Please Hold On To Me: Introduction

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Divorce is the tragedy that sits far too close, like a high bank waterfront house at the edge of a cliff. We can see what could happen with enough weather, but turn our heads to enjoy the exquisite view instead.

“The divorce rate is still fifty percent, yet I can’t think of one couple we know who looks to be at risk,” I said to my husband a year before I found out it was us, that we were the ones about to collapse under the weight of a beautiful life and smash into the rocks below. We never think the list of terrible things that happen to other people could actually happen to us. Just in case though, it’s sensible to properly insure ourselves against the most common things like losing a job without prospects for a new one, or our health, safety, or home. It’s not easy to live with the uncertainty of real life, but we do our best to insulate ourselves and our families by doing things like going to college, exercising and eating well, we keep batteries in the smoke detectors, and teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street, to not put random things in one’s mouth.

It feels like divorce is different, that we have less control in one of the most common and devastating life-altering events, after all it takes two willing hearts to hold a marriage together. You could follow all the rules, do everything in your power and your spouse could decide they want something different. What? And, of course, we could have a change of heart too. It’s much better for our peace of mind to not look too closely. And if there are children, the heart-wrenching threat of losing your marriage is compounded by what we know or learned about what happens to kids when a family splits apart.

For me, because I experienced my parent’s divorce and subsequent remarriages, I learned what divorce was before I learned to count, and in my mind divorce meant death — that’s what my nervous system told me. It meant the end of a happy childhood and my three kids were right in the middle of theirs at the ages of six, nine, and eleven.

Although I couldn’t prevent the divorce, I could look back to understand what happened, what I could have done differently, and take responsibility for my life and my kids’ childhoods going forward. I could sift through what happened to my original family in order to understand how to get my kids back on course. Most importantly, get my kids back to being kids, allowing them to grow and flourish just as they would have if their mom and dad stayed together.

My most vital questions were, “Will divorce ruin my kids’ childhood, thus setting them up for a life less than their potential?” And, “Is there anything I can do to make sure they are protected from the statistics that follow kids who grow up in divorced families?”

Based on my own childhood growing up with my dad through three divorces and a funeral, things looked bleak. I could see the ribbons of smoke and ashes drifting and following them throughout their most formative years. In fact, my experiences growing up and the idea that my girls’ lives would be turned upside down forever caused me PTSD during and after my husband and I ended our marriage.

For me, learning more is always the first step in understanding myself and others, including why people do the things they do and act in the ways they act. Books have always been where I’ve found the answers to my most heartfelt questions and so, I set out to understand the threats to my children, assimilating the lessons I learned growing up, and what I can do to make the impact of our family transition the least traumatic for my kids as I could.

 

This story begins with the generational times and its effects on how we live and what we expect from a good life. My parents grew up in an idyllic part of our history where the dad went to work, mom stayed home, and the kids were either in school or playing outside in the freshly mowed grass, wandering through the trees watching butterflies land on wildflowers. Things were peaceful until the 1960s, when a simple life turned tumultuous. Divorce was just one social change that would forever alter the nuclear family. The big change came in 1969, when the Divorce Reform Act was passed, allowing couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years (or five years if only one of them wanted a divorce.) A marriage could be ended if it was irretrievably broken, without either partner having to prove fault.

When Ronald Reagan signed the first No Fault Divorce Law for the State of California in September of that year, with most states following in the next handful of years, it was meant to help struggling couples and families in traumatic circumstances. But, it proved to be the last barrier in the dam holding back the social changes of the past decade. A couple no longer needed proof of a broken marriage, such as infidelity, addiction, mental health issues, or violence, and so moving on to someone new may have seemed easier than saying “I do” in the first place.

It didn’t take long to understand you can only see the top of the proverbial iceberg from the surface of the ocean. Instincts come from the depths of our origins to fight to stay in the tribe or fight against our enemy, even if they used to be a part of you. Divorce is difficult, stressful, and traumatic and that is especially true for children. The Seventies and Eighties became known as the Age of Divorce where over a million kids a year found themselves living in two homes in the best case scenario. Maybe they moved to new neighborhood, had their own keys because mom was now working long hours. Maybe they hardly saw their dads. Many of the statistics from the Seventies and Eighties are still true today, yet we do know more based on research and, sadly, experience.

Even though the divorce rate has declined slightly since the mid-Nineties, still over a million kids a year are expelled from their lives with two parents in the same home, to a life that looks vastly different. Three quarters of kids from divorced families live with their mother and almost a third are living below the poverty line. In the New York Times Bestseller, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, Judith Wallerstein, Julie Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee documented the lives of 131 children and adolescents from sixty families living in Marin County, California whose parents separated or divorced in 1971. It is a landmark study that followed children in divorcing families, both parents, as well as a comparison group of twenty-seven families in the same middle to upper-middle socioeconomic status, kids from the same neighborhoods and schools. The children selected for the study had to be developmentally on track, never having been referred for emotional or developmental problems. These kids and families were the same as you and me.

Each child, 59 mothers, and 47 fathers were extensively studied the initial six weeks, and then at eighteen months, five years, and ten years post separation. A subset were interviewed after fifteen years and then a formal follow-up of forty-eight of the original 60 families was completed after twenty-five years.

Although once silent, these children of divorce are now adults, some in relationships, single, married, divorced, and some with families of their own and can now give a voice to the effects of what many didn’t want to believe. And that is, divorce is emotionally traumatic for children and adolescents and the stress, uncertainty, and damage doesn’t necessarily end when the financial and parenting plans are signed, when most adults feel initially freed from the ugliness of the process.

Some, like many in the study, would say that is where the trauma begins and a carefree childhood ends. Like the shot of a gun, chronic, unpredictable stress starts when one parent moves out of the family home and then it continues while the family is plunged into grief for what could have been, regardless of who initiated the ending. Even if life gets back to peaceful, the stress starts again when new relationships begin, when parents get remarried, when stepsiblings are introduced, when those marriages fail (because they are more likely to,) and the single parent starts the healing process once again. Half of American children will witness their parents divorce and half of those will also witness a parent’s second marriage end. The divorce rate for first marriages is closer to forty percent, second marriages is sixty percent, and third marriages have a seventy-three percent chance of failure.

The complexities of life do not get easier in a new marriage. It becomes much more difficult, especially when children are involved and the natural alignment of life is thrown into disarray. For most kids in the study, now adults, life was forever altered when their family split apart. The ramifications coming to full fruition in their adult lives, when they have difficulties in their own relationships whether a partner they truly love never materialized, they were petrified their marriage would fail, or it did fail and they are picking up the pieces, trying their best to hold their children above the raging rivers of life not going as planned.

As a kid, divorce is a Before and After, much like when Pearl Harbor was bombed or John F. Kennedy assassinated for our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, or when the Twin Towers collapsed on that crystal blue Tuesday morning in New York City. For me, it wasn’t my parent’s “Divorce” that was so terrible, it was the severing of my connection to my mom when she moved away, and then the slow poisoning of my attachment to my dad as he put life back together three more times.

Looking back on my childhood, it was like falling out of the nest over and over, with a lack of protection that cannot be seen, only felt by a child without words beyond their basic needs. For so many of my generation, divorce represents isolation, emptiness, and overwhelming grief throughout childhood and beyond for what was forever lost: a heart connection to one or both parents. Yet, as a child you don’t have the awareness of your own emotions so you make modifications to adapt to your surroundings, your patterns of how to love and be loved get solidified as the foundations of who you are setting you up for relationship problems later in life.

Like so many whose childhood has a before and after, the seeds of heartache were planted deep in the underground of my psyche. One of those seeds is that children who go through divorce are more likely to have relationship difficulties and to get divorced, despite it being the one thing they swear they will never do. How does this happen? There isn’t a statistic I wanted less to do with than this one, and in fact, I thought I had outrun that one in my thirteen year marriage that had all the right ingredients for success. The nuances of our relationship patterns are buried deep and no one wants to get the shovel out unless that’s the only option. I certainly didn’t.

But, you can’t will the seed of sunflower to grow tall and strong with exquisite petals, just as you can’t will the roots of a dandelion to wither and die without digging into the depths of the soil and remove it from the base. We can’t fix a problem unless we know it exists. Awareness is the first step and that is the basis of this book by example of my childhood growing up in the Age of Divorce. My experiences laid the foundation for me to know what to do for my girls when our life took a turn — despite all instincts that go along with being plunged into your worst nightmare.

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 caused by the threat of a parent not being as available as they have been in the past either physically or emotionally — and both cause a child distress in a range of severity depending on the age of the child, temperament and other factors that can be out of the control of parents. For example, when a non-custodial parent (usually the dad) remarries their visitations drop in half the first year. Their kids from the failed marriage slowly lose their connection physically and emotionally to their father. The most devastating statistic of divorce is that twenty-eight percent of children in our country are being raised without their father in their life at all — they lost a parent to divorce whether the parents were married or not.

In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study called The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study that looked at 17,421 child and adolescent histories of middle-aged, successful adults enrolled in Kaiser-Permanente for their healthcare. In this landmark study, The Center of Disease Control and Prevention compared the emotional childhood experiences of this mostly white, almost three-quarters college educated group to their later adult health records and found that nearly two-thirds had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) or chronic, unpredictable, and traumatic period of stress. 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. The researchers identified ten areas of childhood chronic stress and trauma that point to family dysfunction and proved to be overwhelmingly correlated with adult disease.

The study found that 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 such as cardiovascular disease, auto-immune diseases, diabetes, migraines, multiple sclerosis, cancer, stroke, and mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and suicide. The reason is chronic, unpredictable toxic stress rewires the brain and nervous system to be more susceptible to all stress for a lifetime and stress is deadly.

When you have children, more is required of you. When you have children and you get divorced, an extraordinary amount is required. The stress for everyone in the family is overwhelming, instincts and fears rule behavior for the adults and their kids. Our world narrows to what is needed for surviving the day, the past and future nonexistent. Kids will reach out in tears, anger, needs for attention or behavior problems, and then they will shut down all feelings to survive the heartache of losing a parent. This is what overwhelming stress and trauma looks like for a child.

It is imperative for your child’s long-term health to limit that stress as much as possible, so they can go back to being a kid, worrying about where they will sit at lunch, games to play at recess, who their best friends are from year to year, working hard to make the basketball team, and not, what’s going to happen to their family or if and when they will see their parent again.

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 parents and families can harm their children — by having limited involvement in their child’s lives, emotionally harming their child’s other parent, or poisoning their child against the other parent — it happens every day, even when we know better.

There is nothing more important to a kid or teen 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 couples going through a divorce, it is a parent’s absolute responsibility to foster the continuous loving connection first for the child to themselves and then to the other parent, even if it’s only in the kid’s mind and heart by speaking about the other parent with compassion.

Parents are supposed to hold the safety ropes, be the child’s witness through all their trials and tribulations, allow them to develop confidence to step out into the world, reflect the essence of their child. Kids are supposed to be the explorers, learning how things work, trusting the people in their lives will be there for them, eventually becoming a person who knows what it feels like to be loved so deeply they can feel their soul and in turn, they learn how to love themselves and others. This is what it means to grow a healthy, happy child into an adult who will attract kindness, compassion, understanding, success, and love. A child who is held onto by both parents, even in stressful times, will not become a negative statistic or repeat family traumas.

Despite our intentions, divorce cuts these healthy roots unless parents are purposeful in cultivating forgiveness and compassion for each other in marriage and in divorce. Kids can become defended and self-sufficient beyond their true self. Their emotional growth can be stunted and they become hardened to hurt much like an alpine tree weathered from winds and freezing temperatures. A child cannot grow as they are supposed to grow if they are continuously going through the storms of emotional trauma.

There are many ways children can lose their heart connection or secure attachment with their parents over the course of childhood, but divorce detonates the explosives setting the avalanche in motion, even if all other conditions are optimal. Divorce makes being a parent harder, much harder because you can no longer let the natural order of things carry your children down the trail, with the dad leading and the mom following, now you have to forge a new path to get them back to solid ground. And, although not intuitive, parents have to do this together, despite their feelings about each other. Holding on to your children through divorce is a hero’s journey that requires courage, fortitude, and forgiveness of yourself and your child’s other parent, so that they can become who they were meant to become.

What I didn’t know when my marriage unraveled is that divorce doesn’t ruin kids or childhoods, it’s the loss of a child’s attachment relationship with their parents. This means that even if your marriage cannot survive, your children can continue to thrive in a new family structure and will go on to become their best selves with the added character skills of authenticity, empathy, and resilience among others. This will require more understanding, communication, kindness, support, emotional maturity, compassion than probably occurred in the best of times in the marriage.

Family is the ecosystem in which children grow. Happy, healthy parents parent happy, healthy children and it goes the other way as well. You cannot have peaceful, content children who show up to learn at school, make and keep friendships, grow in their talents and gifts if one parent thrives and the other withers, it’s not possible. And it’s also not possible for a child to thrive without both parents in their lives on a regular basis. There will be consequences for everyone, including the parents — both of them. Growing up in a happy home (or homes as is the case post-divorce) protects children from mental, physical, educational, and social problems. We are forever connected by our beautiful children. Kindness, compassion and understanding matter.

As Jacquelyn Kennedy has been quoted, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” We have a choice: hold on to our kids and get them safely through a stressful time for the whole family together or allow sadness, grief, anger, guilt, blame, or even entitlement to a better life with a new partner to arrest the healthy development of our kids in body, mind and spirit. This is my story of choosing my kids based on what I learned from losing my parents to divorce.

Maya Angelou said it best when she said: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

 

 

 

“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#_=_

 

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.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post5)

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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

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

 

Morgan

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.