Magic Can Be Found in the Darkest of Places

IMG_9623

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.

Walking Out the Door

Energy of Place

Have you ever been afraid to be away from your house? Afraid to say yes to anything—an invitation to a get-together, a party, a walk in the forest with friends? Have you been the kind of afraid that does not consult with your head, you just turn the other way and run or stay in a book on the couch or in your bed for twelve hours awake seeing nothing, listening to the sound of your own breathing?

I have.

It’s not who I am, I’ve always said yes, at least since I decided that I wanted to be a person who always said yes. I turned the button to fear off completely. I said yes to the things that made my heart quake but ventured forth anyway. I said yes even when every cell in me screamed NO! I turned my head, smiled and said, “Yes, I would love to, give me two minutes.” I said yes to selling books door-to-door for thirteen hours a day, on commission, in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the summertime! I said yes to jumping out of a perfectly good airplane at 13,000 feet in the air, hurling myself down black diamond ski runs before I really knew how to ski, going away to college a couple months after my third stepmother died of cancer, getting married the first time even when my dreams all but slapped me in the face and told me to run because somehow the dream world knew I was not ready. And then I said yes to leaving the boy I’d grown up with because eventually, my heart message made its way to my head.

My internal guide was rendered voiceless from a very early age. I said yes to moving to New Jersey, going to graduate school at night while working fifty hour work weeks, and climbing the corporate ladder faster than others thought was appropriate. They complained. “Why does she get a different ladder?” I said I’m so sorry, you can come this way too.

Climb that mountain? Yes. Run that race? Yes. Grab my friend out of the abyss? Yes. Have a party? Yes. I said yes I can do that until I could not say yes one more time. I said yes until even speaking the word was too much. And then I stopped—for an entire year. I followed the breadcrumb path to my girls’ school and back, to the store and back, the soccer games and back. It was all I could do. Friends said, “I miss you, let’s have coffee or lunch.” I said I would love to but I couldn’t reach out farther than my own front door.

Last September, my head told me I needed to get myself back together. I’d been talking about writing a book for three years. I’d read a hundred books about writing a book, sat through a hundred hours of lectures, written hundreds of pages of notes in notebooks, and my mind swirled the story around hundreds of times yet I had not opened up my laptop and typed one word. Write the damn book! my head screamed. You are all talk, no action. Maybe you can’t do it. Maybe you will never recover from losing the life you thought you had. Maybe you will never be the person you used to be…

 I could hear them through the walls. “She used to do it all, but she was never the same after the divorce,” these people whispered.

And then courage floated in on a rain cloud one fall afternoon last year. I decided that I needed to be accountable if only to myself, so I signed up for an online class that came with a book coach. I sent ten pages in every week and Collette gave me feedback; she was a cheerful coach who told me everything I did was great. It helped. I could do this class sitting at my kitchen table with my dog next to me on the floor and my cat vying for a nap on my keyboard while I watched the weather coming and going.

I decided I needed to meet other people who write books and learn what they learn, so I signed up for a workshop on how to write that took me to Salem, Massachusetts where girls were deemed witches if they dared to speak their mind once upon a time. Thankfully, my lovely friend, Angela, joined me. My true self was coaxed out of hiding just a little bit more.

My head told me I needed a goal. You need to write this book before the end of next summer, she said. So, I signed up for two different writer’s conferences the following July and August to pitch my ‘finished’ book to agents and editors. I did it all in an afternoon. It was easy. I just sat down at my computer with my credit card while my heart felt happy surrounded by spa music and crystal rocks. I did it, I said. Oh, wait…

New York City was the last of my accountability action plan. I really wanted to cancel. I’m not done with my book is an easy justification. Agents only want finished manuscripts you see. I’m super busy, I’ll miss Lexie’s summer camp play, I’ve been gone too much, Sage and Apple have a hard time when I’m gone, there are only a couple more weeks of this gorgeous summer in the Pacific Northwest… The reasons went on and on.

The real reason is it scared the hell out of me. It scared me to get on an airplane and fly to New York—something I used to do without a second thought. It scared me that I don’t know anyone. It scared me that I would have to make my way from New Jersey into Manhattan on the train, which I’d never done before. It scared me that I would be told no, you’re not good enough over and over. It scared me to leave my house by myself, without the responsibility of being the mother. (I have a special cape I wear so my kids don’t pick up on my anxiety—it looks like a pasted on smile.)

But I did it anyway, just like my old self but the fear button is stuck in the ‘on’ position now. It was okay that I was feeling scared, I walked forward anyway. Maybe it would take four hours to figure out the train, but there is no hurry. I told myself it doesn’t matter what happens, it’s good enough you are here.

I happen to think my book is good and that when it’s published it will help many people navigate divorce in a more compassionate way because they read my story. This is enough. I remind myself that when I’ve been the most successful it’s been after I’ve had the most dismal failures or that ‘no’ was said to me more than anyone else in the group or that it simply doesn’t matter. I’ve succeeded if only because I’m sitting in a Manhattan hotel room after pitching to a handful of agents and I accomplished what I set out to accomplish: I have almost finished a book, I’ve put my shattered heart back together, I’ve forgiven those who were responsible, and I walked out my front door. I am moving forward body, mind, spirit, and heart. I am not broken anymore, but I am changed and for that I am grateful.

After the Hurricane

Bells Beach

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 9)

img_3816.jpg

I drive toward the neighborhood gate passing the frozen pond and ghostly trees that line the road leading to and from the place I call home. I pull over near the “mansion with the lion statues” as my kids call the house by the bus stop and wait for my middle school girl to climb in.

She gets off the bus with a smile. This year has brought me to my knees, and from this perspective, just the sight of my girls often overwhelms me. The love that wells inside me feels like it might just melt me to a puddle of holy water made of tears. It’s hard to keep any emotion inside, especially love. “Hello, Honey Bunny! How was your day, Ellie?

“It was fine. Can I sit in the front seat?” She assumes so and heaves her backpack with every book and notebook from every class on the floor, climbs into the front seat. I haven’t let her sit in the front except within the neighborhood, afraid of getting in an accident and she is only recently tall enough—mostly the former. Their requests wear me down faster than they used to. The unfortunate part is they are aware of this new power they have.

“Of course, we need to run to Target before we pick up Abbie and Lexie.” We drive out the gate and down the hill past the new hospital before stopping at the roundabout. Even though there’s a car ahead of me I see an opening and assume that person does too.

“What are we having for dinner tonight?” Ellie asks. I look over at my daughter who is next to me instead of looking in the mirror to see her in the backseat. I let my foot off the brake and start to pull out… My head slams the headrest, my foot already on the break, and then I hear what my spinning brain can’t comprehend. Like the delay of thunder after the lightning, I hear the CRUNCH! Ellie screams. I snap back together, turn off the car, and fly out of my seat into the road where there’s a short woman with angry eyes and flailing arms ready to fight me. It smells like burning oil and cars are lining up behind us.

“Are you kidding! What were you thinking?” She continues shouting at me but all I can see is the damage to my new car. The front end is bashed in and there is tan fluid pouring out all over the pavement, steam. I look back at her and instinctively touch her arm.

“It was an accident. This is a brand new car. Do you think I wanted to wreck my brand new car?” I say in a softer than normal voice still touching her arm. “I’m so sorry. This has been a very bad day. I just got served divorce papers. I’m a little disoriented.” She looks startled by my response and stops making noise. We both look toward her bumper. It might have been bent in, but clearly, I took the brunt of the impact. I get back into my car to get the insurance information and a piece of paper and pen.

“Are you okay, Ellie?” She nods. “Everything is okay. No one is hurt. We are okay.” I rub her leg and give her a hug. Ellie’s skin is a shade paler than a few minutes ago, maybe ghost pale. Her blood has been redirected to her heart and muscles, ready to run, but she sits and waits. One more hit is registered in my poor child’s nervous system log. My daughter who is wired like me when it comes to handling stress is too full. With every event, her true self gets shoved further and further to the bottom of a dry canyon. I can count at least ten stressful events, good and not so good, in the past couple years, not to mention the all out trauma of losing her dad as she knew him to be, her family. Every stressful situation becomes overwhelming and gets stuffed down to deep places out of my reach. Her cup is already spilling over and letting go is as hard for her as it is for me now and certainly when I was a kid. Drip…Drip…Drip. It’s an inverse relationship: the more change, stress, and emotional trauma, the less curiosity, openness, and joy. Children need to “grow where they are planted,” says my therapist. When there’s too much change and stress children can’t grow like they’re supposed to grow—from the inside. A stable life gives a child the time and space to change from within, to do what they innately know how to do—become. This requires both sides of the brain to be integrated like fishtail braids.

Traumatic events, like divorce, and the cascade of stress that follows for everyone, causes kids to become unbalanced in more ways than one, but especially inside their growing brains where one hundred billion neurons are busy connecting based on life experiences. The growth of the right side of the brain, in charge of emotions, creativity, sensuality, movement, imagination, sensations, color, peacefulness stagnates under traumatic experiences, chronic emotional and physical stress. However, school provides ample fertilizer for the left side of the brain where language, reading, math, music, strategy, analytics, drive, goals, logic, and organization play central roles. If the right and left sides can’t wire together during adolescence, traumatic memories get stuck in the body and not connected to a narrative about their life; over time an unbalanced brain can achieve whatever it desires in the outside world, but long-term health is affected, our ability to have healthy relationships is affected because learning to love and be loved cannot be studied in books or taught at school and that is the secret to life. There is nothing more important for my child to learn than to love another and to know what it feels like, on the inside, to be loved. If your emotions are locked down in the deepest caverns of self, life will have far more challenges within your body, mind, and spirit than a child growing into an adult who experiences safe, stable, loving relationships from the very beginning.

Depending on the depth, length, and age of the trauma, a cascade of emotional and physical health problems in adulthood can result and it’s very difficult to reverse, as I know. Researchers have found strong correlations with trauma and toxic stress during childhood and health consequences later in life such as depression, unexplained anxiety, suicide, addictions to food, alcohol, drugs, work; and then there are things like cancer, cardiovascular, liver, and auto-immune diseases, chronic migraines, unexplained illnesses and on and on. You will also be more likely to experience post-traumatic stress as an adult while others traverse the same treacherous waters but are able to let go much easier. It’s called The Adverse Childhood Experiences study or ACEs. Sixty-four percent, two-thirds, of Americans have at least one adverse childhood experience. I have six out of ten. I know the long term effects of toxic stress in childhood all too well even though nothing catastrophic happened—just chronic, unpredictable everyday traumas throughout my childhood and adolescence, stemming from my parents getting a divorce in the 1970s. I am the Forest Gump of adverse childhood experiences; every year was a box of chocolates, I never knew what I was going to get. And now, life has been an earthquake in my small family’s life for too long already. And this is happening at the very worst time for my oldest daughter.

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

BW hammocks

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 7)

Learning to fly the summer before sixth grade…

JCC_2618

“Hey, let’s go over to the other side of the lake with the guys,” Lisa says.

“Yes, let’s go. Do you want to go too, Janna? I think Jason likes you.”

“Sure,” I say, very unsure of what we are going to do over there that we can’t do right here. And unsure of what “likes you,” means, but I agree to follow nonetheless To be included in the group feels like lying on an air mattress with the sun shining on my face, splashes of cool water on my skin. I can’t remember when the last time someone asked me to come along. There is no way I would say no.

“Let’s go guys,” Monica calls. Eric follows Monica, Nate follows Lisa, and then Jason follows me. We walk the trail through the tall grasses and trees, over fallen logs and cross makeshift bridges covering small streams that funnel into Lake Annette.

“So, where do you live,” Jason asks.

“I live in Federal Way. How about you?”

“I live in Auburn,” he says. We keep talking as we make our way around to where our camp counselors can no longer see us. It’s easier to think of him as just another kid, like a cousin, when I don’t have to look at him. Monica, Lisa, and their companions have disappeared into the forest while I was preoccupied with keeping up in the conversation.

Jason and I reach the spot we all decided to venture to and sit down on a rock to wait for everyone to come back. Jason is almost as tall as my dad and a little heavier than the other two boys. He has light brown hair and a sloped chin. He seems kind of nerdy except he likes to talk about how great he is. The girls and I did a lot of collective eye rolling at the campfire last night. It occurs to me that I’m the only sixth grader in our group of eighth graders. He sits down inside my personal bubble but I don’t want to move or he’ll think I’m weird. I am weird, maybe awkward is a better word, but I’m trying really hard to not to let anyone here in on this secret. Everyone knows this at my school. It’s nice to just be one person in the group for a change. Jason asks questions and I answer while looking into the lake for fish or dead branches to hold onto or the Loch Ness Monster. There are long pauses while he thinks of new questions to ask. Where did Monica and Lisa go?

I haven’t been this close to a boy that actually wanted to talk to me, let alone spoken to one since Kevin in the second grade. Boys don’t like me—and neither do girls for that matter. I’m always the last one to get picked on a team in P.E. Dodgeball is the worst and most played game. The boys love it and are always the captains. I’m the last one picked—literally last—and then I stand in the very back with a bull’s eye on my head. Boys don’t want me on their team, they want me on the other team so they can practice their power shot. They certainly don’t “like me.”

I’m so busy thinking of what to say that I barely notice he’s moved his arm behind my back, scooted a little closer. “Are you warm enough?”

“What?” I turn away from the lake to find his face two inches from mine. Reflexes jump like a doctor tapped my knee.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine…” I say as I adjust my place on the rock, try to move further away without him noticing. The familiar dread sneaks up on me despite blue sky and big puffy clouds. Where is the Loch Ness Monster anyway? I feel like a deer on alert to rustling in the bushes.

“I really like you. You’re pretty cool,” he says. I look back into the murky lake for an answer. You make every hair on my body stand on end? In one motion he leans into me, drops his head down and puts his mouth on my mouth. I freeze like Bambi seeing hunters for the first time. The motor buried deep within starts trembling. His lips are touching mine and then his front teeth hit my front teeth. I can feel air coming out of his nose. There’s no air coming out of me. I forget to breathe, I forget where I am, and I forget that I can choose to move my body. My inside-self leaves the scene to figure out what I should do. I haven’t even seen the “Birds and the Bees” film at school yet. That’s sixth grade, next year. I had no bloody idea this is what was coming. I’ve been set up.

He scoots even closer to me. Just as I start to close my mouth to say that I think we should go back, his hand pushes my head forward and his tongue touches my tongue, stretches to my tonsils. It’s like a garden slug in my grandmother’s flowerbeds—slimy, thick, slow. The ones I pour salt on and watch curl up into a slimy ball. His tongue is writhing just like Morton’s has been poured down his throat. Peanut butter and jelly bubbles in my esophagus.

Instincts take over, my spirit reenters my body, and my head is yanked back by invisible forces. I am freed of the slug in my mouth. Luckily, I didn’t bite it off or throw up. That would have been harder to explain, embarrassing. “Um…we better get back to the camp. It’s probably getting close to dinner,” although the sun is still shining overhead. I put my hands on the rock and get up in one rapid movement like I’m doing a back handspring—if I could actually do gymnastics. I don’t wait for a response or even register his reaction. I want to wash my mouth out with the bacteria-laden lake water but secretly vow to spit this slime into the bushes as soon as it’s physically possible. Until then I hold it in my mouth. Mine has gone dry anyway.

“Wait,” Jason says. I stop to wait, to play it cool like I’m not so repulsed by what just happened that I can’t think straight. I concentrate on not letting his saliva drip out of my mouth.

“I’m waiting. I thought I heard Monica and Lisa, but it must have been a deer or something.” We walk back to camp in half the time it took to get here. I lead again. This time there’s no chitchat. I go straight into my tent and start reading my book, safe by myself inside my sleeping bag. When Monica and Lisa come back I tell them about what happened with Jason, at least the version of what could have happened if I were two years older than I am—not a kid who fell into a rabbit hole.

“You know, Jason is really nice but there’s another guy I like and so it was kind of weird.”

“Oh, tell us about this other guy,” Lisa says, her eyes sparkle, forgetting about her new backpacking boyfriend’s friend. Who knows what her at-home boyfriend is doing on the weekdays.

“He’s going into seventh grade next year. He has light brown, feathered hair. He lives in Kent and he’s really cute,” I say picking up details as I go. “I feel really bad about Jason. Will you tell him there’s someone else?” Words come out of my mouth like I know what I’m talking about. Being a reader helps everything, including instructions on getting through the most awkward of situations. Or maybe it came from watching General Hospital last summer. I’m learning how to do and say things like other people do and say things, like the characters in the books I read, television shows and movies I’ve seen. I’m learning how to watch, listen, and mimic my new, older more mature friends. I learn how to orient myself to the one who knows how things work.

“I will,” Monica jumps in. “It’s kind of weird that he just up and kissed you without warning.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t like that. That’s totally gross.” Lisa adds.

“Yes. You’re supposed to wait for signs that the other person likes you too, right?”

“Yeah, he definitely didn’t follow protocol.” I don’t say any more. In only twenty-four hours in backpacking camp I’ve learned it’s better to let other people fill in the details about what I’m thinking. The less I say the better. Just smile and things usually work out.

The Life Reshuffle…

IMG_5221

Divorce was the nightmare I didn’t remember in the morning until I was shoved into the front seat of the big screen called my life. It felt like being kicked out of the tribe, it felt like death — the death of my husband, my own death, my family, my community of friends, my home, my life projection, of my family’s collective innocence; it’s the death of every single thing I understood about who I was and what my life consisted of past, present, and future. Every memory, experience, decision, conversation, and even thoughts had to be reshuffled through this new reality.

The world you thought you lived in crumbles before your eyes yet no one else can see it. There is nothing to hold on to. The ones who haven’t been there don’t know (just like I didn’t know) and the ones that have, well most can’t look too closely at something that caused complete destruction once upon a time. This is called the hero’s journey, a spiritual transformation where the person you thought you were is hurled into the abyss to disintegrate. You didn’t get to choose your path because who the hell would choose that?

But, once you accept this new reality, you allow yourself to feel your broken heart, you finally get some choices once again. You get to choose to stay there decimated by the aftermath or fly out from the ashes like the phoenix of Greek mythology. The one glitch in the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ argument is you get to choose how long to stay under the fray as well. It has been said that the phoenix can remain in the ashes for up to 1,400 years. It’s only been three years for me. It took forty-five years of layers to become the person I was before the earth spun off its axis, it might take some more time before I’m ready to fly once again.

You don’t realize those layers of certainty were holding you up until you are shaken to your core. It’s okay to start again. Grace and compassion and love for who you are, what you’ve been through, and the journey ahead is required. And, who knows, maybe at the end of this life there will be a special room with fancier snacks and a view for those who’ve had to fly through the abyss. Maybe. xo

“Divorce is far more than simply a change in family structure. It’s a reorganization of your entire life. Your entire self. It’s a massive transformation. A time when everything is called into question and nothing is certain. It’s also an opportunity. A crack in the bedrock allowing a change in course, an alteration of spirit. You can stay at rock bottom. Or you can choose to build.”

https://www.divorceforce.com/article/5-things-you-don-t-understand-about-divorce-until-you-ve-lived-through-it-by-lisa-arends

True friends are like stars…

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_829d

“True friends are those rare people who come find you in dark places and lead you back to the light.”

It was never the one person I kept looking for, desperate for her to hold on to me, who ultimately grabbed me as I was sliding over the cliff. It was everyone else who pulled me to safety. I can see them only in reflection, like stepping stones along a treacherous path become invisible when you’ve reached your destination beside a gurgling brook, wildflowers blowing in the breeze. Yet they were there long before the journey through and will be there long after. I was inside the deepest cave; I couldn’t see my own hand held in front of me. These friends didn’t jump into the darkness with me, instead sat beside me and listened to my story. My ambassador who knows how to conduct herself shook her head in frustration, “You are telling too many people far too much,” she said. My heart didn’t care. Each time I told the story it became more believable to me. It felt like life or death. The heart chooses to hold on.

These lights touched me in the parking lot of my girls’ dance studio, the grocery store, Costco, the sidelines of soccer games, school functions. I sat in the chairs in my therapists’ offices, my most trusted friends. They lit the darkness like homemade luminaries made of brown paper bags and small wax candles, sand holding me to the earth. They asked me to coffee, lunch or dinner, to go for a walk, take my kids to do something fun with their friend. They read my posts on Facebook and liked them or commented or sent me a private message that said me too, I’m so sorry. My extended family with parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, was a place I could go where there is always a seat reserved for me without condition. Saving a place for those I care about is part of my DNA. So many cheered me on as I went through the poisonous fog and the tunnels and into the underworld where only I could go, but I had to choose to remember them, these ones who saved me.

It seemed like I was by myself, no one came to my rescue. The one person I thought would come for sure didn’t. I called her a friend because I traveled to the depths of her worst fears alongside her. She asked if I believed in God. I said I did, He shows up for you through others. She asked what’s going to happen and I told her “it’s going to be okay, I don’t know how, but it will.” She came to me on her knees when furniture would be taken. I said I wouldn’t let her go to ruin. I gathered her tribe; collected her tears for a year, held her grief and her place for when she was ready. When I was on my knees, I assumed she just didn’t realize what had happened. I’m asking too much, she’s busy getting her life back together, I’m not as worthy of saving as she is. I kept telling her the details, she read the letters, listened and nodded, gasped at the appropriate times to gasp but never came to my door or offered a seat next to her–when she was the only one who could. I pushed her away, “it’s your fault I couldn’t help you,” she said. I didn’t want to betray you but you asked for too much, her soul said. I was the fool.

Like a toddler learning to trust wobbly legs and the mom who is rarely seen by these new eyes because she is behind spotting, making sure he doesn’t fall down the stairs or break his brand new tooth on the stone fireplace or skin his knee raw on the patio chasing a runaway bouncy ball, I couldn’t see the hundreds of people who sent me love through the universe—tea lights lit while I walked through the dark night. This wireless love made me feel held and safe and most importantly, reminded me there are good people in the world and the rules for that club still apply. Kindness, compassion, generosity, mercy, grace were still in a world that looked to have been turned upside down. “God is here and He shows up through others,” I reminded myself.

Once in awhile, you are uniquely qualified to be of service and that is what compelled me to help my friend who seemed to be in dire straights every couple years—and at the same time I was. When I was swept off my feet, she was the person who could have held out the branch to me, lifting me from the flooding river. She could have validated my pain. God had other plans for me. My test was to receive what was given and it wouldn’t be from her. God spoke through every act of kindness and compassion sent my way. He was always there, behind me, ready to hold on when I couldn’t anymore. But I never fell hard enough that I couldn’t get back up on my own. I learned how to hold on to me by holding on to others when they fell. My friend and I were mountain climbers tethered together each holding an ax. If one falls, the other anchors and saves both. One is saved physically and one emotionally, both will come down the mountain changed forever.

The second part of the story that’s rarely depicted in the movie theater is what happens in the aftermath when the danger of death has subsided. Are they grateful to be alive or do they relegate the experience to the dark cave, never looking at it again? Does the one who was saved face the gravity of nearly dying but for the generosity of another, forget the mercy that was given? Maybe they rationalize why the other person saved them: they had no choice they just happened to be there, if it wasn’t her it would have been someone else, they are weak, I didn’t ask for saving so I don’t owe them anything, they are a fool for risking their own life for me.

The hero could follow this thinking too. I risked my life for this person? How could they not feel the terror and sacrifice I made for them? I am a fool, the hero second guesses. How can she not see me when I held her very life in my hands? I didn’t give up on her even when it could have cost me my own life. Should I have used my ax to cut the rope and watched her fall while I clung to the frozen ground for my own life? Should I have just saved myself, after all, she was kind of an asshole too many times. No one would blame me and she wouldn’t have done it for me. Is her life more important than mine?

Both are at risk of hanging over the bottomless crevasse forever. Around and around they go hanging from deteriorating ropes. The hero is weakened by the inches of snow piling over the years, the lack of acknowledgment of the profound difference she made for this other person. Maybe it didn’t happen. The saved one hardened to avoid looking at how vulnerable she really was—looking at death. Gratitude, vulnerability, love can only be felt when your heart is open to yourself and others. It’s far easier to project your unworthiness onto another, someone who thought you were worth saving when you don’t see it. It’s easier to pretend it never happened, to feel anger instead of anguish.

The only trail off this cold, bitter mountain is through grace, God. He was there. The saved one was not saved for the hero and the hero did not save her because she was deserving of being saved. They were on different mountains, their journeys merely intersected for a brief encounter. Making it to the top requires looking up into the swirling clouds and blinding sun, not down into fear and selfishness.

The final leg of the journey requires different equipment. The saved one needs empathy to understand the depth of fortitude it took to use that ax to secure both of them instead of cutting the rope. It requires humility to know that mercy was offered and received–after all, she looked the hero in the eye and begged to be delivered from her worst nightmare. They need love in their heart for themselves so they understand their life was saved for a reason and it didn’t have anything to do with who saved them. It requires grace.

The hero was saving herself. She listened to the voice inside that knew for sure cutting the rope, sending her friend to her destruction, would be cutting her own rope. She knew for sure this would be the end of the friendship either way. The only choice she had was to save them both or die trying. What you do when no one is looking, in an instant, when no one really knows what happened is the measure of your worth. If the hero would have cut the rope between them, she would have cut herself off from her own heart, belonging, connection to humanity, from God. She chose to hold on to herself by holding on to another.

I chose to look for the luminaries along my path with gratitude, mercy, and grace.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 6)

IMG_5822

I’ve been taking care of our life without this guy for at least three years and I can continue to do it without dragging him along, heels dug in. I can let go of him and do what I know how to do—love and care for my girls, hold on to them. Good riddance.

This understanding fills me and I run faster and deeper into the trees, through mud, and over logs. Control and empowerment give me temporary strength. Time stands still. I can do all the life things without him. I can take care of my girls and pets and house even with the leaks and moss and the weathering from the rain. I have and I can.

As if a breeze of confidence calls my subconscious from the deep ocean within, doubt leaks inside my ship. But what if he’s hiding money, I hear another voice call to the surface? What if he disappears altogether? What if he leaves you with nothing? What will you do then? You’ll have to get a new house and they’ll have to change schools and get new friends—or worse, they won’t have friends. What if you have to leave your girls every day to go back to work? Remember how much you used to work, how hard it was to stop at the end of the day, the weeks spent traveling from New Jersey to Chicago and Sacramento and Denver? How will you hold on to them if you’re consumed with putting your life back together? You know how this will turn out, the voice says.

I’m a hard worker, loyal, passionate, and have lots of experience—I can get a job. But, I also know for sure I can’t work like I used to work and take care of my girls like I’ve been able to take care of them—by myself in the suburbs where my kids have their friends and activities and school. Any major change after this year will be a final blow. I can’t pick them up and move them without serious repercussions to their fragile psyche—they are experiencing trauma just like I am. The only thing more traumatic to a kid than divorce is the death of a parent and right now it feels like there’s been a death without the balm of love and kindness that surrounds a family in loss. I can’t even summon the wherewithal to hold myself together, how will I prove myself at a new job AND keep them together? Bang! The thunder stops me. My stomach seizes because I know the guy I’m married to is capable of leaving me with nothing. He doesn’t care. He’s gone.

This terrifying path starts to track like a Survivor course: my kids are abandoned by their father who lives in Florida now, I resume my career, we are pulled further and further away from the life we know. They feel emotionally abandoned by their mother. They see him once a year and have a stepmother (or stepmothers) who doesn’t want them around, scares them and doesn’t let them close to their dad; they are untethered in this world and start to rely on only themselves. They turn inside out and their true selves—sweet, curious, and trusting—disappear into the world. They fall down the rabbit hole of statistics on children and divorce: they can’t deal with the stress so they leave their body and turn against themselves (and me), they’re angry and distraught, school becomes too hard, they have issues with peers, get bullied, start smoking pot and drinking beer or Jack Daniels with Coke in a red plastic cup to belong; they sleep with boyfriends to feel connected, smile and shove who they are so far out of reach, they don’t remember who they once were, they marry someone only capable of loving themselves, they don’t remember their light, or worse they give it all away because it doesn’t seem worth holding on to…

I stop walking because I can’t be in this nightmare, use my muscles, and breathe at the same time. I am me now, reeling from the disaster called my life; I am my younger self trying to hold on, and I am my girls. Is this just the beginning? Will I lose my girls like I lost my parents—shells discarded from a long ago ecosystem scattered hundreds of miles by the rhythm of the tides?

I see myself on a deserted island after the storm that raged for days and I am pulled under fifty-foot waves, black and white, charcoal and gray, resurfacing for seconds of breath until I am washed up to the shore choking, barely breathing, lost, alone, wrecked. Am I destined to be left on a deserted island, unworthy of rescue? Will my girls be by themselves, repeating the story because their father left them and their mother was decimated by the aftermath?

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post5)

cropped-jcc_73051.jpg

Grief, loss, devastation can come from so many angles–the death of a partner or loved one, a medical diagnosis, divorce, job loss, an accident, natural disaster even the loss of a friend… Most of the time we don’t see it coming. One minute we are marveling at the beauty of the rhythmic waves and the next, swept under, choking, gasping, saltwater burning our lungs.

There is no better or worse when it comes to tragic turns in our lives. The world you know is turned upside down. You don’t know where you are or where you’re going but you can’t go back the way you came. The portal has been closed. No one you know is there and the ones you thought were by your side, can’t travel with you for so many reasons. You can ask them to and they might even want to, but they can’t step into this new place any more than you can go back to the familiar and safe. Everything has changed. You have to gather your shattered self up off the ground in your own time, hold on to those who were deported with you, and walk forward.

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to make it back; sometimes the people who love you will hold a place for you. And sometimes not, but either way memories of that far off land will remain forever. xo