Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On Suicide

She shot herself that March. At 14, whatever pain clawed inside her, my cousin believed hunting it down, releasing it with a bullet from the chamber, was her answer. Our family and her friends were left behind to grieve. We took on her hurt and let it explode in anger or confusion. Some still say she was selfish … that suicide is the most selfish thing anyone can do; but she was young and must’ve truly believed there was no end, except to create her own.

I know what it feels like to paint yourself in a tight, dark corner so when you look down, all you see are thick spirals of injured agony, a deep sadness, the abyss. You think all there is left to do is let yourself fall. You hope there will be freedom from the ache that gnaws and chews your bones. In desperation, you’re unsure if you have a heart left. And if you did – it surely would be charcoal.

The word – sadness – doesn’t cut it. It’s an all-encompassing pain that ties and wraps around your muscles and bones, pulling tighter, stringing you to the edge where you feel trapped. Alone. Without choice. Exhausted. So tired from feeling so much, that you just want it to stop. You don’t know what to do.

If you suffer from mental illness or if you don’t have the skills to cope with disappointment – the knowledge that things don’t always stay so bleak – and if you don’t talk to anyone, get help, you won’t see yourself anymore. All your bones will have been squeezed so tightly, that they become scarred and wrung out. You believe you’re crumbling. That even your skeleton won’t hold.

After she died, someone made me promise I would never do the same; I knew I wouldn’t keep it. Then I was asked when I would get back to normal, be my regular, happy self. People needed me to be happy for them, they said. 

You don’t get over someone killing themselves. It stays with you. It’s a story that belongs to those left behind. At Thanksgiving when we gather, we see photos of her on the wall. During weddings, we know she should be there. Her life was not supposed to end the way it did: She is supposed to be with us. There was much more she was meant to give to this lovely world. This beautiful world that can sometimes, yes, feel ugly.

At 17, I made a promise I intended to keep. I promised to pay attention. To recognize the dimness that others get in their eyes, the sound of cracking bones. To remember what it looks like to get that close. I promised to remember the crocus, so resilient, budding with snow kissing its petals. It survived and pushed through winter, ushered in spring. In just one afternoon, the sun can shine enough, the temperatures rise enough, to allow for new growth. That fast. That fast. Things change. Nothing, nothing, nothing stays the same. Not even an abyss. And I promised to live like that, breathing, with new perspective, noticing the smallest piece of beauty. To become a collector of moments and keep them wrapped safely in my heart.

You learn that feelings are not necessarily the truth of a matter. They ebb and flow. Wash out to the mighty sea, and are released there. Yes, you will hurt sometimes. You will experience pain that brings you to your knees. You will feel you’ve already died. Your stomach will cut you up; but after awhile, that terrible pain fades.

This is when you choose to paint over that corner you painted yourself in: and it is just a corner. It’s not the whole room, let alone the whole house or the whole neighborhood, the entire world, your life in full: It’s just a corner. There is more beyond it. Look. Step over the edge. Paint it white.

That invisible rope that has scratched you to the bone … kiss it off you. Look at your delicate mortality. You have skin. You are not desolate. You are here. You exist. You belong. There are people who love you. And sometimes, that doesn’t feel like enough. So you look in. What do you love? You know you love something. There are things you would miss if you were not here. Music. The stars. The sea. The taste of salt on your tongue. Old oaks growing and all the storms they have weathered. They didn’t stop. They kept growing and now give you oxygen.

This is the thing: You have to save yourself. You have to believe that there’s something worth it. Because there is. There is no one else like you. The world needs you. You need you.

So here you are. You’re stronger than you know. You can plant yourself, grow your own roots that spread so deep and marvelous, allowing you to stretch and bloom like a cherry tree. Sprout out from that darkness and lift your arms in the sun. Let it brush against your sweet face that is precious and rare. Put your palms out and allow it to seep in.

Life is a gift. So fragile. So miraculous. So mysterious and exquisite.

You won’t be the same. It will take time to heal, to learn new tools on how to cope with life. You’ll learn how to think differently – and that’s one of the most important things – because much of this, how you live, is in your head. You can choose how to think.

You’ll give a blessing of compassion to others because you know what it feels like to get through to the other side, that life is not black and white. (It is NOT black and white.) You will help others by not judging them – because you’ll know there is no way you have any right to judge another person. You will see despair on someone’s face when others don’t notice. You will smile at them. It may save them for one more day – and you know this. You know the kindness extended by a stranger can save a life.

Daffodils. The beach. Campfires. The smell of babies.  A loved one’s touch. The wind. Walking barefoot in the grass. A full moon. These are the things that will mesmerize you for the rest of your life. You’ll know it’s simple, really. It’s not the car you drive, the kind of house you have, the job you go to, the clothes you wear, or if you had a hard day. It’s your spirit. And it’s the things that you can rely on to always be there, these stunning little gifts of magical life. Someone’s laugh. The feel, the warmth of a forehead kiss. The smell of the earth after it rains. They ground you. Remind you what a blessing it is to live.

24 years later, we still think of her. We miss the girl who rode horses in the fog; the tough country girl who scoffed at me – another country girl – for not wanting to scale a fish. She could do it with her smile. We still ask questions. There was no note. We have coffee, talk of her, and cry. We tell our children that sometimes life is hard, but it is – in equal measure, at least – splendid and captivating. We miss her. We love her.

And the best thing I can think of to do is not just exist, but to lovereally love. To live – really live. To pay attention. Keep gratitude close by at all times, because that, truly, is what keeps our mind full of wonder. That wonder keeps us here, shining. And that’s what we’re meant to do. So shine.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They will connect you to a local mental health counselor, 24/7.  1-800-273-82551-800-273-8255

Friday, March 28, 2014

Be Who You Are

I come from a long line of women who lived life on their own terms, often choosing the unconventional over the conventional. This meant following their hearts, what they truly loved, then with a quiet fierceness, just lived.

My grandmothers, great-grandmothers – my lineage – echoes bravery in times where most were not quite so brave. One left England as a widow – her only title – to start a new life, in a new land, alone with her children, settling on Plymouth Rock. She did and her legacy was great, though her first name was never recorded. She had no husband; but she had tenacity.

My grandmothers were the calm, the grounding, in the middle of swirling volatility. In the midst of chaos, they stood quietly, in a firm knowingness of who they were. They knew when to stay. They knew when to start over. And they’d do just that.

These are the women that had their feet on the ground, even while it was shifting below. They offered a safe space, a respite for others -- and saw them through their wars; it was a circle around them that they could bring others into and place warm salves on aching hearts.

The women in my family have fires that brew beneath what looks like calm. They feel things intensely; they experience life with bolts of electricity. You see it in their loyalty, with family, in the depth of their unconditional love, in politics, their laughter, with dance, and in their ability to communicate. Mostly, you see it in their eyes: a determination to be who they are, even if it doesn’t meet the approval of society.

I see this fire in others, but often coupled with a fear of letting go. We’re afraid of what people will think of us. We worry that we’re not doing the right thing if we live our own path. We crumble at the thought of potentially hurting others and think it’s best to sacrifice ourselves, our happiness, so others don’t get burned.

Sometimes, we’ve lived so long doing what’s expected – in the way society teaches we must be in order to fit in – in taking care of others, putting our nose to the grindstone, that we lose sight of our dreams and interests. If we ignore the truth in our hearts, over time, we become numb. Or we just live life as a “Meh.” We’re OK, nothing is terribly wrong, there’s not much to complain about, but the fire has gone so dim, that we just don’t feel. We don’t hear the song in our heart anymore.

This OK for some. It might even be noble, or responsible, or smart. Most people live from a place that if you are not painfully unhappy, it’s enough. So buck up. Move on. Straighten yourself out. Get on with it. Stay super busy if you have to. Go shopping. Drink lots of wine. Work 12 hour days. Leave town as often as possible. Smoke. Eat. Watch TV until 1AM. Spend all your spare time away from home. Quiet the voice that whispers “I’m still here.” And that may be perfectly OK with you. If it is – that’s fine. That’s probably how most of us live.

Look, I’ve been there. I’ve said my loyalty and promises were more important than my – in truth – unhappiness. I felt a little stuck ... because I am loyal and take promises seriously. I wasn't about to back down from being The Woman Who Keeps Her Promises, even if it compromised my happiness (and the subsequent happiness of my marriage and family). It took the other in my life to say it was enough – for both of us – that it was time to move forward – apart – and for that, I am grateful. He allowed me the freedom to reignite the strong fire that is my heritage. To be the woman I am, truly. And he gets to be who he is, too.

See, the other choice is to live life like my grandmothers. To accept all the pieces of yourself, reclaim what makes you spark, give to others your gifts; live so you feel alive, not numb. There are those who won’t understand that you have to follow your flame; but for you, you learn that not living this way is the ultimate disloyalty: being disloyal to yourself, your own True North. For those of us with this fire, not letting it glow feels like a slow death.

My grandmothers taught me it was OK to be who I am. To be different. To follow what I know to be true for me. To live my own way … even if it doesn’t look like everyone else’s way. And that’s what I’m going to do. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Dating Again

I used to date a lot … before I got married, before there was a child. It was fun. There were interesting guys that I had interesting conversations with. There were even the few dodgy men that were – well – dodgy. Along the way, I learned which characteristics were attractive to me and which were not. When a man opened my door I smiled; but when he opened the door for an elderly person, I swooned. If he was polite to waitresses, I figured he was probably a polite guy overall. If he didn’t walk me to my car, check-in that I got home safe from driving in wintery weather (or tell me to let him know that I did),  I quickly became less interested.

The dating scene has changed and so have I. While a lot of those characteristics I discovered years ago still matter, there’s more to it now. I have a stronger sense of who I am and what I need. Life is a little complicated, too; I’ve just turned 40, am divorced, and have a child.

Dating now means more planning and less spontaneity. This probably doesn’t render excitement to the men who don’t have kids and can decide at 5pm to have dinner out that evening. In my world, babysitters need to be organized ahead of time. Part of me misses being impulsive, but I have a daughter: I have to plan.

And what’s sexy about planning? I have no answer to that. I don’t think it is sexy. Yet, if a man understands and respects my role as a mother and helps ensure that arrangements are made in advance, it’s nothing but a good thing. It takes a team effort to date when a child is in the mix; this is especially true when said child doesn’t even know momma goes on dates.

What is sexy? Confidence – knowing who you are, what you need in relationships, what you want in your life, staying on that path … and then communicating. It’s not unlike having a personal mission statement – similar to what organizations write. You’re clear and grounded in the direction you’re taking  because it’s about being true to who you are. That kind of knowing? That’s sexy. In others. In yourself.

Stepping out there in the world of singledom can feel daunting. You may wonder who will  accept you for who you are, including the choices you’ve made in the past that have led you to this point. Some guys don’t want a woman who has been divorced. Or one with a child. You’re seen as a risk. But people who understand none us have clean slates, understand that’s bullshit: you're not a risk. You're someone who was brave enough to love. I say that's better than having a closed off heart.

Despite it being a bit scary, dating can be beneficial in reminding you of what it is you need from relationships. So, it doesn’t matter whether the date turned out the way you hoped or not. What matters is what you take from it, what you learn. Perhaps he didn’t pick up the tab immediately. Or he stared just a little too long at the woman with a low-cut dress sitting at the next table. Maybe he spent the evening talking of superficial things and making fun of people. You learn something:  a bit of old fashioned chivalry goes a long way; you want a man who can’t take their eyes off you; and that meeting someone who has depth and is kind, thoughtful and not caught-up in other people’s lives indicates a level of maturity you need. 

Date fail? No. Success. It’s all in how you look at it. Moving forward, only more confidence and clarity can be gained – as long as you remember who you are and what it is you need. Set your bar high. Enjoy yourself, have fun … but don’t compromise.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Waking Up in the Middle of the Bed

It’s at night, after my daughter is tucked into bed, I turn down the lights to cuddle under a blanket, reach for the remote, and it hits: absence. I briefly acknowledge my empty sofa with a sigh. Usually, it’s just fine. Usually, I enjoy the time alone and choose whichever show I want to watch. Usually, I’m grateful for the quiet.

But not always. On evenings that I’m especially tired, I wish there was someone to wrap up with, watch TV together, have fingers run through my hair and my forehead kissed as I relax on his chest. When my toes get cold, it would be wonderful to have them held in large palms, pressed until I become warm. It’s on those nights my sofa looks incredibly large and my heart feels just a little alone.

I suppose many people who are single experience this. It took me awhile to get here, to this place, where instead of relishing in my new-found independence, I’ve begun missing the companionship and presence of a man who, while feeling vulnerable, helps you feel safe and protected.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a strong woman. I don’t need to have a man protect me; but if there is a man in my life, I do need to feel that he feels protective of me, that I ignite a desire in him to be concerned for my well-being. You know – checks on you to make sure you’re safe while traveling, holds you tightly after a long day, buys you soup when you’re sick, encourages you to eat breakfast and take care of yourself.

And I miss that. The feeling that you hold a tender, dear, affectionate space in someone’s heart. The knowing that when they feel vulnerable, when they’re having a rough day, it’s you they want, too. It’s your lap they want to lay their head in, it’s you they want to have rub their back and bring them a cup of tea or a drink. That feeling that you’ve got eachother.

So I sleep with a lot of pillows and find myself waking up in the middle of my bed, surrounded by them – little soft clouds – and feel a little less alone. A little less absence. Even if it’s just pillows. An illusion.

I’m not alone, of course. I have my sweet, fiery daughter. I have friends and family who love me, see me for who I am, and accept me. I’m fortunate and grateful. It's in the simple things I find happiness and comfort: the moon; clear, starry skies; good coffee; music; long baths. They make all the difference … most of the time.

But, there are nights I want strong arms around my shoulders and a song gently sung in my ears, lulling me safely to sleep.

Sometimes … I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the bed. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Getting Back to Yourself

When chaos hits us straight on, it’s a reminder to take a look at what’s brewing within. To see what’s shaking up inside our hearts and our minds. Usually it means change is upon us, that we’re transitioning, there are lessons to be learned, and slowing down is required to let the lessons rise.  

I’m not going to lie and say it’s comfortable to acknowledge change … let alone invite it in. It’s prickly and gives you night sweats. Makes you feel unfocused and distorted. You could ignore it if you wanted. Pretend you’re not confused and don’t notice the shifts. Eventually, it will just make louder noises though, and show up in larger ways; perhaps your health becomes affected … your relationships, your job.

The thing is – you’re learning.  When you’re taken by surprise, when you feel out of sorts, you’re learning about what scares you, what you really want, what you’ve been missing and not giving yourself for a long time, and how – maybe – you’ve changed.

As women, it’s easy to put others’ needs in front of our own. Many men do this, too, in their own way. You’re taking care of everyone else, making sure each person is happy and get what they need, but at some point, neglect the one standing alongside you the whole time: You. After awhile, you get the message – clearly – that it’s time for stillness, to adjust to change, to start taking care of yourself.

I know it’s hard – most of us have been there. You feel confused and conflicted. Things don’t make a lot of sense. Just remember to go gentle on yourself and know that despite how uncomfortable things are now, they won’t stay that way … but you have to pay attention.

During times of confusion, we need an anchor to ground us, to let us rest quietly up on the waters for awhile. To gently float upon movement, knowing we will not drift away, but that we are secured and just need a rest.

It’s OK to get tired. It’s OK to make yourself a priority, too, and allow yourself to be silent. Let your busy mind slow down and simply enjoy the water, soft and lulling. Just breathe so that you can remember what it is you need and start giving it back to yourself. Maybe it’s a class where you can express your creativity. Something physical, like yoga or belly dancing or weight lifting. Whatever it is that’s calling to you, take the time and find it. It’s about being true to yourself, finding your way back to you.

We get so busy that it’s not difficult to disconnect with ourselves. Just stop. Put that anchor down ... even if you have a lot to do. You’ll always have a lot to do.

Take a day off. Shut your door. Lock it. Languidly soak in a bath. Get a hotel room. Drive to the mountains. Swim in the ocean. Walk through a field. Go realign. It’s fine. It will be fine. It will be OK. You will be OK.

When you’re calm, when those waters aren’t so chaotic, when you no longer feel so scared, then pull that anchor up. Maybe you turn your boat in a slightly different direction – or maybe the opposite way. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s where you know you need to go. Then set off. Realigned. Renewed. Knowing what it is you need. And sail on. 

Friday, January 31, 2014

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Imagination is the seed of dreams. Allowing yourself to imagine can feel vulnerable, dangerous, risky. You put your desires out there and hope that when you blow, seeds will spread for the good of your heart, dreams will come true, and grow to protect you, keep you safe.

They don’t always, though, and that truth stings.

The thing is, sometimes we get disappointed. In others. In ourselves. Expectations don’t get met.  We imagine how a plan will turn out … only for it not to.

Disappointment slices the bone. It hurts. Sometimes “I’m disappointed” is a gentle, diplomatic way of saying I’m angry, sad, feeling rawly exposed, and now pulling away in distrust. Disappointment brings with it a kick of betrayal. Your expectations betrayed you, right?

You’ll wish you had a protective heart-shell where you could safely find respite whenever a hint of pain snaps at you. And that’s OK. It’s OK to feel let down and frustrated when things aren’t the way you envisioned. That’s called loss.

You’re left with three options: pretend you’re not hurt and get on with it; go into dark retreat; or shimmy your way into understanding and compassion. I don’t pretend and snap out of things, so won’t be talking about that one. But maybe (just maybe) when disappointment cuts deep, you actually need to go into the thick of it – where it’s dirty – so you can reach through and see the truth, the root of what’s really hurting. Once that scary process is done, you get a little clarity, and end up with compassion and understanding.  

Look, examining the dark places within isn’t a joyride, but it can be useful … if you limit your visiting hours. In fact, going there can be an act of self-care.

So, with the intention of shining light on truth, you go covert and hunker down. Shut out what’s not necessary. Others may feel uncomfortable when we go deep in our shit because, frankly, most people will do whatever it takes to not face their hurt, so won’t understand why you would. They want to give you a quick fix – a bottle of wine and a night out – to make it all better. It doesn’t matter. Do it your way. It’s not their story. They don’t have to understand.

Those of us who have braved our lurky moments know it’s never completely dark, even though it may sometimes feel that way. We can’t go it all alone, though. It helps to have a person you trust enough to show the ugliness to. Someone who will listen to you through the snot and belly tears, someone you can speak your monster voices (self-doubt) to, someone that reminds you who you really are -- and when they speak, you hear them above those inner roars.

It’s scary facing those ugly, monster voices that speak lies about you. They shake you up; part of us believes those voices. You know: “I’m not good enough.” “I’m a failure.” “I’m a loser.” “I mess everything up.” “I hurt everyone.”

Those voices speak in absolutes. Extremes. They push you up against a wall with blunt hammer lies, threatening you not to question them. They bully. And bullies don’t tell the whole truth. When you’re smacked over the head with extremes and absolutes, there’s no room for truth -- and that’s where you find love, compassion, and understanding. For others and for yourself.

Acknowledging the bullying voices acknowledges their power, while at the same time, diffuses it. The trick is to courageously wade through the sludge without getting stuck and look honestly at your part – the part you’re responsible for – in your pain. Not exactly fun.

A friend recently called me on my shit and said that my negative self-talk was not true, but that I may need to look at some of the choices I’ve made. Look for patterns. Then stop repeating them. Gulp. This is the responsibility I’m talking about: looking at the bare truth.

This isn’t mean-spirited responsibility. It’s a mirror that reaches behind the monster voices. One that reflects all the beauty and goodness about you, while exposing the frayed edges. We’re not damaged goods, nor are we perfect. You see your role and observe the whole picture … wrapped in clarity and kindness. This is when you ask yourself some hard questions, like what it is you really want and need. Then make choices.  

When you get hurt – especially enough to make all your self-doubts rise – there’s a reason. Life is telling you something. Waking you up. I go to the mud intentionally, knowing that though it’s a little self-indulgent, it’s ultimately for my own good. I let myself wallow (we all do), but limit my time there and then start seeking the purpose, the lesson I need to learn. That gives me a guiding light, a rope, to pull myself out. 

The reward for going through the dark? The light: compassion for yourself and others. A big reminder that we’re doing the best we can, even if expectations aren’t met. It’s not easy to adjust our expectations of self or others, but it’s necessary or disappointment will keep circling us like a hungry vulture. We have to look at what we are capable of, what others are capable of … without rose-tinted glasses: then love others exactly in their imperfection; but be sure to practice that love on yourself, too, and make the changes you need to reach what it is you want.

Usually the message is similar: love and trust yourself like you love others. Then go imagine something different, and let it grow.