“What do you do?” 
Such a standard question, whether we meet someone on an airplane or find
ourselves at a child’s Back-to-School Night or at a dinner party for our
partner.  Such a simple question
and so loaded. 
“I’m a writer and a mother of two.” That is my standard
answer, but it feels so inadequate. 
I am a product of my upbringing, a survivor of sexual abuse, a child of
divorce.  For years I looked
forward to becoming an adult so that I could free myself from my parents and
become less defined by them and their hold on me.  I looked forward to exploring the world and looking at
things in a new light and making decisions that would shape my future.  I wanted to fully blossom into the
person I was meant to be.
What I neglected to realize was that all of the ingrained
identity stories would come with me, packed snugly in whatever vessel I chose
to carry as I made my way in the world. 
Any decision I made hearkened back to the lessons I had learned, the
overarching messages I had heard over and over again, and the things I told
myself in an effort to make sense of the way my life was as a child.  No matter how “free” I thought I was,
making decisions I knew my parents would disapprove of or choosing things because
they were so vastly different from the choices they would have made, the fact
is that I was still shaped by my experiences with them.
Never did this realization hit me harder than the day I
found out I was going to have a baby. 
I was going to be a mother. And I vowed to make good, healthy choices. I
vowed to make decisions with more self-awareness than my parents had.  I vowed to be different.  And still, those notions of who I was
and wanted to be stemmed from the stories I told myself about where I came
from.
Several years ago, I bumped up against these stories in a
hard way.  For most of my life,
they had been the levees on either side of my life path. Always present,
bounding my idea of who I was and leading me in a certain direction.  I moved forward, unquestioning,
frustrated by the limitations, but never truly understanding that these
boundaries were of my own making.
Today, as I meditated, a voice came to me that reminded me
of my own evolution. And I began to count the years that I have been things
other than what I grew up with. 
Eighteen years married to a loving, supportive man. Twelve years as the
mother of an energetic, open-hearted daughter.  Thirty years a writer. 
Three years a yoga practitioner. 
And for most of this time, I have been padding the scales on the other
side.  Thirty-two years a survivor
of sexual abuse. Thirty years a child of divorce.  Yes.  But those
things are no more indicative of who I am than the things toward which I am moving
and striving.  And their hold is
beginning to expire. The statute of limitations is running out.
I have heard that for every traumatic or negative thing that
happens to us as humans, it takes five positive experiences to counteract it.
Evolutionarily, that was important so that we would remember the harmful,
frightening things and not repeat them or put ourselves in danger.  When I think about it that way, I
realize that I have had so many more positive moments in my life that I chose
to live out within the boundaries of the “Who I Am” levee than it took to
actually construct those walls in the first place.  I am allowed to evolve. I am allowed to grow and add to the
list of “who I am.” I am allowed to strive for more and let those unhappy
definitions fall to the bottom where they belong.  There is no forgetting or negating the impact they had on
the person I am becoming, but there is also no reason to let them limit who I
can become.  Or who I am
today. 

Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of who I am, I become what I
might be.”  In giving myself
permission to expand the definition of who I am, I can begin to move past the
things that I have limited myself to for so many years.  When the levee walls fall away, the
possibilities are endless.
*This is one of several essays that appeared in the magazine BuddhaChick Life. As the magazine is no longer available, I’ve posted these here for readers to find.

I know from fear.

I grew up an anxious, perfectionistic little kid, afraid of new things and new people and situations I couldn’t control.

I spent the first years of my parenting life terrified that I was doing everything wrong, that my children would get terribly sick or my husband would leave us.

I know from fear. And my life began to turn around the day I decided I would no longer be ruled by it. It wasn’t a sudden thing, just a gradual dawning that I had a choice to make, and once I recognized that I had been choosing scarcity and fear for most of my life (all the while wondering why happiness and contentment weren’t showing up at the door), it was pretty profound.

I have been watching with amusement the growing concern over the Zika virus “outbreak” and, until yesterday, was mildly confused. Yesterday, NPR broke a story about the World Health Organization saying that this virus had “explosive, pandemic potential” and it was all over my Facebook page. Really? This virus that most people never even know they have because it causes mild cold-like symptoms is all of a sudden something we are cautioned to freak out about? Yes, I understand that it has major implications for women who are pregnant, although as of yet, there is no causative connection that has been established. And I get that, in many countries where there are no options to control whether or not you get pregnant, this is a conundrum.  Wow. Nothing like stirring up fear of something that is likely to not really cause any problems for the vast majority of us.

This morning, NPR had one of their correspondents in Iowa interview Republican voters regarding last night’s GOP debate and I was struck again by how the front-runners have stoked the fears of people in order to gain votes. Over and over again, I heard people talk about terrorism, ISIS, and the fear that, if a Democrat were elected to the presidency, their guns would be taken away and they would be left altogether defenseless against “meth addicts in my front yard with guns.” Huh? In Iowa? Is there some sort of terrorist cell network in Iowa that I don’t know about? Are there lots of armed, methamphetamine-addicted folks running around at night burglarizing towns in Iowa?

A little later, on the Tavis Smiley show, there was a political analyst who was talking about the odd phenomenon that is Donald Trump and when Tavis asked him about the “best way to fight Trump,” his answer was, “I’m curious why you’re focusing on fighting Trump and not supporting Hillary.”

Yes. Not that I’m a Hillary supporter. To be honest, I am pretty firmly in Sanders camp, but that’s not something that we need to discuss here.


I was reminded of the knowledge that what we fight against grows in power, if only because we are giving it our energy. The key is to direct our energy toward the thing we desire, not against the thing we are afraid of. That is not to say that there aren’t things to fear in life, but if we take a step back and really think about it, what are the odds that any one of us in this country is likely to be touched by terrorism, contract the Zika virus, or be shot by a meth-addicted robber? We are more likely to suffer slowly from income inequality, domestic violence, and pollution. And in the meantime, when we let our daily activities and choices be dictated by fear of things we won’t likely ever encounter, we are wasting our energy. When we make the choice to rail against the things we are afraid of (most of which will never come to pass, and even if they did, we have almost no control over them, anyway) instead of creating space for the things we do want to see in our lives, everyone is hurt.

The main difference I see between focusing on hope and focusing on fear is that one of them is actually more frightening than the other one. When we focus on what we’re afraid of and put our eggs in the Trump/Cruz/Rubio basket, we are actually less afraid because we think we’re following people who can control or prevent what we’re scared of. When we focus on hope, we are putting ourselves out there in a way that is vulnerable, with the knowledge that it will take some effort on our part to make it happen, and that responsibility is often much more frightening than sitting back and letting someone else do it. But ultimately, that is what this country was built on – groups of people who were committed to working for a better collective future for us all, and that is where I will continue to put my energy. Here’s hoping there are lots more people out there that feel the same way.  Fear is a strong motivator, but it doesn’t ultimately get a damn thing done that is good for all of us.

It is really tempting to go back to “engineering smallness.” There is a voice on my shoulder that says that nobody would blame me for giving up, moving on, throwing my hands in the air and telling the world that I tried with a wry shrug. That voice says that it is all just too hard to figure out, that the reward isn’t guaranteed, and it might not turn out to be worth the work. In the rubric of our current culture, I need to cut my losses, stop the bleeding, and get moving.

Deep within, somewhere, is the longing to write, to get back to creating, to find the spark that sets the words free and lets them tumble out of me with abandon. It is a yearning for balance, a call to feed my own desires and tell the stories that are trapped inside of me. The voice on my shoulder calls that out as indulgent, selfish, more useless blather that won’t be realized, just like the other two projects I’ve started and nearly finished.

What is it about the path that I’ve chosen that leads me to this place again and again? The quiet, self-propelled churning that makes something I want to share with the world and eventually brings me to a gate that must be opened by someone else. The book I write that never finds a publisher or agent. The work I do that must be taught by someone else. I know that there is some larger lesson here, that I can’t keep piling up what I’ve worked on and believed in for so long without some outlet, some way to get it out into the world.

But maybe that’s the lesson. That it is out there and that has to be enough. Even if it is out there in a small way, for only a handful of people to see, that is enough. Maybe it’s my ego that tells me that I have to get paid for this work in order for it to be valuable. Maybe it’s my ego that says that I have to have sold X number of copies for it to be successful. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the simple act of creating it is enough. Maybe having had the time to do it in the way I did it was the point.

There is this tension between creating and making a difference. I write because I have to, because it is who I am, because I can’t NOT write. Not to make a difference in the world. But I have had a small taste of making a difference and it is intoxicating. I have heard those who say my words have touched them, and somewhere along the way I got the idea that that was my purpose, that I am meant to do this work in order to make a difference in the world. I have even gone so far as to believe that if I can’t live out my purpose, my work is no good, it is meaningless, as is the time I took to do it. Sometimes it is hard to discern between desire and expectation. It is so hard to un-knot the act of creation from the product itself, from the question of what it will do or can do or should do.

And so I spend time soliciting people’s attention and interest – looking for those who are interested in what I’ve created, and in the beginning it is wonderful. I like to talk about my passion, to share it with others, to connect with people who are passionate about the same things. But at some point when I become tied up in what the outcome will look like, I begin to feel defeated. When my fate rests on whether or not someone else likes my work enough to buy it and I get caught up in the minutia of how best to package it and whether I can replicate it or if it is good enough, I have lost my center. I wonder if I will ever find the sweet spot, or if there even is one.

I woke up this morning with a resolve to let go for a while, to let things un-knot themselves, to leave it up to the Universe and I’m trying. It’s surprisingly hard work to “let go.” It requires me to float in a state of limbo, to constantly redirect my thoughts away from imagining what could be and organizing toward that. It means that my usually long to-do list gets tucked away out of sight and I have to find other ways to occupy myself and be alone with my thoughts.  I have no doubt that it will all become clear at some point – it always has before. I know that just because I’m uncertain and a little bit scared, it doesn’t mean that I will always feel this way. I trust that I will look back on this one day and shake my head and be grateful that it passed.  And I suspect that I will find myself here again in the future. Frankly, it is that which has me the most agitated – the notion that if I don’t learn whatever lesson I’m supposed to be learning this time, I’m destined to do this again (and, if you hadn’t gotten the message, it’s not a comfortable place to be, so I don’t relish the prospect of being here again). But if I’ve learned anything from life, it is that things only get harder when I fight them. And, if I’m determined to live my values and practice courage, I won’t go back to being safe and engineering smallness, I will just sit quietly and wait and hold on to who I know I am at my core.

The gifts just keep coming. I have read every book by Brene Brown at least once and I’ve compiled pages and pages of handwritten notes, written down quotes, and had some of the most fascinating conversations thanks to her work. Her TED talks inspire me endlessly and often, when I go back and re-read parts of her books, I discover things I hadn’t noticed before.  She is definitely on the short list of women whose work impact my life every day, who have changed how I parent and learn and make my way through the world. (It’s a pretty awesome list, including the likes of Gloria Steinem and Maya Angelou).

My most recent revelation thanks to her latest book, Rising Strong, comes as a result of digging a little deeper into the layers of my life. In one part of the book she writes about people who identify themselves as ‘helpers,’ and notes that the trap of using that label to build yourself up is that it becomes hard to be the one who asks for help. I underlined that passage and made notes on a separate piece of paper because that message resonated so deeply with me. For most of my life, I found control and self-worth because I was able to help other people, lift them up and provide emotional and logistical support. Well, to be honest, I didn’t often provide emotional support until I was a lot older. “Fixing” things was a great way for me to feel as though I was being useful and helpful and it kept me from having to feel the pain of others, to truly empathize.

I was in my thirties before I learned about the concept of holding space for others. It took a lot of practice and a willingness to sit with discomfort for me to not immediately leap to problem-solving and balm-offering when I saw loved ones suffering. I am still practicing acknowledging and sitting with a stranger’s pain without rising to the challenge of making things better in some physical, tangible way. Dr. Brown is absolutely right when she says that tying my own self-worth to the fact that I’m a helper means that if I need help, my self-worth takes a big hit.

I will admit, however, to some amount of patting myself on the back when I absorbed that portion of the book. About ten years ago I slammed up against a wall of depression that stopped me in my tracks and if I was going to be able to move forward, literally continue to exist on the face of the planet, I had to start asking for help. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t easy, but I was lucky to have some pretty tremendous people in my life who were willing to support me. I swallowed my pride shame (I think they might be the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin) and accepted childcare, meals, help around the house. I learned to get better at saying no to helping others in every single situation where I was asked to help and, over time, I began to warm to the idea that I was not an island. So when I read her words about letting yourself be vulnerable enough to ask for help and accept it, I nodded my head and congratulated myself on having learned to do that.

I should have known better. (Remember the pride/shame thing?)

The universe has a way of smacking me upside the head when I’m feeling a little too smug.

Literally one day after I scratched my notes on yellow lined paper, I was tested. I was feeling good, preparing to get away with Bubba for a long weekend of fun, and I got a phone call that rocked me, that threw me right back into the space I had spent so many years cultivating. I was needed. My problem-solving skills, my particular calm-in-a-crisis, my physical presence was requested, nee, necessary. I spent several hours on the phone working out logistics, asking other people for help and trying to design an airtight plan so that I could keep my plans with Bubba. And while this is my space, my forte, my wheelhouse, I couldn’t help but lose it once everything was in place and things were going to be okay.

What is this about? I wondered. I had averted disaster, well, helped to avert it. Well, asked for help to avert it. Wasn’t this what I was feeling good about yesterday? My ability to ask for help so that I don’t shoulder the burden alone? That’s the goal, right? I had done it. Why was I feeling so awful?

Most of my personal revelations come about when I walk the dog. This one was no exception. It hit me so hard I’m surprised I didn’t fall over. I am pretty sure I made some sort of whimpering noise when it hit me, but I did manage to stay on my feet and I don’t think the dog even noticed.

I have gotten good at asking for logistical help. That much is true.
What I haven’t yet learned how to do is to ask for or accept help holding my pain. I have no idea how to open up and let my pain out into the world so that I don’t have to keep it all myself. I am good at writing about it (distance, anyone?) and sharing my story, but if I am in the room with someone and I am really hurting, I don’t know how to accept empathy without feeling shame.

More work to do.

I have a gratitude practice. Sort of. It used to be a lot more robust, when it was a matter of life or death (I mean that honestly, by the way; there was a point in time when digging deep and listing off a few, measly things for which I was grateful kept me tethered to the planet when nothing else would). But now that I don’t “need” it, it doesn’t happen every day.

It is definitely one of the top things in my toolbox, though. One of the first that is pulled out when I’m feeling cranky or overwhelmed or just plain sad. And I know it’s been a while when the first few things I run though mentally as things to be grateful for start with, “at least I’m not….” 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 current situation could be worse, such as, “neither of my kids is suffering from some horrible illness and I’m not homeless,” I’m not really being grateful. Even though those are things to be happy about, the fact that I am conjuring up ways that my life could run off the rails taints the whole process. Instead of helping me to feel calm and centered, it is a simple reminder that at some point, one or more of those things could potentially happen and for now, I’m just dodging a bullet.

If I am also making a mental note of the number of “good” things in my life as they compare to the number of “bad” ones, that is not gratitude. It is not helpful to weigh them against each other, ticking off one thing for which I am grateful in response to each thing that drags me down. They are not figures on a balance sheet. They both exist simultaneously in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about the ones I choose to pay attention to, where I decide to place my focus in any given moment. It doesn’t make the other things disappear, it simply allows me to notice that there are positive things in my life.

When the girls were little and I quit my job to stay at home with them full time, I quickly learned that the only way to gauge my level of tangible activity during the day was to note the absence of certain things. If the laundry was folded and put away, the dishes were washed and put away, the floors were devoid of dirt and debris, I had been productive. This was completely opposed to any system of determining productivity I had ever been a part of in my work life – there you were rewarded based on the things you created and they were present. It was incredibly frustrating to me to realize that outsiders would come into my house and only notice if I hadn’t done something – if there were piles of laundry and dirty dishes and hungry children. For me, gratitude is like that. For most of my day, I go about things only noticing the items that need to be ‘fixed’ or that don’t meet my expectations. This is not always a negative 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 rarely note the things that are just absolutely right in my world all around me.

I am loathe to imply that gratitude is a complicated thing, because when I’m in the zone, it really isn’t. When I am feeling it, when I am really tuned in to the goodness and abundance in my life, it is simple and pure and I am hard pressed to stop finding things for which I am grateful. In fact, for me, the key to actual gratitude is to simplify things.  When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is to stop and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write and to connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a glass of water on the counter and am grateful for 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. There is no context, no attempt to think beyond any of these things, just simple gratitude, and when I can find that place in my day, I suddenly feel as though there is more air in the room.

I have been thinking a lot about expectations lately and how often we see them as concrete scenarios that drive our actions and emotions.

It started with watching my girls this summer, observing times when they would hatch plans with friends over text, going so far as to figure out movie times and counting their cash on hand and solidify the details only to be foiled by me when I reminded them that I’m not available to drive or they were already obligated to a babysitting job or day of camp. Oh, the disappointment and frustration that ensued! Often, I was the target of anger for simply pointing out that they hadn’t thought through the whole thing or asked the right people for input.

Then last week, Bernie Sanders came to Seattle for a few events and I watched the rage unfold on social media as he was preempted by two activists addressing the crowd about the Black Lives Matter  movement. Despite your personal feelings about the tactics or the movement or Sanders’ presidential bid, I am curious about how much of the anger and frustration was as a result of the expectation of the crowd that they would hear Sanders speak. I suspect that, had the two women been on the program, people would have received them warmly and openly, but since they had stood outside in the hot (for Seattle) sun waiting for hours to hear Sanders and then were disappointed, many of them reacted poorly to the fact that he left without speaking more than to the message of the activists.

I think that, generally, there are three kinds of expectations we have, positive, neutral, and negative.  Positive expectations represent our hopes – calculating the hours on our paycheck in order to know whether we’ll have the money to purchase the thing we really want, killing it on a job interview, giving birth to a healthy baby. They can be big or small, but these are the ones that really slay us when they don’t come true. Negative expectations represent our fears, and instead of disappointing us when they don’t come true, I think they often keep us from taking the kind of leaps that will help us grow or push boundaries that maybe need to be pushed. On more than one occasion, I have had to talk myself into approaching someone and asking for something that I think I deserve because my expectation is that I will be laughed at or turned down simply because I am not male.

Neutral expectations are those that are typically placed on us from the outside, either our family or friend groups or culture and, often, they aren’t expressed specifically but we internalize them all the same. It can be a strong feeling that our parents expect us to do well in school and get into college, that as young women or men (because of our gender identity) we will act and speak and dress a certain way, but it can also be our way of placing expectations on other people – that because someone looks a certain way, they will act in accordance with our expectations.

As I was puzzling through this train of thought, I saw this headline:
JURY SELECTED IN NEW HAMPSHIRE PREP SCHOOL RAPE TRIAL
When I clicked through and read the very short article, I experienced such a toxic stew of feelings – sadness, anger, disappointment, fear – and I wondered about the accused and whether the culture in which boys about to graduate attempt to ‘score’ with younger female students” (specifically, that they ‘take the virginity of a freshman girl,’ sets up an expectation that this behavior is normal – even desirable. In no way does this excuse or justify his behavior (this aspiring DIVINITY student), but could it be one more example of ways in which we human beings trick ourselves into believing that expectations almost always equal reality? That they somehow ought to come to fruition or that there is nothing we can do about it? 


It is terrifically hard to walk through a day without having any sort of expectations. But I wonder what would happen if I practiced noticing them and challenging them a little? What if, the next time I assume something positive is going to happen, I take a minute and acknowledge that things could go horribly awry and pledge to be flexible if they do? Or what if the next time there is a negative expectation, I ask myself where that comes from and what might happen if I dismantle that notion? I’m getting to the place where I think that all of those external expectations ought to be challenged and dissected so that I can decide whether they limit me or raise me up. 

I was reading a mental health journal this afternoon and the following phrase leaped off of the page and smacked me in the forehead,

” ‘Defiant, combative, hostile, and uncooperative,’ were labels used by many people who knew Sarah…but what if we saw her as “frightened, struggling to cope, confused, and abandoned” and dealing with the effects of extreme stress?”

Yeah.
What if?

It occurred to me that those labels used by so many mental health professionals, teachers, social workers, and other folks tasked with teaching and serving individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities are selfish. They reflect not the individual’s feelings or challenges, but the frustrations of those around them.

How many times have I seen someone from afar in public who is acting in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable or sad or afraid and labeled them according to what I feel instead of thinking about what they might be feeling? I would say, pretty much always.

And while it is important, to be certain, to protect ourselves if we feel as though we’re in danger from someone, these phrases – defiant, uncooperative, hostile, combative – are generally used to pigeonhole people who would benefit more from our help than our defensive posturing.

I am reminded of a time when Eve was little and we were meeting with our toddler group. The kids were all around 18 months old and had varying degrees of language. They had all had lunch and were tooling around the living room playing while the moms cleaned up and visited a little bit.  One of the boys walked up to the keyboard, climbed on the bench and sat down to play, but within seconds he was throwing an absolute fit, screaming, red-faced, flinging himself off the bench and causing all of us to come running in to see what was wrong. Nothing was immediately apparent – none of the other kids had touched him or tried to take his place, he was simply freaking out and nearly inconsolable.  When his mom picked him up and folded him into her arms, he arched his back and pulled away, screaming and clawing at her hair and face. We could have easily called those behaviors erratic, defiant, hostile, combative, uncooperative, and so on and so forth.  I remember pulling Eve close to me as she stared wide-eyed at the spectacle.

After running through a few options of what could be making him so angry, all the while fending off his little fists, his mom laid him down on the carpet and undid his overalls. None of us actually believed that a dirty diaper could be causing this much mayhem, but it was worth a shot.  When she undid the velcro fasteners and folded down the front of his diaper, she found a fork. Somehow, he had taken one from the lunch table, slipped it down the front of his overalls, and as he walked around and eventually climbed up onto the piano bench, it had fallen so far down inside his diaper that the tines were stabbing him in the penis. Every time his mom had moved him as she tried to console him, it poked him again. I’m pretty sure I’d scream and resist, too.

Even as we age and become more able to communicate with those around us, it isn’t always possible for us to find ways to express what we’re feeling, especially if we struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we take the time to unravel the stories and really pay attention to the individual, it is possible to come to a point where we take their actions less personally and begin to see them as indicators of what this person is dealing with. Many people with mental illness have suffered significant trauma in their lives and while that doesn’t excuse all of their actions, labeling them with things that reflect how they make us feel rather than what they are feeling only serves to keep us at arm’s length, and connection is a powerful tool when you want to help someone. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot of practice to shift my thinking, but I’m willing to try.

“My brain is just mush right now!”
“It’s all just a blur. I don’t know why I can’t remember.”
“You can put it in that…thing over there that is meant to have food in it. That big, white thing. Right there.”

Mom is struggling. Whether it is due to her poorly controlled diabetes or the onset of dementia, or her family’s gene pool playing out its hand and dealing her the early-onset Alzheimer’s her mother had, I don’t know. And frankly, it doesn’t matter. The reality is, she can’t be alone these days for long without consequences. And since her husband recently spent a few days in the hospital for surgery, my brother and spent a few days tag-teaming her.  I got up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and headed down I-5, a little over four hours in the car chasing NPR stations as I went without one stop to pee or eat.  It’s been six months since I saw her, although I speak to her on the phone every few days, and I’ve been increasingly worried about her.

I wasn’t quite sure what I would find, but I was on edge. Her husband went in early Thursday morning for surgery and she sat vigil at the hospital, calling me every few hours to report, and getting increasingly panicky. By the fourth call, she had lost the thread that he was there for surgery and wondered why the doctors were giving him antibiotics and wouldn’t let him come home.  At 7:30, she called to report that she was at home, but it took her more than an hour to find her car in the parking lot at their small, local hospital, and she was annoyed.  When I checked on her Friday morning, she wasn’t sure whether she would go visit him, but she still couldn’t remember that he’d had surgery. She said he was at the hospital with a “bad cold.” My brother spent the afternoon and evening with her on Friday and texted me updates that scared us both. He considered hiding her car keys, but couldn’t get her out of the room long enough to dig in her purse and find them.

The hurricane of emotions picked me up and threw me side-to-side. I agonized over the four-hour distance between us, the kids I have at home that still need me a great deal, and thoughts of where do we go from here. Occasionally, I railed at the genetic sequence that put this destination squarely within my own sights and called Bubba to remind him that I’ve ordered him to push me off the edge of the Grand Canyon as soon as I forget the names of my friends and family. Time and time again I was sucked back into the ruts that demanded I “fix it,” find a solution, put some plan in place to deal with all of this.

And on my way home today, I remembered; it’s not about me. It just isn’t. This is about her. Occasionally, I saw glimpses of fear before she masked them. I felt tenderness when she followed me into the kitchen to see what I was cooking for dinner and lamented my eventual departure. I watched as she doted on her two cats, continually seeking them out to be sure they were warm and dry and fed. And when I have the presence of mind to recall that this is about Mom, I can relax and listen. I can sit with her and listen to the same stories over and over and reflect on what her touchstones are, think about the moments in her day that she holds on to. If I listen closely enough, she will tell me what she wants, and for now, that is the most important thing.

Stephen Hawking. Photo by NASA

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately. I just finished reading Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. It’s the story of Martin, who succumbed to a mystery disease when he was a young boy that put him into a coma for two years. When he “awoke,” he was unable to speak or move any part of his body other than his eyes and some minimal movements of one hand. It took years before someone was able to assess him for brain damage and fit him with a computer device that enabled him to communicate with the world and everyone was shocked at how much he was aware of and understood during the time he was mute and paralyzed.

I have to say, the book wasn’t my favorite, literarily-speaking, but it did spark a lot of thought processes in my head.  And ultimately, it led to me watching The Theory of Everything last Friday night. I have loved Stephen Hawking’s brain since I first read Black Holes and Baby Universes for fun in high school. (Yes, I was that nerd). I went on to read “A Brief History of Time” and was completely hooked.  His story was different, in that people knew he was brilliant before he began struggling with the symptoms of ALS and could no longer speak or take care of himself, but I was still fascinated by how heavily verbal communication weighs in our assessment of each other as human beings.

I remember when my grandmother was rendered mute by Alzheimer’s disease. Although she had been increasingly confused prior to that time, it was still confusing to me whether or not she understood the lion’s share of what was going on around her. I recall thinking that I would go crazy if I were trapped inside my own head and body, unable to respond or make my needs known.

As a young mother, I recognized my infant’s frustrated cries as just that – a desperate longing to tell me what she wanted and to have some control over her world.  Fortunately for her, normal developmental progression let her gradually gain that control. But until she could, I had to change my response to her by listening in a different way, paying attention to her body language and context, the time of day and where her eyes moved. I had to trust that she was doing her best to communicate with me and it was on me to slow down, change my expectations, decipher the clues.  When I came from a place of love and genuine desire to know, while it was often challenging and crazy-making, I was able to be more patient.

Some of the stories Martin told about how he was treated by caregivers in various care homes were horrifying. The lack of humanity he was shown simply because he was unable to speak or move his body the way he wanted to made me sad. And it made me think about how often we expect others to communicate with us in the ways we are accustomed to, instead of thinking outside the box. Fortunately, there are those out there who are committed to finding ways to help people like Martin and Stephen Hawking express themselves.  As for me, the next time I encounter someone who doesn’t communicate exactly like I do, I hope I’ll have the presence of heart to slow down and find another way to listen.

The human brain loves a shortcut. Maybe not as much as my Dad did, driving through the rural back-roads of Oregon, but pretty close, I think.  The look of pure satisfaction on his face as he turned in the opposite direction that we expected him to, the glee when he discovered a different route that would shave minutes or seconds off of our trip, it was a thing to behold.  Cheating the system, cutting a corner, figuring out a pattern and exploiting it – that was the stuff of legend in our household and always good for a cheap thrill.  I took notes as a kid, and my brain followed suit, laying down a nice flat steamrolled bed of gravel and pouring some asphalt over the top of it. Streamlining the process for the next time and feeling smug that I had discovered a better way, a faster way, a more efficient way to deal with all sorts of things, not just how to get from Point A to Point B.

After a few times of traveling that new road my brain laid down, it increased the speed limit for me. How nice, I thought, I barely even need to think about this anymore. It has become reflex to react in this particular way to this particular set of events. And, often, it was nice. It was time-saving. But when I got to the point where I could navigate those paths blindfolded and in my sleep, I forgot that they were crafted by a child.

When I was a kid, my brain laid down a path to being okay with people leaving. Forged over the span of a few years as some pretty critical folks peeled off and left, it gave me a way to shortcut the hurt whenever I suspected someone else was about to go. I used that road for a long time, and I got really good at it. The signage on that road went a little something like this:

GO AHEAD. I’M FINE.

and

I’M DONE WITH YOU, ANYWAY.

Long-time readers may recall that about ten years ago, Bubba was really sick with some mystery illness. He was in and out of the hospital every few months for days at a time and it took many doctors over three years to figure out what was wrong. But in those three years or so, he did his level best to keep on keeping on in-between episodes, continuing to travel internationally for work and provide for the four of us. This meant that on a few occasions, he would fall seriously ill in a foreign country and I would get a phone call in the middle of the night – from Prague or China or somewhere that felt really, really far away.  That path went from a foot-worn deer path in my brain and heart to a full on superhighway.

GO AHEAD. WE’LL BE FINE.

When he was home, I was guarded but loving. Affectionate and caring but ready to pull away just in case.  As if that shortcut would circumvent the deep wellspring of despair I would have plunged into had anything happened to him. As if I could distance myself enough emotionally to be able to just carry on if he were gone for good.

And yet. That shortcut beckoned. My brain saw that path as the well-lit one studded with diners and rest stops along the way and it was so well-traveled that I could barely discern the other road off to the side.

These days, I’m working on creating a new path. As Bubba readies himself for another long trip and Eve pulls away more and more in search of a new kind of independence and Lola hits the stage where her bedroom is the best room in the house (as long as she’s in there alone or with a girlfriend), I am discovering that that old highway is no longer useful. It never really got me where I needed to go, anyway. There’s no getting around the hurt when someone leaves. So instead of pulling away preemptively, I’m going to hang on a little tighter. I’m going to squeeze every last drop of affection out of the time I do get with these amazing people and hopefully the signs on my new road will read

I LOVE YOU AND I MISS YOU.
GLAD WE HAD THIS TIME TOGETHER.