ever have in my life. I have spent time deepening my relationship to myself and trying to rebalance the wisdom I receive from my head with the wisdom held in my body through meditation and a rage ritual. I have created connection with local communities to offer assistance and I have witnessed the awesome power of mutual aid groups. I have considered how so many of our public systems are failing us and begun to realize that the only way to counter those failings is through relationship.

I joined with others across the globe every day at the same time for 30 minutes for 100 days in a row to say a lovingkindness meditation for all beings. I didn’t know the vast majority of the others at the beginning of the 100 days, but since then, we have formed virtual support groups to help each other with everything from motivation to get off the couch and shower to grieving the loss of loved ones with humor and grace. I joined a weekly Zoom meeting hosted by Charter for Compassion and Citizen Discourse that also gathers people from across the globe. Every Thursday we journal for a few minutes, have individual conversations about things like ritual, legacy, and what community means, and come together as a group to deepen our relationship to compassion and humanity. I have met people with whom I share text messages and emails and our connection is no less real and tangible because it was formed online.

The most recent conversation we had was around our own personal compass – what drives us, where are we headed. And while each of the individuals on the call had a different perspective and way of answering that question, we agreed in the end that the common thread for us all was connection of some sort. And because our conversations often delve into the philosophical, we also explored the notion of a compass. It occurred to me that it is important to note that a compass is useless in a vacuum – meaning that it only works within the context of the electromagnetic pull of something bigger, something grounding (in this case, the Earth). And so while each of us may have our own compass, the principle on which it exists is that we are all connected to something larger that helps guide us. We can, of course, choose to stick that compass in our pocket and go off on our own path, but the quality of guidance is always present and available to us. And because it is available to each and every one of us, we are necessarily connected, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I say often that human beings are designed to be in relationship. Our biological systems work more efficiently when we are in trusted relationships and suffer in isolation. Students who have supportive relationships with their teachers learn better. Elders who are ill heal faster and have less pain when they are surrounded by loved ones. So while I mourn the lack of physical contact with my beloveds and desperately miss the coffee dates and hiking adventures with friends, I have also deepened my definition of what relationship is – relationship to myself and my physical body, relationship with my community, relationship with people I’ve never met in person – and come to understand the power of letting those connections evolve over time. I have explored what it means to have healthy boundaries that are temporary in order to repair harms and what it looks like to shift my definition of a mother-child relationship as my daughters become young adults and want a different kind of bond with me that is no less elemental or meaningful than it ever was – it’s just different.

While there is much to be sad about this year – the loss of my mother and the missed adventures I had planned and the cancelled book tour among them – I can look back on the last 12 months and see what I have gained in stretching my understanding of this most basic need for connection and community in my life. Like the grounding of the Earth to my compass, relationship and connection are always available to me so long as I recognize them as an elemental part of my existence. Here’s to unexpected lessons that help us all thrive. May 2021 bring more wisdom and insight to us all.

Glowing coals from a BBQ

Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen

“You are very grown up, aren’t you?”

“You are a very mature young lady!”

“You are wise beyond your years.”

These are just a few of the phrases I heard as a kid that served to reinforce my trauma response and help me build an identity around it. And as I built that identity, I got praised for it more and more, for thinking on my feet, for dashing in to fix things, for never letting ‘em see me sweat.

“That’ll toughen you up, kid.”

“Show ‘em your battle scars! Be proud of them!”

I think that’s part of the reason I’m such a good leader at the food bank. Every week is a new challenge – food deliveries don’t come at the last minute or what we thought we were getting turns out to be something else altogether. The weather turns awful and I have to figure out how to keep five volunteers dry outside while packing boxes in sideways rain and hail with just tarps and pallets. Years and years of hypervigilance and doom-planning are paying off. All the time I spent as a kid imagining alternate scenarios and planning for them, wondering what I could do if X happened and how I could manage if things turned sideways and Y happened instead.

You might be thinking, ok, so what? Your trauma is serving you well as an adult.

But you would be wrong.

It’s not your fault – up until this morning, I would have agreed with you.

But we were both wrong.

My trauma is re-traumatizing me as an adult.

I built an identity and a way of moving through the world that means I never let my guard down, that means I always expect to be on my own when the shit hits the fan and that I assume responsibility for managing crises and cleaning up after them without even being asked.

It’s who I am.

But this morning, I took the time to imagine what it would have been like if my 8-year old self had been told, instead, that it wasn’t her job to be “wiser than your years.” What would it have been like if she had felt safe and held within a community or family group that didn’t place adult responsibility on her shoulders? How would she have learned to calm her nervous system and ask for help when she felt overwhelmed? How could she have grown up not feeling as though she was the only one who could fix things, and that if she didn’t do it, nobody would?

What if someone had told her, instead, “I’m so sorry you have those scars. I wish I’d been there to keep that from happening”?

I spent so many years of my life searching for the Right way to get through painful, scary times – knowing with absolute certainty that if things got worse, it was because I hadn’t been smart enough, prepared enough, savvy enough to plan for the right contingency. It made me even more determined to explore every avenue. And I got really good at it. If there was a way to put it on my resumé, I would have.

But in my body, it meant I was alone, always. It meant that even when I was married, I didn’t think to trust my husband to solve really big problems, really scary ones, because I had learned that people without trauma didn’t think like I did – they couldn’t always accurately assess the potential dangers that lie ahead and plan for them. Those people were naïve. Lovely, and loving, but naïve. I couldn’t rely on them in a crisis.

It also means that, in my body, there are embers that flare when someone close to me is suffering and the flares are often disproportionate to the situation. I suppose that’s really the basis of PTSD, but it’s surprising to me to realize how much of that is applauded and reinforced in our society. The idea that hypervigilance is a muscle we want to build is so backward to me, but my entire life, I’ve been praised for it, and it is causing harm. Those embers that flare when someone close to me is in crisis give me a momentary ability to get clear and start the process of contingency planning, but they also cut my head off from my body because the sensations I feel in my body are too painful and frightening to feel in those moments. That severance is really seductive – feeling competent and clear and able to swoop in and offer my support to a loved one is a powerful drug. Why would I want to check in with my body? Just to feel fear? To experience the little zaps of grief and overwhelm that rise up and make me remember all the times I’ve felt that way before? Not likely.

But I have learned that disconnecting my mind from my body has consequences. Namely, my brain experiences a power trip and it also starts spiraling into scary places, imagining all sorts of horrible scenarios just so I can build a strategy in case they come true. And as much as I try to divorce myself from my physical self, all I’ve really done is cut off communication from my body to my brain, not the other way around. My body is still absorbing energy, still taking in information (much of it from my spiraling thoughts that are generally wholly inaccurate), and lighting little fires everywhere. Eventually, I freeze in overwhelm and panic. I burst into tears, lie on the couch and stare, shake uncontrollably. So far, this generally only happens once the crisis is over and I know I’m safe (or my loved-one is safe), but those fires just keep getting bigger.

Today, I’m starting the work to put out the embers; to go back and find every spot in my body where younger me was put in situations she didn’t belong in and relieve her of those burdens. I’m asking her what it might feel like to imagine that she was held and safe and free to be eight or ten or 14, instead of collecting battle scars and proving herself more adult than her age. It is my deep hope that in doing so, I will be able to face the next really scary situation without a fire flaring inside me. I would like to stay connected to my body and show up for my loved ones as my whole self, un-triggered and loving, secure in the knowledge that we are in this together and I can ask for help if I need it. I want to have healed those parts of me that were taught it is a good thing to tackle big challenges by myself, no matter what it costs, because those scars are something to be proud of. I want to come clear-headed and with a calm body responding out of love and not fear. The idea that I can put my energy toward helping hold what is rather than exhausting myself imagining what might be will hopefully be more seductive than thinking I can single-handedly save the day.

KennyRogers.jpg
By John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – KennyRogers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75141455

Kenny Rogers died last night. He was my mom’s absolute, first-line celebrity crush. She used to joke that she would marry him in a second if he showed up at her door. Every time we got in the car to head out to cross-country ski, we would settle in to our prescribed places in her baby blue Volkswagen square back and she’d pop in a cassette and crank the volume. If it was a sunny day, we’d roll the windows down and sing along, she and I, while Katy stared out the window trying not to get carsick and Chris cranked up the sound on his Walkman to drown us out.

I don’t know that I was a massive fan of Kenny Rogers, but I loved the effect his music had on Mom. Before she and Dad divorced, he was pretty much in charge of the music for road trips – Doobie Brothers, Little River Band, those were his choices and I never really thought about whether or not Mom would have chosen them. But after the divorce, it was Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray in Mom’s car, belted out with feeling. I think I get it more now. After my divorce I had the sensation that there was more room in the world for my choices, that while I hadn’t disliked the music or trips my ex chose, I hadn’t ever felt fully free to stretch my limbs out in to space and freely choose what I would have preferred.

My ex and I had similar taste in music – we both grew up with Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin, The Cars, The Rolling Stones, Mötley Crüe. But I also loved REM, 10,000 Maniacs, Depeche Mode, and The Thompson Twins. As young adults, he drifted toward Green Day and The Killers, which I liked, but I stockpiled Indigo Girls and Annie Lennox and Pink as well, which he jokingly called “chick music.” It was really a seamless, unspoken understanding that when he was in the car, we’d listen to his preferences and when he wasn’t the girls and I could indulge ourselves with our girly stuff.

Right now, as mom is sequestered inside her assisted living facility, safely taken care of but also on hospice, I am resisting pulling up the audio of “If I Ever Fall in Love Again” because I know it will push me over the edge of this lump in my throat in to a crying jag and I’m not ready. I’m reserving it because I cry at least once a day now, and I find a sweet release, but this cry will be different. It will be the tears I shed for the loss of my mom’s voice. The only place I can hear it now is in my own head and I don’t want to waste it or erase it or cover it up with Kenny and Anne singing to each other. It will be the tears I shed on behalf of mom because she won’t know that he’s gone and couldn’t grieve for him. It will be the tears I shed for the idea that I might not see Mom again if she dies before they lift the ban on visitors. I want to sit with her and hold her hand one more time, maybe sing some lines from The Gambler to her and dig deep in to her reserves one time to see if her spirit can conjure up that feeling of freedom, wheeling along the highway, windows down, one hand surfing the waves of air as we laugh and harmonize on our way to play in the snow together.

“You got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run…”

Image Description: a spiral tattoo with the words “You are here” pointing to a specific spot on the spiral

I don’t know about anyone else, but in my life, when the Universe decides I need to make a big leap to the next phase of my personal evolution, it tends to pile on. As in, give me many instances of the same kind of bullshit over and over again until I start to pay attention and recognize it for what it is.

Thus, the last two weeks or so have been a lot. To say the least. A whole lot.

I won’t go in to the details, but I finally figured out this morning that this particular lesson is about making choices, pretty consequential choices. And that’s something I can have a hard time with because I am not one of those “trust your gut” kind of people. My gut is either not particularly loud, or I have an overdeveloped connection between my gut and my brain such that my brain is always always always weighing in, considering options, looking at potential outcomes and thinking of unintended consequences.

When this happens, I spin. The part of my brain that makes decisions goes very quiet and offline, and the part of my brain that convinces me that this particular decision is incredibly monumental and I’d better not fuck it up rules the day.

So, yeah.

At least three times in the last two weeks, I’ve faced decisions that I considered, second-guessed, made lists about, considered again, tried to divorce myself from, and then ultimately made. And guess what? The world didn’t stop turning.

I know I’m not the only one who worries about making the “Right” choice, but I think I’m learning that what I need to pay attention to more is the right reasons. Meaning, it’s more important to get really clear on my own values and needs and use those as the basis for examining why I’m conflicted. Figure out who or what is being centered in my deliberations.

In this time of crisis, I am reminded that we are all entrusted with caring for each other. that there is nothing more profound or elemental than that.

Today, my youngest daughter got up and went to work, nannying two precious boys she has taken care of for a year – 18-month old twins whose faces spread into grins when they see her, whose arms reach for her, who giggle when she makes silly noises. Who trust her.

I am holed up in my bathroom with a tortoise, having just filled a tub with warm water for him to bathe in, put together a pile of fresh greens for him to munch on, and cranked up the heat so he can roam and explore comfortably.

My pups are fed and walked. I’ve checked in with my oldest daughter who is far away and having to scramble to pack up and move out of her dorm. She and her friends are collaborating, pooling resources, opening up couches and offering rides to each other to ease the stress.

I just got off the phone with my mother’s caretaker, having learned that she is being placed on hospice care as of today, and the facility isn’t open to visitors. “She is so pleasant and lovely,” he says, detailing to me how they are caring for her at this time and encouraging me to call and get updates as often as I want to.

Someone posted in my neighborhood Buy Nothing group an offer to shop for anyone who is afraid to leave home. “How can I help you?” she asked.

Funds are being created for small businesses who are hit hard by the lack of mobility in Seattle.

We are entrusted to each other’s care.

Our strength is in our compassion, not our fear. Care comes in so many forms: a text message or DM, a Twitter post asking if others are ok, feeding our pets or tending the garden, offering thanks and gratitude to those who are working hard to make policy and heal the sick.

We’ve got each other.
We’ve got this.
It’s all we’ve got, and it is a lot.
Let’s take care of each other.

I have orchids in my kitchen window – five medium-sized plants that I’ve been gifted over the years that I coax in to blooming about once a year. I’m always surprised and rather pleased when the stems begin poking out from the folds of the thick, dark green leaves and I’ve somehow managed to keep them alive enough to show their gorgeous flowers at least one more time.

Someone asked me once how I do it – what’s the secret. She had never been able to get an orchid to bloom again and she was keen to understand.

Benign neglect, I said. Honestly. I keep them in the kitchen window not only so the cat and dogs won’t devour the leaves and unruly air shoots, but also so I remember to give them water every few weeks.

**

Today is my mother’s birthday and it is the second birthday in a row when I won’t see her in person or give her a hug. The second birthday in a row that she has lived in a memory care facility and been wholly unaware of her birthday. The second birthday in a row that I haven’t sent her a card or flowers because she doesn’t know who I am and she wouldn’t understand getting a gift and she doesn’t even know it’s her birthday unless someone tells her and then she promptly forgets.

The last time I saw Mom, I sat with her in the dining area and fed her soup and while I was terribly happy to be with her, I may as well have been one of the staff who feeds her. I focused on making sure I didn’t rush her, that she was eating enough, that the soup didn’t go cold and feel awful in her mouth. I talked to her in a constant stream of consciousness banter, much like I had with my children when they were little, sitting in a high chair, opening wide when they saw the spoon coming in. The woman who sat across from us fed herself and tucked napkins and plastic cups and other people’s spoons in to her bra and when we made eye contact she said, “you know she doesn’t understand you. She doesn’t know who you are.”

**

In the months when the orchids aren’t blooming, I wonder if this is the year they just won’t throw up those showy flowers. I fret about the roots that stick out like bedhead, but I know I can’t trim them or tuck them inside the pot. I have to let them reach out and take the moisture from the air, but they encroach on the dish drainer and bump in to the windowpane and I brush against them when I turn the faucet to hot.

About once a month I carefully lift each plant and place it in the deep kitchen sink. I dissolve the sky-blue crystalline orchid food in a gallon jug of warm water and drench each one in turn. The bark soaks up the water and I think about how orchids cling to trees in the tropics, absorb nutrients from rocks and soil and exist in nearly every corner of the planet. They are both delicate and ubiquitous. They need me and they don’t. Benign neglect.

**

Mom stopped knowing who I was nearly four years ago. Before that, we spoke several times a week on the phone about whatever was easy for her. The weather, mostly, because all you have to do is look outside to talk about that. There is no need to try and remember details or conjure up names, and even when she couldn’t think of the word for rain, she could still say “water falling from the sky.” I saved the last voice mail she ever left me, not really knowing it was the last one, but when I dropped my phone in a parking lot at the grocery store a year ago, it disappeared. I can’t tell you how sad that makes me.

I have a microcassette sitting in my closet that I know has her voice on it, but I haven’t listened to it yet. I found it last year when I cleaned out her bedroom, sorting through shoes and piles of old bills and cancelled checks and the cough drops she hoarded in every pocket, bin, and drawer she had. I don’t have a micro cassette player, but I took the tape so that I can one day hear her voice again. I can’t imagine what she was recording, but it doesn’t really matter.

**

A leaf on one of the orchids has gone yellow. They do that sometimes and it always makes me worry, but after a week or so, I carefully cut it away and just keep with the program. I wonder how they know to re-direct their energy toward the rest of the plant and let this one leaf wither away. I wonder if I’m making it worse by surgically removing the dying leaf or if I’m giving it a leg up. I like to imagine I’m helping.

I wonder if it’s silly to think of mourning that part of you that is no longer needed. Being sentimental about one path when what you really need to do is refocus your efforts in another direction might be a waste of time. If cutting this withering leaf off means that the plant can use that energy to bloom again, maybe it’s the right thing to do. I suspect plants don’t exist in terms of Right and Wrong and it’s only human beings that try to make meaning where there is none. This is just the way life works.

**

I like to think that Mom is beloved. The last time I visited her, one of the caregivers remarked to me that she really enjoyed being around my mom, that she was very sweet. I don’t know if she says that to all the families or not, but it made me feel good. Mom was always fiercely independent and hated asking for help, so when she first moved in to the care facility, even though she didn’t have the words to fight, she fought in other ways. It was hard for her to be taken care of, and I worried that it meant she would be a difficult patient.

I feel guilty that I’m not the one taking care of her, but I also know that she would be furious if she knew I were the one taking care of her. She hated asking me for help more than anyone, so I suppose it’s for the best that when I do go visit and sit with her, spooning soup in to her mouth, she doesn’t know it’s me.

I’m not generally much of a retrospective kind-of person, and I’ve been watching other folks do their year-end and end-of-decade roundups (favorite books, favorite movies, what to look forward to in the next decade) with a bit of wry humor. It’s just another day, right? Another human-centric, artificially constructed milestone that offers us a chance to set new goals or assess progress or feel like we get a fresh start (that’s a loaded phrase for me, which you’ll understand after you read my memoir that is DUE OUT ON FEBRUARY 4 OF THIS COMING YEAR).

But I digress.

It turns out that 2019 was actually a pretty seminal year for me in many ways and it feels like it might be important to at least write about it for posterity. Or to solidify it in my head, to find a way to make sense of it and get a different perspective instead of having it just roil around in there like some swirling mass. So, in no particular order, as they surface from the messy tumult in my head and gut, here’s what my year was like:

* I got two publishing deals in 2019, neither of which I really expected to get. I submitted one of my bodies of work to an academic publisher on a whim because I had been trying to market my social-emotional education curriculum on my own and I was getting no traction. The publisher emailed me right back (which, if you’re a writer, you know is solid gold – so many agents and publishers and editors simply don’t respond to writers’ emails at all), and said that they felt it wasn’t right for them, but they knew a different publisher that might like it and I should send it there. Two amazing occurrences! A quick response and a referral to someone else instead! A unicorn! And because unicorns are magical, the second publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and the book One Teenager at a Time, was published in August after an avalanche of emails tightening it up and getting permissions and copyedits and excitement.

*The first book led to me learning a ton about PR, the disappointment of radio hosts ghosting you, and discovering how much I really enjoy being interviewed about my work and talking about teenagers and their special powers. I challenged myself to do a story slam for the Seattle Times Education Lab and while it was absolutely terrifying at first, I met an amazing group of folks in my local community who love kids as much as I do, who are as committed to making their educational experience better as I am, and who are working hard every single day to see that it happens. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

*The second publishing deal came about when I sent my memoir manuscript out one last time to a small press in New Jersey, CavanKerry Press, and promptly forgot I’d done it.  A few months after I sent it in, it snowed a lot in Seattle. A lot. The first morning, I woke up to that magical quiet that happens when there are eight inches of snow on the ground – no cars, no bird sounds, no city buses roaring down the street in front of the house. And then I heard a scraping noise, a repetitive, plastic-on-sidewalk scraping. My neighbor was shoveling my sidewalk and clearing the snow off of my car in case I needed to get out that day. By the next day, there were nearly 15 inches of snow and it was clear none of us was going anywhere on wheels. Seattle + snow = shutdown. The steep street I live on featured snowboarders racing down four solid blocks of perfect slope for days. On the third day, I borrowed the neighbor’s snow shovel and took my turn clearing the sidewalks and while I was out there, my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t worth it to take off my gloves and stop what I was doing to see who was calling, and only later did I realize whomever called had left a long voice mail. It was Joan Cusack Handler, the senior editor at CavanKerry, letting me know that she wanted to publish my book. I still have that voice mail saved on my phone. The letter they sent me to formalize the offer hangs on my refrigerator. I cried. I called her back immediately, thanked her profusely, ran up to my daughter’s bedroom and told her, danced in the living room, cried some more, and called my closest friends. After nine months of work with their team, the book comes out February 4. You can preorder it here.

*I also got to watch my daughters continue to shine. My oldest finished her first year of college, came home for the summer, and went back to start her second year of school with an eagerness and optimism that made my heart split wide open. She did that thing that some parents talk about where her perspective changed a bit and she chose to sit in the kitchen with me and chat while I cooked, emptied the dishwasher upon waking up before I had a chance to do it, offered to pick up groceries if I needed something. She fell in love with a philosophy class and ran for an executive position in a club at school and made friends I’ve never met. My youngest started nannying twin infants, juggled that while taking high school and college classes, and booked live gigs all around Seattle to showcase her musical acumen. She converted the guest room to a recording booth and put out an album’s worth of original music on Spotify and iTunes. She lobbied me for a pet snake, but we settled on a Russian tortoise.

*There were so many intangible things that happened this year, too. I learned that sometimes grief comes back to bite you when you think you’ve already dealt with it. I learned that I can say something in my head over and over again and it doesn’t necessarily change the belief I harbor in my body. I spent many, many lonely nights pondering how someone my age creates community and close friendships anew. I wrote less than I’ve written in 15 years – at least new content – and agonized over when I would get that flow back. I learned to do with less – cutting the cable, driving less, buying fewer things, killing 2/3 of the lawn to put in native ground cover and create a space to grow veggies and berries, actively participating in my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing Project. I remembered that every time I embark on a new self-improvement regime (exercise more, eat less meat, organize my writing life), it opens this checklist of things in my head that overwhelms me (stop drinking alcohol, no sugar at all, cardio 3x/week, don’t use plastic anything, make your own condiments, isn’t apple cider vinegar supposed to be good instead of shampoo? put solar panels on the house…) and makes me feel horrible about myself.

*I did stop drinking this year, though. I’d stopped for periods before – either when I was pregnant with  my girls or for fast-like fads – but this time that magical thing happened where I made the decision to stop (you can read about why here) and after a few weeks, I ‘knew’ I was done forever. Previously, I would see a tv commercial where someone was drinking a glass of golden chardonnay with a hint of condensation on the outside of the glass and I could taste the buttery sweetness in my mouth. Or I would open the refrigerator to start making dinner and my mind would go to the cupboard where the wine glasses are kept and I would begin the mental calculation of what kind of wine would be best with what I was making. But this time, it was different. Something shifted in my neurons that diverted the path from seeing alcohol or things I had associated with it and leading me to the physical desire for it. Yesterday, I walked past a woman who was sitting in the bar at Nordstrom (which is a really weird thing to write, that there is a bar inside Nordstrom, but that’s the crux of my essay in a nutshell), and she was talking on her phone and holding an enormous glass of white wine and I felt nothing. Thought nothing beyond, “hmm, that’s a generous pour!” I wish I knew how to make that shift happen, what is actually going on in my brain and how to trigger that particular phenomenon where I literally shut off one old, well-worn pathway that is no longer serving me in favor of a new way of being. It happened once before when I was able to forgive my abuser and shed all of the physical sensations that came with despising him and wishing him ill. It is an amazing feeling, incredibly powerful, and if I knew how to re-create it reliably, I could do so much more forgiving.

*2019 was a massive year for me. It was truly a roller coaster with enormous ups and downs. There were some dark, scary moments that bled in to weeks and simultaneously co-existed with joyous, optimistic times. It may be the year where I lived more outside my comfort zone than any other year, spending a great deal of time resting in equanimity, relying on the Universe to hold me as I forged ahead without knowing what the hell was coming. The list of things I did for the first time in 2019 is as long as I’ve ever seen it, and while some of those things flopped, many of them didn’t, and that is proof that continuing to put myself out there whether I know what I’m doing or not can be a pretty exhilarating way to live. Exhausting, but exhilarating, which is why I’m taking the rest of the day off to nest and rest.

Happy New Year, all. I hope that your 2020 offers opportunities to stretch yourself, reminders that you are held and supported, and lots of laughter. We’re going to need it to get through some of what’s coming.

I am writing my way in to my body. This is difficult, but not counterintuitive. In the last ten years or so, I’ve discovered that what I used to think was counterintuitive was simply fear. Instead of doing what I was told to do (don’t poke at that, don’t examine the pain, pretend it isn’t there or deny it or minimize it) for most of my life, I have learned that opening up, asking questions, and leading with curiosity is actually the most intuitive thing I can do.

So, while it has been a while since I sat down to write, I am agitated and hyped, uncomfortable and tense, and too far in my head. It is time to write my way in to my body.

The word agitated conjures up the washing machine of my youth – the golden colored 1970s top loading contraption that swirled clothes to clean them by violently twisting them back and forth. The one I had to stand on my tiptoes or levitate off the ground in order to reach that last sock or pair of underwear caught on one of the fins of the center agitator before tossing it all in to the dryer. Is this agitation getting things clean? Is it separating the dirt from the substance?

I am an extreme empath, especially when it comes to my daughters. When they are overwhelmed or upset, joyful or incredibly excited, I am too. I feel it in my core – like that washing machine agitator of old. I think sometimes I need that twisting motion, that constant shifting and moving inside me in order to parse out what is mine and what is theirs. Especially when the intensity is driven by fear.

It is my job as Mom and holder of space, purveyor of radical acceptance and unconditional love to operate from a place of calm and curiosity and centeredness. In order to do so, I have to filter out the fear.

It is Spring and I am eager to burst forth in to new growth and projects. Last fall I went to a plant sale and bought two tiny dogwoods and a lilac. They were in 1-gallon pots and at the time, they were simply sticks standing upright – not even impressive enough to be called a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I was skeptical that they would grow at all, but even after the 15 inches of snow we got this winter (unheard of in Seattle), a week ago, they each sported one tiny leaf. Today, they are all decked out in green, leaves growing by the minute thanks to the rain and sun breaks we have had. I like to imagine that all winter they lay resting, knowing that the time would come for them to busily push forth new leaves, maybe even agitating deep inside as the Earth rotated and the days got longer, readying themselves for the burst of energy it takes to produce new growth.

I think I’m a few weeks behind, but I’m going to get there.

I want to say it started the day E got home from college, but the truth is, it began somewhere back in October. I’m a stocking-stuffer fiend, to say the least. I start collecting things early – a small face mask someone said they loved, an ornament that will encapsulate the achievements of the last year, a pair of fuzzy socks just perfect for lounging. There are not many things that give me more of a jolt of joy than finding a tiny trinket that I can tuck away for Christmas for my girls.

Over the years, I’ve collected other kids, too. My daughters’ friends who hang out at the kitchen counter and snack, do homework, play games – I listen to their stories and sometimes when I’m out wandering, I find something small that will give them a laugh or let them know I’m happy to have them in my life by extension.

Those kitchen-counter gatherings happened less this fall while E was far away at school, so when she came back in mid-December, the volume of extra teenagers in the house more than doubled. Having more mouths to feed, more laughter, and more noise in my house is bliss. I don’t even have to adjust the amount of food I cook, because thanks to my great-grandmother, I am incapable of cooking for less than five or six people at a time, anyway. There are just fewer leftovers and more midnight raids on the fridge, more smiles and a few more dishes and a lot more glee in my life.

By the time the solstice rolled around, my heart was full. And even though the girls had gone with their dad for a few days, I had a lunch date with good friends and had prepared myself for the long, dark night and the letting go that comes with the winter solstice. I knew exactly what I wanted to release and I needed the dark and the quiet and the stillness to crystallize my thoughts and intentions. I lit candles, breathed deeply, formed pictures in my mind of just what it would mean to help myself be lighter. I imagined the weight and heft and color of the burden I’ve been carrying, nurturing, feeding, and by the time midnight rolled around, I had it cornered in my body and knew just how much space it inhabited. I blew out the candles and let go, seeing it disperse in to a million tiny fragments as though propelled with a giant wave rippling out, out, out. I’ll never be free of it, but having the bits and pieces spread throughout my body lessens the weight and impact. Instead of feeling it tight and heavy in my chest, I can let each of the bits be part of something larger in their own way. I woke up feeling lighter, free.

Over the following days, I spent time with dear friends and family. I saw my mom, my best friend, my brother and sister, an old friend who has known me since seventh grade whose history is both intertwined with mine and divergent. I was blessed with open arms and love and amazingly easy travel conditions. There were hugs and sweet moments of recognition as precious gifts were exchanged. Tears of joy and connection as we looked at each other and knew; we are holding each other, we see each other, we honor each other.

The date, the day of the week – it never mattered. Was it Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? I still struggle to place myself in a calendar because there are still gifts to be opened in the living room, the fridge is full of delicious food, there are forthcoming plans with friends over the next few days. My house and heart will continue to be filled up with conversation and laughter.

Even as I prepared for the ritual of the solstice, I wasn’t sure it would work. I didn’t know if I could let go of something that I know will continue to trigger me for a long time to come. And in the days following, when I was, indeed, triggered, I braced myself even as I realized I was doing better. The blow didn’t come as hard, sink as deep, or leave a bruise that my mind and heart worried over in the hours following. Letting go had worked. Somehow, I was able to use the darkness to align my heart and my head with my values and intentions and it feels as though the light hours – even though they are shorter – have more room for love and laughter. And I’m using every last second to soak up my girls and their friends and the moments with loved ones. It truly does feel like the most wonderful time of the year.

One year ago today, I was surrounded by a group of amazing women who helped move Eve and Lola and I in to our new home. They packed boxes, cleaned cupboards, organized movers, found screwdrivers, and held me up during an incredibly difficult time. The transition from a life I loved and knew and assumed I’d always have to a mostly blank canvas felt simultaneously frightening and exciting, awfully sad and tinged with possibility. I was able to experience the full range of emotion precisely because of these women who showed up, who loved me and my daughters, and who helped me feel safe.

I am so incredibly grateful and so lucky to have such people in my life.

In my previous life, there had been lots of dinner parties and events – many occasions to host friends and family and fill the house with laughter and great food.

In the last year, I’ve hosted scores of the girls’ friends for both impromptu study sessions/girls’ nights and planned Halloween or New Year’s gatherings, but I’ve not felt like I was quite ready to host something on my own for grown ups. Until now.

It wasn’t supposed to be a housewarming party, but it turns out that this morning, my new home feels properly “warmed.” Last night, I hosted a house concert as a fund raiser for Eat With Muslims, an organization started by two women in Seattle to try and build community and understanding of Muslim culture and individuals who are Muslim using food (brilliant!). Sheryl Wiser, a local singer-songwriter suggested that we do it as part of her Pies + Persistence project that raises money for nonprofits who are working for social justice and human rights in the face of this current Presidential administration’s often horrific policies. She would play music, and Lola (who has been working furiously on her own original music for over a year) would open the performances with three of her songs.

We put out the word on social media and via email and the house filled up with amazing salads, deli trays, the most delicious Somalian chicken and rice dish I have had in my lifetime, and cranberry pie (tart). So many of us didn’t know each other when the evening started, but the conversation never lagged and the plates were never empty. We sat and stood around the kitchen island laughing and telling each other about our lives and when it came time to sit for music, my heart was full. My house was full of people ranging in age from teens to 70+, enjoying each others’ company with the dogs weaving their way around the room sniffing for scraps.

The music was beautiful and heartfelt and mesmerizing, and people stayed afterward to continue chatting and laughing. When I fell in to bed just before midnight, I was grinning from ear to ear. I can’t think of a better way to flood our new home with love and positive energy than by gathering a group of people for food and music to support the hard work of women making a difference one dinner party at a time.

This life, it is a joyful one. There are good people in our midst doing amazing things. I can’t wait to throw another party.

Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It’s been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.

The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.

Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you’ve ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.

Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I’ve cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.

If you’re like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that – I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.

When things happened that I couldn’t have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.

Eventually, that did several things:

  • fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it’s because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it), 
  • turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel), 
  • exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time – the vast majority of which weren’t mine to put out, 
  • reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
  • put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I became an alternately frantic and depleted half-person who was ultimately incredibly unhappy, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. 
But as I sat with Mom the other night, I reminded myself that difficult feelings do not compel me to act. Just because something is hard to witness doesn’t mean I have to DO anything about it. [Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone is in physical pain or imminent danger – yup, I’m diving in if I can.] And if I can ground myself in that moment enough to just acknowledge that what I’m experiencing is really hard and I’d rather not be feeling it, it helps me to focus my efforts. It may be that an hour or more later I will decide that there’s something I can do that will help – but those acts are purposeful, effective, and efficient. The way I used to handle things like that was scattershot – come up with all of the things I could do to cover any potentiality, make lists, call people, insert myself into the situation to “fix” things so that they wouldn’t make me uncomfortable. 
For the record, Susan didn’t like this conversation at all, and I totally get it. There is something seductive about knowing that we can effect change in any situation, especially ones that make us sad or scared or angry. And often we can be in control. For a while. Until we wear out. For me, learning to sit with painful feelings was a survival mechanism. I wouldn’t have lasted long at the pace I was going if I continued to think that I had to address every unpleasant situation I found myself in. I can say that my life isn’t any easier now, but I’m a heck of a lot happier and I believe that the things I choose to do are making a much bigger difference than before.