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.

True friends are like stars…

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“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 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.

 

 

It’s Not The Critic That Counts

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There will always be things that need to be improved upon. No matter how great it is for many, there will always be an equal number who don’t have it as good, as we see in every election. Half of us are doing well (defined by each individually) and the other half wish it were different. However, a rising tide raises all ships and I’m going to do what I can to be part of raising all. I am going to put my trust in our democracy, in our shared basic goodness, in my belief that life really is good here in America and will always be. I am going to trust right will prevail and that the American people and government will not turn their backs to their neighbor, coworker, children, elderly, those who are sick or poor or marginalized for any reason. I believe we will help each other when we can see that those who we call others are actually us.

I hope we can stop fighting with each other. Our opinions count, but not when blasting someone for their’s. Our opinions count when we vote, when we use our time, money, and resources in support of what we believe in. Our opinions count when we peacefully stand with others in opposition to what we feel will be harmful or just flat out not right. Our opinions count when we stand up for the rights of others; when we stand up for ourselves.

I have faith that the collective voice of our leaders will come back to center now that all the speculation is over and it’s time to get started making things actually happen. I want our new leaders to be successful in making our country great. I want all ships to rise.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
~Theodore Roosevelt
#hope #standup #makeamericagreat #iloveamerica

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 1)

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I have prepared for this year all my life, a primordial fate once hidden under a melting sheet of ice; now cracked, the rushing river underneath sweeps me off my feet and threatens all I once called mine.

I made it to another Friday; it’s 4:00 a.m. and as with every morning after waking up two hours before my alarm, I get up, splash water on my sunken eyes, swallow something for my throbbing head before stumbling downstairs to feed my dog and cat. Coffee is first; I add the filter, two tablespoons of ground Starbucks Verona and six cups of water. As I wait for the magic that is coffee, I check my email and Facebook to see if something has changed since 11:00 p.m. Black Friday sales are coming early but otherwise nothing. The coffee pot beeps and the sound of hot liquid pouring into my cup whispers to me that I can do this thing I have to do today, unbearable even one month ago, yesterday; any earlier would have killed me, but I feel mostly dead anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is to save my girls from losing their childhood far too early, from losing their connection with their parents from divorce like I did. I sip my coffee at the kitchen table, vanilla cream and chocolate stirred in to cut the bitterness. It’s dark still, rain pelting the windows that look toward the Olympic Mountains in the distance, one of the only houses in the golf community with a view other than the course. My girls sleep for another couple hours before it’s time to get dressed for school, excited to say goodnight to their dad for the first time since we moved back to Washington State six months ago. Our one magical year living at the base of America’s first ski resort, Sun Valley, Idaho, turned into an avalanche sending all five of us careening down the mountain I spent the past seventeen years climbing.

Every morning since the end of August, I crawl out of a dark crevasse; the routine of getting my three girls to school is my only foothold to what had been my beautiful life. I am in shock – the I-have-to-choose-to-breathe-in-and-out kind of shock. At night I only fall asleep after reading Pema Chödrön’s book, When Things Fall Apart, with a hot water bottle on my chest, melting the ice crystals lodged in my heart, constricting even a breathe without conscious effort. My blood pressure is so low I should be passed out on the floor and I’ve lost twenty-five pounds, my weight less than my ten-year-old self. Every night, the same prayer, “Please help me. Please tell me what to do tomorrow,” and every morning I get up with a singular focus. There is no weighing of options, always just one thing I must do.

This evening I have to take my girls, the three people who mean more to me than my own life, to stay overnight with their dad for the first time since our lives collapsed from the weight of secrets and lies and madness. I thought living in the Rockies for a year, my husband’s fly-fishing dream, would be a magical year of togetherness, of connection, and outdoor adventures, but instead ended in complete devastation. The end of June, my husband disappeared from our driveway with the Uhaul hitched to the back of his pickup without us, excused by his travel schedule that kept him away most of the time during the past year – while we waited for him next to the river, on the trails, on the mountain. I never saw him again, at least the guy I thought I was married to. And now, tonight, I will drop my girls off by themselves, my worst nightmare based on my own childhood defined by divorce, with this person who became untethered living at 6,000 feet above sea level, that I don’t know anymore, and may as well have shot a bullet into the center of me and left me for dead.

Magic is…

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Magic is in belonging to someone, the sun setting over the waves, the hazy dream you don’t want to leave, being transported by a story, love, God, connection to each other. Magic is never a brown shag carpet. It doesn’t happen while watching TV or when people are upset, fighting, or in the throws of life drama or traumas. Magic does not happen in excess of things that numb the pain. Magic can’t be forced and it doesn’t exclude. Magic is not selfish, doesn’t lie or cheat or deceive or abandon you when you’re on your knees. Magic does not come with manipulation or betrayal. You cannot move the pieces just so to create it. Magic is unbounded gratitude for the single rose you notice while standing in destruction. It’s the energy created in a moment, and like standing in a river, water rushing and swirling, cannot be experienced in the same way ever again. Magic happens where there is authenticity, kindness, grace, love and sometimes heartache too. Magic is connection to yourself, to others and to God. You have the power to create it, but you cannot make it happen and it (almost) always requires at least two so you can remind each other that it really did transpire in that exact magical way. xo

 

“Life is amazing and then it’s awful, and then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.”    ~L.R. Knost

Thanksgivings for a Beautiful Life

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Twenty-eight things I am grateful for:

1. My three sweet, kind, exuberant, beautiful daughters. My forever family…

2. My Village, my Tribe of moms, friends, mentors, guides and confidantes that have provided the safety net, for me and my girls, that I have relied on this past six months.

3. My family whom I have spent my whole life celebrating life’s most treasured days.

4. My home, filled with life memories, is my sanctuary of love, serenity and goodness.

5. My dog, Sage and cat, Apple, who follow me around the house just to be close and remind me that a heart connection to others, furry or not, is all that matters in life.

6. My camera for the thousands of photographs I have taken to keep every life experience fresh in my memory. This will be helpful when those memories are not as easy to come by…

7. Music that fills my soul with peacefulness and reminds me that we all feel the same emotions but come by them individually.

8. Beautiful, colorful art, especially of nature.

9. My body that has allowed me to do everything from ski down double black diamond runs, jump out of an airplane to carrying three beautiful babies for 9 months inside and another year in my arms.

10. The experiences of growing up in the Pacific Northwest, four years in the fast-paced NY Metro area to the serenity of the Rocky Mountains hiking, skiing and living in the original North American ski town.

11. Books, books, books, and my infinite curiosity to read as many as I can. Without question, books are the foundation of my life.

12. Facebook for reminding me that the Universe is both large and small, that I am not alone in the world and have many kindred spirits…

13. My life experiences that have given me courage, resilience, curiosity, compassion for myself and others, ambition, and most importantly, the ability to love and be loved.

14. All four of my grandparents who have and continue to teach me the meaning and purpose of life is not found outside home but instead, right in the middle of everyday life among family and friends.

15. The sounds of happy children playing.

16. Peaceful mornings spent with a cup of coffee (with cream and cocoa), a book and happy girls.

17. My new car complete with streaming music, although Taylor Swift gets way too much airtime.

18. To be a stay-at-home mom while my girls are little. I am equally grateful to have spent more than a decade in my career and for the opportunity to resume my career shortly.

19. The opportunity to go back to college for an MFA in Creative Writing.

20. That God has been by my side directing my path for my whole life. He has given me very clear signs (crystal of late) that it is time for a new direction.

21. My GIRLS! (I know that was number one but, oh my goodness how grateful I am!)

22. Traditions, whether birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas or Halloween. As a younger person I didn’t always want to follow the crowd but the older I get it becomes so clear how those traditions comfort and bind us together as one.

23. The abundance of opportunities, comforts, and love that I have in my life.

24. My soft, fluffy bed with six pillows, pillow top mattress and book light.

25. Flowers of all kinds in a garden, window box, vase or wild on a mountainside. In college I used to spend $25 a week on groceries that included a bouquet and magazine. I still love to come home and unwrap a beautiful bunch of flowers to set on my counter.

26. Bob, for giving me the time and space to figure out who I am and what my purpose in life was meant to be. Most of all, for giving me the life to which I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

27. My GIRLS!

28. My beautiful life.