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.

 

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.