close up image of rocks and shells jumbled together on the beach

After a string of happy, peaceful days, days where I met new people, was invited to join them for outings, I was beginning to imagine that my life could be more like this in the months and years to come. It took almost no time at all to slip back into a familiar old place. That place where I cringe ever so slightly as a matter of course. Where I devote some portion of my thoughts to preparing for losing my footing again. Where I feel in my bones that I will somehow pay for this.

The other day I wrote in my journal a reminder that I don’t have to earn joy or peace. (News flash: either do you. None of us does.) Cognitively, I know that life isn’t a balance sheet. That we don’t have to come to some reckoning or accounting of the number of hours we suffered lined up against the number of joys we felt. I don’t have to justify feeling good. There is no amount of suffering I am required to endure in order to be qualified to experience happiness. I don’t have to pay dues for ease or satisfaction. These things don’t come at a cost. They just are. I am allowed to just experience them without apologizing or explaining or waiting for the other shoe to drop.

These things that rise up from my body in one way or another, the thoughts that prompt me to be wary of the times when I am happy, they are deep and powerful, hooked in to me in ways that require careful, deliberate handling. The admonitions that I am not allowed to laugh out loud, smile at the sight of a hummingbird in my backyard, wake with a sense of hope and gratitude unless I also acknowledge all of the suffering others are enduring and prepare for my own to come roaring back – those are ancient. They are messages from my parents, their parents, our culture. The idea that everything has a cost is a difficult one to ignore.

When I knew I was going to start a new life in a new place, I spent a great deal of time exploring notions of what I truly wanted. The kind of work I want to do, the people I want to surround myself with, the way I want to spend my time. I also thought about how I want to feel and move through the world. I wrote those things down and I practiced believing that I deserve them. I’ll say that again. I wrote those things down and I practiced believing that I deserve them. Because deserving is a loaded sentiment, but it doesn’t have to be. I can just deserve love and joy and care simply because I exist. I don’t have to work for it.

While I have become more comfortable with this idea, I still have to remind myself often that creating the life I want and giving myself permission to inhabit it are two different things. The other day I found myself with nothing on the calendar. At 2:00 in the afternoon, I had a moment of mild panic (yes, that’s a thing – at least for me) that I had nothing pressing to do. For a millisecond, I entertained the idea of grabbing the novel I was reading and lying down on my bed to read. I indulged the fantasy quickly – the dogs stretched out next to me beneath the ceiling fan that was slowly pulling the ocean air through the windows, the curtains billowing slightly, me propped up on pillows, deep in a good book. And then came a visceral recoiling and the voices in my head:

You can’t do that. Surely you could mop the kitchen floor instead. Or go find some weeds to pull. Or at the very least, go outside. It’s sunny and beautiful. Get some fresh air. Or get on the elliptical machine and exercise. Certainly you could find something productive to do instead of lying down with a book at 2pm!

My gut tightened. How irresponsible could I be to think it would be ok just to lie down with a book in the middle of the afternoon?

But here’s how I know I’m making progress; from some deep corner of my heart came another voice that said simply,

this is the life you wanted to create for yourself – a life of ease and rest. Why wouldn’t you lie down and read for a while? 

And so I did. And I’m fairly certain I fell asleep for a bit, too. And when I woke up, the dogs were nestled against my legs and the kitchen floor was still unmopped and I hadn’t burned any calories, but I was a little bit closer to believing that I deserve joy and peace in my life, however it shows up. The work of animating the knowledge I have deep within me takes presence and intention, and the more I practice the better it gets. Here’s to believing that we all deserve joy and happiness and ease, no matter what.

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.

sandy beach with large rocks and a sunny blue sky

There is no One Right Way to live a life.

It seems absurd that I have to consciously remind myself of that from time to time. That there is an undercurrent of dogmatic belief humming inside me that tells me I’m doing it Wrong upon which I surf daily.

I’ve written before about how a sudden push to Improve Myself (!) is a red flag for me – how it signals that I am at some crossroads, heading down a path of Not Good Enough and eventual depression. And this move, this reimagining of my physical surroundings and my community and my work, has certainly ignited that. As I think about finding new friends and creating new routines for myself and struggle to identify people and organizations in this new area whose values align with my own, there is a small voice inside me saying, “you have the opportunity to show up as a better version of you – one that is more mindful, smarter, presents with an impressive resumé, speaks Spanish (I don’t, but I could bust my ass to learn), looks better in a swimsuit (WTAF? this voice – oy).”

And so I spent time on the elliptical machine yesterday and made sure to do my daily DuoLingo lesson (until I ran out of hearts because those damn verb conjugations get me every single time), thought about eating more veggies and less fruit, and worried about how to make meaningful connections with strangers online.

I met a woman a couple weeks ago who was sleeping in the park near my house. We talked for about 30 minutes and it is clear that she is not being served by any of the systems well-meaning politicians and non-profit organizations have put in place to meet the needs of the unhoused here in my new town. Not that that is much different than the way things worked in Seattle, but it was disheartening to be reminded that all of our systems are predicated on the notion that there IS One Right Way to live a life, and that if you want to be treated with respect and care, you have to Follow the Rules. Indeed, A volunteered that more than one of her friends has told her that if she just Follows the Rules, she will certainly find shelter and get back on her feet soon.

A and I exchanged email addresses and have kept in touch. She is a poet and a musician and a teacher and has been unhoused for more than a year at this point. She has done some combination of Following the Rules and not following them to no avail. It is clear that she is struggling to express herself in words, is more and more frustrated and angry at the failures of the system, and that some folks who are charged with helping unhoused people find her abrasive and alienating. And, I think, of course she is. Being ignored by most people and then treated with contempt by many others who you ask for help would make anyone frustrated and angry over time. Engaging in a daily struggle to find food and water, a place to go to the bathroom, and a way to get to the social service agencies from wherever you camped overnight would make anyone irritable. Being physically attacked (which she has been on more than one occasion in a shelter setting) and having your meager possessions stolen while having your present circumstances downplayed by your friends would make anyone struggle with their mental health.

I am in no way equating my situation with that of A or other unhoused people. Please know that. I am simply struck by how all of us have been so brainwashed by the systemic rule-centered society that we diminish our own value and dehumanize ourselves and others. When we are struggling, we look to ourselves for the solution, we assume we have done something wrong, or we haven’t quite found the answer yet. We have internalized the messages that encourage us to suck it up and soldier on. We assume that if someone is houseless or jobless it is because of something they aren’t doing right. I tell myself it’s my own fault that I feel lonely and frustrated – it’s because of the choices I made.

But what if the answer doesn’t lie in me becoming fluent in Spanish and losing 30 pounds and working with a Life Coach to learn how to market myself better? What if A can find help not by being a more presentable, more compliant unhoused person, but by showing up just as she is and asking to have her needs met? What if the answer lies in community and relationship and people who care about others simply because we all live here together? What if, instead of presenting A with a list of rules she has to follow in order to receive shelter and food, she is offered those things because she is in need of them? What if we learned to meet each other where we are and act on the belief that there isn’t One Right Way to live a life, beyond treating each other with respect and care? What if we stopped subscribing to the notion that there is some external set of criteria that we need to check off in order to be ok, to be happy, to be worthy of living in community? What if we just built relationships on a foundation of now, of enough, of acknowledgment of your worth and mine just as we are today, however we show up?

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

logo for Education for Racial Equity on a grey background with overlapping circles of red, blue, and yellow

The past year has been an incredible time of learning for me, specifically around anti-racism and Whiteness. I say this not to pat myself on the back – honestly, I’m incredibly embarrassed that I haven’t done this work before – but to acknowledge how much I don’t know. I began, like many others, after the extrajudicial (read: unjustified, police) killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and have been lucky enough to have found a group of other white women with whom to do it. Through those interactions, I’ve learned of books and workshops and I recently joined a cohort of white people working with a group called Education for Racial Equity. 

There are a series of lessons and interactions that will occur over the next nine months and after the first one, I am already making notes and observing my own thoughts and choices, and feeling that particular “brain on fire” sensation that happens for me when I know I am about to really deepen my understanding of something new. During the workshop yesterday, the leader played a short video of Dr. Ken Hardy speaking about relationships (one of my favorite topics, as you know if you read my posts often) and the notion of subjugated versus privileged self.

We talked about this in the context of trauma and individuals who have suffered trauma – specifically white people, since the entire group identifies as white. The idea is that, if you have suffered trauma, you formed a “subjugated” self at some point in your life. Whether that is because you’re a woman and you have been harassed or assaulted because of that gender identity, or if you’ve been denied specific opportunities or absorbed microaggressions directed at you because of that, etc., you have some part of you that identifies with that persona.

Because I am white, I also necessarily have privilege in all spaces. That doesn’t mean my trauma isn’t important and that it doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged, but in the first part of the speech, Dr. Hardy says that when we are in relationship and someone “is reaching out to me, in my privileged position … and I respond from a subjugated position…” that causes harm to the relationship. It stunts the possibility of coalition-building. This was my first “brain on fire” moment.

Immediately, I replayed times in my head when someone came to me for help or solidarity and I responded defensively – justifying my previous inaction or trying to explain why I couldn’t help now because of my subjugated self. I’ve made excuses for my choice not to act definitively – I can’t speak up in this meeting because I’m a woman and my position is precarious/nobody will believe me. I’ve justified my decision not to push beyond that first no – I can’t confront that person because it brings up fears of being verbally attacked that remind me of a painful time.

I recognize now that often, I was being asked to align myself and use my privilege as a white person to advocate for change and instead of acknowledging my privilege, I retreated to my subjugated self.

Later in the workshop, I had another moment of realization when another video played in which a white woman was talking about being in a group with many people of color and telling a story about an incredibly difficult time when her father was persecuted as a young boy because he was Jewish. She acknowledged that she was attempting to create a connection with many of the others in the room by illustrating that her family had experienced prejudice and something really terrifying, and it was only later when she was able to understand that telling that story caused harm to the other group members. At one point as she reflected on the incident, she said she realized that, while it truly was a horrific story and one that had impacted her family in a significant way, it wasn’t her “current reality.” Meaning that she was telling this story as a way to do something Brené Brown calls “hotwire connection,” as though her story was somehow equal to the current day reality of the people of color in the room. She was using her subjugated self to try and make a personal connection when what the people of color needed from her was for her to show up and acknowledge her privileged self.

The fact is, I have a subjugated self. I think we all do. And my subjugated self rarely affects my current reality with regard to privilege. While the person I am is certainly shaped and impacted by my trauma history, I do not leave my house every morning knowing that I will likely be treated poorly because of my status as a woman. I move through the world believing that I will be treated fairly for the most part.  Yes, there may be catcalls or misogyny, and those are personal issues, but the systems through which I move regularly are not set up to malign me or ignore me or cause me significant effort to navigate. By and large, my subjugated self and the stories that accompany it are not my current reality. And if I want to create relationships and collaborations that will change these systems of oppression, I have to show up as my privileged self.

At the end of the video, Dr. Hardy tells a story of a man who blamed the elevator for nearly taking “my fricking arm off” as a way to talk about how we tend to resist self-awareness in favor of blaming the problem on something outside of ourselves. It was the elevator that was the problem, not the fact that the man stuck his arm in the door to try and stop it from closing all the way. All of us have had experiences like that, which is why the audience laughed so hard at the anecdote. But in relationship, it is even more important to try and develop some awareness of the choices we are making when we respond to others, and decide if those choices align with the goal we are shooting for. If I am choosing to respond to someone’s request for help with excuses about why I can’t do it or a story about my own hardship, is that more about getting them to respond to some need I have for comfort or solidarity than about using my position to lift us both up? When I think about it that way, I have to say it is. And that is ultimately not what I’m going for.

I have a feeling the next nine months are going to be mind-blowing and humbling for me. Stay tuned.

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.

 

image of a multicolored compass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture of a tall, slender, lit Christmas tree in a living room

This time of year always means I think about capitalism more than I normally do. And this year has been one where I have been more acutely aware of capitalism than ever in my life, so you might imagine that my brain is pretty full right now.

I love this time of year because I often spend it poking through local shops for hours, hoping to find fun, quirky little things to tuck inside my kids’ Christmas stockings. For some reason, over the years, stockings have become my ‘thing,’ and it often means that the contents spill outside of the knitted socks and have to be carried to the girls with two hands. As a kid, our stockings were filled with walnuts and hazelnuts (that we took great delight in using the nutcracker to shell and then discarded shortly afterward), mandarin oranges, and, on a good year, an entire book of Life Savers rolls. I have strayed far from that tradition, to be sure.

Whether it was designed cleverly or just worked out that way, there is a reason capitalism has deep hooks in us that take effort to remove. But for me, the first step in that unhooking is an honest evaluation of how capitalism is antithetical to health and well-being.

Screen shot of the Cliffhanger game on The Price is Right

As a system, capitalism was sold to us as something sustainable, and it is ridiculous that we believed it. There is no way anything can grow and grow without ever hitting a wall – it will either consume all of the resources around it or collapse on itself or both, which is what I think we are experiencing right now. We are led to believe that the stock market can keep hitting higher highs, that businesses can increase their profits year over year, and that we can make more money every year if we just work hard enough. Like any system, growth can happen to a point, but there is nothing that can grow forever, and human beings weren’t designed to grow and grow and grow without rest.

Capitalism is the opposite of health and well-being because it forces us to value things that are external – more shoes and clothes, a bigger paycheck, a new car every few years. But external values are things over which we have no control – we could get downsized or fired tomorrow, those things we buy can fall apart quickly, the housing market can explode so that we’re not able to afford our home anymore. Capitalism taps into our basic human need for security, but it doesn’t provide it – in fact, it keeps us constantly searching and believing that we will never truly be secure unless we are earning more and spending more. Capitalism also taps into our basic human need for autonomy, but that, too, is an illusion. Sure, we get to make choices about where we work and live and the things we buy, but only to a point, because under this system, we are never truly in charge of our own lives – not if the things we value are external.

Capitalism is also something that keeps us in fear. It relies on workers being expendable and interchangeable, which means that we as workers are always competing with each other ever so slightly more than we are cooperating. And because fear is a barrier to relationship, it means that we can’t ever hope to truly build strong, sustainable networks or communities under capitalism. Capitalism is threatened by unions (read: relationship), and relies on workers believing that they need to constantly fight to do better, be more visible, climb over their co-workers. It sells us the illusion that it’s possible to continually make more money, achieve more success, get a better position, but the slots at the top narrow so rapidly that it’s impossible for that to be reality.

Capitalism gave us disposability because it relies on it. Single-use items mean that we are constantly needing to purchase replacements. It’s not an accident that Apple comes out with a new version of the iPhone every single year, each with a slightly new set of features. That’s by design – businesses need us to want the newest thing in order to make their sales goals. Capitalism is just another one of the systems that has successfully adapted to center itself over time so that the most important thing is capitalism. It’s why we talk about “the economy” in every political debate, it’s why we fight to send our kids to a “good college” so they can get a “good job” that pays well enough for them to buy cars and homes and trips and clothes. It is why boards of directors are fearful of poor sales and offer dividends to shareholders. It is why wages are kept artificially low and we have no universal healthcare. Capitalism is so all-encompassing that non-profit organizations have bent to its rules, insurance companies are not in the business of taking care of people’s health but are vitally interested in their own profits, school systems have formed their curricula around the kinds of things that will ensure kids get into four-year colleges rather than focusing on learning skills and cultivating passions. There are many systems in this country that are powerful and broken, but capitalism is the one steering the ship, and we all just keep shoveling coal into the steam engine.

Two people walking together on a cobblestone path

Like all systems, I am reminded that the antidote to capitalism is relationship. When we can fight the urge to live in fear and build strong, connected communities, we can begin to release ourselves from the grip of capitalism. Capitalism is the reason so many people in the US are going hungry, and new systems (food banks) won’t fix it. If they could, they would have done so already. But relationship helps. The dozens of small, community-based mutual aid groups in my area alone that have mobilized to cook meals, deliver food, raise cash, and source items for people in need are combating food insecurity better and faster than bureaucracy ever could (even as they fight bureaucracy in order to do the work they do).

Building authentic relationships rooted in trust and love takes time, to be certain. It takes effort and a willingness to examine our fears and biases and tendency to see other people as competitors. We have to be willing to be a little bit afraid or at least a little uncomfortable, and forge ahead, knowing that relationship and community are what truly meet our basic human needs for safety, security, feeling valued, and having an impact. When we build communities whose values are intrinsic, we are necessarily reinforcing the belief that all of us are important, none of us is disposable, and that there is enough to go around so long as we cooperate. Living under capitalism means that millions of people go hungry while billions of pounds of food goes to waste. It means that business executives make and hoard more money than they could ever use while other people live on pennies a day. It means that workers spend dozens of hours a week doing jobs they hate because it is the only way they can feed their families and keep their health insurance.

Unions don’t threaten the health and well-being of companies or executives, they threaten to upset the imbalance of wealth between workers and executives. When the biggest argument against any sort of pay increase or new benefit for people is that it “costs too much,” we have become far too focused on money. If we are more concerned with the stock market rising or falling than we are about people living on the streets in cardboard boxes and the hours’ long lines at food banks, we have succumbed to the lure of capitalism to our detriment. It is true that money is necessary to survive, but only because we made it that way. It is possible to do things differently.

When we are in relationship with one another and really rooted in the values of community, dignity, respect, and safety for all of us, the values of capitalism begin to fall away. I don’t have to fear you or be in competition with you if I trust that our connection is about both of us being well and cared for. Systems like capitalism rely on hierarchies – someone has to be “in charge” and then there are layers of folks beneath that, all with an assigned ‘worth’ in the form of pay. Relationships suffer under hierarchies. If I think that I am more important or worthy than you, we will never have an equal, honest, loving relationship. But when we can build communities that acknowledge that we all have things to offer the group and that we all deserve to ask for support where and when we need it, there is no scarcity, there is trust, and there is safety.

Capitalism falls apart when we aren’t competing with each other for jobs, for goods and services. Capitalism falls apart when we acknowledge abundance. Communities thrive with a belief in abundance. The truth is, there is enough to go around, but we have built a world view that doesn’t acknowledge that. We have built economies that rely on scarcity to drive up the cost of goods so that those at the top of the hierarchy benefit, and when the cultural values are about having an abundance for yourself, the notion that any one of us could find ourselves rolling in piles of money or sitting in a house whose garage is full of more cars than we can drive is seductive. Even though the vast majority of us will never attain that, because we’ve been taught that that ideal is achievable if we just work hard enough, we hold out hope. But we all know people who work hard every day and are nowhere near owning their own home.

Capitalism is rooted in individualism, which means not only that we have to compete with each other, but that we feel as though our failures are our own and not the way the system is designed. We blame ourselves for not working hard enough, for not finding the right mentor, for not having the right college degree. We resolve to try harder, get more financially literate, get more connections on LinkedIn.

Ultimately, it is only in relationship where our most basic psychological needs are met. And in a world where the material goods are plenty, it is relationship that threatens capitalism the most. Talking to each other about our respective rates of pay, our experiences with toxic workplace culture, and our ideas for how to band together to create more support for all workers begins to erode the scarcity mentality. When we come together in relationship and our psychosocial needs are met, we might discover that buying more things isn’t really all that soothing after all. We might discover that the system is set up for the sake of the system and that it doesn’t really care about us or the environment. We begin to acknowledge that capitalism is designed to make us believe that there will never be enough, and we begin to realize that human beings can’t thrive in a system where we are forced to always strive for more and compete with each other more than we cooperate.

So while I will continue to carefully select gifts for my beloveds this time of year (and probably spend more money than I ought to), I will also do my part to build community, to strengthen relationships, and to help those around me acknowledge their worth outside of their employment or the size of their paycheck. I will fight against the tendency to value things that the system tells me I should value and I will put my energy toward dismantling this broken system that holds so many hostage and erodes our connections to each other.