Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This one is for all the rage-cryers out there. You know who you are. I’m one, too. I cry when I am furious, and it used to really piss me off. In class, in heated discussions in a college setting, at work. Someone would say something that enraged me (remember – rage is about powerlessness, so whenever there was a particular injustice or something that was misconstrued in an altogether unfair way, when I was belittled or mocked or dismissed …) and I would feel it start to well up and it was awful because I am a woman. It’s embarrassing. And more than that, it is one of those things that, as soon as the tears begin to flow, you know people will stop paying attention to what you’re saying and start reacting to the fact that you are “being emotional.”

If you identify with this, you are aware that there is literally nothing you can do to stop it once it starts. Even if you do your level best to continue to speak logically, you know there are people who are rolling their eyes at you and dismissing you simply because  you are crying.

But here’s the thing: focus on the “nothing you can do” part and know this (and share it widely because the more people know, the more we can destigmatize rage tears): Rage crying is a normal, physiological human response to increased levels of cortisol in our bodies. 

The main goal of our bodies is to maintain and/or restore homeostasis – that is, a middle ground, equilibrium. That is why, when we get too hot, our bodies trigger the mechanism that makes us sweat, so we cool off. When we are too cold, we shiver and get goosebumps so that we are prompted to raise our body temperature. When we have too much gas in our systems, our bodies have adapted to pass that gas – by burping or farting. Etc. Etc. Cortisol is a hormone that is produced by our adrenal glands in response to stress, and when we have too much of it, our bodies know that it needs to be offloaded somehow. Excess cortisol affects our immune response, increases levels of inflammation and can cause all sorts of physical ailments – so when there is too much, we have to get rid of it.

Wanna know one of the most efficient ways to offload cortisol?

Crying.

I shit you not.

Researchers have measured the amount of cortisol in tears when people are crying in different situations, and have shown that there are elevated levels of stress hormone in the tears of people who rage cry.

So basically, when you are frustrated with someone and feeling powerless and you start to sob, that is just your body’s way of achieving homeostasis – it’s like burping when you have too much gas in your belly or sweating when you’re too hot.

Sadly, we have been taught that crying in public is unacceptable, so many of us have learned to stifle this urge. Patriarchy has us teaching boys that it’s not really ok to cry at all, and prompts us to tell young women that in order to be ‘professional’ they need to compose themselves at work or they won’t be taken seriously. But this does nothing to relieve our bodies of the extra stress hormone it carries, and so when we force ourselves to stop crying, our bodies often turn to other means. So what else do humans do to relieve stress during these times? Men and boys have been socialized to externalize their stress – how many stories have you heard of a teenage boy punching a hole in a wall when he was upset? Turns out punching and kicking things also offloads cortisol (although not as efficiently as crying). Young women and girls internalize their stress for social and cultural reasons and one of the scariest things we know about how they try to achieve homeostasis is by self-harming – namely burning or cutting themselves. Cortisol levels drop measurably in people who engage in cutting behavior (and, yes, young men engage in self-harm as well, although not as often as young women do).

So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we’d rather normalize angry tears from our fellow human beings as a normal, physiological response to stress or not. Can we recognize that this is a normal, adaptive thing that our bodies do and not force an alternative response that will ultimately end up being more harmful? Yes, it’s uncomfortable for us to witness another person crying, but the more we understand that it is literally something our bodies need to do in order to function better, the more we can accept it and move forward.

Tell your families, tell your co-workers, tell your kids. And the next time you feel that familiar lump in your throat and your hands clench into fists, let ‘er rip.

Mother’s Day weekend will forever be complicated for me. Because none of us who are mothers are only just mothers – we are daughters, too, I have this strange caught-in-the-middle feeling of being pushed and pulled. But beyond that, it was Mother’s Day weekend when my father died in my arms 14 years ago, and as much as I’d like to think that those kind of anniversaries become less of a focus over time, I haven’t found that to be true.

Every year in the last days before the deathaversary, I start to get teary and emotional. I feel shaky in my body and achy and a little “off,” and it usually takes me a lot of introspection and “what the fuck is with me?” to figure it out. I don’t know how my body knows, but it does. To be honest, I don’t even really remember thinking that it was Mother’s Day weekend when I was holding Dad and rocking him and whispering to him that it was ok to leave if he needed to. But given that the last few hours I spent with him are among some of the most crystal clear memories I carry, it’s not surprising that I feel it so viscerally over and over again every year.

I moved to a new town a year ago, and Mother’s Day weekend was the first weekend I spent in my new home – the only  home I’ve ever lived in alone, without kids or a partner. Last year was also the first Mother’s Day weekend after my mom died. This morning, I leashed the dogs and put them in the car for the four mile drive to Bishop Diego Garcia High School – the Catholic high school my mom and her siblings attended. I’d never been there before, and while my mom and I didn’t ever talk about her time growing up here, I knew this was one place where she spent a great deal of time. I was amazed at how small the school is and really struck by how lovely the grounds are. It was almost exactly what I expected a Catholic high school to look like in this town, in some ways, and as soon as the dogs and I stepped on to the path that meanders through campus, I felt her. I hope she was happy here. I hope she had fond memories.

I’ll spend my afternoon hiking in the hills above town, thinking about my parents and how much I miss them, feeling grateful that I am mother to my amazing kids, and honoring the work of mothering in all its forms. I am increasingly enamored of the idea that I can create nests for beloveds as part of the continued mothering I want to and will do. I love the notion that nests are created from whatever materials are available in the immediate area and are designed to be safe and comfortable, often in precarious places. They don’t have to be pretty. That’s not the point.

I have written and written and written about reproductive rights for twenty years or more. I’ve written op-eds, chapters in anthologies, essays for online outlets, and even an entire book that was never published. Over and over again, I’ve expressed my opinion as a woman and as a parent, hoping that my words weren’t just reaching folks who already agreed with me. And for a while, I stopped, because I feared that’s exactly what was happening. I don’t remember the last time I wrote about it until yesterday, but when I went to bed last night with such a heavy heart, the thing that came instantly to my mind was not abortion providers or women who need abortions and can’t get them (although I am outraged and fearful for them, no doubt). It was my children I thought of – the ones I gave birth to and the ones I love and nurture without any biological connection at all.

I know what it takes to raise children in this country. And my position and perspective is one of extreme privilege, so perhaps I ought to say that I know what it takes to raise children in this country as a white woman with money who was married to a white man, both of us college educated. I cannot ever know what it is to raise a child without financial security and a roof over my head and a partner. I cannot know what it is to raise a child as a person of color, someone who is not heterosexual or neurotypical or fully able-bodied. And so when I say that raising a child is hard, exhausting, overwhelming work, please imagine that for folks who didn’t have the resources I had, it is one hundred thousand times harder.

Raising a child in this country means being pressured by all of the people around you – professional and personal – to do things a certain way. It is a constant struggle to discern what is best – breast or bottle, pacifier or thumb, circumcision or not, vaccine schedules, preschool or daycare – if you have the luxury of choice, that is. It is 24 hours a day of tending to another human being one way or another – providing food and care and working to make sure they’re safe and learning. It is navigating systems that are not designed to support families – school systems, healthcare systems, and cities. It is often sacrificing your own well-being and health and rest in order to ensure that your child is healthy and happy. It is unequal work and it is uncompensated.

I could go on, given what I know about raising school-aged children and teenagers and supporting young adults, but I won’t. My point is this: parenting is an overwhelmingly exhausting and depleting lifetime job and it should be freely chosen. What if we lived in a world where each and every child was so loved and wanted that the task of parenting was embraced and supported by the extended community? What if every child was surrounded by a group of caring adults who had the resources and the ability to make them feel absolutely loved and safe?

That is what abortion offered me when I was 17. Because it was legal and I had access, I was able to make a decision to postpone having children until I was ready to provide them with a safe, loving home. When my first daughter was born, I was 29 and a full-throated YES to bringing her into the world. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t hard work, but I was married, financially secure, and emotionally ready to begin that journey. It changed everything about my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I was ready, and that made all the difference. My second daughter came when I was 31 and, again, it was a full-throated YES.

Over the years, other kids came into my life who needed something they couldn’t get elsewhere – emotional support, a safe physical space to be, help with a challenging situation – and because I had solid footing, I was able to give them a full-throated YES, too. Every one of us deserves that – to know that we can rely on others to support us when we need it, but we can’t have that if we don’t get to choose when to have children. Parenting is so overwhelming that it subsumes everything. Not all the time, but enough that careers get derailed, bank accounts get depleted, marriages fall apart. Allowing people to choose when they bring a child into their life is a game-changer. One of the most basic psychological needs of a healthy human being is agency. Self-determination. The belief that we get to be in charge of some of the biggest things in our lives.

Reproductive rights aren’t political, they’re fundamental to healthy humanity, and what is fundamental to healthy humanity is fundamental for a healthy community. We cannot build strong, caring communities without a full-throated YES to each and every one of us.

What if every child knew that they were a full-throated YES?

jumble of Meyer lemons on a cooktop surface

 

January has been a long month. Seriously. I know I’m not the only one saying that, and that the last two years have honestly been such a time warp in general, but it is only the 22nd day of the month and I honestly feel as though I’ve lived several lifetimes this year so far.

Last Monday I woke up with a nagging headache. Not debilitating, but pretty uncomfortable. I’m no stranger to headaches in general, since I have a very finicky neck that doesn’t allow me to sleep in certain positions or do particular tasks that most people wouldn’t think twice about. Probably once a month, I end up with a pretty gnarly headache that requires a trip to my phenomenal chiropractor to fix (she shakes her head and says, “what have you done?” in a very gentle, caring manner that reminds me I am in good good hands and puts everything back where it is supposed to be and sends me on my way). So, honestly, that’s what I figured this was. I made my way through the day with Advil and the hope that it would resolve on its own.

But around midnight on Monday/Tuesday, I started to notice that I was thrashing about in bed quite a bit and that is really unusual for me. It only took a minute before I realized I was spiking a fever – this was chills, and the headache had kicked up a notch. I knew pretty much right away that this was Covid. I stuck it out until dawn and then took my temperature to confirm, texted a friend who I knew had access to home tests, and waited.

It was a rough four days. That headache was brutal. Not the worst one I’ve ever had, but definitely second in line. I couldn’t watch tv or read or really look at much of anything. I just laid on the couch staring into space and hoping it would abate sooner rather than later. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered that when I first moved here last May, this was the scenario I feared most – that I’d get sick while living on my own and not be able to really take care of myself or the dogs. I’m here to say that, like most fears I’ve ever had in my life, this one didn’t play out the way my amygdala warned me it would.

I had friends near and far texting me all day long, checking in, offering help of any kind. The friend with the home tests also brought soup, Gatorade, bottles of water, cold medicine from her own stash, and Meyer lemons from her tree. Other new local friends offered food delivery, dog walks, and just general moral support. One of my neighbors, having spotted a friend dropping off supplies at the front door, texted one night to say her husband had just made a beautiful homemade dinner – could they fix me a plate and leave it at the door for me?

I was brought to tears with each and every one of these offers, and I accepted it all (well, not the dog-walking – my dogs would no more leave me behind at the house and go walk with someone else than they would chew their own leg off). Blissfully, the headache subsided by Day 3 and I remember lying on the couch, imagining my poor, stressed brain inside my skull, sending it waves of soothing light to recover. Every little thing I did prompted a two-hour nap. The last time I was this exhausted was after giving birth to Erin and that was only because I caught the flu while I was in the hospital so I brought her home and spent the first week battling a fever and trying to recover from a 40-hour labor.

I’m still recovering, but finally not sleeping 16-18 hours a day. I am able to do a few things here and there and then lie down for a bit to rest. There is some acute sense that if I don’t go slowly, there is a real danger of setting myself back, and I can’t help but wonder how people with children at home or elders to care for or lots of work to do that needs to be done manage this. It honestly brings me to tears to think about having to make a meal for someone else or go to a job feeling such extreme fatigue. I wish we lived in a world where we believed each other when we say we need rest, where we made sure to provide space and the necessities for that to happen. I recognize my massive privilege in this – that I was able to be cared for from afar by friends and family, that I am able to put off my work obligations as long as I need to, that I have a roof over my head and a soft bed in which to recuperate. I wish that for everyone.

It is so interesting that one of the first things people ask is “where did you get it” and then “were you vaccinated?” I am reminded that we have done a really good job of framing this pandemic in the same way we frame nearly everything in this culture – in terms of personal responsibility. I know that those two questions are some attempt to insulate ourselves – if we think we can crack the code, we can avoid getting sick. But I also know there is some judgment there because that’s what we’ve been taught. If you just didn’t do X, you wouldn’t be struggling with Y. I am so much more taken by the folks who ask “how can I support you” and “what do you need?” There is a radical form of community that can be created just by asking these simple questions and I am here to tell you, it feels amazing to be the recipient of it. On Thursday night, when I was so astonished by how absolutely tired a person could feel after sleeping most of the day, my phone pinged with an incoming email. As I read something from a friend expressing her deep care for me and her fervent wish that I recover quickly and thoroughly, I spent a few minutes going back through my day and replaying all of the text messages I’d gotten from a dozen or more friends and family members, checking in, offering help, saying they were sending love, and I made the conscious decision to hold that in my head and heart as the last thoughts before sleep – the notion that I was held in deep care and love by so many people from literally all over the planet. It was magic.

I’m now a week in and my sense of taste and smell is coming and going unpredictably, I struggle to catch my breath when walking the dogs on our normal, flat, 20-minute route through the neighborhood, and I still occasionally sit down after doing something  mundane like folding a load of laundry and feel a powerful need for a nap. My sleep is the sleep of the dead – deep, strange dreams and waking up feels like swimming up from the depths of the ocean, but I am grateful for the freedom to sleep when I need to and for friends and family who text or call or email to check in and let me know they’re rooting for me. That is medicine for my soul.

 

 

image of multiple lightning strikes against a dark sky with a city below

U.S. Air Force photo by Edward Aspera Jr., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I was talking to two new friends yesterday about my daughters, explaining that I feel so connected to them energetically – I mean, when they are joyful, my spine sings with energy and when they are overwhelmed and anxious, my skin crackles with angst – and I don’t often know how to contain it. I talked about how I’ve learned, over the years, to close my eyes and ask, is this mine? It is a way to get space, to begin to discern whether the weight I’m carrying, the clench of my jaw and the tightening of my tongue against my soft palate, is vicarious or coming from some deep place inside my brain or body.

Often, this question gives me some relief. A way to distance myself a bit from the physicality of the connection if I determine that the anxiety, the frustration, the overwhelm is not mine. But yesterday, as we talked, I began to question whether it matters or not. If what I want is to maintain that close, empathetic connection with my daughters, perhaps trying to find boundaries between what is “theirs” and what is “mine” is something I learned from colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy. A protective mechanism that assures me I am separate and, therefore, not responsible for someone else’s strong feelings. And while I am not sure I want to assume responsibility per se, I don’t wish to completely divorce myself from being able to stay in tune with what my beloveds are feeling, especially their deepest, most intense feelings.


This morning’s walk on the beach was an exercise in “I Don’t Know.” The dogs were pulling at their leashes back in the direction of the parking lot, there were none of the usual birds standing in the shallows, there was more beach glass tucked in among the rocks than ever before. I watched as my mind tried to go down different paths – looking for explanations and attempting to find answers – and noticed that when I do that, I become blind to what is around me. When I preface my observations with I don’t know, I am able to simply notice what is.

I don’t know why there is one amorphous patch of brilliant bougainvillea on the hillside tucked in among the shrubs.

I don’t know why one rock has so many enormous mussels on it and the one next to it has anemones only.

I don’t know where the birds are this morning.

I don’t know why some of the rocks have marbled streaks of white in them.

There are certainly answers to all of these things, but those answers are not important to me. On my wanderings in the morning, paying attention to what is takes my nervous system from jittery to still. Widening my gaze and finding a steady, rhythmic gait sets the foundation for a slow heartbeat.


Texting with my daughter this morning about her sore throat, I was reminded that I read somewhere that our nervous systems develop in the womb before we ever have skin or bones or hair. Before we have physical form, we have nerve cells that will receive information and translate it to all the parts of our eventual bodies.

I wonder what my mom was doing when my nervous system was developing. I know she was on bed rest for much of her pregnancy, but I also know that it was stressful, with a toddler running around. I doubt she felt very zen. I wonder what effect maternal emotions have on a developing fetus.

This is not about blame. It is about connection. It is a wondering about all of the ways we are connected, and have been for longer than we know. It is an acknowledgment that there are so many ways in which we are designed to be together, to grow and learn and be part of each others’ experiences. And it is a reminder that being energetically connected to my children is something that is normal, natural, and likely immutable. So from this point forward, when I feel a strong emotion that comes to me from one of my daughters, rather than asking whether it’s mine, I will affirm that it is ours. Together. And we will ride that wave in solidarity until we can breathe deeply and resist asking why, because sometimes it is a huge relief to start the sentence with “I don’t know”

What is it about having that breeds wanting?

Last week my oldest, who I hadn’t seen for nearly six months, managed to get four days off of work in a row and she flew out for a visit and a rest. Seeing her reunite with her sister and her best friend, waking up and walking out of my room to see her sound asleep in the guest room, having coffee with her in the morning – it was exquisite. And I found myself longing, thinking, more of this, please! I also found myself dreading the moment she got on a plane to return to her life thousands of miles away.

It is exhausting perching on the point of now, toes crammed together on the peak, looking at the down slope of what could be (and often, what I wish for) on one side and on the other, looking at the down slope of what has been and what might have been different. My mind races forward and back like a dog chasing seagulls on the beach, imagining, hoping, wishing, lamenting, preparing for the end of what is.

It is in those moments when I can dial back my perception to the now, imagine the tip of this present time flattening out, stretching to let my feet stand firm, toes spread wide, that I begin to find gratitude and let go of longing. I lose the fear of what could have been or what might be and practice – shaky but resolved – appreciating what is. In those times, I am able to remember to notice the joy of being with beloveds, pay attention to the laughter and the way the light falls and the smell of jasmine on our walk through the neighborhood. My mind tugs at me, wanting to find a way to prolong it, reproduce it, prevent it from ever stopping. It is surprising how insistent that impulse is, how quickly it can make me stand back up on tiptoe and lose my balance.

I am trying to remember that our bodies can only ever be in the Now, while our minds are almost always in the past or the future. And while being in my body can sometimes feel incredibly scary, with its pockets of fear and unprocessed pain, in the present moment, more often than not, I am safe, and I can find a measure of joy.

But this empty-nester thing is for real. I am 49 years old and I have never lived alone. I went from living with my sister and mom to a college dorm with a roommate, to an apartment shared with my brother, to living with my future-husband. I was married for 23 years and even after the divorce, I had my girls with me most of the time. The occasional weekend when they were away at their dad’s house didn’t prepare me for the long stretches of time alone. I am continually shocked at how rarely I go to the grocery store, prepare a full meal, talk to another human being (I talk to the dogs a lot). Everything is brand new right now and it takes effort to flatten that pinpoint Now so that I can stand, feet flat on the Earth, in full connection with this moment and remember that, at least in this second, the future is none of my business.

Two young women sitting together in front of a fountain

It’s Mother’s Day and I’m thinking about my children. I woke up, having tucked my right hand firmly beneath my butt cheek to keep my arm from flopping off the side of the bed. This morning, it was because Marley (the dog) was pressed right up against my side – his bony spine as unyielding as a block of iron. But it was the memory – the muscle memory of tucking my hand underneath myself so that my arm didn’t dangle off the side and get cold and go numb – that made me smile. I developed this technique of sleeping comfortably on the very edge of the bed as a young mother.

Erin slept like Jesus on the cross – arms flung out to both sides – and for such a tiny thing, she took up an astonishing amount of room on our Queen size bed. She slept so lightly that the slightest move would wake her to angry tears. She wasn’t a cuddler, but she slept most soundly in bed with us, and it meant I could roll over to nurse her once or twice in the wee hours and we could both sink back into sleep without my feet ever hitting the cold floor. But she and Sean took up the majority of the bed and, as much as he hated that we let her share the bed, it was easier for me to avoid the conversation by fitting myself into the smallest slice of mattress I could by sleeping with one arm tucked beneath me, flat on my back, straight as a chopstick.

Lauren shared our bed as an infant, too, but she wanted to snuggle. Sean was sometimes more resigned to sharing the bed with her and other times more vocal in his resistance when he realized that with Erin, it hadn’t simply been my response to her difficulty sleeping and more of a parenting philosophy. I wanted my babies close. He wanted a bed for us and nobody else.

I encouraged Lauren to curl up against me instead of him, hoping that in his sleep, he could forget she was there. As long as she didn’t poke him or make him too hot, maybe he wouldn’t be reminded she was there if he rose up from a deep sleep to semi-consciousness in the middle of the night.

During those years, I often woke up with a stiff neck, legs contorted at odd angles, lying nearly diagonal across the bottom half of the bed to carve out some extra space, while Sean slept on his half and Lauren’s tiny frame curled into a Nautilus in the middle, her little fingers wrapped around my ear or tangled in my hair. When Sean traveled – which was a lot – he got the hotel bed to himself, and I invited Erin into our bed and slept in the center, stiff and straight, with her making her t-shape on one side and Lauren pushed up against me on the other. It was bliss.

I may have awoken stiff and sore, but I never woke up resentful. In those first quiet moments before anyone else opened their eyes to the day, I clearly remember lying there wondering at this beautiful life, smiling to myself at how amazing it was to be lying in bed next to one or both of my babies. My heart warms and tears swell in my throat at the memory, with deep gratitude that I experienced this – waking every day next to the warm little body of a person who called me “Momma.”

I’d tuck my hand under my butt and wake with a sore neck all over again for these two – these amazing humans that made me a mother. I am so incredibly blessed to have them in my life and so honored to have held them for the time I did. Happy Mother’s Day, girls. I adore you.

picture of a sandy beach with big rocks and a blue sky

I have been absent here for a long time, not because I don’t have things to write about, but because I have to wait for things to settle before I can write. In the last two months, I have completely turned my life upside-down, by selling my house in Seattle and moving closer to family in Southern California. During that time, I became an empty-nester for real – even spending a couple of intense weeks in LA helping my youngest and her boyfriend move into an airbnb and, later, an amazing apartment.

All of this has inspired grief, sadness, excitement, anticipation, curiosity, and fear – a lot of fear. I feel like I am a river that used to run clear and someone came in with a massive dredging machine and stirred up all the sediment at the bottom. The emotions are swirling and mixing and making the water cloudy and all I can do is notice and wait for it to settle so that I can have some clarity.

In the beginning of April, I was frustrated that my house wasn’t selling and that, although I had decided to move, I felt trapped in Seattle by circumstances. Several friends noted that I was not, in fact, trapped. I could go anytime I wanted to and leave the house empty – it would sell. It took a while, but I gradually began to believe them, over the protestations of my parents’ voices in my head

You can’t be irresponsible and just leave

You have obligations. What makes you think you can just drop everything and go?

You have to have another place to land all lined up before you leap from the foundation you’re on

I packed a huge suitcase, the rest of my daughter’s things, sold my little electric car, rented a van and took my two dogs and the pet tortoise on the road. I have never done a solo road trip before in my life. I was excited and also really really scared. As I sat in the driveway one last time, ready to drive away without knowing how long I’d be gone, I created a mantra that I hoped would calm my fears and ground me when I got panicky or unsure.

I am safe.

I am loved.

I have resources.

I deserve joy.

It worked. Every single time I started to freak out and worry, I put one hand on my heart and repeated those words to myself – sometimes over and over again until my breathing slowed and I felt calm again. Now, the simple act of speaking the first sentence settles me.

I am safe. This one reminds me to come back to my body. It helps me remember that I am not bleeding to death or in some mortal peril, no matter how scared I am. It zooms my vision out to the wider range of my life and lets me notice that my feet are touching the ground, I am breathing clean air, my vision is clear (well, with my glasses on), and in general, I am not in danger.

I am loved. This is a reminder that I am connected to something bigger. That there are people out there who are rooting for me, who are invested in my well-being, and who do really love me and consider me part of their family, chosen or otherwise. Often, conjuring up the image of just one of my beloveds is enough to make me smile spontaneously.

I have resources. If a tire goes flat, I have a cell phone to call for help. If I encounter horrible weather, I can pull over and wait it out inside the van. I have money for food and I know people along the route who I can call on for support. I have resources in the form of my life experience and wisdom. I know how to handle challenging situations and when to ask for assistance. I am not alone, no matter what my anxiety-spiraling brain tries to tell me.

I deserve joy. This one is key. It reminds me that this life is mine to live and if starting over in a different city will bring me joy, then I deserve to do that, no matter how hard it might be or how many years I spent in Seattle building a foundation. I deserve to pursue a life that feels expansive and purposeful and I don’t have to justify it (even to my dead parents in my head).

Oh, and the house? It sold the day after I packed up and left Seattle. I think it was the act of taking that leap of faith, of really committing to my own happiness and future that opened up the space in my old house for a new family to fall in love with it. The last month has been a whirlwind of packing and purging and moving and unpacking and as I write this, I am surrounded by half-emptied boxes of things and bubble wrap and a house with more dog beds than human beds, but I am planted in my new town and, more importantly, I have begun to really believe in my bones that I am safe, I am loved, I have resources, and I deserve joy.

You do, too.

XO,

Kari

Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 2.5, 

and letting go.

Much of my personal work during the last four years of my life has followed the theme of letting go.

Watching my mother descend further and further into herself with Alzheimer’s, acknowledging that there wouldn’t be an opportunity to reconcile all of the questions I had and grieving as she stopped knowing who I was to her was a long, grueling process.

Mourning the end of my 23-year marriage and the loss of the person I’d considered my best friend for more than half of my life, moving to a new house and reimagining all of my plans for life after the girls moved out was unexpected and is still ongoing.

Moving my oldest daughter thousands of miles away to start college and beginning to understand that I don’t know most of what she does in any given day. Being prevented by the pandemic lockdown from helping her find her first apartment and her first car and from even traveling to share her 21st birthday with her was an exercise in equanimity and faith.

And now my youngest and her boyfriend are moving out to start their life and careers in Los Angeles and I’ve decided to uproot myself and leave Seattle. It has brought excitement and anticipation and many joyful hours as I dream of choosing just the right house in just the right neighborhood for me, slowly and deliberately filling it with things I love and that bring me peace, and strengthening my relationship with extended family who will live close by. But all of this letting go is also surfacing fear and anxiety and old thought patterns that can feel incredibly overwhelming.

Yesterday, I decided to steel myself and go down the rabbit hole.  I started by making a comprehensive list of all the things I am afraid of. A specific, honest, detailed list of the things that are rattling around in my head and sparking little fires I feel like I have to put out all day long.

The next sheet of paper was dedicated to exploring “what if.” What if those things do come to fruition? What if fear #1 actually happens? What do I do? How do I manage it? Taking the fears one by one allowed me to remember that I have resources, I have experience and wisdom, and I can make a plan to tackle each of the (highly unlikely) scenarios I am imagining in my head.

Then I pulled out a third piece of paper and made a list of my touchstones. I asked myself, what are the things that remain constant and supportive and solid in my life? Who are those people? What are the practices I can engage in? Where can I seek comfort that is real and available to me? Making that list was really wonderful and affirming, and reminded me that I have people in my life who love me and see me for who I am, and I know how to calm myself with nature, reading, yoga.

At the bottom of that same piece of paper, I made a list of “not-touchstones.” These are things that, at first glance, seem to be solid and real and supportive, but they’re transient. The first thing on that list is my house. The familiar surroundings feel safe and comforting. I know the sounds and how the light falls and which couch is most comfortable for watching tv. This house served a purpose, to be sure. It was everything the girls and I were looking for when we left our old home, where we lived with their father. We chose it together and we made it a place where their friends were welcomed with love and laughter. And we have squeezed all that we needed out of this lime. We used all the juice, and neither of my girls needs to be here anymore. They are off on their own grand adventures and so, while I might feel comfortable in this place because it is familiar, it will keep me small and feel incredibly lonely without them in it.

The next not-touchstone is wishing for my mom. Imagining what she would have said or done to support me isn’t helpful because even when she was alive, she couldn’t have done anything; she didn’t know who I was anymore. I can absolutely talk to her and feel her presence, but wishing that she was physically here and able to come help me pack and dream with me will only keep me stuck.


The third one is this city. I’ve lived here for nearly 30 years and it has been glorious. I know the suburbs and the city’s neighborhoods. I have favorite restaurants and grocery stores and places to walk. I can get around with ease and I understand the local politics. And yet, this lime is just a husk now, too. I have had a really wonderful life here in Seattle and also, there is nothing left for me here. Staying here because I know it, I understand it, and it’s safe would be the wrong choice.

Years ago, I created a meditation for my youngest daughter when it became clear that she really struggles with transitions and big change. This morning, I used it myself. I had asked her to imagine she is a hermit crab in a shell that is really tight and too small. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with that shell, she just outgrew it. The scary part about looking for a new shell when you’re a hermit crab, though, is that you have to leave the old one to go hunting for the new one, and that means your backside is all soft and vulnerable while you look. And being out in the world, exposed, feels really scary. It can also be sad to leave behind that old shell. You chose it for a reason – maybe it was really pretty or just the right shape, and you knew its every contour and swirl. But that doesn’t change the fact that it no longer fits you. It served its purpose, and it’s time to go find the next shell you can love. Saying goodbye to that old one is sad and frightening, but you know if you stay there, you’ll be uncomfortable and you won’t move like you can. Shell-hunting is a leap of faith. It requires trusting that the next one is out there and you’ll find it in time, and you’ll grow to love it just as much as you loved that old one you’re leaving behind.

I’m shell-hunting. And knowing that it’s time to leave this old lime husk behind (see, I told you I was mixing metaphors) doesn’t make it any less scary, but knowing there’s no more juice in it for me is helping me keep my eyes forward. Because the past is a not-touchstone, too. I can be grateful for it, for what I learned and the people and things that helped me along the way, and I can also know that part of the reason I love it so much is because it is the past. I have to believe that staying small is the wrong thing to do here. I have to take this leap of faith and trust and rely on my real touchstones.

So here’s the thing: I function really damn well until I don’t. And when I don’t, sometimes, it is so alien to me as an experience that it causes me to catastrophize. I mean, if I can’t manage my own life, there must be something seriously wrong, right?

What it really means is that I have a hard time understanding the context of everything that is going on in my life sometimes. I have a hard time really grasping that adding just one more thing might be too much. And that’s when my body steps in to kick me off the treadmill and shut that shit down.

This morning, I had a panic attack. I haven’t had one of those in 15 years or more, and I’ll be honest with you – I spent the first two hours trying to talk myself out of it and the next five hours getting an EKG, chest x-ray, blood and urine tests and talking to an array of absolutely lovely, caring, professional health care workers who confirmed for me that my heart is healthy and I am physically well and maybe I want to step back and look at what’s happening in my life and see where I can ask for help.

And my life is really wild right now. In the last three weeks, it has been moving at warp speed – my youngest and her boyfriend are moving out and leaving the state altogether, my oldest is feeling firmly settled in her life and has no plans to come back to the state to live,  I revised – well, really, mostly wrote – a new manuscript in the space of four days, and I am starting over – really starting over. I am selling my house and leaving Seattle – a town where I’ve lived for more than 25 years, selling my furniture and my car, and packing up to go find a house at the beach, closer to family. It’s a lot.

But here’s the kicker: my mom’s birthday is tomorrow. And it’s her first birthday since she died last June. And it’s really tearing me apart, but I don’t know how to explain it. To you or myself.

My mom had Alzheimer’s and, to be clear, I haven’t celebrated her birthday with her in five years at least. She didn’t know who I was or that it was her birthday. I couldn’t send her gifts because she didn’t read anymore, and clothes and slippers would just get stolen from her room in the memory care facility she lived in. Flowers made her sneeze. I would wake up, sing a quiet Happy Birthday to her in my room, light a candle for her, and tell her husband I was thinking of her, but I didn’t celebrate her birthday with her for years. And it’s not like I ever had any illusion I’d ever get the chance to again. But also, she died in June and I hadn’t seen her, held her hand or smiled at her or anything in over six months because of Covid restrictions. And tomorrow is her birthday.

I sat in the exam room this afternoon, hooked up to a heart monitor, stiff gown gapping open, practicing mindful breathing, wondering what the hell? I was pretty sure I’d had a panic attack, the stiffness and discomfort in my left shoulder blade laying there like a cast iron skillet, but why? I just finished writing a manuscript that the editor said he “can’t wait to publish.” My youngest and her boyfriend are launching their successful music careers after working their butts off in isolation in 2020. My oldest is happy and settled and has built a loving community for herself. I’m finally going to realize my dream of living at the beach. These are happy things!

But they are stressful. It is so easy for me to gloss over the reality that we’re doing all these things during a global pandemic, at a time when we’ve proven to our fellow citizens how little we really care about them when it comes down to choosing between ourselves and our money and our communities. Sitting with how much my heart hurts that we can’t manage to find ways to care for each other that are profound and meaningful and sustainable is something I do silently every day. It is the constant backdrop of every decision I make – how can I safely help the kids move? How can I make sure that the food we get at the food bank also gets distributed to mutual aid groups who need it? What happens if one of the kids gets Covid and I’m far away from them?

So here’s the thing: all of the situations and circumstances in my life are a lot without the events of the last year. They are overwhelming in and of themselves. But somehow, I fell prey to the notion that we all just need to keep going along to get along. That continuing to put one foot in front of the other is the thing to do, the only thing to do. But we have to stop and acknowledge the weight of it all, the grief and the loss and grapple with the unimaginable because the unimaginable is happening around us every single day, all day long. I’m not sure what that looks like, or how to build it in to my days, but after today, I know I have to figure something out.

And doing it on my mom’s birthday feels like a pretty fitting way to honor her.