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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.

Glowing coals from a BBQ

Photo by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen

“You are very grown up, aren’t you?”

“You are a very mature young lady!”

“You are wise beyond your years.”

These are just a few of the phrases I heard as a kid that served to reinforce my trauma response and help me build an identity around it. And as I built that identity, I got praised for it more and more, for thinking on my feet, for dashing in to fix things, for never letting ‘em see me sweat.

“That’ll toughen you up, kid.”

“Show ‘em your battle scars! Be proud of them!”

I think that’s part of the reason I’m such a good leader at the food bank. Every week is a new challenge – food deliveries don’t come at the last minute or what we thought we were getting turns out to be something else altogether. The weather turns awful and I have to figure out how to keep five volunteers dry outside while packing boxes in sideways rain and hail with just tarps and pallets. Years and years of hypervigilance and doom-planning are paying off. All the time I spent as a kid imagining alternate scenarios and planning for them, wondering what I could do if X happened and how I could manage if things turned sideways and Y happened instead.

You might be thinking, ok, so what? Your trauma is serving you well as an adult.

But you would be wrong.

It’s not your fault – up until this morning, I would have agreed with you.

But we were both wrong.

My trauma is re-traumatizing me as an adult.

I built an identity and a way of moving through the world that means I never let my guard down, that means I always expect to be on my own when the shit hits the fan and that I assume responsibility for managing crises and cleaning up after them without even being asked.

It’s who I am.

But this morning, I took the time to imagine what it would have been like if my 8-year old self had been told, instead, that it wasn’t her job to be “wiser than your years.” What would it have been like if she had felt safe and held within a community or family group that didn’t place adult responsibility on her shoulders? How would she have learned to calm her nervous system and ask for help when she felt overwhelmed? How could she have grown up not feeling as though she was the only one who could fix things, and that if she didn’t do it, nobody would?

What if someone had told her, instead, “I’m so sorry you have those scars. I wish I’d been there to keep that from happening”?

I spent so many years of my life searching for the Right way to get through painful, scary times – knowing with absolute certainty that if things got worse, it was because I hadn’t been smart enough, prepared enough, savvy enough to plan for the right contingency. It made me even more determined to explore every avenue. And I got really good at it. If there was a way to put it on my resumé, I would have.

But in my body, it meant I was alone, always. It meant that even when I was married, I didn’t think to trust my husband to solve really big problems, really scary ones, because I had learned that people without trauma didn’t think like I did – they couldn’t always accurately assess the potential dangers that lie ahead and plan for them. Those people were naïve. Lovely, and loving, but naïve. I couldn’t rely on them in a crisis.

It also means that, in my body, there are embers that flare when someone close to me is suffering and the flares are often disproportionate to the situation. I suppose that’s really the basis of PTSD, but it’s surprising to me to realize how much of that is applauded and reinforced in our society. The idea that hypervigilance is a muscle we want to build is so backward to me, but my entire life, I’ve been praised for it, and it is causing harm. Those embers that flare when someone close to me is in crisis give me a momentary ability to get clear and start the process of contingency planning, but they also cut my head off from my body because the sensations I feel in my body are too painful and frightening to feel in those moments. That severance is really seductive – feeling competent and clear and able to swoop in and offer my support to a loved one is a powerful drug. Why would I want to check in with my body? Just to feel fear? To experience the little zaps of grief and overwhelm that rise up and make me remember all the times I’ve felt that way before? Not likely.

But I have learned that disconnecting my mind from my body has consequences. Namely, my brain experiences a power trip and it also starts spiraling into scary places, imagining all sorts of horrible scenarios just so I can build a strategy in case they come true. And as much as I try to divorce myself from my physical self, all I’ve really done is cut off communication from my body to my brain, not the other way around. My body is still absorbing energy, still taking in information (much of it from my spiraling thoughts that are generally wholly inaccurate), and lighting little fires everywhere. Eventually, I freeze in overwhelm and panic. I burst into tears, lie on the couch and stare, shake uncontrollably. So far, this generally only happens once the crisis is over and I know I’m safe (or my loved-one is safe), but those fires just keep getting bigger.

Today, I’m starting the work to put out the embers; to go back and find every spot in my body where younger me was put in situations she didn’t belong in and relieve her of those burdens. I’m asking her what it might feel like to imagine that she was held and safe and free to be eight or ten or 14, instead of collecting battle scars and proving herself more adult than her age. It is my deep hope that in doing so, I will be able to face the next really scary situation without a fire flaring inside me. I would like to stay connected to my body and show up for my loved ones as my whole self, un-triggered and loving, secure in the knowledge that we are in this together and I can ask for help if I need it. I want to have healed those parts of me that were taught it is a good thing to tackle big challenges by myself, no matter what it costs, because those scars are something to be proud of. I want to come clear-headed and with a calm body responding out of love and not fear. The idea that I can put my energy toward helping hold what is rather than exhausting myself imagining what might be will hopefully be more seductive than thinking I can single-handedly save the day.

small stream bordered by lush greenery and dappled sunlight

Every once in a while I have these moments of absolute clarity about how traumatized we all are. How unhealthy is it that we are all expected to just keep getting up, working, helping our kids learn online, networking on LinkedIn and pretending like things are ok? There are children in cages. There are women in ICE custody who are being sterilized without consent. There are entire towns burning to the ground, millions of people on unemployment, hundreds of thousands dead from a virus. There are more storms forming over the ocean right now than ever before, and some areas on the West Coast of the United States are going on week four of air that is unsafe to breathe.

And yet, farm workers are out picking crops, college students are diligently logging on to their Zoom classes, and we are posting about November 4 as though it will be some magical day that will bring about a sea-change. If the culmination of so much pain and loss and collective grief doesn’t get us to pause, what will? I’m not talking about a General Strike (although, I’d be all in favor of that as a way to manage this), I am talking about the natural, physiological reaction human beings have to grief and loss, which is to slow down, absorb, feel the feelings, set aside what is not important and basic. We aren’t doing that. We aren’t giving ourselves the space to process the waves of trauma.

We are continuing to push forward, sometimes as a defense mechanism so that we don’t have to face the suffering, and other times because we know that the systems we have created will punish us for stopping to tend to ourselves as whole human beings. We have gotten so good at gaslighting ourselves – pretending as though what is most vital is to just keep going – that our bosses and landlords and parents don’t have to do it to us. We have swallowed the hook of capitalism that says that productivity will save us, that if we just put our heads down and keep working, “things will sort themselves out.”

I’m here to say that, even if things do sort themselves out, we will come out the other end of this traumatized and wounded and badly in need of rest and healing. What would it take for everything to stop for a bit – no school, no work that isn’t essential – so that we can nurture ourselves and our loved ones? What would it be like if we all took a week to just be in this overwhelm, to really settle in our minds and bodies around what is important, what our true basic needs are, and only focus on that?

What I know is that the thing that would feel best to me right now is to gather all of my beloveds in my home and cook for them. Play games and laugh and dance and nap. Walk the dogs and look at the trees turning color and sit around the table with a warm meal and the knowledge that we aren’t missing a damn thing out there in the world. That everyone else is doing the same thing with their beloveds, and if someone needs to cry, there are shoulders available. If someone needs a cuddle, there’s a sweet dog or little human there to sit with. And while that’s not possible on so many levels, even just imagining it calms my body and mind a bit.

What would it be like if we could all be honest with ourselves and each other about how damn hard this is, how scary and painful? What would it feel like to know that we are held in love by people we trust, and that whatever we feel is Real and True? That’s the world I want us to emerge in to. When the smoke clears and the rain and wind stop and the virus is vanquished, I want us to create a place where collective trauma is acknowledged and honored and rest is deemed more important than work.

KennyRogers.jpg
By John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – KennyRogers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75141455

Kenny Rogers died last night. He was my mom’s absolute, first-line celebrity crush. She used to joke that she would marry him in a second if he showed up at her door. Every time we got in the car to head out to cross-country ski, we would settle in to our prescribed places in her baby blue Volkswagen square back and she’d pop in a cassette and crank the volume. If it was a sunny day, we’d roll the windows down and sing along, she and I, while Katy stared out the window trying not to get carsick and Chris cranked up the sound on his Walkman to drown us out.

I don’t know that I was a massive fan of Kenny Rogers, but I loved the effect his music had on Mom. Before she and Dad divorced, he was pretty much in charge of the music for road trips – Doobie Brothers, Little River Band, those were his choices and I never really thought about whether or not Mom would have chosen them. But after the divorce, it was Kenny Rogers and Anne Murray in Mom’s car, belted out with feeling. I think I get it more now. After my divorce I had the sensation that there was more room in the world for my choices, that while I hadn’t disliked the music or trips my ex chose, I hadn’t ever felt fully free to stretch my limbs out in to space and freely choose what I would have preferred.

My ex and I had similar taste in music – we both grew up with Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin, The Cars, The Rolling Stones, Mötley Crüe. But I also loved REM, 10,000 Maniacs, Depeche Mode, and The Thompson Twins. As young adults, he drifted toward Green Day and The Killers, which I liked, but I stockpiled Indigo Girls and Annie Lennox and Pink as well, which he jokingly called “chick music.” It was really a seamless, unspoken understanding that when he was in the car, we’d listen to his preferences and when he wasn’t the girls and I could indulge ourselves with our girly stuff.

Right now, as mom is sequestered inside her assisted living facility, safely taken care of but also on hospice, I am resisting pulling up the audio of “If I Ever Fall in Love Again” because I know it will push me over the edge of this lump in my throat in to a crying jag and I’m not ready. I’m reserving it because I cry at least once a day now, and I find a sweet release, but this cry will be different. It will be the tears I shed for the loss of my mom’s voice. The only place I can hear it now is in my own head and I don’t want to waste it or erase it or cover it up with Kenny and Anne singing to each other. It will be the tears I shed on behalf of mom because she won’t know that he’s gone and couldn’t grieve for him. It will be the tears I shed for the idea that I might not see Mom again if she dies before they lift the ban on visitors. I want to sit with her and hold her hand one more time, maybe sing some lines from The Gambler to her and dig deep in to her reserves one time to see if her spirit can conjure up that feeling of freedom, wheeling along the highway, windows down, one hand surfing the waves of air as we laugh and harmonize on our way to play in the snow together.

“You got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run…”

Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It’s been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.

The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.

Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you’ve ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.

Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I’ve cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.

If you’re like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that – I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.

When things happened that I couldn’t have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.

Eventually, that did several things:

  • fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it’s because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it), 
  • turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel), 
  • exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time – the vast majority of which weren’t mine to put out, 
  • reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
  • put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I became an alternately frantic and depleted half-person who was ultimately incredibly unhappy, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. 
But as I sat with Mom the other night, I reminded myself that difficult feelings do not compel me to act. Just because something is hard to witness doesn’t mean I have to DO anything about it. [Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone is in physical pain or imminent danger – yup, I’m diving in if I can.] And if I can ground myself in that moment enough to just acknowledge that what I’m experiencing is really hard and I’d rather not be feeling it, it helps me to focus my efforts. It may be that an hour or more later I will decide that there’s something I can do that will help – but those acts are purposeful, effective, and efficient. The way I used to handle things like that was scattershot – come up with all of the things I could do to cover any potentiality, make lists, call people, insert myself into the situation to “fix” things so that they wouldn’t make me uncomfortable. 
For the record, Susan didn’t like this conversation at all, and I totally get it. There is something seductive about knowing that we can effect change in any situation, especially ones that make us sad or scared or angry. And often we can be in control. For a while. Until we wear out. For me, learning to sit with painful feelings was a survival mechanism. I wouldn’t have lasted long at the pace I was going if I continued to think that I had to address every unpleasant situation I found myself in. I can say that my life isn’t any easier now, but I’m a heck of a lot happier and I believe that the things I choose to do are making a much bigger difference than before. 

I am often astonished at how much less I write here than I used to, and for a while, I attributed it to the speed of life. There have been so many changes – substantive changes – in my life in the last two years that I can barely keep up.

For a while, I was trying to peg some freelance writing work to the news cycle – writing about depression when Kate Spade was discovered to have committed suicide and realizing that by the time I wrote my piece it was Anthony Bourdain that was in the news and by the time I heard back from an editor, the world was talking about North Korea and then the next school shooting and then family separations at the border.

Funny how much that felt like my life.

Separation after 23 years of marriage followed by (or in the midst of) my oldest daughter’s senior year in high school with the attendant college preparation/final Homecoming/Prom/graduation. Searching for an alternative to the youngest daughter’s school and finding the Running Start program that allows her to enroll in community college in lieu of finishing at her high school followed by divorce and moving to a new home. Watching my mom descend further in to herself and trying to help arrange for her move to a long-term facility and preparing to help my daughter now move across the country for college.

The speed of life.

As I walked the dogs in the cool mist this morning, I realized that part of what has been weighing on me is a feeling of failure – that I am doing so many things and none of them very well. I’ve sold some writing, but not enough to live on. I bought a new house and there are still pieces of furniture where I don’t want them and the outdoor space isn’t as inviting as I want it to be. I don’t cook as often as I used to and I am afraid I’m not showing up for my girls in the way they want me to.

But when I took a moment to really say those words in my own head – to bring them out of the shadows where they play havoc with my heart – I realized that I’ve actually done a pretty damn good job in the last two years simply by putting one foot in front of the other. The fact that I’ve sold any writing, finished my manuscript, bought and sold a house, navigated the end of a decades-long marriage, and managed to stay upright and kind and tell my girls every damn day that I love them is almost a miracle. If I’ve failed in any way, it was a failure to accurately assess what my future was going to look like, and I think it’s a human trait to be pretty bad at that kind of prediction, isn’t it? By making an effort to stay grounded in who I am and what’s important to me and focusing on the next best step, I’ve strung together quite a path thus far, so while the news cycle of my life is still hurtling along at a fairly fast clip, I know it won’t always be like this. I’m just going to hold on and keep doing what I’ve been doing for the next little while and believe in my own abilities.

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.

 

By Creator:Giulio Bonasone – http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/392735This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

It is just so tempting, and it’s also something many of us are conditioned to do from the time we’re little: set aside strong emotions or difficult thoughts until later.

I can’t deal with that right now.
I can’t think about that right now.
Let me just get through this.


Compartmentalization has its purpose, to be sure. When you’re physically occupied by something else – say, driving – you really need to focus on the task at hand. But all too often, when we seek to tuck something away “for later,” what we are really doing is hoping it will stay tucked away so that we don’t ever have to see it again. And unfortunately, the kinds of things we generally hope to never have to see again are usually the kinds of things that will end up demanding our attention in one way or another at some point.

I’ve had both extreme examples of this (repressing the memories of childhood sexual assault for decades) and moderate examples (putting aside my fears and grief at the serious illness my husband struggled with so that I could get through the day raising two toddlers), and both times it came back to bite me in the ass.  In the first case, I developed a severe anxiety disorder that made it hard for me to work and live the life I wanted to live for many years until I examined and explored the abuse, and in the second, I spent three years working with a therapist to overcome a depression that nearly drove me to suicide.

What I’ve learned is that while I may not have the luxury of expressing my emotions and really sitting with my grief every time it shows up, if I don’t acknowledge it to some degree in real-time, I will suffer the consequences.  Because here’s the thing: if I just keep tucking it away in some box labeled “Later,” what are the odds that I will ever voluntarily choose to go back and open that box of pain and look at it? Why wouldn’t I just keep it in the corner, always finding some other thing to keep me busy. Who in their right mind would want to set aside time and energy to reopen a container of sadness and grief?

So these days, when I’m confronted with a particularly difficult situation, I do my best to fold it into my life. I cry while I’m walking the dogs or doing dishes. I call a friend during lunch and ask for support. I give myself permission to honor the struggle, even if it means I sob a little every day, because hoarding the feelings I don’t want to feel in some back room might be the thing that ultimately brings down the whole house. I know. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to do that again. Big piles of junk attract rats and disease. Dealing with the trash one day at a time means that I don’t have to dread what might jump out at me from that heap someday.

It feels surreal.

I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.

The fact that my mom doesn’t know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I’m there, it is as though I’ve been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.

The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I’m old enough for that? That she is?  Even though it feels like I’ve been a mother forever – it almost feels like I’ve never NOT been a mother –  it couldn’t possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.

I haven’t imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that’s what it is. I haven’t sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can’t picture myself here, because I haven’t turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they’re real?

I don’t ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don’t really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn’t begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?

I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works – that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe “imagination” is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations – especially when what I’m presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn’t have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.

The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn’t beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don’t truly want to be there, so perhaps it’s a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.

There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the good fortune to do and I’m thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.

Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I’m out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn’t have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.

The older I get, the more complicated Mother’s Day seems to be. As a kid, it was all excitement and anticipation – making crafty gifts in class with glue and construction paper and flowers and hearts. I couldn’t wait to watch Mom open her one of a kind present and exclaim how wonderful it was.

It was about experimenting in the kitchen to make her breakfast in bed or plucking flowers from the neighbors’ yards on a walk to make a spontaneous bouquet.

In my teenage years, Mother’s Day was more of a reprieve for both of us; a day to set aside the petty frustrations and disagreements and have 16 hours of peace and appreciation. I’m sure, more often than not, by the time Monday came around, I was back to rolling my eyes in derision while the flowers stood tall in the vase on the kitchen counter.

When I became a mother, it was about excitement and anticipation again – waiting to see what my girls had made for me or chosen for me at the store with their dad. But it was also a revelation.

Motherhood is about soft snuggles in bed, the smell of a baby’s head, and it’s about bedtime routines that lasted for hours and often ended with me screaming into a pillow after tiptoeing out of my child’s room.

It is about smiling in pride when my children do something amazing and the stark fear that they are somehow in danger and it’s my job to protect them every moment of every day.

Mother’s Day is about recognizing that my mother is a human being, that she had to try and hold the tension between caring for me and preserving her Self, and that she didn’t always do it the way I wanted her to. It’s about realizing that my daughters feel the same way sometimes. It is about appreciating the evolution of my relationship with my mother – from feeling smothered and policed to feeling appreciated and honored. It is also about the evolution of my relationship with my children – from overwhelming responsibility and endless repetition of tasks to stepping back and watching as they do things I never dreamed they would do and knowing that we will always have this bond in one way or another.

Mother’s Day is about widening that circle to include every woman who ever mothered me, the teachers who took an interest, women who mentored me or listened to me or encouraged me. It is about honoring mothering in all its forms – gentle prodding and sideline cheering and bandaging wounds and holding space for my grief. It is about watching my childhood friends grow up to be mothers and realizing that we all had it in us somehow, somewhere, this ability to believe in something bigger than ourselves and the desire to protect it so that it flourishes.

Mother’s Day is the ultimate exercise in opposites, the feeling that you’re part of a tribe and that you’re in charge of it; the joy of watching your children grow up and the nostalgia of your own childhood; the gratitude of being recognized and the knowledge that you would do all of it even without that recognition. But since mothering is an exercise in opposites, that seems fitting. From the moment our babies are born, they begin moving toward independence, stretching that distance between us and them and we are tasked with helping them accomplish that while simultaneously mourning the loss of that connection.

I’m coming to realize that Mother’s Day is simply the distillation of the biggest lessons in my life. It is a day that reminds me that grief and joy live together in every moment, and that my job as my daughters’ mother is to help them figure out how to hold both of those things simultaneously, honor them both, and keep moving forward. Whether you are mothering children of your own or you are a mother-figure to other children, whether you have a mother or you’ve lost yours, may your day be restful and full of peace. May you find the strength to hold all that is present in your life today, or have others who will help you hold it. May you feel mothered.