What’s on Your Cape?

What are your superpowers? What an absolutely perfect question in every situation. And, our superpowers come from our trials and tribulations, the situations we’ve encountered where we had to pull from that place in the deepest cauldrons of who we are. Instead of framing these experiences as our broken places, we can turn them around to be where we were our most heroic. Of course… xo

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I had a wonderful conversation with my friend the other day. She had engaged in a playful exchange with a new friend and was asked, “Do you have any powers?” It was a wonderful question! What a cool way to find out about a person. Rather than the usual laundry list that doesn’t usually divulge who we really are, like where do you work, or what do you like to do? This was a non-threatening way to decide how much to reveal (or not to reveal) about her authentic self.

After my friend responded to the question, she asked her new friend, “What’s on Your Cape?  As she and I continued our conversation, before hanging up, she asked me the same question. I told her I knew what many of my super-powers were and that I would draw her a picture and send it to her the next morning.

Before I went to sleep…

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“This story changes everything…” ~Oprah

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“This story is so important to me and our culture. It has changed all the philanthropic efforts I’m involved in… This story is the story of our time… Listen to me!” ~Oprah

The research on adverse childhood experiences is what she is referring to. Children who are exposed to chaos, uncertainty, chronic stress, violence, loss, emotional/physical neglect, and abuse have significant increases in the biggest disease states as adults, including anxiety, depression, and suicide.The reason is chronic, unpredictable toxic stress rewires the brain to be more susceptible to all stress for a lifetime and stress is deadly. This research changes the question we ask about kids. It changes from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened?” Until we fix the “hole in the souls” of our young people, where the wounds started, we will be ineffective in all efforts to help that child — body, mind, and spirit.

The overarching thesis of my memoir is that divorce can be a minor emotional trauma in the lives of our children or it can be the beginning of a spiral of adverse childhood experiences with lifelong ramifications. Yes, even well-meaning, educated, loving parents and families can harm their children. There is nothing more important to a child than to be inextricably connected to the adults in their lives. Losing a secure emotional connection to an adult to whom a child has attached to causes real trauma. Sometimes this cannot be helped but to the degree that it can be, as is the case for so many divorces, it is a parent’s absolute responsibility to foster the continuous loving connection to the child’s other parent.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 10) “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?”

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I have gone way beyond what they wanted to know. Since their dad left, I hold nothing back. I’ve promised them to answer their questions as truthfully (and age appropriately) as I can. This was never so poignant as to when, after a hectic day and barely getting my girls into bed, Ryanne asked the question I’d been avoiding, “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?” It’s only been a month after Santa delivered presents that filled their stockings, five months after their dad moved out. Gut punch!

I never ever wanted to have this conversation with my kids—no one does. I never believed there was a chance this would happen—until it did. I used to tell them to give grace to kids whose families were in transition. We talked about how hard that was for those friends and that maybe that hardness is a reason they could have said or done things that were out of character. We were supposed to be the ones offering compassion and understanding. Never did any of us think it could happen in our family.

I called Kellie into Ryanne and Alex’s room. We all piled on Alex’s white, twin bed like getting into a magic sleigh in another world. “Ryanne asked me a question and I’ve told you that I will always answer you the best I can with what I know to be true. She asked me if your dad and I are getting divorced.” I pause to let us all take in that ugly word. I try to take a deep breath, but my lungs only go halfway. It’s all I can do to look at my three precious daughters without falling into the deep crevasse I’ve spent my life climbing out of.

Here we go… the nightmare has come true. Three pairs of big eyes implore me to tell them this is not what is happening to our family, that their dad will be back when he’s feeling more like himself, that life will go back to soccer games and birthday parties and weekends at our vacation house on the Peninsula. But, I can’t do that. I have to tell them the truth. Once again, I’m the one standing in the room delivering the devastating news. This makes me so, so sad and enraged simultaneously.

I pause like I’m looking over the cliff I’m about to jump off of into frigid waters below. “The answer is yes, we are getting a divorce.” I whisper the nonsensical words strung together referring to my marriage with their father. I can feel my whole body contract awaiting the fallout of such awful news. For every action there is a reaction and, unlike my five-year-old self who couldn’t take it in, my girls buckle from this news. Tears well and stream down their cheeks. We are in a pile on the baby blue, flowered duvet, all sobbing from me voicing what I thought they might have already known. They didn’t.

“You said you weren’t getting a divorce! You said he was just moving out for awhile,” one voice says in disbelief, desperate for this to have been only a very bad dream. Their dad has always traveled so much that it’s easy for them to forget what was happening when it’s the four of us.

I take a deep breath, try to collect myself. “I know I did, honey. I said that this summer and it was true at the time. There had been no discussions; your dad was just going to move to the condo so he could feel better. I’ve only known a handful of weeks and it was Christmas. We were going to Hawaii. I hoped it would change…”

“Why? Why can’t we go back to like it was before we lived in Sun Valley?” a sad voice says.

“I wish we could go back to the way it was. I had hoped that we could.”

“He broke his promise! All he does is work! I hate his job! He’s always gone and even when he’s home he just stays in his office,” an angry voice says.

“Yes, he did. Sometimes people break their promises even when that wasn’t their intention. He’s doing the best he can. A divorce is just the paperwork that your dad and I will take care of. This part doesn’t have anything to do with you girls. Things will look like it does right now. We live here, you’ll go to your school, you have your friends, play soccer and basketball and dance, you’ll go to you’re dad’s on weekends.” They are quiet looking down, at each other, and back at me, tears stream through lashes. “Things will be just as they are now. It’s going to be okay. We already have done the hard part. It’s only the paperwork .”

I will repeat this a hundred times before we get to the finish line of our family transition. They need to know what is coming in the future and that the past was absolutely real. This reminder helps my psyche as well. It’s one step at a time out of the darkness.

“And you know what?” I gather my resolve to stick up for the dad they love despite wanting to scratch his eyes out. “Your dad works really hard. His job pays for all of the things you get to do. His job allows us to live in this beautiful house, go on fun vacations like Hawaii, it pays for all your activities and your school. Most importantly, his job allows me to stay home with you so that I can pick you up and help you with homework and drive you to all the fun things you get to do. You don’t have to have a babysitter or go to after-school care. When I get to do those things for you, your dad is there with me. He loves you very much and this is hard for him too. It’s never what anyone wants, but it happens and you move forward.”

“I don’t want things to be different. I liked it how it was before. This…sucks!” a truthful voice says.

“You are absolutely right! Yes, THIS does suck. This right here, all of us crying on your bed in the dark because our family has changed, SUCKS! I think we need to say that as loud as we can. Ready?” Two sets of blue eyes the same color as their dad’s and one set of light brown eyes like mine look at each other, look at me. “Let’s say it together. Okay? On the count of three: One…Two…Three…THIS SUCKS!” We all scream this word I don’t let them say. It feels like balm to my soul. It is so very hard but it’s authentic and real. Finally, the storm clouds part for a moment. We all smile in spite of ourselves. They look at each other; giggle at hearing me say a “bad word.” It feels good to scream what we think about this outrageous situation. Acknowledging the truth directly, no matter how hard, feels far better than running from it, hiding from it, railing against it.

“This is not what’s supposed to happen, but it happens more than anyone would like it to. No one wants their family to live in two houses. But, families look different. We are a family still. We are a family with a mom, a dad, and three kids.”

“And a dog and a cat.”

“Yes, and a dog and a cat. That has not changed. Our family is going to look a little different than it did before. Life is just like that. Sometimes things are amazing and sometimes they are awful. You can feel angry and sad and want things to go back to the way they were, but at some point you realize you’re okay, pick yourself back up, and start again. We are okay. We are more than okay actually. We have a beautiful life here together. We will continue to have a beautiful life together.” I pull them all in for a silent family hug. I breathe in the love I have for my girls, breathe out a lifetime of heartache caused by divorce.

The conversation was terrible, but it actually wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. The anticipation of their reaction was far worse than when we faced it together, cried and laughed. It shined a light on what had been complete darkness for them. Kids know the truth whether it’s spoken or not. We may as well allow what is true and real be what binds us. And, feeling loved really is what holds families together, holds kids together. They need to know without any doubt they are absolutely loved and cherished by both their dad and me. I have the responsibility to fill in the cracks and crevices caused by their dad moving away, at least until life is back to peaceful. When they are okay, I am okay and when I am okay, they are okay. We walk out of the dark together. We are connected still—even after the D word was spoken in our home.

Divorce, Kids, and Stress

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I am writing a book about the impact of divorce on kids. When parents decide to part ways, it can be a single emotional trauma within a childhood or it can be the beginning of a cascade of adverse childhood experiences that cause lifelong emotional and physical consequences. It’s about chronic emotional stress, it’s about how a child’s brain and emotional system get wired, it’s about teaching our children how to live a purposeful, peaceful, connected life with others.

When you have children, more is required of you than ever. When you have children and you’re going through a divorce, an extraordinary amount is required. Your family now looks different than it did, but make no mistake you are one ecosystem. Happy parents parent happy kids and happy kids are parented by happy parents. It’s no longer about you. Your children need both parents. They need parents who put their own heartache aside and take the high road.

Life in this world is stressful enough for everyone. Be kind. Go out of your way to be kind to your child’s other parent. Understand that your kids need you both and they need you both healthy, happy, and successful in life.

Well-meaning, good people cause their ex-husband or wife chronic heartache. Do they know what they are doing to their children?

“In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study that probed the child and adolescent histories of 17,000 subjects, comparing their childhood experiences to their later adult health records. The results were shocking: Nearly two-thirds of individuals had encountered one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—a term Felitti and Anda coined to encompass the chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing events that some children face. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse.”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-last-best-cure/201508/7-ways-childhood-adversity-can-change-your-brain#_=_

 

What Do We Owe Another Person?

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Relationships, in all the various forms from acquaintance to family, are they contracts written in the air between us but rarely communicated out loud? When we enter into a friendship, relationship, or even marriage, what do we owe the other person? Is there a difference in expectations at the beginning or the end? It seems universal to begin with our best selves. It can be intoxicating to meet someone new, a kindred spirit who says, “Yes! I feel exactly the same way!” It’s balm to the soul really; all our best qualities are coaxed from hibernation for a magical moment, day, or a season of connection with another human being. If we’re really lucky, the fairytale love of family, friendship, or the melding of body, mind, spirit lasts a lifetime—forever is our greatest desire.

Being held in another’s bubble, translucent colors swirling all around, creates a force-field, an invisible protection from an ending we can see from inside no matter how far off the ground the bubble has risen above our ordinary existence. We say, “Not this time…this time it’s the real thing, it’s forever. The End came in all the other stories but this one will be different; it will be the happy ending that my dreams are made of, eternal love.”

Alas, forever, eternal, the real thing is more rare than anyone would like to know. Family bonds can be broken or sometimes they were never forged, friendships move on, the one you thought was lovely turns out to be just a few more dates, and marriages fall apart too (even when there is no obvious end.) As a girl, I wanted to hold fast to each person who entered my life, to hold on to the magical feeling at the beginning, but as a woman who has lived through too many endings, I now know endings are part of a life well lived. An ending says there was a beginning that was magical, there were vistas and valleys, rivers with rocks and grasses and wildflowers and we were meant to surrender to the current, to let go when it’s time to let go.

Rarely do two people agree when to hold on and when to surrender to the flow of change. The unconscious or very conscious (as in a marriage) contract with another to care for each other is pulled back out for review. Unlike the feeling of euphoria in the beginning, the ending isn’t always our best selves—more is required. An ending brings an entirely different set of emotions to the forefront: sadness, disappointment, desperation, disbelief, depression, anger, entitlement, vengeance and rage. This person that you thought would be by your side forever has made a different decision and that can be devastating depending on the depth of the bond forged in a different time and circumstance.

Whether we are the ones left or the one to leave, what do we owe each other? And in the case of a marriage, this person who you once loved and who once loved you, a person who made you feel connected to humanity and understood, who shared a magical season with you, what do you owe this person? Do they deserve vengeance, your wrath, a slammed door because something in them whispered that it was time to let go? Are we trying to keep them bound to us by anger and revenge? And even worse, when we want to let go, is it fair to withhold peace and kindness, blame their bad character for our change of heart just to assuage our own guilt for breaking the agreement to love each other forever?

It seems that far too many who go through endings or even divorce unconsciously, try to destroy the person who once gave them all they had, who also wished upon a star that it would last a lifetime, and who is also devastated that it did not. And far too often people use their children as the weapons of destruction, rationalizing that they are the better parent or that the other person is trying to destroy them or take their children away and they are only protecting themselves. Everyone feels threatened and makes decisions from that awful place.

What is this behavior? What do we think is going to come of it? Do people think it will lead to their own happiness? That robbing every spark of light and joy from this person they once loved, in some cases their child’s other parent, will somehow bring love and light to them? Do they think it will lead to that feeling of euphoria, the winner mentality, they once felt when they were in the vicinity of this person they once cherished? Do they think they will receive more love from their child if the other parent is destroyed? It makes no sense whatsoever, but it happens every day in every community.

What do we owe another person? We owe them kindness. Yes, all the feelings are there. Yes, you can say a million F-bombs with their name attached. Yes, you can be devastated, but to hold another person in contempt for simply saying it’s time for me to go is a childish tantrum that can have deep, unconscionable consequences for everyone involved, especially when there are children—which is all too often the case. This is also true for the one who leaves but projects all the guilt and contempt they hold for themselves onto the person who once said they would protect their heart with love.

We can hold on until we know for sure it’s time to go, but once that happens, when we’re absolutely sure there’s nothing more to be done, the contract in the end is kindness to this other human being in front of you. Let go so you can go on with your life to find another, to search for what’s beautiful in this world, to experience magical moments again. Letting go and being kind allows the other person to do the same. And if there are children, happy parents parent happy children. We are all living within one ecosystem.

What we put into our world, we will get back. Isn’t it better to receive kindness? Isn’t it better to leave another life better than you found it? Isn’t it better to treat others, especially the ones who loved you, the way you want to be treated? Kindness is the foundation of our humanity and it never depends on anyone else but ourselves. xo

 

 

 

Magic Can Be Found in the Darkest of Places

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This is one of my favorite sunflower pictures. I was in Upstate New York at Old Stone Farms, an inn near The Omega Center. It was a healing journey that August after getting my family (all five) through a cataclysmic transformation that left me emptied of who I was, am, and would become. My kids would be away from me for two weeks; an incomprehensible amount of time in any scenario but especially this one. It was a nightmare I desperately wanted to wake up from. I couldn’t wait for them in the house where there had been magic a lifetime ago, moments ago.

Through the poisonous fog and acid rain, I reached out toward the only thing I could do – write. Despite my past career in marketing, a graduate degree in business, and an ambition that used to propel me through the narrowest of passageways, my soul gently told me to write books about people, everyday traumas we unintentionally inflict on each other, and relationships starting with the parent and child, my dad and me. I traveled thirteen hours by car, airplane, train, and a night in Manhattan to get myself to a memoir workshop where Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, would be speaking among others. I spent five days at this lovely inn, mostly numb in my exquisite room, a blend of old and new. On the door was the word Spirit.

The ones who managed the inn were soft and loving, made me feel like I belonged right there on the other side of the country from home. They checked in on me when I didn’t come to dinner. “Are you okay? We were concerned about you. Can I bring you something?” the woman asked. Equestrian therapy, massages by a goddess (a young single mother with a singing voice like an angel and a spirit for listening), walks, yoga, reading, seclusion filled my days until it was time to move to the more austere Omega Center for the five-day writing workshop.

This photograph, half blue sky and the other a dense forest with a bright, golden sunflower in the center, reminds me of how far I’ve come. Writing was but a seed three years ago, it was the only direction I could go, and now my book is in its final stages of being completed. I have walked through the darkest forest and come to the other side where blue sky and bright clouds can be seen again.

This trip was magical and not in a euphoric, picture-perfect sense like life used to be. It was magical because I was on my knees like I’d never been before; because I allowed sadness to overtake me and because I allowed the kindness and concern of others to envelop me at a time when I couldn’t meet them at that place. I could only receive and say thank you. It was magical because there was love. It was the love you feel for someone who has done something brave and courageous, it was the love I have for my girls. I allowed myself to love and care for me, for maybe the first time in my life, and it made all the difference.

After the Hurricane

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I call it everyday trauma. It sounds like sensationalism, but I assure you it is not. Our emotional systems are set for a time when we lived peaceful and content lives together in tribes. Yes, the occasional attack would happen, but we got through it together. Today, we are mostly on our own, the protection we need is not sufficient for the assaults we endure on a daily basis–even someone cutting you off in traffic can be overwhelming if your cup of stress is already bubbling over.

And then there are the big ones like losing someone you love, your dreams of the future, your understanding of the past. These are supposed to be anchors to who we are, yet the past, present, and future can change in a moment. A diagnosis, injury, death, divorce are some of the big ones, but of course, there are too many to list. Emotional trauma and PTSD are far more prevalent than anyone would guess. You don’t know how you will respond until you are in the middle of the hurricane and then left lying on the beach choking on the sand and salt water.

Kids are not immune to chronic stress and traumatic experiences, they are more susceptible, but their hard wiring is new and the fraying doesn’t show up until later. This is why I had PTSD after my divorce. This is why I am writing a book about how divorce can cause chronic stress and trauma for everyone in the family. This is why I believe we need to treat each other with kindness no matter what the circumstances–because of the circumstances. The people in your life create the ecosystem in which you and your children live. Give grace, kindness, understanding, love to those in your circle most of all, while keeping your own boundaries so that you are capable of becoming your best self.

“As a result of experiencing a traumatic event, whether it occurs once or repeatedly, the psyche can become damaged. This damage, known as psychological trauma, may come to light right away or can take as long as several weeks or years.”

http://www.activebeat.com/your-health/6-signs-and-symptoms-of-psychological-trauma/?streamview=all

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 8)

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Once they leave with their dad, my house is devastatingly still and silent but for the sound of Sage’s nails clicking the hardwood floor on the way to her bed. I fall onto the couch for time-lapsed hours not sad or relieved or depressed. I feel nothing like someone who just returned home from Normandy, France the summer of 1944. My eyes are open to see my family room with beautiful paintings, purchased at art walks and festivals, of mountains and rivers that hang on every wall, yet I see nothing. I listen for sounds of walkers and runners outside on a Sunday afternoon but hear nothing. Even my mind is still of its normal scrolling and replaying of past events, hypocrisies, and transgressions. I can’t feel my heart beating or blood pulsing through veins. I’m not sure I blink or swallow saliva in my mouth. I’m not sure I’m breathing. Darkness overtakes me, and my house, but I can’t move my arm to pull the string on the lamp next to my body. I’m in a void between the vigilance of fighting for all I have left in an apocalyptic world and the smooth, white light the child in me associates with goodness, purity, protection, God. I stay here until Sage nudges me from my trance hours later, reminds me I need to still take care of her. I get up, turn a light on to chase the darkness away and feed my only witness.

Slowly, I make my way through the empty rooms of my now oversized house in the darkness. Yesterday we occupied every room, the lights twinkled, the house vibrant, alive, and the happy sounds of my children filled the playroom where puzzles and American Girl dolls and dress up clothes gather dust, next to the boxes that remain unopened from our move back home from Sun Valley. I will my legs to step up each stair until I get to the second floor, then scuff bare feet on the beige carpet toward the bathroom. The playroom remains dark now, play a luxury we used to have. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. This person is emaciated. She has devastated eyes that don’t seem to open like they used to, she can’t choose to smile, she has more lines than the person I used to be. She looks old but for her dark hair. I don’t have the energy to do anything more, not even to wash the mascara smudges from my face. I fall into the king-size bed with the same clothes I woke up in. I occupy a quarter of the space. I sleep on the edge, dreamless and dead to the world I used to belong in. Just go to bed has become a mantra when there is nothing more to do or say or figure out.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 4)

 

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They leave. The room is quiet again, the faint sounds of adult voices carry from the backyard. I want to forget this night. I get my blue satin nightgown with white lace stitched to the seams out of the drawer, slide it on, and get in bed to hide under the crumpled covers. I pull the clean sheets and blanket all the way up to my nose, even though it’s twice as hot in my bedroom than it is outside. I go to sleep thinking about meeting Penny tomorrow. Penny is my stepdad’s parents’ old mare who I get to learn how to ride. My mom showed me pictures of her. She’s dark brown with a slightly darker mane and tail. She’s as tall as my dad, double my size. My mom bought me a white cowboy hat with a blue feather in it to wear.

No matter what side of the growing fault line I am on, I no longer feel safe in my home, in my room, in my body at not quite ten years old. My awareness is growing and it doesn’t feel like a blessing. I am naked, stripped of the innocence childhood is supposed to insulate until we learn to protect ourselves. My innate goodness is not valid at my mom’s house or at home with my stepmother—I’m the stepchild, the ‘guest’ on the invitation to the party. “Be good, stay out of the way, do what you’re told or there will be consequences.” These are the rules. The consequences feel dire: your parent could leave you or die or not come back for you.

I feel uncoordinated and heavy, too big and awkward and at best invisible; I am a burden to those who are assigned to take care of me. I am a burden to my dad, to my mom, to my stepmother, to my stepfather. I understand I am expendable and to ask to be listened to, to be loved is too great a risk, the answer I get could splinter my illusions. My only option is to wait on the good deeds of those who are responsible for me at any point in time—to be happy with what’s rationed.

As if breathing in the smell of rain on sidewalks or dust on a lonely road can fill you with what you need to know to survive, I learn to not need anything or anyone, to arrange myself to stay hidden and silent, to stay out of the way so that I don’t attract attention. I learn to do whatever I need to do to hold on tight, never expecting anyone to hold on to me. If it is to be, it’s up to me.

 

“Good morning!” my mom chirps from the stove. She’s making scrambled eggs and toast, sliced peaches wait on the table covered in yellow cotton, with a sugar bowl, a vase of pink roses, and a crystal pitcher of squeezed oranges all arranged in the center. “We’re going to Pep and Artie’s house today. Pep said he’ll have Penny saddled up and ready for you to learn to ride.”

“Me too?” my brother asks.

“Yes, of course, Jeffrey. We might be able to get Pep to give you a ride on his tractor too.” Jeff’s face lights up on the word tractor. He likes nothing more than to play with his cars and dump trucks in the dirt, roads excavated in every direction.

“What should I wear?”

“Jeans and tennis shoes will be fine. I think we’re going to stay in the arena today.” I’ve never been near a real horse before, only the one when I was little that had springs and rocked back and forth. It was my favorite.

“She’s a natural,” Pep tells my mom as he holds the lead and old Penny saunters in a circle around him. “She’s going to be a great rider, I can tell.” In fact, I am a horse girl. Who knew? I can’t get enough and Pep is the consummate teacher: patient, kind to me and his beloved horses, always welcoming and positive. By the time I’m in eighth grade, my mom and stepdad have ten acres on the same property as his parents and aunts, in a house they had built while living in a camping trailer for a year. Most days I will walk the mile long dirt road to Pep’s barn while my mom is doing payroll at her job in town. I can disappear on the back of a horse, into the puffy clouds that float so close to the sun.

Summer after summer Pep teaches me how to have confidence in my ability to care for another, how to keep myself from falling, how to stand in my own power. Every summer, Pep teaches me about grace. Learning to ride a horse is at the top of The Things That Saved Me list. I learn to lure the horse with a bucket of oats and put the lead rope over its neck and nose. I pull Bay Boy from the grass he grazes, brush and groom his dusty coat. I coax the bit into his mouth, wind the bridle around his head and ears; eventually I am strong enough to heave the saddle above my head by myself, cinch it tight around his belly, wait and cinch it tighter before I shove my foot in the stirrup and lift myself onto his back to a higher vantage point than normal life. Pep teaches me the signals his horses know so well: lean forward or back to go faster or slow down, tap the left or the right with your heel while gently moving the reigns held in one hand to one side or the other to make a turn, pull back or right or left on the reigns for corrections or changing direction. He teaches me how to post when the horse trots, eventually riding in an English saddle. My stepdad’s father teaches me how to fly on the back of a horse through the wheat fields that surround their property, through gates held by barbed wire and the Walla Walla River, through the wall I am building to protect myself. Every summer I will spend my time wondering when I can ride again. “Tomorrow?” And, I will spend the rest of the year figuring out how I can get a horse of my own.

“It won’t cost too much. We can just pay someone to keep it in their barn, buy a little hay. I will do everything. Pppllleeeaaassseee can I get a horse?” I will beg my dad long after I am supposed to be asleep, while he tries to watch the eleven o’clock news.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 3)

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It feels like I’ve barely survived a natural disaster of calamitous proportions, seeking refuge from bitter winds, torrential rain, plummeting temperatures. My house a shelter, the last safe place. Although I’ve never been directly affected by hurricane winds and flooding or had my house crumble in front of me, I imagine those shattering situations to be better than what’s happening right now, regardless of how soft my couch feels, how lovely the vacations, or beautiful the view. All I’ve ever wanted is to go through life’s ups and downs with the person I love. I imagine we could get through anything, even a natural disaster, holding on to each other and our children but that is no longer the case for me.

It’s supposed to be us taking on the world, not us taking on us, as it’s been all too often in my life. The person who promised to hold my heart, and I his, changed his mind and got on the last flight out. I am left holding onto everything we built together – except his business but he credits only himself in that endeavor. I am ever grateful for the life we chose together and all that has been bestowed to me but I would trade it all to joyously raise my girls with the man I love and who truly loves me.

My parents were divorced. It was my dad who got full custody of my younger brother and me when I was almost five. The actual event was barely a drizzle raining down from Seattle skies. It wasn’t their divorce per se, but the constant drip of stress and smaller traumas that slowly poisoned my childhood, eighteen years summed up with one word.

For my generation, whose childhood spanned the 1970s and 80s, divorce is hardly remarkable. It happens so often; forty to fifty percent of couples break apart, a number that rose exponentially from less than twenty percent in the 1950s. Divorce is old news, hardly worth mentioning anymore. From the outside it’s just a light dusting of snow on the lowland hills, only a change in seasons – short-lived and life resumes once everyone is settled. “When are you going to move on, Janna, it’s over,” said one of my closest friends at the time, like I had food poisoning six months ago and keep making myself sick for attention. What? Although well-meaning, I’m sure, my friend’s comment speaks to our collective naivety of what it means to be forcefully extricated from the life you live, and imagined you’d live until your time here on earth is done. In the game of Life, you go back at least twenty spaces. I don’t have to choose my career path again, thankfully I took the college route, and I already have three pink pegs in my blue car, but I do have to go back too many spaces to be counted as a mere setback.

To say divorce is unremarkable negates the impact it has on one million kids per year whose parents try to start life over, ending their connection to each other and often times to their family. If it’s your parents, your kids, your life, it’s shattering. Many times, the parent who doesn’t have custody feels the immediate heartbreak most acutely, the children not quite aware of what’s happening and the parent with custody can briefly forget within the routines of parenting, respite from the ache. A lack of awareness is a blessing and a curse. In my case, it was my mom who was pushed out and then gave up on being a parent to look for solace in new bonds and a new life free of guilt and shame and loneliness. But in most cases at that time and now, it’s the dad who is kicked out of the tribe – first in moving away from the family and then by emotional bitterness setting him up for failure in holding the connection to his children. Ultimately it’s the child, millions of kids, it was me, and now my three girls who lose the most.

We all have the one thing we say we will NEVER do, ever. We will do whatever it takes to avoid this horrible thing we experienced as a child. We will bound to the top of snow-covered mountains or crawl through a waterless desert, navigate the greatest storm in a rowboat but we will never let this one thing happen. This was my thing – never, never, never will I get divorced and put my kids in a situation where they question the love of either of their parents, where they have to grow up faster than they are supposed to. “Really, God? This is where I am going? This path right here despite it all?” I look up into the gray clouds to ask these questions daily. I am incredulous. My only solace is that maybe within our one tragic-awful-catastrophic-heart-shattering-calamitous-no-way-never thing is where we ultimately find wisdom, acceptance of life and ourselves, grace. Even so, it doesn’t seem fair but who am I to argue? I have to concede that this life is my life and, yes, I must move on as best as I can.

When I was young I felt responsible to hold onto my dad, my only available parent, but I was just a kid. Our deepest need is to be attached, to belong. The only power I had was to sit quietly and wait for him to hold on to me until I couldn’t wait anymore, I had to grow up despite the conditions. This one gut-wrenching year when my own marriage fell apart gave me the gift to go back in time to parent myself through my dad’s three divorces and loss of his fourth wife from cancer, to give myself what I’d desperately needed as a kid – to be held onto by both parents. This time I did have the power to change the trajectory for my girls. I had the power to hold them close so they didn’t have to choose to hold on to their parents or to grow up – two essential imperatives hardwired from the beginning and should never be mutually exclusive. It was my responsibility to hold onto my girls, and despite every raw instinct to keep them safe from the person who was hurting me more than I thought possible, it was my responsibility to keep them connected to their dad. No one, not even me, can replace a parent.