CHOSEN


friends as family

 

 

 

It has been many years since I have shared a holiday with the family I grew up with. At this point, probably more than 10 years. And, despite the memories of turbulent encounters, I have often fondly reflected on those rare moments when we sat around a table, connected by our shared DNA, our resilience that allowed us to still break bread and our eagerness to put aside the turmoil that characterized our family.

But those experiences were rare and, more typically, the holidays have been a complicated mixture of disappointment over unrealized expectations combined with a genuine desire to create new traditions and overcome the loss that had so unfortunately become intertwined and associated with the season. So, each year, as the leaves start to turn and fall wistfully to the ground, piling up as a mounting reminder of the changes ahead, I walk with trepidation through the days and weeks that lead up to the holiday season. As I have grown older, I have learned how to check in with myself, adept at identifying any pangs of anxiety or sadness that might overshadow the opportunities to be merry and enjoy what others find to be the most joyous time of the year. I gingerly step through the dropping temperatures, donning my warmer clothes to blanket myself from the potential blizzard of emotions that might disrupt my homeostasis and send me into a free fall that ends the day the Christmas tree is kicked to the curb.

When I am being reflective, I tend to think that I was chosen for this life. I imagine that my ethereal soul, as it floated through the universe, looking for a suitable host, was hand selected for the job of spending eighty or so years in my body, living my life, enduring my personal journey. I sometimes imagine that at the casting call, my soulful being showed strength and a capacity for endurance that outweighed the competition and landed me in the starring role in this life. I believe that I was chosen because I am special. Because I am capable. Because I am wise and bold and robust and I can endure all that comes my way. I am certain that I was the exact right one for the part.

Despite some of the complexities and the disruptions, I know how to navigate this life. Strange as it sounds, it makes complete sense to me. What I find foreign and disorienting is the normalcy that so many around me experience. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time worrying that if I ended up spending my life with someone who came from a stable and healthy family that I would stick out like a sore thumb. There would be no way for me to hide my damage, blend into the wallpaper and cover up my inability to exist in their well-adjusted and peaceful world. My rough edges, cracks and imperfections would be highlighted with bright neon lights showcasing them all. Instead, perhaps by intention or simply divine intervention, I found someone like me. Someone who had been broken down and wanted a chance at a fresh start, an opportunity to fix what went wrong. We thought that together we might prove that two wrongs do, in fact, make a right. Maybe our science experiment would be award-worthy or, rather, we would ultimately combust. So far, so good. Maybe we broke the curse.


As this year’s holiday approached, for the first time in as many years as I could remember, I felt no heaviness. There was no dread, no worry, no anticipatory disappointment. This came as a great surprise because, of all years, this would be one that should be mired in darkness and dismay. After all, this year has been heavy and daunting and overwhelming. Roadblocks and obstacles were strewn along the course, proving my journey difficult and, sometimes, seemingly impassable. I believed, more frequently than not, that this year I would finally break and nothing would be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. There would be no glue to repair the complicated mosaic of my life. Yet, to my surprise most of all, I endured and, remarkably, found myself looking at the leaf piles, feeling the wind on my cheeks and wrapping my scarf tightly around my neck, not to protect myself from those familiar elements but to simply to seek comfort in the warmth radiating from inside of me. I bundled myself up, snuggled in the knowledge that I was ok. As I stared down the last weeks of this year, I felt proud that I had walked through yet another pit of fire and came out just a little charred. And maybe, even a little bit stronger than how I entered.

The dread that encompasses me as the summer turns to fall, as Halloween descends, as the turkeys appear in the market, as the Christmas decorations overtake the stores is noticeably absent this year. I am light and airy and feeling as free as that same ethereal being that floated around 47 years ago before it found its way to my small body, giving it life and a heart and a mind. I am peaceful and hopeful of the road ahead knowing that, while our burdens have not been lifted (in fact, they are as great as they have ever been), we are a strong unit, working together and grateful for what we have created. We are sad because we had to say goodbye to a four-legged family member, marking Thanksgiving week as a forever remembrance of our last hugs with our beloved pet. We have large hills to climb and challenges that will test our mettle and we are hopeful and optimistic and choosing to live and let go of everything non-essential. We are leaving behind those that choose not to row with us and are filling our boat with a crew committed to making us stronger and successful.

I am humbled by the people who have chosen – not by my request but by their own desire – to swaddle me and my family in a blanket of love. No, we do not have mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters who share our lives with us. We are a small unit of four and we create a magnificent tapestry compiled of strangers who have become friends who have become our family. We can laugh and cry and share our hearts, our joy, our sadness, our most important moments with others who make us feel like we are connected to the universe. Who remind us that we will not float away because we have anchors who keep us tethered. Sometimes I forget they are there because they don’t look like me and didn’t come from the same family tree but then, when the road gets messiest and I am careening towards a ditch, I am suddenly rescued and usually from the most unlikely saviors.

This holiday I am not sad. I am not anxious. I am not overwhelmed at the thought of trying to manufacture an experience for my children that will fill the holes left inside me. No, this holiday, I am filled with abundance. I am joyful and grateful to continue to show my children how the fabric of our lives is created. Sure, for some, it is simple. They have deep-woven blends that keep them warm through the coldest months and the toughest of times. For us, we have designed a quilt that fits us perfectly and gives us just the warmth we need.

CLEANSE


cleanseI started a cleanse today.

30 days to rid my body of all the toxins that seeped back in over the past month or so.  30 days to get rid of the sugar addiction.  30 days to cure me of the bad habits I so easily fell back into.  I am hunkering down, committing myself and detoxing.

I’m excited about my cleanse because I can feel my body craving to be healthier.  I look at healthy food and my mouth waters and the sight of cookies and candy and big heavy meals exhausts me.  I have overdosed and my body is telling me it is time to switch.  This is not a new phenomenon as, every year, after the holidays I go through the same pattern.  My body yells in its loudest voice “STOP!” and, sometimes, I pay attention. Sometimes I am too busy shoving crap into my mouth to hear the screams from within.

As I sit here drinking my first protein shake and fiber supplement, I can’t help but wonder how I could dedicate the same attention to a spiritual cleanse.  I am so ready to break some troubling patterns of behavior and I know it requires the same level of commitment and exercise as this cleanse.  However, it is so much easier for me to strip down my caloric intake and consumption of foods I enjoy.  Sure, I get grumpy and have cravings but I persevere.  How do I apply the same principles to my emotional behaviors?  I am trying to develop a daily practice that will enable me to take a little personal inventory allowing me to maintain an awareness of my behaviors.  I so easily become numb to my feelings and distract myself when I am feeling sad or anxious. Instead, I need to embrace these feelings and work with them, rather than stifling them, shoving them away, rejecting them.  They are just as much a part of me as my feelings of joy and comfort.  They are the yin to my yang.  They are part of my complete picture.

In my coaching group, I led the women in my group through guided journaling with a regular daily practice of acknowledging their feelings of gratitude and disappointment for the day.  This enabled them to understand the highs and lows of each day and use that information to help them with their journeys.  I do the same thing with my children at dinner each night.  Since my older son was in preschool we would ask him, and then his brother as he got older, to share two good and one bad thing from his day.  This is a practice that has become commonplace in our house and when we have dinner guests, we ask them to participate.  We began this ritual to help our children share more detailed information about their days and it has become an important part of our daily routine.  Nowadays, we still use it to gather data that they otherwise might not share and, with their growing maturity, it provides my children with an opportunity to process important information about themselves that might be difficult or confusing.  We get to discuss things together and acknowledge that life is continually filled with ups and down and all of it is critical.

I’m ashamed to admit that I have not engaged in this exercise individually, even as I have led my group or shared with my family.  I have not taken a deeper look at what it guiding me both from a positive and negative standpoint on a daily basis.  It is usually only after I hit a speed bump that I reflect back and try to understand the challenges that I was facing at that time.  In order for me to truly change the behaviors that I am looking to get rid of, I need to be extremely present and conscious of what is happening at all times.  That requires me to feel my feelings when they show up and process them rather than running from them or shooing them away like an annoying pest.  I know myself well enough that when I squash my feelings again and again, they show up in the most unpleasant ways.  It is that behavior that creates emotional reactions.  It is that disrespect for myself that I lash out at and create self-sabotaging behaviors.

So, baby steps.  There is no kit or package I can purchase to cleanse my soul.  It is a much more arduous task but one that I am ready for.  It requires me to tap into some excellent skills that I already possess (but sometimes forget that I have).  For today, I am going to commit myself to start journaling.  I am going to take stock in my gratitude and disappointments daily.  I am going to take that information and work with it.

This is a good first step.  I encourage all of you to do the same!

THANKFUL


be thankfulI don’t have a lot of memories of Thanksgiving from my childhood.  In fact, there is only one Thanksgiving that stands out and I was already an adult.  My mother was living in her apartment in Queens and we were cramped into her tiny dining room around the big table that sat much more comfortably in our old house.  I suppose she had a connection to this furniture because it represented a little piece of the life she left behind and because it was one of the rare expensive items she procured while she was still married to my father. Most of the items in the old house were sold at a yard sale or tossed out in order for her to make a clean start in her new home.

This holiday was one of the few occasions I recall my brother, sister and I being together as adults.  My mother usually made a half-hearted attempt to pull us together – especially when we were older – but, invariably, someone was not speaking to the other or we were celebrating elsewhere.  Throughout much of high school and college, I desperately sought refuge at my friends’  homes in order to escape the dysfunction of my family.  I certainly wished for opportunities for us to come together to play out my fantasies of a happy family but our dysfunction would always leak through.  We could not hide how broken we were and, as hard as we might have individually tried, there was no space for compassion, empathy or kindness.  Our family was dog eat dog.  Survival of the fittest.  Last man standing.  It was a requirement for our survival to take the others down.  Every occasion resulted in fighting, tears, mayhem.  We simply did not have the mechanisms to join together and find gratitude and love for one another.  We had so much pain to sort through and our mixture created a chemical reaction that was explosive and harmful.

The last Thanksgiving I had with any of my family members was in 2000 – the year my older son was born.  He was just a month old and I was still basking in the glow of new motherhood.  I had a protective coating that shielded me from any of the typical drama.  I was focused on only one thing – my gratitude for this child.  My euphoria for the intangible gifts he offered when he entered my life.  I sat at the head of the table that day, holding him in my lap and just soaked in my surroundings.  I was peaceful because I knew I was creating a new reality for myself and committed to providing him with a completely different experience than my own.  I don’t think I was truly capable of understanding at that time how much everything changed in that moment.  Even though I was happy on that day, I did not have the perspective to see that I had taken a detour in my journey.  I was walking down a new road that might have looked similar to the old one but was definitely different.  It was a new pathway and, if followed correctly, I would arrive at a new destination.  However, I am a creature of habit.  I like familiarity.  Each and every time I noticed that the road looked different, rather than embracing the change, I struggled to get back on a path I knew.  Despite my desire for new outcomes, I was afraid to stray too far from what I knew.  I was not really ready to explore these unchartered waters.

Over the years, I have struggled with letting go of the memories of my childhood holidays that are seared deep within me.  And, while I have not understood that I was psychically battling the forks in the road that offered me new lanes to travel, I consciously told myself to let go and accept that I now have a loving family and that is all that matters.  I have carried around this idyllic vision of what holidays should be rather than accept that, whatever it is my family is doing together, is the perfect way to celebrate.  Whether there are 4 people around the table or 40, the fact that we can sit with one another, filled with love and appreciation, we are blessed and have all the makings for a beautiful celebration.  Intellectually I know this to be true but, emotionally, I still struggle with putting a premium on joy.  The antithesis of what I had seemed so large, so magnificent.  In fact, it is simple.  Joy does not require big, gift-wrapped packages.  Sometimes, it is the small token that sits quietly to the side that sparkles the brightest, that holds the greatest value.

Last year was a terrible Thanksgiving for me – and a turning point.  I was battling a bad case of depression and could not appreciate the bounty of my family.  I was unconsciously traveling back down the other road.  I was replaying the familiar instead of braving the new course.  There were three people around me who loved me unconditionally.  Three people who wanted only to be with me.  Three people who felt complete with me rounding out as the fourth.  They didn’t care what we did, who we did it with, what it looked like.  They craved the simple pleasure of turning off the rest of the world and being grateful for that moment, that treasure that is our family.  I was too dark and too lost to embrace that or engage.  I was broken down and wallowing in sadness and pain rather than valuing and appreciating all the gifts that life has brought me.

This year, I worried that the onset of the holidays might bring me back to that place.  I feared that I would fall into that same trap of looking at the lack rather than acknowledging the abundance.  Often, the holidays are a time of mourning for me rather than a celebration because I can’t help but recognize all that has been lost when I see that my extended family is nonexistent.  But, thankfully, I have worked really, really hard to change my thinking.  I have opened myself up and found the courage to walk down the new road, knowing that it will bring new challenges and force me to pay closer attention and work that much harder to find my way.  There are no route signs.  There are no markers.  It requires me to put on a new set of glasses but utilize the tools that I already possess.  It requires me to snuff out the fire that typically burns inside me and find warmth and comfort in the sun shining down.  Yes, something shifted for me this year.  Something really extraordinary moved me.  In order to embrace this new road, I needed to accept that the old one – the one banked by an outdated paradigm, a deconstructed construct – no longer exists.  It simply is not there.  It is not available for me to travel.  And, it has been gone for so long.  I have trudged along, trying to gain my footing and could not understand why I was tripping and falling.  The ground was collapsing beneath my feet.  I was being told to move on, move away, find a new pathway.  And I have.

For the first time, I can see the new footprint that defines my children’s experience.  I recognize that they have neither rose-colored glasses nor blacked-out goggles that keep them living in darkness.  Their reality is love.  If I commit to traveling down this new road with them, we both win.  They get to experience the joy that I so desperately sought out as a child and I get to watch them do it.  Everybody wins.  It is so very simple.  They have a family who loves one another and everything else fits easily into their puzzle.

As Thanksgiving is all about gratitude and being grateful has been my mantra for this year, I am delighted to reach this day – nearly 11 months into my journey – feeling filled to the brim.  I have gained my footing and my view is clear.  There are finally no obstructions.  I have a crystal clear perspective on all that I have to be thankful for.  I broke things down and dug deep to my core to find what I needed.  And, as a result, I am supremely blessed with bounties beyond anything I could have imagined as a child.  I give thanks for my people.  The ones who challenge me to grow, show me part of myself that I never believed existed and who offer me a radiant reflection of myself.  I am grateful for those who allow me to be a better person and provide me with a palette to create the most exceptional painting.  A beautiful portrait of a life that I could not be more appreciative of.