One of the memes I stole from Rosie’s IG Story

I used to be of the opinion that we should all do at least one fun thing every single day. I’ve updated that thought. I now believe that it’s better to do one fun thing at least every two hours (while you’re awake — I count sleeping as something fun, personally).

I am an early riser. Illogically early. As someone who works for myself and gets to set my own schedule every single day, the fact that my eyes pop open at 5:32am every single morning feels absurd to me, but it doesn’t seem to be something over which I have any control. I am also not a person who can linger in bed once I’m awake. I take a minute to check in with myself, hand on heart, and figure out what I need to do or have in order to feel completely resourced for the day ahead, and then I’m up, feet swinging over the side of the bed, dogs leaping after me, and we’re off. All of this is to say that I’ve done so many fun things already today, and it’s not even noon.

I realize that this might sound a bit Pollyanna, at the least, and privileged as HELL at the worst. And I’m here to say, I think it’s really not either of those things. I think it’s more about equanimity.

My life isn’t all kittens and roses over here. Some of my beloveds are really struggling with some big things. My mom’s husband died a month ago and, like my mom, it had been a really long time since I saw him in person, so it is as if the second person I really love just vanished off the face of the planet without me getting to say good-bye. The world is on fire, our systems are crumbling, yada yada yada. You know all that. And, if I don’t hold the good and the bad simultaneously, I’m never going to feel what it feels to be fully human. If I only choose the good and work to ignore the pain and the struggle and the rage, I’m not whole. If I only sink into the crap and wallow, I’m not whole. Enter: equanimity. I can hold both. I am whole.

Many of us have been trained to do this thing where we compartmentalize our lives – work first and then play, grieve a bit and then “get on with it.” We have let ourselves believe that there is a time and a place for fun, and it comes later. Or when we’re on vacation (and then, by God, you’d better cram all the fun things into that one small set of days so that you can feel like you’ve thoroughly enjoyed yourself before you get back to “real life”). I call bullshit. We do not exist on this planet to toil endlessly, or even for 68% of our lives and then we’ve ‘earned’ the right to play. I honestly think that practicing finding joy and fun in every single day is the thing that will keep us fresh for the fight – you know, the one that has been pressing down on us for decades behind the scenes of our everyday work lives. We don’t need to ask permission to have fun, and fun doesn’t have to be something planned or elaborate (although if you want to grab a bunch of your friends and head to the karaoke bar or bowling alley this weekend, I wholeheartedly support you).

Like I said, it’s not even noon here, and I’ve already laughed out loud several times. I started my day on the beach with my dogs at low tide and I found the perfect stick (not for the dogs – for me) and used it to draw weird shapes and smiley faces in the sand. Call me simple, but it was fun. I gathered a pocket full of green and blue sea glass and when I got home, I dumped them all into a jar I have that sits in the windowsill and it made me smile. I got some work done, and then a little while later, I took five minutes to find my friend Rosie’s Instagram story because she always has the best memes and they make me laugh out loud. And a couple hours after that, while I was prepping food to throw into the crock pot, I turned on some music and danced while I chopped. (If you need a suggestion, I highly recommend Remi Wolf’s song Monte Carlo because it’s irreverent and bouncy and makes me happy every damn time I hear it).

I have no idea what other fun things I’ll find today, but I do know that when I stop every once in a while and look around for something fun to do for a minute or two or twelve, by the time I get to the end of the day, I feel a whole hell of a lot better. I haven’t solved any of the huge problems of the world, but I feel more balanced and whole, and like I’ve chosen myself in some small way that feels big. It can be hard to think of things in the beginning, but I swear, once you start, it gets easier. Find yourself a friend like Rosie who curates the funniest shit. Get a book of Dad jokes that crack you up. Make a playlist of music that gets you dancing. Text a friend with a “random question of the day” (I do that a lot and I’m sure people think I’m weird, but … well, they’re right). Go for a walk with a piece of chalk and write goofy things on the sidewalk when nobody’s looking. Get your favorite candy and sit in a recliner for five minutes, tossing pieces in the air to see if you can catch them in your mouth (not with the dogs around, if you have dogs, though – that’s a recipe for disaster). Get some Play-Doh and squish your hands through it and make little critters. Whatever sounds fun to you. Find it. Do it. Every two hours at least. I’m not a doctor, but I think it’s a good prescription for health.

jumble of Meyer lemons on a cooktop surface

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

long, sandy beach with sandstone bluffs on the left side

there you are.

Years ago, I wrote a piece for ParentMap that included this sentiment. It was aimed at parents who were paralyzed by helping their adolescent choose the right school for them, but for the last few days, that phrase has been appearing in my head when things are quiet, this time for a very different reason.

Wherever you go, there you are

A few days ago, I woke up with a horrible thought: what if my youngest and her boyfriend decide to move back to Seattle from LA? Some of you know that their move to Los Angeles was what prompted me to start thinking about relocating away from Seattle – the notion that none of my kids would likely choose to (or be able to afford to) live in Seattle, and my absolute refusal to be a plane ride away from all of them. I didn’t uproot myself to follow them, but I did feel as though this new town was close enough to them and also had many of the characteristics I wanted in a new home that it was the right thing to do.

Best laid plans and all that….

It’s not unusual that I’d be taking some time to find my footing here. I want to create strong, foundational relationships and a community for myself that feels nurturing and vibrant and rooted in my values and passions and I know that will take time. And I also know it’s terribly unlikely that the kids will decide to leave LA for somewhere a plane-ride’s distance from me. But it got me thinking about where I am mentally and emotionally and my conclusion seems to be (at least the phrase that is emerging over and over again is):

wherever you go, there you are

This morning, the emergent wisdom that accompanied that phrase was that my work right now is to really get to know and like myself. Not just get comfortable in my own skin, but celebrate it, revel in it, make no apologies for it. My work is to become so clear on who I am that when I am complimented for it, I don’t shrink back or demur, I expand into it and embrace it.

So how does one go about learning to like themselves?

I don’t know, which is why I make a better writer than a lawyer. Lawyers are taught to never ask questions they don’t already know the answer to. Writers are the ones who ask all sorts of questions they don’t know the answers to. My friend Susan calls me a “seeker,” and she’s quite right. I always have more questions than answers and the good news is that I am very comfortable in that space.

If I figure out how to do this, you can be sure I’ll share. For now, I’ll sit in the sunshine watching the hummingbirds and chickadees feed and listen for guidance. Because here is where I am at the moment.

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

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

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

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

You can’t be irresponsible and just leave

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

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

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

I am safe.

I am loved.

I have resources.

I deserve joy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do, too.

XO,

Kari

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

and letting go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I’m not generally much of a retrospective kind-of person, and I’ve been watching other folks do their year-end and end-of-decade roundups (favorite books, favorite movies, what to look forward to in the next decade) with a bit of wry humor. It’s just another day, right? Another human-centric, artificially constructed milestone that offers us a chance to set new goals or assess progress or feel like we get a fresh start (that’s a loaded phrase for me, which you’ll understand after you read my memoir that is DUE OUT ON FEBRUARY 4 OF THIS COMING YEAR).

But I digress.

It turns out that 2019 was actually a pretty seminal year for me in many ways and it feels like it might be important to at least write about it for posterity. Or to solidify it in my head, to find a way to make sense of it and get a different perspective instead of having it just roil around in there like some swirling mass. So, in no particular order, as they surface from the messy tumult in my head and gut, here’s what my year was like:

* I got two publishing deals in 2019, neither of which I really expected to get. I submitted one of my bodies of work to an academic publisher on a whim because I had been trying to market my social-emotional education curriculum on my own and I was getting no traction. The publisher emailed me right back (which, if you’re a writer, you know is solid gold – so many agents and publishers and editors simply don’t respond to writers’ emails at all), and said that they felt it wasn’t right for them, but they knew a different publisher that might like it and I should send it there. Two amazing occurrences! A quick response and a referral to someone else instead! A unicorn! And because unicorns are magical, the second publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and the book One Teenager at a Time, was published in August after an avalanche of emails tightening it up and getting permissions and copyedits and excitement.

*The first book led to me learning a ton about PR, the disappointment of radio hosts ghosting you, and discovering how much I really enjoy being interviewed about my work and talking about teenagers and their special powers. I challenged myself to do a story slam for the Seattle Times Education Lab and while it was absolutely terrifying at first, I met an amazing group of folks in my local community who love kids as much as I do, who are as committed to making their educational experience better as I am, and who are working hard every single day to see that it happens. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

*The second publishing deal came about when I sent my memoir manuscript out one last time to a small press in New Jersey, CavanKerry Press, and promptly forgot I’d done it.  A few months after I sent it in, it snowed a lot in Seattle. A lot. The first morning, I woke up to that magical quiet that happens when there are eight inches of snow on the ground – no cars, no bird sounds, no city buses roaring down the street in front of the house. And then I heard a scraping noise, a repetitive, plastic-on-sidewalk scraping. My neighbor was shoveling my sidewalk and clearing the snow off of my car in case I needed to get out that day. By the next day, there were nearly 15 inches of snow and it was clear none of us was going anywhere on wheels. Seattle + snow = shutdown. The steep street I live on featured snowboarders racing down four solid blocks of perfect slope for days. On the third day, I borrowed the neighbor’s snow shovel and took my turn clearing the sidewalks and while I was out there, my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t worth it to take off my gloves and stop what I was doing to see who was calling, and only later did I realize whomever called had left a long voice mail. It was Joan Cusack Handler, the senior editor at CavanKerry, letting me know that she wanted to publish my book. I still have that voice mail saved on my phone. The letter they sent me to formalize the offer hangs on my refrigerator. I cried. I called her back immediately, thanked her profusely, ran up to my daughter’s bedroom and told her, danced in the living room, cried some more, and called my closest friends. After nine months of work with their team, the book comes out February 4. You can preorder it here.

*I also got to watch my daughters continue to shine. My oldest finished her first year of college, came home for the summer, and went back to start her second year of school with an eagerness and optimism that made my heart split wide open. She did that thing that some parents talk about where her perspective changed a bit and she chose to sit in the kitchen with me and chat while I cooked, emptied the dishwasher upon waking up before I had a chance to do it, offered to pick up groceries if I needed something. She fell in love with a philosophy class and ran for an executive position in a club at school and made friends I’ve never met. My youngest started nannying twin infants, juggled that while taking high school and college classes, and booked live gigs all around Seattle to showcase her musical acumen. She converted the guest room to a recording booth and put out an album’s worth of original music on Spotify and iTunes. She lobbied me for a pet snake, but we settled on a Russian tortoise.

*There were so many intangible things that happened this year, too. I learned that sometimes grief comes back to bite you when you think you’ve already dealt with it. I learned that I can say something in my head over and over again and it doesn’t necessarily change the belief I harbor in my body. I spent many, many lonely nights pondering how someone my age creates community and close friendships anew. I wrote less than I’ve written in 15 years – at least new content – and agonized over when I would get that flow back. I learned to do with less – cutting the cable, driving less, buying fewer things, killing 2/3 of the lawn to put in native ground cover and create a space to grow veggies and berries, actively participating in my neighborhood’s Buy Nothing Project. I remembered that every time I embark on a new self-improvement regime (exercise more, eat less meat, organize my writing life), it opens this checklist of things in my head that overwhelms me (stop drinking alcohol, no sugar at all, cardio 3x/week, don’t use plastic anything, make your own condiments, isn’t apple cider vinegar supposed to be good instead of shampoo? put solar panels on the house…) and makes me feel horrible about myself.

*I did stop drinking this year, though. I’d stopped for periods before – either when I was pregnant with  my girls or for fast-like fads – but this time that magical thing happened where I made the decision to stop (you can read about why here) and after a few weeks, I ‘knew’ I was done forever. Previously, I would see a tv commercial where someone was drinking a glass of golden chardonnay with a hint of condensation on the outside of the glass and I could taste the buttery sweetness in my mouth. Or I would open the refrigerator to start making dinner and my mind would go to the cupboard where the wine glasses are kept and I would begin the mental calculation of what kind of wine would be best with what I was making. But this time, it was different. Something shifted in my neurons that diverted the path from seeing alcohol or things I had associated with it and leading me to the physical desire for it. Yesterday, I walked past a woman who was sitting in the bar at Nordstrom (which is a really weird thing to write, that there is a bar inside Nordstrom, but that’s the crux of my essay in a nutshell), and she was talking on her phone and holding an enormous glass of white wine and I felt nothing. Thought nothing beyond, “hmm, that’s a generous pour!” I wish I knew how to make that shift happen, what is actually going on in my brain and how to trigger that particular phenomenon where I literally shut off one old, well-worn pathway that is no longer serving me in favor of a new way of being. It happened once before when I was able to forgive my abuser and shed all of the physical sensations that came with despising him and wishing him ill. It is an amazing feeling, incredibly powerful, and if I knew how to re-create it reliably, I could do so much more forgiving.

*2019 was a massive year for me. It was truly a roller coaster with enormous ups and downs. There were some dark, scary moments that bled in to weeks and simultaneously co-existed with joyous, optimistic times. It may be the year where I lived more outside my comfort zone than any other year, spending a great deal of time resting in equanimity, relying on the Universe to hold me as I forged ahead without knowing what the hell was coming. The list of things I did for the first time in 2019 is as long as I’ve ever seen it, and while some of those things flopped, many of them didn’t, and that is proof that continuing to put myself out there whether I know what I’m doing or not can be a pretty exhilarating way to live. Exhausting, but exhilarating, which is why I’m taking the rest of the day off to nest and rest.

Happy New Year, all. I hope that your 2020 offers opportunities to stretch yourself, reminders that you are held and supported, and lots of laughter. We’re going to need it to get through some of what’s coming.

Naturvetenskap 1

I am a storyteller and I have been my whole life. I carry them inside me, work on them, figure out the best way to share them. But sometimes the stories get heavy. Before I ever put anything on the page, the words and feelings chase each other around and around inside, making connections and trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. When I sit too long with the stories, they start to burn and I know it’s time to walk or go pull weeds. Somehow, being outside helps the sentences flow and combine in ways they can’t when I am indoors.

The stories of the last year and a half are heavier than many that have gone before, and I’m finding that walking takes on a new urgency for me and it also requires a focus I haven’t been forced to have before. These days, I have to walk farther away from home and immerse myself in places that are new and expansive in order to divorce myself from the circling thoughts and feelings. I have found an open space surrounded by trees where few people go and at least once a week I walk there and sit and untether the words from each other, and also from my head and heart. Sitting in this place just breathing helps to re-string it all in a way that offers clarity.

I am learning that there is a sort of chemical reaction taking place as I assimilate the stories and try to keep my heart and my head on the same level. Most days, the two are at war, fighting for supremacy, which sometimes means wild swings from sadness to anger. My brain can only witness so much grief before it burns it off with anger, like alcohol in a skillet. My heart is simultaneously relieved of its burden and seduced by the beautiful flames, but the anger is also expansive and  at some point I realize it is taking up too much space in my head. The sadness dissipated, but the stories are still there and they are all about other people. I imagine a large section of my brain colonized by the stories of others, the actions of others, the words of others, and I am impatient to evict them.

When I was in college, the days I spent in the Chemistry lab were some of my favorites. The cool, cave-like room with its expanse of concrete worktops and glass beakers and pipettes and orderly rhythms gave me a stillness and a focus. There were rules, a set of steps to be taken, and all that was asked of me was to do one thing at a time and remain curious – observe and report. Even if I knew what I was supposed to be creating, somehow the cascading chemical reactions along the way were always enchanting – sometimes it was a smell or a particular color flame that I hadn’t expected. Witnessing the magic kept me from getting caught up in the story or the sequence. I had my instructions. Observe and report. Remain curious.

 

I never know where inspiration will come from, but in general, it is spurred by conversations with people I don’t know as well as I thought I did. And for that, I am tremendously grateful.

I have been part of a book club for about four years that is composed of women who look an awful lot like me – upper middle class, white, most of us have children who are teenagers. Most are married (some for the second time), and about half work a traditional job. And yet, the disparate backgrounds and thought processes are interesting enough that we have some pretty deep conversations. I have to say, there have been some tense moments (for me, anyway, who is incapable of staying quiet when I think there is something privileged or provocative or unacknowledged), but they’ve generally been talked through, and all are sparked by books we’ve read.

Many of the books are ones I wouldn’t have picked up in the first place and I love that, too. There have been a few over the years that I couldn’t bring myself to finish (one that I didn’t even bother to start), but for the most part, I dive in with curiosity and look forward to the conversations we have. And nearly always, I am left with lots to think about in the ensuing days. Our last meeting was a week ago and I’m still chewing on one small exchange that happened around PTSD and when I think about something for that long, it usually means the only way I can process it is to write about it.

We read The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah which contains themes of domestic violence and PTSD (albeit largely unacknowledged – only alluded to) throughout.  At one point during our discussion, I referenced this post from a few weeks ago in an effort to talk about the way my brain worked to prepare myself for potential catastrophe when I was a kid and one of the other women chimed in, “From who?”

I stopped talking and turned to look at her.

“From who? Who were you afraid of?”

In the moment, I answered truthfully and moved on to make my point, but it is that exchange that has been stuck in a crevice of my brain for nearly a week now and I feel the need to elaborate on my original answer.

Here’s what I know about PTSD (in my case – I won’t generalize to other people’s experiences): it’s not rational, and it doesn’t limit itself to one trigger. If, as a kid, I was afraid of one particular person, anytime I encountered another person who had similar characteristics, my nervous system went into overdrive and sent me to fight/flight. So while I may have started out worrying about one person harming me, as soon as I went out in to the wider world, I saw potential disaster in all sorts of places that other people wouldn’t normally see it. I was, quite literally, prepared to duck and run at any time. I saw danger everywhere for years. This is how PTSD compromised my ability to function in my daily life – by keeping me on a hair trigger whether it made sense to other people or not.

Here’s another thing I know about PTSD; repeated exposure to triggers won’t give me the sense that I’m safe. This is not like experiments scientists are doing with food allergies where small doses over long periods of time gradually help the immune system become accustomed to ingesting the item and end up being ok with it. Repeated exposure to triggers only made me develop more armor which I spent a lot of time and money with therapists trying to dismantle. The way I overcame most of my PTSD was to have small repeated exposure to safe spaces, to people who didn’t violate or harm or scare me. With a lot of effort and mindfulness, I was gradually able to change the narrative in my brain, but it didn’t just happen. It took work.

If you love someone who has PTSD, please don’t explain to them why they shouldn’t be scared or anticipate disaster. Please don’t trigger them and later say, “See? I didn’t hit you. I just yelled. You were over-reacting.” A trigger sets off a biochemical chain reaction that completely obliterates language. By the time I realize you haven’t hit me, I’ve already felt the fear in every corner of my brain and body and it’s too late for you to convince me that I shouldn’t be scared. I already was. It happened. And that’s one more example in my brain of why it’s not safe to be around you – whether you hit me or not.

I realize that PTSD is unfathomable to people who don’t have it but the more we can try to understand what triggers our loved ones with PTSD, the more we can avoid those incidents that send them in to a frenzy of survival mode behavior. Just because we can’t understand someone else’s reaction to something doesn’t make it unimportant or irrelevant or over-reaction. PTSD starts with one trigger but our brains are so good at generalizing and so worried about keeping us safe that we can expand the list of triggers to include things that others think are nuts. If you love someone with PTSD, the best thing you can do is learn what triggers them and avoid doing those things as you continually remind them that you are safe and loving.

(For the record, I was dismayed that the book we read didn’t explore the idea that one of the main characters was clearly struggling with PTSD. There was a missed opportunity there, in my opinion, to make him a much more 3-dimensional character. )

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.

Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff’s site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here.