It occurs to me that our bodies and minds weren’t  made to hold on to emotion. Nor were they made to reject it.

More and more, I think that the best method of experiencing emotions is the same way our bodies were made to digest food. We take it in, let it trace a path through the body where the pieces we need to utilize for repair and sustenance are extracted, and the rest is eliminated.

Too often, we treat emotions as something that we need to control and manipulate, but I think we’re going about it all wrong. At least, most of us are.

Lola has the right idea. She is a natural at simply ‘digesting’ her emotions. She lets them come, acknowledges them, sits still while they make their way through whatever process they go through, and extracts what she needs from them – whether it’s something she’s learned or a closeness she feels with someone important.

There are others in my life who I see become constipated, holding on to the emotion or the story it conjures in their heads, letting it affect them in ways that are profound and lasting. They either wall off the emotions and prevent themselves from seeing the benefits, or they gain some of the benefit, but then become embittered and embrace a victimhood that allows the unpleasant, dysfunctional parts of the situation to remain without being removed.

And there are still others who are bulimic – rejecting certain emotions or situations violently by purging the emotion or denying the feelings conjured up. In this scenario, the individual is ultimately denying themselves the learning and growth that comes from processing difficult emotions and coming to a deeper understanding of hurt and struggle and their place in it.

Without allowing our bodies and minds to fully process what we are feeling in any given situation, we fail to learn that, in every challenging scenario, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a way to walk through pain and struggle, sadness and grief and suffering, and come out the other end a stronger, wiser person. But not if we become constipated or deny the reality of the situation altogether.

I am absolutely guilty of doing both of these things from time to time, and even if I do my best to process emotions like Lola, I can find it hard to not try to drive the process and make it fit my own timeline. But I’m learning that, like digesting my food, my body and mind have their own way of working with what I’m presented with, mining it for the good and letting go of the rest, and it is in my own best interest to simply let the process happen. I admit I’ve struggled a little with what that might look like, and the best conclusion I’ve come to thus far is to simply be mindful of the feelings and hold space for them, knowing that I can’t possibly predict how long it will take or how impactful it will be.

I am a lover of words, a lover of conversation, someone who is incredibly interested in learning new things. And I often do my learning via story, as many of us do. I am also a story teller, a person who revels in teasing out the details and painting a picture and explaining (over-explaining, “selling past the close,” as my husband says sometimes) in order for others to understand.

And so when my words are misconstrued, I get frustrated.
When my stories are interrupted, because the listener thinks they already know what I’m saying, or they’ve formed some opinion that is counter to mine, I get even more frustrated.

When I watch the interruption be compounded by other voices piling on, interrupting other speakers, or further taking my comments away from where I would have had them go, I often go in to defensive mode and try to swing it all back to where I started.  Unfortunately, that is where I lose the purpose of the dialogue and make things worse.

Listening is a difficult thing to do, especially when we have been taught that we show our intelligence by challenging others’ versions of things, by demonstrating our knowledge and talking, talking, talking. So much of what we do as human beings is try to convince others that our viewpoint is the best, the most accurate, the “right” one. Often, we get so attached to our own perspective that we take it personally when someone doesn’t agree with us, isn’t awestruck by the story we’ve told that illustrates why our reality is so much more valid than the one they presented.

As I get older, I am beginning to think that intelligence doesn’t lie anywhere near the realm of talking. When we rush to interrupt someone else and inject our own version of things, we aren’t showing our cleverness, we are demonstrating our need to be heard rather than a desire to learn.

It is difficult, but I think that the people who are the most intelligent are those who are quiet, who listen with a clear mind and ask thoughtful, clarifying questions. When someone else is talking to us, they are attempting to explain something that we don’t already know, that we may not have experienced. If we are to truly engage in a mutually satisfying exchange, it is imperative that we seek to understand, not race to respond.

This is especially hard to do in group settings. Often, the need to prove ourselves takes over and we first engage in body language that is assertive (eye rolling, head shaking, leaning in and opening our mouths in anticipation of ‘our turn,’) and then label (“that’s racist,” “that’s wrong,”) or use superlatives like always/never, or make it personal (“that’s not my experience; here’s something I did/said/saw that proves your experience is invalid/inaccurate/wrong”). We are bolstered by others in the group whose body language seems to support us and once we make it personal or begin exaggerating with superlatives, the conversation becomes less about learning and more about picking whose side you will be on. It is nearly impossible for anyone to leave a conversation like that without feeling as though they’ve had to choose between two very different ideas. It is also nearly impossible for either of the proponents of those ideas to learn from the other. They’ve effectively set themselves up to react emotionally and defend their position to the death because it is now personal. Their very ego is tied up in the outcome. If my position is “better,” I am a smart person. If my position “loses,” I am a stupid person.

Unfortunately, I don’t often recognize that this is what is happening in the moment. Generally, all I feel is a sense of unease and frustration and then an overwhelming urge to defend myself, prove myself. It is not until later that I can ask myself the question, Why did that bother me so much? Why can’t I let it go? Generally, it is because I feel misunderstood and what I wanted more than anything was to be heard and understood. It wasn’t about being Right or Wrong, it was about an exchange of ideas. The thing is, when I am listened to in that way – when people can pause a moment after I’m done speaking and then ask questions to clarify (vs. questions designed to challenge) – I am more likely to solicit ideas from them because we both want the same thing – to learn something we didn’t already know.

I am amazed at the habitual way we have conversations, even with those we call friends and family, who we trust. I know that showing up in this way is critical to strengthening relationships and that it is hard work and takes a lot of practice. I am sometimes upset that I need to work so hard at it, but I also hope that if others in my life are also striving to get better at really listening, maybe we can all reinforce each others’ efforts.

I spent the last two days at a Mindfulness Research Conference and my brain is full. I dreamt about mindfulness last night. Don’t ask me to describe it because it doesn’t make much sense, but trust me when I say it will be several days before all of the information I received filters down through the recesses of my brain and begins to create a clear picture. I was left with a tremendous sense of gratitude for all of the people who are doing such good work to uncover which practices and paradigms are the most effective. People doing work on a shoestring budget in the face of resistance to the idea that this is a science, in the face of challenges like racism and ablism and a culture that doesn’t embrace relationships between people as much as it embraces the power of money. More than once, I found myself breaking out in goosebumps as I listened to these brilliant, fierce, heart-centered folks present their work. Whew.

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I had ample opportunity to quietly reflect on the last two days. I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors’ yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn’t long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it ‘monkey mind,’ but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could – small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them – exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won’t change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).

The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.

This is mindfulness. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn’t want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street – going well over the speed limit – a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God’s sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. This is mindfulness.

Noticing that word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

Stimulus                                       –                                        Response
Was I really angry? Yes.
Why? Fear.
The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway. 
Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger. 
Well, what about next time? She clearly didn’t learn anything this time. She’ll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won’t be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her – she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.
I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. This is mindfulness. 
All of this happened in the space of about 90 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop. 
This is mindfulness. 
I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don’t, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others. I suspect this is only one of the ripple effects the last two days will have and while it is invisible to most people, it will certainly impact how I show up in the world. 

Expectations may be one of the biggest roots of all suffering. And yet…

Is it possible to be human and not have expectations? Can we really move through life without having some subconscious idea of where we’re going and what it might look like when we get there?

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately. My life does not look like I expected it to when I was a kid. It doesn’t look like I expected it to when I was in college, or as a young adult, or even two years ago. My children are not doing the things I expected them to be doing, nor is my mom. Ultimately, that is both pleasant and sad. There are things going on in my life that are devastating and others that are so amazing and wonderful that I am grateful over and over again in any given week.

A big part of grief, I think, is letting go of that picture I had in my mind, realizing that life is not going to be the way I thought it was, and recognizing how much I rested in it, relied on it, planned for it and trusted it. I find it amazing how often I lend some weight and solidity to my expectations, even though they are merely schemes cooked up in my brain with no substance whatsoever. I can believe a certain thing so unquestioningly that I build entire systems on top of it and then spend overwhelming reserves of time and energy reworking those systems when the bedrock beneath them turns out to have been sand.

But in order to move forward, expectations are a requirement, aren’t they? Or am I confusing expectations with goals? Perhaps that’s it. Maybe I need to be more mindful of the difference between desire and assumption. Just because much of my life does go according to plan is not a reason to lull myself into thinking that all of it will. And it’s true that often, when things fall apart, I have some pretty amazing experiences that help me grow and become a better person, simultaneously, I’m holding expectations for other parts of my life.

Maybe it’s impossible to not assume that there will be certain givens in my life. Maybe, without those mental mirages, I wouldn’t ever bother to get out of bed. Maybe, as long as I can continue to recover from the loss of expectation, grieve for it and learn from it, it’s not a bad thing. Maybe this is just the way it’s designed to be. Our human brains crave coherence, predictability, structure. We want a story that makes sense, puzzles with all the pieces contained in the box. Most of us would choose a safe, complete scenario over one whose ending is altogether uncertain, and so we are built for expectations. And while I know the Buddhists say the trick is to not get too attached to them, that is sometimes a tall order (especially when we’ve crafted those stories in our minds so well we don’t even recognize them for what they are – stories). Maybe accepting the fact that we’re going to get attached to some of them and learning how to breathe and get curious and remain flexible when they fall apart is a more realistic plan. At least for me.

My friend and coach, Kris, posted something on her Facebook page yesterday that gave me pause. I watched it again this morning before taking the dogs for a walk and let it filter through my brain as we sidestepped puddles and admired the fat cherry blossoms and smelled the daphne perfuming the air.

Kris was talking about inspiration and how, sometimes, we sit and wait for inspiration to push us to action, and as we wait, we are frustrated and discontent. She wondered whether it is the discontent that is actually the source of inspiration, that if we take that first step toward action, the path will open up and we will begin to feel the motivation to continue. What if the frustration is the sense that there is a difference between what we say we want and what we are doing to get there, and that is actually the driving force, but our desire to wait for a clear sign to begin keeps us from doing anything?

Well, yeah, when you put it that way.

I have been feeling stuck a lot lately and as I walked and ruminated on Kris’ words, it struck me that I have been using that stuck feeling as an excuse not to change some things in my life that I can actually control.

I have long felt that I rely on wine and chocolate as crutches to make myself feel better, but since I am not overweight and I never get drunk, I haven’t sensed a reason to change my behavior.

But here’s the thing: when I indulge in those things in the evening, the narrative that goes through my head sounds a little something like this – I deserve this. It’s been a long day. Or – It’s a pretty small vice and I don’t do it every night. 


More often than not, the next morning, I shake my head at myself, wishing I hadn’t had that extra piece of Easter candy (damn you, Cadbury mini-eggs!), and sometimes I even go so far as to come downstairs and throw the remainder of the bag away. And I wonder what message I’m sending to my girls when they see me with a glass of wine almost every night.

The incongruence between what I say I want – to be mindful of food as fuel, to be active and physically healthy – and how I act is grating. And this shows up in other places in my life, too. I see in my Facebook groups that there are other writers who are getting their freelance work published once a week and I feel guilty – I should be out there hustling more work that is visible because the memoir I’m working on won’t see the light of day for a year or more.

Often, the way for me to get clarity on things like this is to let my mind create a picture, and this morning was no exception. I imagined myself standing on a beautiful beach, dazzled by all the little, shiny things dotting the sand. There are rocks polished by the surf, fully intact shells, smooth pieces of driftwood. I walk along and gather the ones that are the most intriguing to me, filling my hands and pockets and not really thinking about what I’ll do with them or where I will put them. I’ll figure that out later. Right now, they are a tangible sign of what I have – like publishing credits or a wine cellar that’s full. I feel the land beneath my feet and I am grounded. This is real. I can walk like this forever, back and forth.

But eventually, my hands are full and I’ve walked the length of the beach. And I realize that what I really want is to be out there, in the ocean, floating, being lifted and held and open to possibilities. When I’m in the water, that’s my inspiration, my true passion, my purpose. It is where I can be fully supported and I’m able to really get some perspective. When I float in the water, I can look back at all of the glittery gifts on the beach in their entirety and really discern which ones speak to me. I don’t have to gather armfuls of things just because they are lovely, I can truly choose the things that are congruent with the big picture of who I am and what I truly want. And I can come back in to the beach at any time, but when I remember that the floating, the be-ing is where I am most grounded, that it is here where I draw my inspiration, the beach seems like a place for occasional visits, not someplace to dwell and get caught up in the doing and the gathering.

I fixed the salt cellar this morning. It wasn’t terribly
complicated, but it took a little bit of ingenuity and some focus and a real
desire to have it fixed. I made it last year at one of those paint-your-own-ceramic
workshops. Eve and I were having a mom-daughter day and I decided the last
thing our cupboards needed was another coffee mug, so I chose this ceramic salt
container with a rubber flange on the lid to keep it air tight and Eve pronounced it “cute,” which is an enormous compliment coming from a 16-year old
girl who is your daughter.
It lasted about a week
before the wooden lid came loose from the part with the rubber seal and Lola decided shove it farther down inside rather than trying to pry it loose. This
resulted in the container being full of salt beneath part of the lid that was
firmly stuck halfway down, and no way to remove it. We left it like that for
months, filling the upper part of the container with salt and calling it good.
But this morning as I
stood over a pan of hash browns, imagining what it is going to be like to pack
Mom’s stuff up and move her to memory care in the next week or so, I took on a
project I thought I could fix. As tears tracked slowly down my cheeks, I
contemplated what it would take to pry the lid out. I started by running a
sharp knife around the edge of the rubber, hoping to ease it loose, but abandoned
that after imagining the knife slipping out and slicing my finger. Next, I got
a corkscrew and tried to drive it into the center of the wood to get ahold of
it and lift up, but the wood was too dense. When I went to the junk drawer to
get a screwdriver and screw, I heard Dad’s voice in my head, telling me this
was the ticket.
I screwed it in until
it just took hold and then grabbed the vice grips, stopping for a second to
wonder how many other households have a pair of vice grips in the kitchen drawer
and mentally patting myself on the back for my cleverness. I clamped them over
the top of the screw and gently rocked the vice grips back and forth until the
lid slid up and out.
I flipped Eve’s hash
browns to crisp up on the other side, put the tools away and grabbed the
superglue. Within minutes, the potatoes were on a plate and the two halves of
the lid were tightly bonded back together. I washed out the salt cellar, refilled
it with fresh salt, and wiped down the counter.

When Eve came in to
eat, she opened it up, pinched out a bit of salt, and sprinkled it on her
potatoes. She didn’t even notice that it was fixed. Par for the course with a
teenager in the morning, I suppose, but it didn’t diminish either my sense of
pride or the immense feeling of relief I had that I had found something I could
accomplish today.

To say that things have been tension-filled in my life lately would be a gross understatement. I won’t go in to details – partially because I don’t really want to see it all sitting together in one, organized list of things that I’m challenged with, and partially because I don’t want to give the struggles too much power. I’m maintaining a balance by remembering to start every day with a list of things for which I’m grateful and by playing with my new puppies a lot (side note: I don’t truly understand why snuggling something fluffy and soft is so soothing, but I do fully appreciate it). When I remember to, I carve out time to exercise and check in with friends and run a hot bath.

But last Wednesday I had one of those days. Despite all my (herculean) efforts to craft a workable plan for the day, things went awry. I had known for months that this particular day was going to be logistically challenging on many different levels and I did my best to cross all of my t’s and dot all of my i’s, but I still couldn’t plan for every contingency. And I couldn’t have known what other emotional things would be lurking in the background, so despite the fact that the day was supposed to be filled with activities that were generative and collaborative and working toward something I am passionate about, I was a bit anxious and split-minded.

And then, during the first morning break, I saw I had a voice mail from an unknown number and when I listened to it, my anxiety ratcheted up four levels.

By lunch time, my chest was tight, my shoulders were hunched up near my earlobes, my heart was racing, palms sweaty, jaw clenched – all the hallmarks of a near panic attack. I left to grab some takeout and came close to bursting in to tears as I placed my order. I sucked air, swallowed hard, and sat on the cushioned bench to wait for my food. And then I remembered that while my mind can only be in the past or the future, my body can only be in the present moment. What my body was trying to tell me by freaking out was that I was hating this present reality. I didn’t want to be in this emotional place I was in. I was feeling overwhelmed.

That might sound like a “Duh” moment as opposed to a revelation, but let me tell you what happened next.

I articulated that very thing in my mind. I said to myself:
I do not want to be feeling this way right now.
I am really uncomfortable with all of this anxiety and the things going on in my life right now that are leading me to feel unhappy and stressed.
And there’s nowhere else I can be in this moment.


In that moment, the stress response left my body and the words floated in my head. It was as if, by giving myself permission to feel what I was feeling and acknowledging that it really sucked, the response moved from my body into my head and suddenly it wasn’t so unbearable. I had figured out how to soothe myself by recognizing that what I was going through was really hard, and that’s all it took to shift things. I finished the afternoon in a much clearer, calmer state. While none of the stressors had disappeared, it seems that they had agreed to move to the side once they were recognized and let me do what I had to do.

Since that moment, I’ve had a few other experiences where I was able to simply notice in my head that I was in a less than ideal situation without feeling it in my gut or my chest or my jaw. It is a pretty cool thing to be able to do and I’m under no illusion that I’ll be able to do this every time I feel anxious or stressed, but for now, it is a reminder that mindfulness works.

I know, another “Duh” moment. But even as someone who has practiced mindfulness for years, I am realizing that there are breakthrough moments where I can continue to learn more about my own responses to different scenarios just by going through the motions of things I’ve done a million times before. Even if I “know” something works, it is altogether different to feel it working in my own experience and I’m truly grateful for the progressive leaps like this because they help me remember that there is always more to learn.

As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression
throughout her life, perhaps choosing a career as a writer wasn’t the best way
to go. Writers, especially freelance writers, experience far more rejection
than the average person.
Fortunately, during some intense research I was doing on
adolescence and brain development, I discovered several studies on the power of
gratitude. When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most
challenging time for me. I woke up, opening one eye at a time to gauge whether
that semi-truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I swung my feet
out of bed onto the floor. Often, before I could get both eyes open, my mind
would begin to race and my heart would pound as I anticipated what the day had
in store for me. After reading about the way gratitude shifts our thinking
patterns and affects our brain chemistry, I decided to start each day with a
short list of things for which I was truly grateful. I envisioned it as a sort
of shield against that truck hurtling toward me.
In the beginning, it was often hard to come up with a list;
not because I don’t have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an
innate tendency to qualify them. As soon as I think of one, I either compare it
to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and I have a
friend whose kids aren’t – which effectively soils the gratitude – or it feels
trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills.
Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting – either for more ‘pure’
things like love (which feels a little too nebulous sometimes, to be honest) or
for deep, profound items on my list that really resonated in my bones. I am
nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated by the fervent desire to keep my
depression and anxiety at bay, I kept going despite the sometimes pathetic
nature of my lists. Every day, I thought that maybe tomorrow I could come up
with something beyond gratitude for my soft, warm bed, my kids, and my husband to
be grateful for.
When my teenage daughter was struggling with anxiety upon
starting high school, I encouraged her to start a gratitude practice to see if
it could help her. Every night before bed, I would text her three things for
which I was grateful and she would text me back right before falling asleep. My
hope was that if the last thoughts she had every day were ones that filled her
up rather than dragging her down, perhaps she would wake up with optimism for
the coming day instead of dread. Her lists began much as mine had. She was
grateful for a full belly and a soft pillow and a roof over her head. But over
time, she was able to open up and recall specific things that had happened
during the day that were positive – a friendly smile in the cafeteria, being
picked by a classmate to partner on a project because she is so organized, to
appreciating a trusting relationship with a special teacher. Her perspective
shifted over a period of weeks and she went from finding excuses to stay in bed
to getting up and tackling each new day and its challenges with a feeling of
competence and groundedness.
Over time, my definition of gratitude has developed and I’ve
come to understand what it is about this practice that has been so effective
for me. In the beginning, I often attempted to come up with things by starting
with, “at least I’m not….” What I discovered is that if I am comparing my life
to someone else’s (as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or
that oppressed group,” or thinking about all the ways my situation could be
worse such as, “neither of my kids is terminally ill and I’m not homeless,”),
I’m not really being grateful. That’s just another way my anxiety is telling me
my life could run off the rails at some point, so I should really be cautious.
Instead of helping me feel calm and centered, it is really reminding me that
one or more of those things could potentially happen and, for now, I’m just
dodging a bullet.
If I am making a mental note of the number of “good” things
in my life as compared to the number of “bad” things, that is also not helpful
gratitude. Weighing them against each other in a sort of balance sheet is not a
positive step. The fact is, both things exist simultaneously (and are often
intertwined with each other) in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about
the ones I consciously choose to pay attention to. It doesn’t make the
challenges and difficulties in my life disappear, it simply allows me to notice
that there are many positive things in my life, too.
The human brain is wired to look for deficiencies, expect
sabotage, and find the things that need ‘fixing.’ This isn’t always a bad thing
– often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things
better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I
won’t notice the things that are absolutely right and lovely in the world all
around me. I might notice the pile of unfolded laundry lying on the couch, but
I can also choose to see that the dishes are all clean and the dog is fed and
happily snoozing in his bed and an essay I was working on this morning is coming
along nicely.
I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing,
though, because when I am in the zone, it truly isn’t. When I am really tuned
in to the goodness and abundance in my life, the list of things for which I am
grateful grows quickly and easily. For me, the key to gratitude is to simplify
things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is stop
and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write
and connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a
glass of water on the counter and appreciate clean water and a cupboard full of
dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and
thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. When I can
keep myself from trying to create stories or context, I can find simple, pure
gratitude and suddenly, there is more air in the room.

Knowing that every time I actively look for things that are
right in my life means I am activating the parts of my brain that produce
serotonin and dopamine gives me hope. When I started that gratitude practice
all those years ago out of desperation, I was beginning a process of rewiring
my brain to more easily find happiness. Sticking with it, I realized that it
does become easier over time to recognize and appreciate simple things that
give me joy. While I still struggle with anxiety (and rejection), I am more
able to see it as a part of this messy, glorious life I am living instead of
letting it keep me from getting out of bed in the morning.

I can’t believe that it’s been over a month since I wrote here. Life is so full and so still, all at the same time. My daughters are continuing their inexorable shift to adulthood, the summer sun is giving way to brilliant oranges and reds in the trees while the light dims ever faster, and the house is quiet without my mostly-companion, CB. It is as though the days are pregnant with possibility and I can’t yet predict the due date. I have a completed first draft of my memoir sitting on my desktop, notes from a fellow writer scribbled in the margins. There are emails from folks interested in my other work waiting for responses I can’t bring myself to write quite yet. I voted by absentee ballot nearly two weeks ago and have sat in limbo since then, waiting for the moment someone will tally up my choices with the rest. There have been meetings about college applications for Eve and practice sessions for Lola’s upcoming band gig and it feels like the things on the calendar are both racing toward me and sitting out in the future like some hologram I can’t quite feel the edges of.

Some days, as I walk the streets of my neighborhood, I think that this must be what it feels like to float in a sensory deprivation tank. I know that there are things outside, but in this moment, I can only prepare and ruminate because it’s not quite time. I don’t feel a sense of angst or frustration about it, just an uneasy stillness. I have to remind myself that it will all unfold eventually and remaining open to the possibility and grounded at my core are the two healthiest things I can do.

When I was in junior high, we used to pass notes to each other in class – elaborately folded, origami-like things that would bloom open when you pulled a tab. The cleverness of the design was as satisfying as the note’s contents, and we had half a dozen different ways to put them together. I had a friend who was incredibly talented at folding a simple sheet of notebook paper adorned with a drawing that would show one thing when it was folded and another when it lay flat on the desk. I marveled at her skill but could not reproduce it. Trying to imagine the sequence of creases and the 3-dimensional shape of the paper was beyond my ability. I copied my friends and was able to master perhaps two of the special patterns and contented myself with crafting a funny or sweet message inside.

I feel a little like that now – unable to decipher exactly how things are wrapped up and packaged, and I am reminded that it has never been one of my strengths. Instead of picking at it or pushing myself to learn how to do it, I choose to wait until it unfolds and see what is contained within. Then, knowing that one of the things I do best is to add content, I will set about doing my part.

It has been a challenging few weeks around here and I feel like I’m learning a lot about grief and emotional overwhelm. The first thing I’ve noticed is that they both feel very different to me as an adult than they did when I was a kid, but maybe that’s because I have a much stronger bedrock beneath my feet these days. Maybe knowing that the bills will get paid and there is someone to share the load of parenting and managing everyday things leaves me more space to just feel what I’m feeling. Or maybe being an adult means that I don’t have anyone telling me that my strong emotions make them uncomfortable or that I’m over-reacting, or if they do say that, I don’t give a shit.

My brother-in-law died quite suddenly at the beginning of July and even though I hadn’t seen him in several months, I was acutely aware of the loss. Like me, he married into Bubba’s family – a close-knit, fairly traditional clan – as someone who came from a very different background and family dynamic. We bonded over our “black-sheep-ness” and became allies early on. He was someone who always, always had my back, someone who was as sensitive and stubborn as I am, someone who always went to bat for the underdog. He was fiercely protective of me and my kids and Bubba’s sister and we had great fun together – often in the kitchen during family gatherings. Even in my grief, I marvel at the fact that our paths ever crossed, given the difference in our ages and the fact that he was Croatian, and I am grateful for the two decades I got to share with him on the planet.

A week or so later, I lost my beloved CB, my “mostly companion,” my shadow, my furry boyfriend. For more than a decade, he followed me through the house, prompted me to go for walks to clear my head, slept next to my side of the bed, scared strangers at the door, and cracked me up with his ridiculous dog antics. He was loyal and loving and when it came time to let him go, he sat with his head in my lap and trusted me implicitly. I still hear phantom toenail clicking along the hardwood floors and expect to see his smiling face at the door when I come home from the grocery store. Taking walks in the neighborhood without him is strange and disconcerting and I can’t bring myself to move his bed from its spot in the family room quite yet. I feel his presence in every room of my house and my grief is tempered by the absolute joy he brought to my life each and every day, by the years he was there to wake me up with positive energy.

Two days ago, my grandfather had a stroke and reminded everyone when he got to the hospital that he doesn’t want any lifesaving measures. He has lived a good, long life, outlived one of his children (my dad), two wives, and has struggled for a while to really feel as though he was thriving. He is my last remaining grandparent and my childhood memories of him are strong and clear. He is a gentle, funny man who was always ready to teach us something, whether it was a magic trick or how to use a belt sander. In my father’s last months, he was such a comfort and source of love for my dad and watching the two of them interact was incredibly healing for me.

Yesterday, a dear friend of mine lost her husband in a freak car accident. He leaves behind two teenage children and my lovely friend who has been a rock for me more than once. I am overwhelmed. And I am thankful that I have learned a thing or two about grieving – at least my process for grieving.

I have learned that while it is often incredibly helpful to have friends and family around, ultimately I have to grieve in my own time in my own way. I have learned that grief – like life – is not a linear process, but one that requires me to circle back around to what feels like the same spot over and over again, but that each time I come back around, I have a slightly different perspective, an ever-so-advanced understanding of what I’m feeling and how it fits into the larger picture.

When CB died, I was home alone for a few days. Someone advised me to “go do something – don’t stay in the quiet house – distraction is good,” and while I know they meant well, I know from experience that distraction only leads to protracted grief. I came up with a sort of formula that consisted of deep, unapologetic dives into sadness followed by a period of mindless activity like laundry or cleaning out the fridge followed by social interaction. By allowing myself to really feel what I was feeling without descending into it so far that I couldn’t get out, I was able to feel the edges of my sadness and honor them without letting them define me. I follow this pattern over and over again without placing any sort of expectation on how long it will take me to “finish,” and the simple act of accepting my own feelings, whatever they might be, is an exercise in trusting myself.

I have also learned that it is important to surround myself with people who understand that grief is not a quick and dirty, check off the boxes kind of process. I need to surround myself with people who don’t find my strong emotions uncomfortable or unpleasant because that means I either have to stifle my true feelings or I end up emotionally taking care of them. I actively seek those who are willing to sit with me during those deep dives without trying to fix or abbreviate or deny my feelings. These are often people who have really grieved themselves, and they ‘get it.’

While there is a tendency to throw my hands up in the air and ask Why? as the tragedies pile on, I have learned that that is simply a distraction tactic that doesn’t serve me in the end. It doesn’t matter why. I am in the midst of sadness and overwhelm and the only way out is through. There was a time in my life when I would have wished for a magic wand or a time machine to transport me through these days quickly and efficiently, but these days I am content to take the feelings as they come and do my best to find the revelations that often accompany them. It can be painful and often overwhelming, but it is all part of this glorious, messy, beautiful, painful, honest life I choose to live.