MARRIAGE


marriage“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.” – Unknown

My husband came home from work today, after hanging out with some guys at the bar to watch the Masters, and said “I think we are becoming a minority.” Knowing my husband as I do, I could have gone in so many different directions with that comment. I looked quizzically at him and, as has happened hundreds of times in the 21 years we have been together, he realized I had no idea what he was referring to. “It seems like we are the only ones left married,” he said smirking. I laughed, knowing he was being facetious but I also stopped for a second and took in a deep breath. He is right. Maybe it’s because of our age, maybe it’s because of where we live, maybe it’s because of our circle of friends and acquaintances but, whatever the reason, it seems like every day we learn of more and more couples splitting up. Today he learned about yet another and, as is always the case, it sends chills down your spine. You can’t help but wonder if one day it will be you. I cannot deny that there have been moments – more than I care to admit – that I wondered if our marriage would survive.

I entered into marriage completely clueless. I had no role models. I had no reference point. Frankly, I had no interest in getting married. I had determined, at a pretty young age, that I wanted to have a fantastic career and would not submit to giving up my dreams for any man. And, I certainly did not want to have kids. Sure, I was a feminist. I was also broken from all that I had experienced in my childhood that I couldn’t even imagine a reality where I could be happily married. By the time I was in college, my mother had been married and divorced 3 times and was on her way to her fourth. My father had 2 under his belt and my sister, 14 years my senior, had just split up with her husband. She would go on to marry 2 more times. I wanted nothing to do with all this. I was not interested in participating in this ritual that seemingly always had an unhappy ending.

I was a serial dater after I got out of college. I would meet guys, date them, break up, find another, date them, break up, find another and the cycle went on and on. Nobody lasted more than weeks or maybe a few months and the relationships never went very deep. I had so much intimacy with all of my gay boyfriends that I never felt needy in that way. If it were not for sex, I would have been content to hang with my gay posse forever, collect some cats and become a living, breathing stereotype. I simply did not see a pathway that would ever lead me to wedded bliss. I had a great career, was starting to make some money and had, what I believed to be, a relatively glamorous life. I worked for a major movie studio optioning books for movies so I spent my evenings going to plays, movie premieres, parties, fancy dinners – all surrounded by the largest group of gay men imaginable. I guess, perhaps one of the reasons I could not see the pathway was because there were not very many suitable candidates crossing my lane.

I met my husband when I was 24. When I think about it now, I realize how I was still an emotional amoeba. I simply knew nothing about the world yet I had lived what felt like 5 lifetimes sorting through the turmoil of my family’s drama. We met as friends – he and I were both dating other people (he was living with someone!) so there was no pressure on the relationship. He seemed like a nice enough guy and, much to my amazement, I found myself quickly intrigued by him. The relationship became romantic very quickly and, after we sorted out our other conflicts, we started dating for real. Both of us being somewhat impulsive, dating lasted about two minutes before we fell remarkably, passionately, overwhelmingly in love. He was my soulmate. I could not imagine how I could spend one minute away from him, which was extraordinarily difficult since he lived 3000 miles away on the other side of the country. We managed to find ways to see each other several times a month and each visit was filled with anticipation – heart-racing, soulful expectation. And every goodbye was marked with tears, sometimes painful and gut-wrenching, because we could not imagine how we would be able to fill our lungs with oxygen without the other to move the diaphragm. We so quickly became a symbiotic unit and every thought I ever had about not wanting to marry went out the window like a paper floating away in a brisk March wind. My fears or uncertainty about how I could sustain a relationship seemed foolish and immature. Here I was madly in love and all I could think about, even at the tender age of 25, was how fast I could begin my life as his wife.

We got engaged in less than 6 months and just a little more than 2 years after we met, we walked down the aisle in a lovely spring wedding and began a whole new chapter in our lives. We set out to right the wrongs of our parents. We vowed to do it differently. We committed to break the cycle. We blindly, ignorantly, whimsically set out on what seemed like a perfectly paved pathway together.

Next month will be 19 years since that lovely spring wedding. 19 years – nearly two decades! In contrast, his parents’ marriage lasted 13 years, my parents stuck it out for 15 before they separated, my sister’s ended at year 14. There was a moment, several years ago, that we realized that we had hit some magical milestone in our family. We were officially the longest married couple. We made a toast. And returned to our blissfully banal life. We have expanded our symbiotic union by two with sons that keep us grounded and focused and remind us why we decided to enter this extremely challenging and complex obstacle course.

In 19 years we have had more than our share of fights and far too many moments, through tears, that we each gritted our teeth and questioned our beliefs. That perfectly paved pathway has revealed many cracks, uprooted roots that have pushed up the concrete and we have tripped and fallen many, many times. We have been challenged to find the intoxicating love that left us in tears when we could not be together every moment of the day. Now the tears were rage-filled and that love was nowhere to be found. Well, actually, it was buried beneath piles and piles of hurt feelings, unkind words, bad choices, anger, resentment and all the wonderful things that are often hallmarks of long-term relationships riddled with financial woes, exhaustion from child rearing and general disappointments that life did not turn out to have the fairy tale ending you dreamt of. For some couples that is where it all goes awry. For many, the challenges become too untenable and the relationship dissolves. For us, we had many sleepless nights, raging battles and days where we could barely look at each other because we loathed the sight of the other but we pushed through. Perhaps the fear of splitting up was more overwhelming than the notion of trying to tolerate each other another day, but we persevered. Despite our efforts to hold it together, I was certain we were doomed. Everyone around us seemed so happy. Their marriages looked so healthy. Everyone seemed to be having sex ALL THE TIME while I couldn’t muster the energy to even think about it most of the time. Everyone appeared to be blissfully in love, even after the trials of marriage had weathered their bond. They all seemed to have a healthier, stronger, more powerful attachment and I didn’t see how my marriage could ever compare.

The joke was on me, of course. Sure, some couples seem to have the good fortune of peaceful and loving relationships and personalities that are not like firecrackers with short fuses and a lit match. Many couples, however, put on a good show when everyone is looking in order to make the pain of their own unhappiness less visible in hopes that it will make their misery more manageable. They sweep it under the rug and put on a good face, hoping no one will notice, existing in silent desperation. For me, I had to learn to stop looking around for comps and spend more time looking at my own relationship and understanding what it needed to work properly. When I searched my soul, I knew I loved my husband on the deepest level and could not imagine a life without him. I needed to focus in on that and stop worrying about the window dressing. None of that shit mattered.

As I watched so many friends delight in the sparkle of new relationships after their marriages ended and they were reborn into these new loves, I had to dig deep to find a way to reconnect with the man who changed my life and brought peace to a war-torn girl. I doubted, I questioned, I ached, I cried, I searched, I begged for mercy. And then I fell in love all over again. This time, I fell in love with the old pair of shoes lying in the back of the closet that I had forgotten were hiding out, stuffed underneath some boxes of new shoes that were so shiny and inviting. I slipped into those shoes and they felt warm and comfortable, and my feet knew exactly how to mold themselves into the leather. They were perfectly suited for me. I exhaled and I opened my eyes wide to find that nothing ever changed between my husband and me. We still loved each other deeply – in fact, we were much more in love than we had ever been but we had lost our way. We fell victim to the complications of life. We stopped paying attention, took our eyes off the road as the car careened into the woods. It was a bit dented but still ran pretty well and just needed someone to get behind the wheel and steer it onto a new road.

I love my husband more today than I ever could have imagined that pretty spring day 19 years ago. I look into the eyes I have stared into millions of times and I see our lifetime together. Soon we will be together longer than we have not. Now we fit together like two puzzle pieces that slide together so easily. There were days we had to shove ourselves together, taking a second look to see if, in fact, we were the right pair of pieces but, now, it is easier. Sure, we still take each other for granted at times and we still have trouble finding time and energy to have quiet intimate moments but I know, without any uncertainty, that there is no one else I would travel the road of life with. We are a real story, a 3-dimensional, full-color, reality of married life. We are imperfect, we hurt each other, we make mistakes. And, we love each other with everything we have. And we fall in love over and over again.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY


motheranddaughter“The woman who bore me is no longer alive, but I seem to be her daughter in increasingly profound ways.” – Unknown

Today would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday.  And, Friday marked one year since she passed away.  As I have shared in this blog before, her passing was an event that did not hold much significance to me at the time because I felt I had said goodbye to her many years before.  Despite that, this past year has left me with the need to do a lot of reflection to help me come to terms with my feelings about this complicated relationship in order to begin a healing process resulting in forgiveness and transcendence from decades of trying to love someone who was fundamentally incapable of experiencing or giving authentic love.

This is a journey I did not enter into willingly.  In fact, I had my mind all made up when I learned that her life was nearing its end that I was relieved and ready to move on to the next phase of my life – a life without having to look over my shoulder and wonder when the next onslaught would occur.  I welcomed the freedom that came from knowing that the hurt, the humiliation, the constant anxiety about when she would next strike out would finally come to an end.  When I got the word that she had died, I texted my best friend to let him know and he immediately called me in bewilderment, wondering if he should console me or plan to take me out for a celebratory toast.  He gently prodded, fascinated by this highly unusual circumstance of someone losing their parent and not immediately  kicking into the rituals of mourning, honoring, etc., and asked “How do you feel?”  Of course, he knew that the feelings would be complicated.  He implicitly knew that I would be struggling to find words to make sense of the emotions, even in my own mind.  At the time I was quite laissez faire about the whole situation, resolved that I was ready to start anew.  I had prayed for an escape from the grip she had on me and suddenly my wish was granted and now I had the time and space to react and redirect myself.

In the year since my mother’s passing, I have had a metamorphosis of sorts.  In my own way, I have undergone a process of grieving and realigning myself without the force of my mother’s mental illness driving an undercurrent in my life.  Despite the fact that I had terminated my relationship with her nearly 7 years before her death, I was still struggling on a daily basis, balancing my indignation and my guilt while continuing to fear her wrath, her scorn, her outbursts intended to try to regain a connection with me.  She patented the art of attempting to have bad behavior rewarded with attention.  It took great resolve and discipline to not take the bait.  As an adult child, I still yearned the love of my mother and wanted nothing more than to wake up from a seemingly bad dream and find myself in a fairy tale, basking in the glow of love showered upon me by my mommy.  I never lost the wish, the unwavering desire to curl up and be loved and nurtured in a way that I understood was a gift meant for other little girls, simply not me.

As I worked through the process – one that I intentionally pushed to the background to be a backdrop to everything else that was going on in my life – I began to see answers and understanding emerge around me like giant thought bubbles bursting over my head.  I knew when I began the journey of healing that I would never truly understand my mother.  I acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, that her actions and behavior would never make sense to me.  I did not have all the puzzle pieces.  I was missing huge chunks of her history that informed who she became as an adult.  I did not understand the demons that she confronted as a young child and had no way of understanding the role they played in the destruction of her life.  I never had a clear sense of the roots of her mental illness.  All of that, however, was intellectual masturbation because none of it mattered in how I felt.  And, frankly, for the better part of my adult life, I spent my time trying to understand, trying to solve the equation.  How I felt was always secondary.  I knew I was a victim of her illness and I knew that our relationship was ultimately detrimental to both of us.  I woke up one day and realized with crystal clear certainty that we were better off without each other than with.  And I walked away.  As my therapist has explained to me so many times, I nearly erased myself from existence by abandoning the most primal and pivotal relationship in my life.  I annihilated myself by rejecting my mother.  And, at the same time, I gave myself life.

I have struggled over the past year to find my way with this.  Life has presented me with seemingly unending complications to derail my focus and challenge my own mental stability.  I have struggled with my own purpose, my intentions and my truth.  Losing my mother without ever closing all the loose ends left me with a complicated web of questions and emotions that I knew I had to tackle when I was ready and in my own unique style.  No one – absolutely no one – could help me make sense of it.  I was living an experience that not a single person I know has ever experienced.  I was alone on an island left to sort out a big giant tangle of ropes in hopes that, when untwisted, I would be able to toss them out to pull in my raft and return the land of others.  I had hoped that by whacking through this mess I would suddenly feel differently, look like everyone else and be able to return to life feeling more complete and more connected.

It’s been one year and two days.  367 days of quiet contemplation.  8,808 hours of attempting to locate a lost piece of myself in order to better fit into my world and begin to blend in with everyone else.

Guess what?

I failed.

On the bright side, I am beginning to forgive my mother.  I am finding ways to have compassion for her and understanding that hers was the road less traveled – and not in a good way.  No one would ever sign up for the cruise that she took in her 82 years. No one would willingly leave the earth with a scant few by their side, having more regrets than joy.  Four marriages, three children, four grandchildren and her passing was barely noticed.  I feel sad for her.  I grieve for a life that was lost to an illness left untreated and an unwillingness to relent and accept that perhaps the darkness that she lived with was not simply the way it was meant to be.  I take no comfort in my righteousness that she deserved what she ultimately received.  I wish, I truly wish, I could have made a difference for her.  I wish I could have saved her and brought her to my island.  I tried so many times to heal her with my love, thereby, hopefully, healing myself.  However, it was always short-lived.  She thrived on chaos and manipulation.  She needed to break things down and then attempt to put them back together in order to feel like a savior.  She needed to be a victim and find blame in everyone else.  She did not know what it meant to forgive.  She only knew how to hold a grudge and suffer as she exhausted limitless mental energy feeling anger and resentment, ironically usually targeted towards those she most frequently hurt.

For me, today, I am learning to get beyond all that and am starting to understand the impact of her life and her behavior on me.  I am not a victim of my mother.  I am a product of my life experience and it is my choice to continue down the pathway she led me or to take a detour and find my own lane.  She is not a compass for me – a fact that pains me greatly because I believe so deeply in the power of motherhood and the role we play in guiding our children to their own paths while standing by to guide them to another and another as they need us to.  Nonetheless, my mother is all around me.  She shows up in my life in the form of other people that create struggles for me – the narcissists that invariably make their way to me; the angry, damaged and pained individuals that sniff me out falsely seeing me as a safe harbor.  I am simply not that port and I am learning to accept that about myself.  My job is not to rescue anyone but to provide an atlas built from my own painful journey.  I am not a walking support group and I have come to accept and, in fact, insist, that I am not here to be pitied or protected or, quite frankly, understood by anyone because we can never truly understand the complexities that make each of us unique.  Instead, I am here to give love, receive love and hope to leave a legacy that includes inspiring and empowering others to live a more meaningful life.  And, for that, I thank my mother.  Without her, I am not sure that these lessons would have made their way to me.  I am not sure that I would have the courage to look at life the way I do.  I have no certainty that, without my mother, I would have broken down and been rebuilt in a way that provides me with my own brand of power.  I am not perfect and I struggle to make sense of things every day but I feel grateful to have the opportunity to tackle life and connect the dots in the way that I do. As with many things in my life, I would never go back and change history.  It all informed my place today.  The road could have been easier and my choices could have been better but it is all about the journey.

This morning I talked to my best friend again and shared with him a piece of my truth that has crystalized for me.  I have spent so much of my lifetime trying to adapt myself to fit into the world in a way that would enable people to understand me better.  I have twisted myself up so painfully trying to blend in and make sense in other people’s worlds.  However, today, my own gift to myself on my mother’s birthday, I committed to allowing myself to be me.  367 days after my mother left the earth I am finally becoming the person I am meant to be.  And, after 45 1/2 years of life, I know I am just getting started.

Happy Birthday Mom.  I wish you could have gotten to know me.

TRUST


trust“All trust involves vulnerability and risk, and nothing would count as trust if there were no possibility of betrayal.” – Robert C. Solomon

I’d be lying if I did not confess that relationships are challenging for me.

There were never any roadmaps or guidebooks to help me navigate relationships growing up. I learned how to connect with people by trial and error. I had no role models because the relationships in my family were transient and conditional. I learned how to love out of pure need to be loved. I was willing to love someone if they showed me love, even at my own peril for many of those who I believe “loved” me had a very shallow definition of love and tossed the word around recklessly. I learned how to trust by…. well, actually, that is where things get really complicated for me. In my life, trust presents a lot of difficulties and is not something that comes easily. Most who know me well will attest that trust is something I place high on a pedestal and, if broken, does not have a good chance of being repaired . I’m not proud of this but it is part of my complexity – I don’t trust easily and I can grow to mistrust without much effort.  I’m not perfect, nor are my relationships yet I work diligently every day to nourish and enhance the trusting bonds I do have.

I recently located an old video from my childhood that was buried away in a closet. It is the last vestige of my youth in my possession and it is a critical touchpoint for me. My parents, like many others in the 60’s and 70’s took lots of Super 8 movies and, after my parents divorced, my mother kept them stored away in a box high on a shelf in one of her closets. By the time I was a teenager, the projector we used to watch the movies was long gone and all we had left were a pile of flat round tin cans that held all the memories of when my family seemed “normal,” when things were happy and when it appeared that my course in life would be dramatically different from the road it actually took. The films lay in those cans for years because we never bothered converting them to VHS and because they represented a time in life my mother simply did not want to return to. To see the demise of her life in full color blasted before her eyes was simply too painful. It wasn’t until I was married and getting ready to start a family of my own that I went back to her house to retrieve whatever I could to piece together a life that now seemed a bit more like a dry erase board that someone leaned on and had carelessly rubbed across the words. Everything was smudged and smeared and you could sort of make out the content but the message was very unclear. I really wanted to chronicle my family’s history and gain a deeper understanding of where I came from. By the time I got to the box in the closet, it was evident that someone else had beat me to it. My older brother, caught up in his own turmoil, had the same idea I had. Unfortunately, he never converted the films and, in his haste to leave an apartment from which he was being evicted, he left the box behind, likely to be retrieved by some future renter who would carelessly toss them in a dumpster. When I went to my mother’s closet, there was one stray canister left behind and I grabbed it, not knowing what I would find. To my relief, it was a splendid 28 minutes of me from the age of about 5 months to one full year later. It included a magical Christmas, my first steps, a decadent vacation to Miami Beach, my brother’s birthday party and an assortment of other sweet moments that gave me insight to a life I never knew existed.

I watched the video countless times over the years but then stored it away, like my mother did, replacing it with converted DVDs of my own children’s highlights over their short lives. I had forgotten about the tape until recently. I started scouring my house looking for it because, for some reason, I knew it included some critical pieces to my puzzle. I knew that, today, with a new lens, a new perspective, a new need, I would find essential messages that would help me unpack more pieces of myself to help me move forward, even if only just by a few steps.

I was cleaning up the guest room and scoured through the closets and drawers. Surprisingly, it was right there out in the open in a drawer, waiting to be retrieved. It practically laughed at me, wondering why I had such a hard time locating it after I had passed over it again and again. It screamed “I’ve been right here all along!” I grabbed it, raced out to a local shop that converts VHS to DVD – yet another iteration in this film’s life journey – and popped it right into the computer the minute I got home. I had recollections of the scenes in my mind since I had seen the film so many times in the past. But this time I studied it. I watched every touch and every kiss my mother placed on me. I looked deep into my father’s eyes to try to understand this mysterious stranger. I looked at myself, trying to find the roots of me, trying to find my soul in that chubby little baby. I watched it and felt loved. I saw a child who was doted upon by family, friends, neighbors.  I saw a family so perfect and so sublime. And I knew it was all bullshit. I knew it was a show for the cameras that reflected just a small portion of what was really going on. Where was my sister who was 14 years older than me and had been exiled to live with my mother’s brother in Brooklyn because of conflicts with my father? Where was the endless flow of Johnny Walker that turned my father into a monster who beat my mother with anything he could find? Where was the vitriol that my mother doled out to my siblings and me to degrade us and demean us in order to get us to follow her every command? None of it was there because this was the highlight reel – truly. This is every Facebook post talking about how wonderful life is when, in fact, people are cringing and crying on the inside. It is a mirage of happiness that, while may hold some reality in those brief moments, do not reflect the real road traveled.

So, what does this all have to do with trust? Well, everything. For me, trust is about absolute authenticity. Trust is about honesty. Trust is about putting your real self on display and being vulnerable and allowing yourself to stand in your space and be who you are. Without that, we are only showing a fragment of ourselves that prevents us from really being honest and really being trustworthy. In all candor, I have not perfected this. In fact, there is a small contingent that I share my ugliest worts with. There are only a select few that I really trust. And the reason why is because, after a lifetime of being duped into believing that the highlight reel is the truth, I need to be certain that there is more. I need to know that we can get down and dirty and show our secret underbelly.

I’ve been thinking about all of this recently because it is a critical part of my journey. As both of my parents died in the past 1 1/2 years, I have been trying to find a way to forgive them for all of the pain and suffering they have caused me and my family. I have been trying to learn the lessons from their lives and my own to, hopefully, make different choices and better decisions to create a life for myself that is authentic and, while not free of mistakes and pain, makes me feel like I am being the best person I can be. I want to make sure I am putting out into the world something of import. I am trying to learn how to forgive those who hurt me in order to maintain trusting relationships and not be so quick to abandon the trust simply because I have been hurt or scorned. I am struggling with it today.  I seek out guideposts that help to send me in the right direction so I can figure out who to forgive and who to forget. I am trying to find a softness – an antidote to all of the callouses that have formed from years of hurt and betrayal.

My husband and I will celebrate the 21st anniversary of our meeting this week. What I did not know that February night in 1992 was that I was meeting the man who would teach me more about love and trust than anyone ever could. And, I had no idea how much I would test it or challenge it over the course of our lives. As I reflect on my life and all the relationships that have flowed in and out, I know without a shred of uncertainty that he is the only person that I trust completely. He is the only person I can forgive without question. He is the only person that I know, without any doubt, will have my back and love me no matter what. And, for that, I am really blessed. He has taught me that there is a life where the highlight reel can be the real reel.

MISSING


“Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

I am currently working on a very meaningful project – coaching someone to help them uncover their story.  I love this for so many reasons but mainly because I am helping them find their story to authentically and passionately share with others the importance of the work that they are doing.  It is an exciting journey for them because they are being pushed to explore aspects of themselves in ways they may not have before and it is interesting for me because I am challenging myself to be present on their ride and partake in the same activities.  Part of my role is to provide journal prompts each day to encourage them to write.  The prompts are often benign and are intended to simply get them to explore some thoughts and put them down on paper.  I’m not particularly interested in what they write.  I simply want them to write.  But, of course, the mere exploration of thought creates pathways to information and the act of scribing creates further connections and suddenly stories are unfolding right in front of you.

Yesterday, I offered up a prompt to write about someone that you miss, dead or alive.  I put no parameters around this topic because I wanted them to explore on their own who they missed and why and, perhaps, what it meant to miss someone.  Do you miss someone because they are no longer part of your life?  Do you miss someone because they have passed on?  Do you miss someone at that very moment even if you are going to see them the very next day?  The exercise was intended to allow them to journey along all those lines.  As I am trying to parallel the exercises and simultaneously write on the very same topics, I commissioned myself to tackle the same subject…and fell short.  With each journal prompt, I also ask that we write about something that we are grateful for and/or something we are disappointed about from our day and, last night, I got really hung up on the first part.  I focused on my lack of gratitude, which was, conversely, a source of disappointment for myself.

Ironically enough, I am not someone who enjoys journaling because, for me, it sometimes seems forced and I am often harshly critical of what I write.  Because I typically write with the intention of having others read it, I am extremely focused on my choice of words, the deeper messages and having compelling content.  And, of course, that is exactly what journaling is not and exactly why I should spend more time on that activity.  Journaling is most powerful as a tool to allow for a free stream of thought to enable you to find those pathways to your inner voices.  I recognize that it’s nuts that I resist it and, as a result, I am forcing myself to take advantage of this opportunity to embrace the art of journaling if only to have some connection and authenticity with this project.  What comes from it will only be the icing on the cake.

Last night when I set out to write about someone I miss, I struggled.  I could not really come up with anyone that I missed so much that I wanted to write about it.  There are a lot of people that have been a part of my life that I do not have any connection with anymore because of life circumstances.  I do miss some of them and, sometimes I feel badly about the role I played in our disconnection.  I miss what they used to mean to me and I feel sad about the fact that, in many cases, I allowed the person to slip out of my life.  There are also certainly people who are currently a part of my life who I do not see very often and I surely miss them.  In truth, some of the people that I am closest to live at a great distance from me so I am constantly missing them but that has become a regular, ordinary characteristic of my life.  I don’t like to write about it because it frustrates me and also makes me very sad.  So, ultimately, I avoided the topic entirely and I ended up spending my time writing about my own disappointment in myself for not feeling more grateful and for letting myself continually get caught up in malaise rather than focusing on the positive aspects of my life.  The subconscious thoughts about how missing people makes me feel bad surely inspired a whole lot of negativity towards myself and was a perfect platform to display my deep levels of disappointment in myself.

This morning, as often happens when I am returning from dropping my kids off at school, I took a few minutes for some self-reflection and started thinking about the exercise again (yes, this is how this stuff works.  A simple little prompt can permeate your thinking and just sit with you for days.  It’s pretty awesome).  With a somewhat clear head, the loud and resounding noise was that the person I missed most right now was me.

I’ve gone away.  I have allowed myself to get caught up with the messiness in my life.  I focus on all the things wrong and nothing that is right.  I have become blind to the beauty around me like the rich fall colors and the fragrant aromas of the season that so often make me feel whole and connected.  I feel disappointment in myself in regards to many areas of my life.  I am harshly judging myself and critical of my thinking and endeavors. I am, as the brilliant Brene Brown would say, caught up in a shame spiral.   She says that “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”  That is a potent message and, when I reflect on my life right now, it truly represents how I feel and why I miss myself.  I miss the person who rises above and feels tremendous gratitude for all the richness and texture that makes up my life.  I miss the strength that I typically exhibit to work through the clutter and chaos and the pride I feel for having muddled through and come out the other end feeling confident and powerful.  I miss waking up every day looking forward to the challenges before me and going to bed at night feeling tired but inspired and excited about what comes next.

I miss me.

The good news, I suppose, is that I can see myself in the distance and know that I am not far away.  And, chances are, it will likely not be too long before I return.  However, in the spirit of honoring this exercise, I will recognize that the person I miss is me and I will pine for myself and encourage myself to find my way back.  I will, like any good friend, extend a hand to help myself back up the hill, shout out directions as I traverse the rocks and catch myself if I slip.  And, until my return, I will keep on missing me and will remember another passage from Brene:

“Shame resilience [is] the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it.”

She says, “shame derives its power from being unspeakable…language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”  So, I guess this little exercise, this benign journal prompt is exactly what I need to help myself as only I can.

BLIND SPOTS


“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” – Brene Brown

This week I was, thanks to a fortuitous blog post from a friend, reminded of some of the powerful words of Brene Brown.  Her research, talks and writing on vulnerability have inspired me over the past year as I have embarked upon what has been a very painful journey to find the courage to be more vulnerable and, ultimately, find peace in my life.

My story began so many months ago after the death of my mother.  She and I had been estranged for many years after a lifetime of emotional abuse that resulted in me becoming hardened, cynical and judgmental.  I steeled myself with the belief that surrounding myself with love, going to therapy and practicing different behaviors would ensure that I could protect myself from the long-term effects of both the abuse from my mother and the scars left from my alcoholic father (who had also passed away just months prior to my mother).  It took a while but I did, ultimately, realize that this plan was not going to work.  Shoving all my feelings into a locker inside me and trying to forget the combination would not prevent the leakage of all the pain and abuse that I endured.  It is insidious.  It permeates our cells.  It comes out in every place we least expect it to and at the times we least want it to.

On Leap Day – February 29 – I shared in a blog post that my mother had passed and it was the first time anyone, except for a very close few, had heard the news.  It was not something that I shared publicly because it was only noteworthy in that I felt a bit freed from the grasp of her will.  Even at her advanced age, even as she suffered from cancer, she continued to try to torment me and I continued to play into her hand, allowing myself to question everything, doubt my feelings and resort to behaving like a petulant child.  Once I learned of her passing, I felt a sense of relief and, consequently, a sense of guilt at not feeling the appropriate grief that one feels when their parent dies.  There was no practical way for me to explain this to most of my friends who have not previously been dragged through the muck that comprised my relationship with my mother.  I simply commented on it and expected that some might take note but did not anticipate that the result would inspire a whole new level of self-examination.

Sometimes I underestimate my impact on others – both positively and negatively.  I frequently find myself surprised to learn that someone is thinking about me or has been inquiring about me outside of my presence.  It sounds silly but is deeply rooted in wounds from my childhood and makes perfect sense to me.  Similarly, I do not always realize how widespread the impact of my negative actions can be.  I assume they go unnoticed by most because who would be paying attention to me – and, of course, that is a giant underestimation of its impact.  It is like the opposite of narcissism but, sometimes, equally dangerous.  Despite my deep level of self-awareness resulting from careful analysis of my feelings, actions and behaviors, I have a unique ability to blindside myself with my actions and behaviors.

In my work, we use a tool called Johari Window to help people understand the concept of blind spots when giving feedback in a corporate setting.  Every one of us has blind spots and they reside in the window of what people know about us but we do not know about ourselves.  And, while I generally believe that is a very small window for me, I also recognize that I can be a bit more clueless than I imagine myself to me.  My inability to recognize how others view me or that they even spend the time to think about me sits squarely in my blind spot.  When I wrote that blog post, I was standing in my blind spot.  I never anticipated that anyone would actually pay attention to the information about my mother dying and react with such support.  The outpouring of love and positive messaging was unexpected and I was both grateful and uncomfortable because I had revealed something very personal and I did not appreciate or recognize its significance because of my blindness.  One of the very valuable and powerful outcomes was the gift given to me by my closest friend, an expert in the field of blind spots, who utilized his craft on me to help reveal to me what I was so painfully missing.  By revealing my blind spot , he helped to thrust me into a place where I needed to search for answers and my first stop on the journey was vulnerability.  And so, it became a huge focus for me this year.  What I knew then about vulnerability is that I dreaded it, I loathed it and, what I have come to know for certain is that it is the only pathway to freedom, love and happiness.  Brene Brown says, in one of her TED talks:  “And I know that vulnerability is kind of the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, and creativity, of belong, of love.”

Another valuable outcome of the revelation of my blind spot, is that I am someone who values connections.  I need to feel connected – to be part of something.  Growing up without a strong sense of family and no formalized religion, I found myself drifting through life, often feeling like a misfit.  I never really belonged anywhere.  Lots of parents of friends would take me in and care for me over small periods of time but I always knew that I did not belong. The result was that I felt even more disconnected rather than being able to accept their offer of love and belonging.  I didn’t fall in love until i met my husband at the age of 24 so, until that time, I was a floater, seeking out personal and romantic connections. And even with him, it took years for me to shed my armor and truly connect.  Nearly 21 years later, I am still working on being raw and honest with him and finding a way to truly trust.  The wounds are deep and they show up nearly every day, with or without my notice.

The tragic reality of me is that, throughout my life, despite my desperate effort to make connections, I was always hiding.  I was hiding behind my vulnerability, afraid that if anyone really saw me, they would patently reject me.  I denied the fact that, in order to truly have a connection, you must be authentic.  You must bring your full and real self to the table.  Instead, I became masterful at matching other people’s behaviors and building artificial rapport in order to try to fit.  I never had to reveal anything to anyone that I didn’t want them to know because I was so adept at becoming whomever I needed to be in order to fit in.  I borrowed from other people’s personalities and adopted them as my own so I looked like I belonged.  I made superficial connections which, not surprisingly, did not have much strength and could not last beyond a little wear and tear.  As a result, many of my relationships were transient.

When I wrote my post in February, I truly believed that I was well on my way to becoming my authentic self.  And, to a great degree, that was true.  I had made some very meaningful connections and was allowing myself to be seen for who I truly was.  A little more naked than ever before.  But it was hard and took its toll on me.  And, what is also true is that, much like maintaining our bodies, we must also maintain our minds.  There is no final destination – it is always all about the journey.  If we spend months or years to build and tone our muscles and then suddenly stop working at it, our bodies will soften – and rather quickly.  When we are intentional about our beliefs and behaviors and feed ourselves positive thoughts and allow ourselves the time and space to accept ourselves, we tone our emotional muscles.  As soon as we take our eyes off the road and put our psyches on auto-pilot, we quickly return to unconscious negative input and easily sabotage our hard-earned efforts.  That is what is happening to me now.  I have lost focus and am straying far away trying to find my way back to my path.

I had a laser focus on what I wanted in my life and who I wanted to be.  Authenticity and vulnerability were priority #1 for me because I knew, without a doubt, that it was a passageway to freedom for me.  It was the route that most certainly ended in happiness.  So, how is it that I have felt so unhappy lately?  I have manufactured an environment surrounded by the people who I believe bring out the best in me.  I have consciously pushed away the influences that I believe are destructive and detrimental to my journey.  I have set intentions to be honest, authentic, loving and vulnerable so I can allow those who I want and need to be close to me get and stay close to me.  What I have not planned for is the reality of life and the bumps and hurts that come along.  Those who love us most also sometimes hurt us most.  And we also hurt them.  I have also not accounted for the leakage of my pain locker that has yet to be emptied.  Inside of it still resides years of residue that adds toxicity, even more fervently when I am in a weakened state.  When this occurs, I immediately retreat to a place where I can protect myself from feeling the pain until, all at once, the earth shudders a little too hard and the cracks spread and the walls collapse and I get sucked right into the floor, crushed under a pile of bricks.

Suffice it to say, I know that everything good and bad is only temporary and, as my husband often says “the difference between your best day and your worst day is your state of mind.”  I say with all authenticity and all vulnerability that I have stumbled.  I tripped over myself because I lost sight of my path.  I lost faith in myself and allowed the demons to take over.  I wish I could just will myself back into step but I know it is part of the journey to learn how to use the tools I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep moving forward.  Lately, I haven’t felt so motivated to move forward and thought perhaps my journey was futile.  But I had a moment, in between the raindrops of tears and anguish, when I realized that perhaps I had, in fact, made a major step forward because, if nothing else, I am feeling quite vulnerable and am just sitting with those feelings no matter how painful they may be right here and now.  With that, I know, at least, the road I am looking for is the right one and once I resume my journey I will do so, hopefully, without too many blind spots.

MELANCHOLY


“And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart—knowing a precious moment had gone and we not there. We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass. ” – J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country

Ever since I was a little girl, I always wanted every party to last forever. I was sad when the crowd started thinning or when my mother would send me off to bed while there was still plenty of fun to be had. I suppose it had something to do with the fact that happy times were in limited supply in my home and, when there were bright spots, I clung to them, hoping to prevent their end. Growing up with a glass-half-empty mother, I was conditioned to think about things in a bleak context. When talking about vacations, it was always, “it’ll be over before you know it.” When we discussed my wedding, she boiled it down to “it’s four hours and it will be over in a blink of an eye.” While there is some truth to what she said, it always left me clinging to whatever vestige of joy I could capture from every momentous event in my life.

Despite taking great pains to rid myself of much of this thinking, behavior runs deeper than our conscious minds can control. I have begun to notice in myself that I am anticipating the letdown of every event that I am looking forward to long before it is even close to arriving. It is as if I am gripping myself for some epic letdown that is destined to come rather than anticipating the joy and happy memories that will fill me for days, weeks, months and even years to come. I seem to have a sort of selective amnesia that prevents me from realizing that my life is rich with wonderful moments that quickly replace the ones that have passed. I’m regularly left with a hole that will be seemingly left unfilled forever. I suffer from a sort of melancholy that, while not totally disruptive to my life, forces me to consciously brace myself for the inevitable emotional letdown that comes after every high point in my life. And, while I am not thrilled about the melancholy that ultimately sets in with me, I know it is simply part of what makes me who I am. I like the way Herman Hesse looked at it. He said “suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.” Oh how true this is. The melancholy affords me the opportunity to look at events in my life and, while I may find sadness in the aftermath of the joy, I am able to soak in the experiences and try to absorb all of the richness and texture that they provide to my life. I am reflective and introspective by nature and melancholy only deepens the process for me.

I can recall so many times in my life feeling that emptiness that quietly followed really extraordinary experiences. I often sit in the calm that resides in the wake of the storms of excitement that leave me emotionally spent and deeply speculative. I try to fortify myself with the memories, the photos, the inevitable peace that comes from knowing that my life is full. It is colored and contoured by the mix of events, personalities and love that make up my fabric. Unfortunately, it takes a lot out of me to travel that journey from melancholy to satiation. I battle with myself over the process, often faulting myself for not just simply being happy and knowing that, right around the corner, another wonderful experience will appear. On the other hand, I like what singer Shawn Colvin says: “the indefinable space between happy and sad is the most moving and compelling place for an artist to be. If there’s anything I consistently strive for, it’s a melancholy limbo.” So much power comes from the melancholy. As I continue my journey towards vulnerability and open myself up to feeling my feelings and feeling safe with my emotions, melancholy is one that I truly need to embrace and accept rather than force away. I cannot deny who I am or how I process the events of my life and, I suppose my melancholy is simply part of that. It is raw and honest and pure. It is the childlike part of me that never wants the party to end mixed with the adult understanding that tomorrow will bring another. It is the deep connection to the love that comes from those around me and the fear that, all at once, it will disappear and I will never again be whole. It is the connection and energy that surrounds me that I simply never want to let go of.

Today I am melancholy because I have had abundance beyond belief and tomorrow and the next day and next week and next month there will be even more and I will continue to enjoy it all and miss it when it’s gone. Perhaps that cycle will never end and I will learn to accept it is just part of the cycle of life for me. Like sunrise and sunset and the tides moving in and out. Perhaps I will learn to use it powerfully or I will simply go with the ebb and flow and see it as yet another complexity of me.

KEEP BREATHING


A few months ago, I shared my discovery of mindfulness practice which was teaching me to breathe.  For a variety of reasons, recently I have not been able to make it to my weekly sessions which has surely taken a toll on me. I’ve been feeling like I am walking through life holding my breath for fear that if I actually exhale, the air I release will shrink my armor and leave me vulnerable to all of the dangers in the world.  If I simply hold my breath and not let go, I can keep myself safe and secure.  I can wrap myself up with my own arms and not let anyone get too close to penetrate my force field.

Despite all of the self-reflection and analysis I undergo, I am never sure why or how I get all bunched up inside myself.  I am not sure why it is I forget to breathe.  I am not sure why I become so afraid of the elements out in the world, worried that the potential pain is too great for me to bear.  I never notice that I have shut the door, turned the lock and swallowed the key until I realize that I am standing motionless, breathless and locked inside a really dark room.  Often, I get to that place because I feel exposed and unguarded and, while I have been bravely dipping my toe into the ocean of vulnerability, I find myself crawling away from the water’s edge to safely retreat to my locked room where I cannot get sucked into the undertow.

I am notorious for beating myself up when I feel like I am regressing.  I convince myself that all of my hard work is in vain because I will ultimately end up back in the same place I started or worse.  Except, when I get back there now, I will be tortured by the knowledge that I have seen the other side and feel angry and disappointed that I could not sustain myself.  I try to remind myself that I am a mere mortal, capable of both great success and great failure.  And that I can go on to live yet another day to and try to do better.

I was texting with a friend this morning and she was sharing some personal perspectives with me.  Something she said resonated with me and made me think about my general approach to life.  I want to be joyful.  That is one of my most pressing agenda items every day.  I want to feel joy and bring joy to others.  Of course, this is not always possible, especially when I am in pain or those I care about are in pain.  Sometimes you just need to work through that suffering with the faith that joy is somewhere around the corner.  If you continue to have the intention that joy is your objective, you will always find it but sometimes it is a longer walk or is hidden in secret corners.  You have to look harder and be more intentional.  I have shared quite frequently that I have had a major focus this year on allowing myself to be more vulnerable.  I know that some of the most extraordinary highs I have experienced of late have come from me being completely unguarded and exposed.  The rawness that often feels so excruciating can also lead to connections and joy that are unparalleled.  However, for me, the double-edged sword of this is that, because of my history and my own deep wounds, vulnerability also leaves me feeling weak and unglued and often forces me to wind myself up tighter, build cement walls to privately fall down into my rabbit hole and stop breathing.  Sometimes the walls and wind-up are invisible to most around me and sometimes I have a neon sandwich board on my chest screaming “Back Off!”  I usually notice as my feet start sliding out from under me when I am falling down the rocky cliff into the hole but rarely will I ever scream out asking for a hand, a rope to pull me up or even just someone to talk me through it as I slide down.  There is some odd comfort in the loneliness that goes along with my isolation because it feels familiar.  It is a place I recognize and I know how to behave in that space.  I don’t have to think too hard while, ironically, my mind never stops racing.  I can bottle up all the anger and pain that I have experienced throughout my life  and quietly cast it out towards the world, assured I can trust no one, especially those closest to me who love me the most.

Inevitably, because I am fortunate – really, really fortunate – I am supported and my iceberg thaws, breaking down the walls and producing a ladder for me to climb out.  As the water pools up around me from the warmth and love that envelopes me, I feel guilty and sad that I cannot just embrace the love in my life.  I feel frustrated and disappointed that I cannot allow myself to just live and love and trust.  I want to trust that those closest to me are sincere and love me despite myself.  Or believe, as they do, that, perhaps, they see something so wonderful, so magical, so worthy of love and it does not matter if I understand it.  I just need to trust it.  I try.  I really do.  Sometimes it is just really, really hard – and I do not have language to explain why.  It just is.

So, today I am trying to exhale and then remember to breathe in once more and exhale once more.  Perhaps if I just follow my breath and focus on the simple act of breathing in and out, I can forget about worrying about whether or not I can trust or am worthy and just let it all be.