“In a culture of deep scarcity – of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough – joy can feel like a setup.”  Brene Brown in Daring Greatly

I lived those words for most of my life.  Every time I found myself knee-deep in joy I fantasized about when someone would come pull the plug and it would all drain away.  When the girls were two and four, Bubba was traveling more often than not, struggling with an undiagnosed illness that left him hospitalized every few months, and I was scared.  I was wracked with stomach cramps and sinking deeper and deeper into depression with every passing day and I somehow felt right at home.  While I couldn’t accurately predict what any one day would bring, dealing with crisis after crisis kept me busy and feeling competent. I could put out fires all day long and, while I was exhausted at night, dealing with one fire meant that I didn’t have to worry when or where the next one would flare up.  If a day passed without anything falling apart, my nerves were stretched taut as I waited, hypervigilant, scanning the landscape for the slightest new flame.  I expected danger. I anticipated fear. I did what most of Brene’s research subjects talked about; I lived in fear so that when something awful happened, I was already in the trench and wouldn’t have to feel the pain of falling or climbing back down. It was easier to stay in the dark than to suffer the loss of light.

Or so I thought.

These days I expect joy.  Despite a very challenging summer and early fall, struggling with a major construction project that is two months behind schedule, one pet’s death and a cancer diagnosis for another, and a very close call with one of our daughters, I have somehow managed to stay positive.  Instead of waking up each morning in trepidation, worried about what this day may bring, I open my eyes and seek the light.

In Daring Greatly, Brown writes about gratitude being the antidote to fear of joy. She says that people who practice counting their blessings aren’t afraid to feel joy like so many others.  I believe that wholeheartedly and credit my own daily gratitude practice with helping change my perspective on life, but I think there is another step beyond gratitude that is even more powerful. If the spectrum starts on the left at fear of joy (or, as Brown says it, “foreboding joy” – that feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop the second you realize you are happy beyond measure), gratitude is nearing the other end, but I say that the far right end of the spectrum is expecting joy.

I wake up every day expecting joy. Knowing that no matter what challenge or sadness I may face today, there will also be joy. Something will happen today that will bring me pure happiness.  This is probably the single biggest thing ever to happen to me.

“Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?” Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

Indeed. Who am I? Why do I deserve to be joyful? I used to ask myself this question, and then, at one point, a friend pointed out to me that I certainly deserved it, given the struggles I have had in my life – from a difficult childhood to my husband’s prolonged illness and beyond.  I calculated up the traumas I have faced and had to agree with her that I probably did ‘deserve’ joy on some level.  But this entire notion of deserving joy is something I am patently uncomfortable with.  For one thing, as a mother, I don’t want my children to have to EARN their joy by enduring hardship, or worry that if they do live joyful lives, they will one day have to pay for it with trauma and unhappiness.

The fact is, there isn’t some High Priestess of Joy doling out happiness according to a balance sheet she’s been given about who deserves what.  Joy is out there in the world. We simply have to train ourselves to recognize it, acknowledge it, expect it.  Joy coexists with sadness, it doesn’t cancel it out. When I look at my sweet puppy boy lying on his bed, feet twitching as he dreams, I feel a tenderness and an outpouring of love for him and the relationship we have and that love sits side-by-side with the knowledge that he has malignant melanoma and will die sooner than I want him to. The joy and gratitude I feel at having been so lucky to have him in my life are deepened and enhanced by the knowledge that one day soon he will not be here anymore.

We humans like things to even out. We love balance, but we also like to be ready for disaster.  The irony is, as we use our energy to prepare for calamity, we rarely prepare for joy.  We walk around searching for potholes to avoid, ready to duck if something comes flying, but very few of us spend any time practicing opening ourselves to receive or recognize opportunities for joy.  We are creating our own imbalance.  I have decided to turn that on its head and, instead, wake up every morning expecting joy, believing that, if nothing else, today I will discover at least one thing that will stop me in my tracks with wonder and awe.

One of my favorite words is “friable.” It is a word I learned when I was working as a surgical assistant and it made an enormous impression on me for two reasons. First, it was accompanied by a visual cue. Second, it sounded to me like what it meant.

friable – adj. easily crumbled or reduced to powder; crumbly

Tumors or masses that were easy to remove from the surrounding tissue were either fluid-filled cysts or other dense collections of cells. But occasionally we would encounter a mass that, when you grabbed it with the forceps to hold it away from the surrounding tissue – to cut it away – little pieces would break off in the tips over and over again. It wasn’t that it was tightly adhered to its location in the body, but that it was fragile and easily broken and it was often challenging to be sure that we removed all of the mass because you couldn’t get it out all in one piece.

Today I feel friable. Not fragile, like glass that will shatter if dropped, but friable, as though if I am pulled on, small fragments will begin to fall off. It is the aftermath of how I felt yesterday which I am not sure there is a word for.

Yesterday afternoon for a few hours I felt very clear. If I were a fiction writer, a novelist who writes about space travel or psychological thrillers, I could use how I felt to form a compelling scene. It is that feeling you don’t get often that immediately follows the diversion of a major catastrophe. Similar to the adrenaline rush you get after narrowly missing another car on the road or barely righting your bicycle when you skid on a patch of wet gravel, but more profound. It is the calm after the initial heart palpitations in which you have a sort of tunnel vision, a clear, calm certainty that you have just done something very important, something that very definitively prevented a horrible set of events from being put into motion. A floating sort of feeling in which the parts of your life that are trivial literally fall away and you are left with a clarity that brings into focus every scent in the air, the dappled color of the leaves on every tree in your path, and each inhale and exhale that fills your cells with oxygen.

Yesterday as the dog and I walked through the neighborhood, I reveled in that feeling. In fact, I bathed in it. I had no other feelings. I harbored no anger toward the person whose heinous actions I prevented. I retained none of the abject fear I had possessed mere hours before, sobbing ugly, ugly tears at what we might have lost. I felt only clarity. I was yet hours from feeling gratitude for the way things worked out, and even farther from today when I simply feel friable.

As I have busied myself in the hours after the girls left for school, making phone calls and paying bills and baking blueberry muffins for the week’s breakfasts, I have felt competent and calm with an underlying sense of this crumbling, a sort of detached knowledge that if I am put under any kind of pressure, I may fall to bits.

*I know this is cryptic, but because of the particulars of the story and those involved, I do not feel at liberty to share the details. I did, however, feel the desperate need to share how it made me feel, if only to write the words down and get them out of my head.

I sit in the front seat of the car outside the vet clinic where I just dropped my baby boy off for xrays to rule out metastatic melanoma.
I feel the prickling behind my eyes and recognize it as fear. One step farther down the path from pain.
And I wonder, what if I stop at honoring the feeling and don’t go so far as to name it?
What if I sit with this ache behind my eyes,
the heaviness in my chest?
Just sit.
How do I arrive at this point and not give in to the inertia that pushes me forward to the next?
The questions.
What if…?
How do I…?
I recognize my own tendency toward forward motion. Moving always. Through,
or past.
Even if it means moving into fear, panic, anxiety.
What will I do without this lovely boy?
The question flits into being.
I let it go.
Don’t move past,
Sit with this moment in honor of my boy. This moment is all there is. It won’t last forever but the least I can do is feel it while it’s here and give it space.
And as I sit and breathe, floating in this moment, I discover a place of okay has opened up to me, offered itself, and I sit.

I received a call for submissions in my email from a fellow writer a week ago and thought, “Cha-ching! I could totally fit that bill!”  I followed the link to the submission guidelines and tucked them away for another day when I could get my thoughts together and write a proper query.

The topic (mental illness) has been kicking around in my brain a lot for the last week and I felt confident that just as soon as I got some time I would sit down and crank out a quick query, link it to past work and hit ‘send.’ Easy as pie.

And then I sat down to write the query and felt stiff and stilted.
I kept writing like Anne Lamott says to do even if it’s crap, hoping that I would eventually find some gem to pluck out and polish off.
I abandoned it at one point to my “drafts” folder and walked away.

That afternoon I scribbled notes on scratch paper as they occurred to me; ideas for a general direction to take the essay in, going down a few mole holes chasing research ideas and interviewees before abandoning that tack as well.

Yesterday I finally admitted to myself that I am unsure about heading in any of the original directions because I don’t feel like an expert in those areas. I don’t feel like I know enough about the specifics and I am not sure I could interview enough people or do enough research to make it credible before the deadline.

And yet, I am familiar with the topic. Intimately familiar.


I decided to leave it alone for a while.

I took Lola to bouldering practice after school yesterday and decided to stay and watch.  She is a little tentative about it for reasons neither of us can figure out, and I wanted to see if I could get a little insight.  I saw fear and uncertainty on her face.  I saw the way the coach interacted with her which was supportive, but not meaningful for Lola because of who she is and how she processes things.  The support was cursory and well-intentioned but not authentic.


It wasn’t a brick to the forehead; more like a soft, slow settling of Truth.  A clearing of the waters.

Write what you know.  Write from a place of authenticity. Admit your own fears and uncertainty as you write and you will reach the reader.  This is what I know.

And so this morning, I will go back to the “drafts” folder and begin again. This time I will be writing as an expert, as someone who knows enough about how mental illness instills fear in family members on so many levels and how that fear creates stigma and secrecy and stops us from seeking help.

And I am again reminded that getting real is the way to get it done.

Spring is certainly coming.  Every morning after I wake the girls up, the dog and I go for a 10 minute stroll around the neighborhood and in the past week I have noticed that we aren’t walking in the dark.  I no longer need to use the flashlight app on my cell phone to find the mess he leaves in the neighbors’ grass and clean it up.

During our mid-day walk, I have seen tips of crocus and daffodil bulbs peeking out of the ground and the camellia bush someone has espaliered across their front fence has five open blossoms already.  This morning while I prepared my coffee I saw the little black-masked chickadees chasing each other through the air around the branches of the cherry tree just outside the window.

As I packed snacks for Eve’s class this morning (they are taking four days of standardized tests and some of the parents have volunteered to bring in ‘brain food’ each day for all the girls to help them make it through the endless, boring hours of answering questions at a computer screen), the paper towel I was using to hammock the bunches of grapes split down the middle and grapes went everywhere, collapsing the bag, rolling across the counter, landing in the sink and on the floor.  I was instantly aware of a message playing in my head:

Today is a day to pay attention.

I realized I was simply going through the motions, not paying complete attention to anything around me.

You see, yesterday evening I was responsible for causing psychological and physical trauma to another human being.  Directly responsible.  And while it was entirely accidental and I never would have intended it, I still felt the weight of it in my heart this morning.  Despite the fact that I did the right thing and stayed to ensure that everything was okay, despite the fact that the man I hurt, a complete stranger, assured me repeatedly that he was fine, that I shouldn’t worry, I saw the faces of some of the witnesses.  I watched one woman cross her arms and close her face in judgment. I heard the sharp words of another who questioned me and I felt Wrong.

I engaged in all sorts of self-talk last night when I was done sobbing and questioning myself.  I reminded myself that one accident does not change the person I am, does not negate the warmth and love I intentionally radiate out into the Universe every day.  I progressed to wondering why I thought I was exempt from making big mistakes, effectively reminding myself that I am human like everyone else.

But I still woke up sad.

During a break in the rain this morning, I pulled the leash over CB’s head and we quietly strolled through the neighborhood.  While I recall looking at this house we live in during the Spring months last year, I have not yet lived a Spring here and I was reminded of the potential beauty that will surround us in a month or so.    Trees are beginning to form the tiniest of leaves and buds, bulbs are poking up all around in flower beds and the birds are flipping from bush to bush gathering nesting material and chatting all the while.

I came home, lit a candle in my office, and sat cross-legged on the floor.

Ever since the accident yesterday, I realize I have been working hard to find some reason that this happened.  I have also been working really hard to ‘talk’ to those two women who were so angry with me last night, to defend myself and explain when I know their judgment was more about themselves and their fears than anything they thought they knew about me.

What I learned this morning by being quiet and really listening, really paying attention, is that Spring is coming.  I need only to settle in and raise my head and heart to the sunlight and continue to stretch for the warmth in order to use what is already within me to rise up and flourish.  That by listening to myself and the core of who I know I am, I can truly hear what I need to and express it in the best way possible.

When I was in the 4th grade, I started shoplifting.  Actually, the first thing I stole was something from my friend, Jacque’s, bedroom.  We took piano lessons one after the other at her house every Tuesday afternoon and while I waited my turn with Mr. Fox, I sometimes explored her perfect bedroom.  She didn’t have to share with her sister in this enormous white colonial house with black shutters on the windows.  It looked for all the world like what I expected a plantation would look like in the deep South – wide bay windows with window seats for reading, and light streaming in from every angle.

Jacque (pronounced “Jackie”) had everything. And I wanted in on that.  While it may have appeared as though I, too, had it all – two parents, a large house, enough extra money for piano lessons – there was an undercurrent of danger in my life.  Beneath it all was a deep fault line that threatened to shift and rumble at any time and I used to lie in bed at night wondering how it would go.  When the ground opened up, who would be swallowed and who would scramble clinging to the edge, screaming in stark fear?  I had my moments of wishing for certain individuals to fall endlessly down that dark chasm but that always left me behind. Alone.

And so I felt entitled to any small trinket that would make me feel better. I reasoned that my life was nowhere near as safe and secure, neat and tidy as Jacque’s, and she had so much stuff she wouldn’t possibly miss whatever I took.

She did. And I got caught and that was the end of shared piano lessons.  After that day, Mr. Fox with his bulbous alcoholic’s nose streaked with red veins and impossibly large pores, shuffled in to my house once a week, his leather briefcase full of loose sheet music and his pea-green trench coat flapping around his shins.  I had been exiled.

And so I started stealing things from the local mini mart, instead.  I had lost a friend in the last round of theft and I, who was so desperate for affection, could hardly afford to lose any more.  It started with lip balm and I was shaking so badly I had tunnel vision.

I never used it.  It sat to the side in the drawer of my nightstand for years.  Other items gathered next to it – a butterfly barrette, licorice taffy, a box of candy cigarettes.  These were symbols of my entitlement. They were my great, silent, “Screw You!” to the Universe that had placed me with two parents who couldn’t be what I needed them to be.  They were a sign that I was allowed to have something that I wanted.

By the time my parents divorced and spread themselves a few states apart, I lost the desire to take anything more.  I felt so conflicted about the shoplifting; knowing it was Wrong and that, somehow, it wasn’t going to fix anything, anyway (clearly not, since my family had just come apart like so many dandelion seeds on the wind). Was this Conscience? I didn’t remember details of the bad times – the angry arguments or physical abuse – but I recall everything I ever took that didn’t belong to me.  I trace the edges of that Bonne Bell lip balm in my mind’s eye, the opaque wrapper of the black-as-tar salt water taffy.  I can still smell the sugary, waxy, dark licorice scent of my drawer every time I cracked it open.

I still feel shame.

Many years ago when Bubba and I were traveling with the girls I did it again.  He had been so sick off and on for two years and I was terrified to be so far from home in case he relapsed. He wasn’t scared. That was part of the problem.  He was never scared, even when I was calling 911 or racing to the ER myself, two toddlers strapped in to car seats in the back seat as I whipped my gaze back and forth from his ashy face to the road in front of me.  His lack of fear meant that I had to hold it all – every sour-smelling drop of it – for all of us.

And then it happened. One night in the middle of the night in a foreign country, he got sick.  And I didn’t panic. I got him to the hospital and they spent an entire day inserting IVs and pushing fluids and taking photos of his internal organs.  And I spent the day trying to entertain two small children in the park, among a sea of strangers whose language I didn’t speak, not knowing whether he would emerge from that big brick building at all.  I fed them and played with them, changed diapers and didn’t let one tear fall.  I deflected curious questions about where Daddy was and when he would be back, all the while feeling that old familiar fault line beneath my feet.

He did emerge, grey and tired, and we holed up in the hotel for several days. I put the children down for a nap, got him some tea, and crawled into bed and sobbed.  Every time I closed my eyes I saw me, fingernails dug in to the red clay at the edge of the Grand Canyon, alone and dangling.

The next day we ventured out to the lobby of this old hotel, sitting by the fireplace, looking at the views, checking out the gift shop.  And I stole a necklace.  An inexpensive but beautiful necklace.  I told myself that if I got caught, I would simply claim exhaustion and tell them to put it on our tab.  But I didn’t get caught.

I love that necklace. I wear it often, but it has a loose clasp and a nasty habit of coming unhooked and sliding down inside my bra from time to time.  Every time I put it on I think about that dark, dark time in our lives and feel ashamed.  And I think that maybe this is Conscience.  I could have afforded that necklace a hundred times over. But that wasn’t the point, was it? The point was that I felt entitled to something. Something free. Something compensatory.

But it didn’t compensate for any of the pain I was feeling any more than that barrette did when I was nine.  And none of the things I took had the power to change circumstances in my life. They reminded me, in some small way, that I had self-worth, however misguided.  These were symbols that I mattered to me, that I still valued myself enough to give myself something nice.  I see the twisted logic in all of this and don’t condone my behavior, but I will forever be grateful that, throughout the darkest periods of my life, I was able to retain some small measure of belief that I deserved something.

I love Lola’s skateboard instructor. For a kid in his mid-twenties he is surprisingly intuitive about the psyche of a nine year old girl.

Lola is a kamikaze. Sort of. She is very enthusiastic and not fearful of physical challenges. What she is afraid of is looking stupid and there are a lot of opportunities to do that on a skateboard. The first few lessons she took were at a local skate park crawling with boys of all ages skating without pads or helmets (I make her wear both) with wild abandon. They fall, skid, trip, run right off the end of their skateboards and have some of the foulest mouths I’ve heard in a long time. Most of them are consumed with perfecting their tricks and are constantly showing off for each other.
One of the first things her teacher (I’ll call him Sam) did was to change Lola’s lesson time to morning when the teenage boys are still in bed and she can have the venue to herself. But even before that he amazed me. One of his first goals was to get her to go down the biggest hill in the park. They worked for a bit on stance and balance (she’s “goofy-footed” like me which means that her opposite foot goes in the front – unusual) and then he walked her to the top of the hill. On my beach towel in the grass, I was too far away to hear what they said, but they talked for a minute, he steadied her on the board and then let her take her time deciding when to go. After about 60 seconds of hesitation, he called to her and waved his hand so she would join him in a different area of the park. Without going down the hill. They worked on some smaller hills for a bit, practiced turning, and then went back to the big hill. Another hesitation of about 45 seconds and he waved her off again.
During each of these mini-sessions, Sam challenged her and high-fived her when she conquered a task. I could see her proud grin from across the park. After four or five attempts at doing the hill, I figured out what Sam was doing. He had somehow concluded that Lola was psyching herself out by thinking too much about skating down the hill and he knew that the longer she stood there, the more fearful she would be. By waving her off, he was letting her know that it was no great disappointment that she hadn’t gone down the hill and he was redirecting her attention to something she could do. He was letting her be successful and building her confidence. Gradually, throughout the lesson, Lola came to trust Sam. She grew to believe that he wasn’t going to ask her to do anything she was not comfortable doing and she trusted that he wanted her to be successful as much as she wanted to succeed. She built a bond with him and ultimately she decided she wanted to go down that hill for herself and for him.
Before we left that first day, Lola flew down that hill twice on her board. Twice. She did it on her own terms without feeling as though she had to in order to prove herself, but the beautiful thing is that she did prove something to herself and to Sam. She showed that when you are given space and time to believe in your own abilities without judging yourself, you can soar. And Sam reminded me that overthinking things leads to fear. Often the best thing we can do for ourselves when we’re intimidated by something is to go bolster our own self-confidence by excelling at something smaller or less frightening. And then when we are ready, it is easy to tackle the bigger task without too much angst.
I love Lola’s skateboard instructor.

“Fear is excitement without breath.” Robert Heller

When I first heard the quote, I had to chew on it for a while. I wanted it to be true because it seems such a magical way to flip something awful into something much more desirable. If I’m fearful, all I have to do is breathe. Or remember that, with breath, this situation would be merely exciting. And exciting is good, right?

It has been several days now and I can say honestly that I see glimpses of it. Like lucid flashes of last night’s dream, I have moments where I feel like I can grasp the wisdom of Heller’s words, but as soon as I pursue the thought it vanishes.

After some frustration, I decided maybe it would help to come at it from a different angle. I love words and wordplay and I kicked butt on the portion of the SAT where you have to compare groups of words (bird is to nest as dog is to __________). I love analogies. So maybe if fear + breath = excitement, then anger + breath =
equals…sarcasm? Wry humor? Generally if I’m given time to take a breath when I’m royally pissed off I can come up with some witty remark that makes my point without screaming. Although, I’m not certain that sarcasm is all that much better than anger.

This led me to wonder just how much breath we’re talking about. Because I can see that (staying with the analogy) say, 15 minutes of slow, meditative breathing when I’m angry could lead to a much better assessment of the situation. In this case, anyway, it seems that more breath is better. So maybe it’s the same with fear.

I still wasn’t getting there. Not all the way, anyway.

My third try involved coming up with a scenario. So I conjured up something to be afraid of. And, because this was only an exercise and I tend to do things in a big way in my imagination, I went for one of the biggies. I hearkened back to the days when Bubba was sick with some mysterious illness that nearly killed him more than once. The days (three and a half years of which) before we had a diagnosis and I was never sure when he left on a business trip if he was going to be coming home again or not. That was pure, naked fear, that was. And even if I take out my mental measuring cup and add six cups of breath, I don’t see how that gets me to excitement. Granted, the dictionary definition of “excite” is “to arouse or stir up the emotions of,” but I generally think of excitement as a positive thing. By this definition, my emotions were certainly excited, but not in a good way – in a bleeding-ulcer-causing way.

After all of the logical labyrinths of the last week, I still can’t find my way around the sense of this quote. And it’s too damn bad because I really would have liked a simple recipe for turning fear to excitement.