The home stretch

Compassion - Kornfield

I can’t say this about very many days, but I know exactly where I was at this time on this day 21 years ago. I know because it was the day my life started to unravel. Just a little thread that day; I didn’t realize that it wasn’t easily repaired and that ultimately everything would come apart. I would lose everything that mattered to me, including a business I put heart and soul into for 5 years. I would end up in bankruptcy court and the judgment would be harsh. It would take years to recover financially, mentally and emotionally.

But that was all still a long way off on this day in 1998. That day I was starting a new job waiting tables at the Country Club. I know it was this particular Saturday because the first day I worked was on the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby that year. I was working as a waitress, serving wealthy people who came to watch the Derby and drink mint julips in the lounge with their rich friends. I think of that afternoon every year on Derby day. I’ll never forget it, for lots of reasons.

First, never in my life had people been so rude to me. I had worked in restaurants on and off since 1976, but I had never waited table. I wasn’t very good at it, and the people I was waiting on were not very understanding. It was a LONG afternoon. It sucked, but I went back the next day, and the next night and on  and on for a couple of months because I had to.

I had a business, and a client who didn’t pay on time and I was in financial turmoil. I had to do something to keep myself and the business afloat, so I took that second job at night and on weekends to bring in some cash. During the day I did client work as usual, and at 4 o’clock almost everyday I put on my uniform and sturdy shoes and went to work serving privileged and unpleasant people.

I hated every minute of that job. Every single second. The chef was a tyrant and the members were unkind and dismissive. I had one man tell me he thought I should go get a job at Burger King because that seemed to be more my pace. This after he had known me a half hour, and because I had made a mistake on his wife’s drink order. Please, just shoot me now. What would make you believe it would be okay for you to say something like that to a complete stranger? And what makes you think it’s so easy to work at Burger King, asshole? Money does strange things to people.

They were all like that. I would like to report that most people were kind, but that would not be true. With the exception of one couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and had obviously saved up for a special dinner out, every single person I waited on for the two months I was there was simply unkind and impatient at best and verbally abusive at worst. I’ve never been so happy to leave any job in my life, and I’ve had a lot of jobs.

I left after two months because I got a job at a different restaurant in town where I could make more money and where I knew a lot of the staff. It was better, and I stuck with it until Thanksgiving that year. The extra money helped and I thought I would be okay then, but the writing was on the wall and two years later I would have to admit it was there and that it was true. I closed the business and got a “real” job doing graphics work for Acme Health Services. I’m still there today, and it has been a good thing, though it has taken me a long time to see it that way.

It`s been a long road. It was hard and on any given day I would have said that I would never recover all that I lost that summer and after. But here I am, and I’m okay, and if I need money like that again I know exactly what I won’t be doing. I’m grateful for the experience though, for several reasons.

  1. It humbled me. I took the job cuz I thought it would be an quick way to make money. I never considered that I wouldn’t be good at it. As I said, I had worked in restaurants on and off for 25 years at that point, bussing tables, hostessing, and even as the bookkeeper one summer. I thought I knew everything there was to know about hectic dining rooms, eccentric staff and rude clientele. This experience opened my eyes about just how horrible human beings can be to another when they believe they are superior to someone else.
  2. It taught me that sometimes you just can’t have what you want, no matter how hard you try to get it. For a long time that made me REALLY bitter. I carried around a chip on my shoulder about that experience and the client who had done me wrong and caused me to have to go to those lengths to survive. It got too heavy, though, that chip, and I finally laid it down. I realized that it had been my naivete as much as his callousness that had gotten me in that situation. It was a valuable lesson in just how much control you have over other people (zero) and that good people don’t always do the right thing.
  3. Not having any money and the bankruptcy experience taught me so much about so many things.
    1. Failure doesn’t kill you, but if you let it, it will transform you.
    2. Poor people are not lazy or stupid. I didn’t believe this to begin with, but this experience deepened my compassion for people who are down on their luck.
    3. Not everyone is good at their job and even people who are supposed to be on your side will let you down. My attorney was late for my banktruptcy hearing, didn’t have everything with him that he was supposed to, and didn’t say a word on my behalf during the hearing. The judgment was harsh (it took 10 years for me to pay it off). After the hearing, the attorney said he hoped I had learned my lesson. I considered not paying his staggering bill, but finally decided that was not in my best interest. A year later he was dead of cancer. I had learned my lesson, but I wonder if he learned his before he died.
    4. Being forced to give up my business and take the job at Acme was one of the best things that has happened to me in my life. I didn’t see it that way for a long time, but looking back I see it very clearly now. I think I was on the right path in my business – it was the happiest and most fulfilled I’ve ever felt – but financially it wasn’t working and I wasn’t seeing that. I believe in karma, and looking back, I see that situation with my delinquent client through that lens and then it makes sense. I was getting deeper and deeper in debt (metaphors in our lives are very powerful, aren’t they? The universe is so eloquent) and I had to give up something that mattered very much to me to pay the karmic debt. The money took a lot longer, but I paid that debt, too, thanks to the stability of my job at Acme. The other things I’ve gained in the last 19 years, and the ways in which I’ve grown through my relationships there and the work we do, all tell me that I’m right where I should be, doing exactly what I should doing, even though some days it’s not what I want to be doing.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses (or mint julips), but the whole experience, beginning on that day so long ago, has been worth the pain and the struggle to survive. I wish I had been wiser and could have made those changes without the body-slam from the universe, but that’s not how it happened then, and I’m not sure it would happen any differently now, though I fancy myself as being a little wiser than that waitress in 1998.

Humans are a hard-headed, stiff-necked group, though, and I’m 100% human. I hope the next time I’m so clearly headed off-course, that the universe will steer me right once again, though a little more gently next time, please. It’s those hard come-arounds that give you whiplash and do damage to the ship. However it happens, though, I trust that there is more in store for this old girl.

I hope so. Cuz, man what a trip around the track it’s been so far!

Spare me the hearts and flowers

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Valerie Reyes.
Kelsey Berreth.
Shanann Watts.
Laci Peterson.
Lori Hacking.
Nicole Simpson.
The list goes on…

You can never really know another person. You may think you know him. He says he loves you. You love him. You’re going to live happily ever after. But…these women know:

You can never really know another person.

In 1989, I dated a man for a couple of months. He was intelligent and good-looking. He was quite a bit older than me, a gifted artist. So sensitive, so giving. Piercing blue eyes. Great sense of humor. Lots of money, but I didn’t care about that. I was a sucker for those eyes, looking straight into my soul; listening, understanding. In that short time we became very close. I thought I had found my soulmate. I was his, heart and soul. And yet, that wasn’t enough.

Several things happened that led me to become uncomfortable. My intuition told me that something wasn’t right. He called 5 or 10 times a day.  Once he locked me in his apartment, cuz “he couldn’t get through the day without me.” He was jealous of the time I spent with friends or family. He’d say it was just because he loved me so much. My dream come true – a man who loved me so much he wanted to be with me every minute.

I rationalized and justified and ignored it all away….for a while, and then I tried to discuss my increasing sense of suffocation with him…for a while. Then finally I said, I’m outta here.

He said NO. I won’t let you go. And that’s when he changed into a person I didn’t know at all. A man I had to hide from and be afraid of. A man who wanted to have me back or kill me. Either way, he said, would be fine. He just wanted to talk, he just wanted to make me see, he just wanted to love me. If he couldn’t do that, then no one else would either.

He rode around my apartment building on a motorcycle for hours one night, just circling around my building. He would call and hang up as many times as I would pick up the phone at home. He called me at work, knowing I would have to answer. He followed me. He sent me letters. He hunted me. If he could just make me see…that I had it all wrong…that this was all my fault. He just wanted to love me.

I began to believe that it was my fault. That I had brought this out in him by not trusting him, not loving him enough…something. I spent nights at friends’ houses, I didn’t drive my car. Sometimes I sat in my apartment at night in the dark and just listened to the phone ring. I didn’t call the police because 1) I didn’t think they would believe me; 2) they wouldn’t help me because it was my fault; 3) I didn’t want to ruin his life.

But he had decided to ruin mine, and in some measure he succeeded. I will never trust another man again. Now I know you can never really know another person; and anyone can change in an instant. You can be drowning before you even realize you’re in the water.

I feel such grief for all the women whose lives have been taken by men–men they trusted, men they loved, men they thought they knew. Men who put themselves first, and decided that their wives or lovers were no longer people, but simply an impediment to their own happiness, or the solution to it. Men who took it upon themselves to decide another person’s fate–a woman whose only mistake was to love and trust someone she thought she knew.

I understand that not all men are like that, and that some women are, too. I know plenty of people in wonderful relationships, and I’m happy for them. For me, however, it’s too scary to take that chance again. The media would have you believe that the most important thing is to have a romantic partner, and for most people that works out great, for others not as great, but okay.

For some, however, love is deadly. There are no fairy tales. They’re not all princes.

Be careful out there.

Dispatch from the other side

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I struggle a lot with my expectations of people. I’ve written about it here before. It’s an ongoing thing; one of the lessons I’ve grappled with since I was very young.

When I was young and people let me down, I assumed it was my fault. I thought there was something about me – I didn’t know what it was – that alienated people and I accepted that as fact. I grew up believing I was unlovable. Again, I didn’t really know why, but I took my cues from the way important people treated me – my mother, other adults, kids, and the reality that my birthmother gave me away. That seemed like proof-positive to me that I was indeed, unlovable, certainly unwanted.

I felt that way well into my 40s. Less so, perhaps, but when people treated me badly or let me down I just chalked it up to me being hard to love. I’ve lost enough friends to populate a small town. It got so it wasn’t really even a surprise anymore, just another loss. My lot in life.

My fault.

Three years of therapy and 10 years on some powerful drugs went a long way to convince me otherwise, and alleviated the depression that went along with those thoughts and feelings. I’m perhaps not the easiest person to love, but I’m not unlovable, either. No one is.

We are all worthy of love.

So now I realize that it’s not just me, but my expectations are still too high. I keep getting tripped up by them, even though I know better. Because people let each other down. That’s just what happens. As the young, mostly unhelpful, but very nice policewoman said to me last weekend:

Most people really only think about themselves.

She’s right. I would like that not to be true – about myself and other people – but I think that’s really it. It isn’t so much that we don’t care about other people – we do. In theory, and sometimes even in practice. It’s just that for the most part – for whatever reason – we don’t go out of our way for others, even people who matter to us.

Mostly.

I can think of a couple of situations in my life in which someone rose to the occasion for me and really tried to make a difference. I’d like to think I’ve done the same for others a few times, at least.

Mostly, though, we just plod along, and try to get through on our own as best we can. At least, that’s been my experience. I can think of quite literally hundreds of situations over the years in which people have let me down so completely that the thud reverberated for weeks in me. It goes the other way, too. I can think of times I let people down, especially when I was deep in the abyss of depression. No one’s perfect, and when it comes right down to it, we are all fundamentally alone.

It’s become increasingly clear to me over the years that being disappointed really has nothing to do with my friends, or co-workers or people in general; it’s all about my expectation that I should matter to anyone other than myself.

That’s the mistake I keep making. And here’s why:

I’m a people-pleaser. Always have been because of the way I grew up, mentioned above – always trying to figure out how to get people to like me/love me. Scanning every word, every movement, every expression for a hint at how to give them what they want so that maybe they’ll like me. A chameleon, changing shape and color to be pleasing to the person I was trying to connect with.

I was astonished as an adult to realize that other people don’t do that, for the most part. Some do, most don’t. No one cares what I want or need, at least not to the extent I’d like them to, even people I’m close to. They’re not trying to please me in the same way that I’m killing myself for them. While I’m knocking myself out to figure out just the right birthday or Christmas gift, or rushing to answer an email or get a card out to someone for an occasion, or worrying myself sick over why I’m not hearing from someone for a while, they’re just getting on with whatever. Not thinking about me, not worrying about me, even if they care about me. They put themselves first.

Imagine that.

I alienate people cuz I expect more than that.  I really think it’s just that simple. I kill friendships by caring too much, trying too hard. I wear people out, and I must have seemed very needy until I finally wised up. Now I think I’ve gone in the other direction, actually.

I’ve been thinking about the metaphor of the snow “wall” in my driveway (I love me a good metaphor!) and I think that’s what it represents to me – the ways in which I’m cut off from other people, mostly through my own choices and life circumstances in the last few years, but not entirely. A few people in my life have had a part in erecting that wall from their side.

Whatever.

I’m doing better at pleasing myself and worrying less about pleasing others, except when it pleases me to please someone I care about. I still get caught up in expectations, and I still get let down when I least expect it, but that’s probably just the way it’s always going to be. That’s just who I am. An idealist. And that’s what being vulnerable is all about, isn’t it? Keeping our hearts open is risky, cuz we can be hurt, but it’s also the only way to connect and heal the rifts caused by life.

It’s the only way to melt the wall. 

It won’t happen quickly, but it will happen. Life goes on. This too shall pass. We’re all just doing the best we can, including me. What’s called for is forgiveness; not blame, not anger, not shame or retribution. Just forgiveness for our broken humanness.

As with everything else, at least for me, it’s a work in progress.

Ins and outs

 

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Me (on the right) in college roughly 100 years ago.

I have never been cool. I’ve tried; but I just can’t pull it off. Not when I was a kid, not as a college student, not as a thirty-something, not now. I’m geeky, wear what I want, do what I want (currently within the bounds of my responsibilities at home), and I’m not at all interested in most of the things that American culture says I should be interested in.

In school, while other kids were passing notes and giggling about boys, I was reading every book I could get my hands on, and playing at home with my new microscope, or writing a new story or play. I put on puppet shows. My mother made me wear my hair cut very short, and she picked out my clothes until I was 14 or so.

Not good.

In high school I wrote poetry, and was on the student council. I was in the French club, and on the Drama and Debate teams. Total geek (or nerd, as we were called then). I worked and bought my own clothes, and my mother gave up on the hair thing. So I didn’t look like a loser anymore, but I still wasn’t cool.

Which is not to say I didn’t have good friends, and actually I got along okay with everybody in my class. I smoked, so there was common ground with the “burn-outs,” and my best friend was a cheerleader, so I had an “in” with the  “popular/jock” kids. True Aquarian–everybody was my friend. But I was still not cool, and I knew it. Sometimes it bothered me, sometimes it didn’t.

In college I was wild about computers and journalism. My roommate was cool, and I got a little “cool” benefit from her, but mostly I was really into school, but not really that into the social aspects of school. I didn’t have very many friends, but I didn’t really care that much. I got along okay with the girls on my floor, and later with my apartment-mates, and we had a lot of fun, but mostly I was more involved with the sort of obscure things that interested me, and not much into the things that went on around me.

My college boyfriend was a geek at heart, but was still trying really hard to be cool. Mostly we just did our geek stuff, and talked endlessly about computers and writing and how we were going to save the world from itself. But coolness was always very important to him. He was a “yuppie” before the term was even invented; and we just couldn’t bridge that gap. Ultimately we parted ways. It took me a while to get over it.

I have always been drawn to the people on the fringes. They were usually the people who were interested in the same things I was. The ones just trying to find their way; certain that there was more to life than all the superficial stuff going on around them. They accepted a lot in me that at the time was hard even for me to accept–depression and self-doubt, especially.

So I have been fortunate to know some extremely interesting and unusual people, and now I’m able to understand that they are the cool people, after all. They (and I) didn’t fit in with popular culture at any time, but that’s okay. For whatever reason, we had to make our own way, and when we were able to do it together that was great.

So, I’m a little past middle-aged now, and not worried anymore about being cool. I worry about being a decent human being and my health, and that’s pretty much it. I still have long hair and I still wear what I want, without worrying about whether I fit in. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

It’s okay either way.

Maybe people should worry about whether they fit in with me. Who knows, maybe those of us who are a little bit “out of it” are the “in-crowd” after all. Ultimately I think we’re all okay, and there’s room for us all on this great big planet. Cool or not, in or out. We’re all just us, doing the best we can, and that’s what really matters.

The thing with feathers

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Several years ago I decided to purge my closet of all the clothes that didn’t fit anymore. I had heard of a local program that helps welfare women dress for first-time job interviews – the kinds of jobs that might help them improve their financial situation. I had a bunch of clothes left over from a former life and a former body, including business suits and other suitable attire for job-interviewing. I packed them all up and took them downstairs and put them by the door to be taken away.

Every time I went out the door for months I’d walk past that box of clothes, and think, “I should take those with me and drop them off.” But I didn’t. Over and over I didn’t. So I started wondering why. I knew I’d never wear them again – at that point they were all 3 sizes too small, and the business that required me to wear them was long gone. That part of my life had ended three years prior, so why it was so hard to get rid of those clothes?

Because I had not fully accepted that that wasn’t still going to be my life. Some part of me was hanging on to the hope that it had all been a mistake; a bump in the road, and that I would have that life I loved so much again. It took a long time to come to terms with that loss.

This is not, of course, the rational part of me. It’s a part of me that says “no.” No to loss, no to powerlessness, no to reality. This is not the best part of me, but is a part nonetheless. That part of me occasionally still doesn’t understand why trying as hard as you can makes no difference. That part of me thinks life should be fair. That part of me really believes all that stuff about working hard and succeeding.

I’ve finally accepted that the reality is that you can do all that you can, have faith, work hard, believe completely that everything will work out, and still fail. I know that life is not fair. I know that life is about struggle and loss and finding joy and strength in spite of it. But there’s still a little bit of me – that part that couldn’t get rid of those clothes – that doesn’t want life to be like that.

I want life to be fair.

When I tell people about my past, I say that I lost my business. Like I don’t know where it is right now, but I’m sure it will turn up. It also implies that I really didn’t have anything to do with that loss; I was just working along and it wandered off, or maybe, was abducted by a group of marauding business stealers.

I have trouble saying that the business failed. Businesses don’t fail, people do. And so if I’m going to use that word, I have to admit that I failed, and I was no more ready to do that than I was to give up the clothes, the files, and the business cards for a long, long time. It’s still hard.

The weight of that loss – of my belief in myself, in possibility, and in the universe’s willingness to support me – was more than I could bear. So I stuck it in the closet for years. What do you do when everything you believed about yourself, other people, the world, and God all turned out to be false? How do you go on after you’ve discovered that truth about yourself, other people, and life – that you can rely on nothing, ever?

Life just is what it is – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s difficult, but no matter what you do, how you live, how hard you try, there is no guarantee. Without diluting that knowledge with drugs or alcohol, or the distractions of the world, how do we go on?

We just do. We have to. You come to rely on yourself, be true to yourself, and you just keep going. Every now and again you drag the past out of the closet and decide whether you can finally let it go, or whether you want to hang on to some things a little longer – just in case.

In between you hope. Just hope; that the world might accidentally sometimes work out like you want it to, or that you’ll become the person you need to be to keep going without stumbling when it doesn’t.

Or maybe you just hope that the sun is shining tomorrow.

Maybe that’s enough.

Welcome Christmas, come this way

I have survived the holiday marathon. I’m now panting and depleted at the finish line, but I’m here. I made it. It was sketchy there for a while – my resources were dwindling rapidly at the end – but I staggered through the tape, and now, after a few swigs of metaphorical Gatorade and a good night’s sleep, I am ready to go on. It’ll take the whole of this 4-day respite from work to completely recover, but now I know I’ll be okay, and knowing I won’t have to go through it again for another year is cause for much celebration and rejoicing.

I don’t hate Christmas. I’m not one of those people. I’m not the Grinch. I’m not even the Grinch’s distant relative. I like the music, the lights, seeing people I don’t normally see in the year. I like the presents, even, though not the greed and commercialism, but…whatever. Not my circus, not my monkeys. I like selecting just the right things for the people I care about, and I enjoy receiving gifts from the people who care about me.

I love the magic feeling of Christmas Eve, and I like Christmas Day. Christmas Eve morning I’ll listen to the broadcast of the Christmas Eve service at King’s College Cambridge, and Christmas Eve I’ll watch the service from the Vatican before I go to bed. Those two things I’ve done every year of my adult life and that continuity is important to me.

Those kinds of things – Christmas with Conniff, the record that for me is the soundtrack of Christmas; at least one viewing each of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Holiday Affair, The Bishop’s Wife, Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas; my grandmother’s little artificial Christmas tree with the little angel topper that’s as old as I am; my mother’s Santa collection, some favored Christmas tree ornaments that are two big to go on the little tree, so they hang from the mantle in between our stockings, and a little Santa holding a string of tiny Christmas lights that I’ve had since college that lights up when you touch him – help me to remember the people I loved who were here for other Christmases, and to remember who I am.

It’s that last part that’s important. I get overwhelmed by all the people and emotion of the season – all the get-togethers, the hugs, the smiling – I love it all and I love my friends and co-workers, but it wrings me out like a sponge and leaves me a little twisted and dry.  The disruption of routine is a little hard to get through, too, with mom and work and trying to get to the gym and eat properly. I’ve only been to the gym 3 times in the last two weeks. Last weekend I took a couple of long walks as the weather here was blessedly un-wintry for a couple of weeks, and that was helpful.

Exercise and writing and photography and reading are the things that fill me up, and the hard part about October, November and December is that there isn’t much time left over for any of those things because of all the hoopla. Hoopla wears me out. Not only is it just too too for me, it denies me the time to for the un- things like unwinding, and unstressing, and un-overwhelming (de-overwhelming?). Throw in the crap weather and it’s just downright challenging for my tender parts.

But here I am. Finally. It’s the Saturday before Christmas. All my shopping is long done (very short list) and all the friending is over. All the smiling, laughing, hugging, thanking, feeling is over for me. Four days of sleeping in, eating Christmas cookies, turkey and apple pie (with cheese) and drinking Irish Creme (a friend’s family recipe that I look forward to every year), watching movies, reading, playing cards, long walks (I hope), and hanging out with mom stretch ahead and I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Whatever you’re doing the next 4 days, I hope it’s wonderful and whatever you hope it to be.

Merry, Merry Christmas to you and yours.

I’ll be home for Christmas

I realized this morning that I’ve never spent Christmas eve or Christmas day anywhere other than in the living room of the house I grew up in, and that at 56, that’s a pretty remarkable thing to say. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, but there it is. My parents moved into that house in 1958 and my mother and I still live there. Though I’ve had my own home since I was in college, I have never had a family of my own, so no matter where I was living, I always came “home” for Christmas. This will be my 56th Christmas in the little house in this little northern Michigan town.

I moved back in with mom in 2012 after my father’s death in November of that year. We experienced Thanksgiving and Christmas without him for the first time. I remember Thanksgiving, but I don’t remember that Christmas. My dad was a Christmas freak and even though in the years before dementia had stolen a little bit of him each year, he was still there to celebrate with mom and me. We still put up the big tree and all the decorations, and we went to Christmas Eve mass and sang the carols and the hymns, ate cookies and opened presents. Ever since I can remember we went out to dinner on Christmas Day. The number of people at the table fluctuated over the years, but the 3 of us were always together, including that last year before he died.

Mom and I don’t do any of that anymore. We have a little tree, and a few favored decorations we put up, but it is a much more muted affair, and that’s the way we both prefer it. We don’t exchange gifts. My dad was the heart of our family’s Christmas, and it just isn’t the same without his joy in the holiday.

I don’t remember what we did that first year, or specifically how I felt, but I know it was hard.  We didn’t go to church on Christmas Eve, but we did go to dinner the following day, and I’m sure someone at the restaurant we had been going to for nearly 50 years asked us about dad, and I’m sure I said something socially acceptable about his death, but I don’t really remember any of it.

I say all the time – and it’s true – that my dad’s death was a relief; that I had lost my father to dementia years before his physical body was gone. When he died he hadn’t known my name or that I was his daughter for years. He had been my hero, my buddy, my most cherished person all my life, and though I loved him and did the best I could for him right to the end, my Daddo was lost to me, and I mourned for a long time. Before and after he died.

My grandmother had died 20 years prior to that and that nearly did me in. I was lost for a long time without her, but I survived and went on, of course. My father’s death was a different experience. I was older and better settled and as I say, it was not the father I knew who died. He had been gone a long time.

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I have wonderful memories of Christmases spent in that living room in that little house in this little town, including those spent with my mother the last 6 years. Different is not necessarily bad. There will be a time, presumably, when I will not be decorating that living room, and the little tree will be lighted in my own little house across town, or maybe in another town, and it will just be me and the cats singing carols and enjoying the lights. Will that be next year or 10 years from now? Who knows?

That’s the thing about Christmas and the New Year celebrations; they are fraught with memories of holidays past, and beckon to all that may be ahead in the coming year. So much emotion. It’s overwhelming to me sometimes. I think about my Nana and my dad and how much I miss them, and all the friends who are no longer on my Christmas list. All those memories – the good and the not-so-good – have sharp edges, and I have to be careful and remember that while it’s wonderful to remember the past, life is here and now, and that’s where my attention belongs.

Laugh and rejoice in the past, and let the tears flow. Then take a deep breath, blow my nose, and look around. This is what’s real. My mother is here now, and that’s all. This could very well be her last Christmas – or not – or it could be mine. We don’t know the future. So I owe her my love and attention in the moments we have now. That’s the best thing I can give her: my patience, understanding, and love. The past is gone. The future beckons, and will be here soon enough.

In the meantime – the nowtime – I’m going to try to appreciate fully my 56th Christmas in the living room in the little house in the little town that has been a constant in my life, fully cognizant that there may not be a 57th. And I’m going to continue to try to give my mother the gift of forgiveness, understanding and patience, and in return I hope she will offer me the same.

And when my dad’s favorite Christmas song comes on the radio – the one I could never get the harmony quite right on, but he never cared – I’ll cry a little and be grateful that I knew such a wonderful man, and think about all the fun we had together and how much I miss him.

Then I’ll sing to the next one, too. Maybe it’ll be a new one, and the harmony will be easier.

Merry Christmas.

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Much ado about nothing

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Thanksgiving was really nice. Mom and I felt like we had reclaimed the holiday (one of my favorites) after the last two years were disappointing, to say the least. Turkey sandwich for lunch yesterday, then a walk downtown to do some shopping and see the holiday parade and the tree-lighting in the park. Santa was there! Flew in from New York yesterday, apparently.  The parade was short – this is a very small town – but just as well as this is northern Michigan and it was cold. Not too bad though, considering Thanksgiving morning for the Turkey Trot it was 5°,  and there was hot chocolate and cookies to warm everyone up. Spirits were high, and  I was glad I went.

Today the resting begins. I have no plans to get dressed. We’re doing the day in the key of low, and probably tomorrow, too. To my mind, this is the best part of this weekend. I usually take this whole week off – 9 days off in a row for the price of only 3 vacation days! – but I didn’t this year, cuz I’m saving my leave time in case mom gets really ill again and I have to stay home with her for a while like last Spring. So this year I’m doing 2 days of LOTS OF THINGS! and 2 days of NOTHING!, and that’ll be good enough.

And the Nothing has started! Yay! Reading and lounging and I don’t know what else, but whatever it is it will not involve wearing pants or shoes. I will probably put up our little Christmas tree and put new batteries in the outside twinkle lights, but that’s the extent of my ambition for this dark November day. Perfect day for pancakes and a cup of tea, then soft music and reading.

That’s the plan, anyway. When mom gets up that plan could be scuttled, depending on how she feels. She has good days and bad days, and one of the hardest things for me to come to terms with in this situation is that when she has a bad day it changes everything, including whatever I had planned, and there just isn’t any  way around that. I grew up in a household controlled entirely by my mother’s health issues and here I am again.

I’m an adult now, though. I get it’s not all about me, and I’m pretty clear that I’m here for my mother and not for me. So her needs take precedence, and I just try not to hang on too tightly to my expectations, so I’m not disppointed all the time like I was when I was little. In fact, I try not to have expectations in the first place, but that’s easier said than done, for sure. I knew a guy once who was a pessimist and he said the benefit of always expecting the worse was that he was almost never disappointed and sometimes he was pleasantly surprised. 🙂

I am fundamentally an optimist, though, so I’m afraid I can’t easily stop my battered brain from hoping, but I try hard to keep an open mind and heart and just go with the flow. Not necessarily without disappointment, but without resentment, and that has made the difference. Resentment will eat you up and spit you out if you let it, and I let it for a long time, I’m sad to say. I’m older and wiser now, though, and I avoid the R-word at all costs. Therapy helped me recognize it and banish it, and I’m so deeply grateful for that. Now meditation helps keep it from sneaking up on me.

So I’ll hope that the NOTHING plan comes off without a hitch today, but if not, well, I’ll do what needs to be done. Whatever it is. That’s what I signed up for, and that’s just the way it is right now. It won’t be this way forever. Who knows where or with whom I’ll be next  Thanksgiving? There’s always the chance that this is the last Thanksgiving for my mom, or for me, for that matter. The future is not meant to be known. If it was, we wouldn’t be able to go on, would we?

Holidays mark time. Among all the non-descript days in the year they stand out in our memories. I know exactly where I was on Thanksgiving day last year, and the year before that, the years my dad and grandma were with us, and the year I had 12 people at card tables in my little kitchen and we played Uno after dinner. Unlike most of the rest of the days that just glide by in the busy-ness, holidays are special. Friends and family gather and we celebrate our human life and each other and all that’s good in the world. We witness the changes in each other in the last year, and remember those who are no longer with us.

Hopefully we spare a thought for those who are alone or homeless or who’ve suffered tragedy in the last year, too. Because holidays mark the bad years, too, sadly. They are guideposts through the year, marking our passage through the Grand Turn, our trip around the sun, for better or worse. This year we’re good, other years less so. All part of our lives, the good and the bad. There’s no avoiding either.

So Thanksgiving is over and now on to Christmas, which I’m less inclined to look forward to, but still, there are good things, and it serves as an opportunity to take stock, give thanks and celebrate life and love and the return of the Light. I’m not a Christian per se, anymore, but I’m all about the light and the Solstice and the turning of the year. When I was a practicing Episcopalian, Advent was my favorite time of year. The anticipation of light’s (and life’s) return is especially meaningful to us in the northern realms, where light and growth is scarce for much of the year.

Whatever holiday you celebrate, in whatever way you give thanks and mark time, I wish you well and I wish you much more of whatever it is you long for.

For myself today and tomorrow I’m wishing and hoping for nothing. For rest and restoration. Renewed strength for the way forward.

In my pajamas! Onward ho.

It’s not just about the turkey

Happy Thanksgiving, American friends!

Yesterday I was speaking to a co-worker whose mom passed from cancer a couple of months ago. She’s trying to wrap her head and her heart around her first holiday without her mother, and I remember that sadness and confusion well, after my dad died in 2012. He passed on November 14th, and a week later, my mom and I were alone for Thanksgiving. It was weird and it was hard that year, and for a while after, but it has stopped being weird or hard 6 years later, and I didn’t really realize that had happened until I was talking to Amy about her mom yesterday.

It happened while I wasn’t paying attention, I guess. While I was just living and getting through the days. In fact, the anniversary of his death snuck up on me this year, too. Suddenly it was November 14th and I had the thought a couple of times in the morning that the date was somehow significant – someone’s birthday, maybe? – but it didn’t really register with me until later in the day:

Ah, that was the day my father left this earth.

I had a fleeting feeling of guilt that I’d forgotten, but then I saw it in a different light: I’m living in the here and now and that’s a good thing. I’m present to my life these days, no longer dredging up the past and the Litany of Loss periodically and plunging into depression as I once did. I simply don’t have time. I miss my dad, my Nana, lots of friends, pets, even some of my younger selves, but I don’t have the luxury of wallowing in loss anymore, and I’m lucky that my brain seems to be onboard the wellness train now thanks to medication and therapy years ago, and meditation recently, so it doesn’t go there as often on its own anymore, either.

I can control what I think about for the most part, and lately I try to think about what’s right in front of me. Right now. What needs to be done? Which thing on the list of things to do at home and at work needs my attention this minute? How are the people I care about in my life right now? I don’t think so much about what (or whom) I’ve lost. I think about all that I have. Not all the time, but as much as possible, and certainly more than in the past. I try not to think about what (or who) is not present in my life right now, and focus on what and who is and what I can do for them and for myself to make things a little better.

My Litany of Loss is long. So is yours. Human life is HARD, and our emotional and mental wellbeing ultimately comes down to how well we process and carry those losses: whether we go forward, slowly at first, but always gaining ground, until at last, some of our burdens can be safely left behind, or we are so weighed down by them that we can’t go on and life in the present seems impossible.

As we age, those losses mount up, and that burden is too much to bear unless you set some (or all) of it down. I remember lots of things about my dad – good things. Lots of holidays (he loved Christmas and Halloween more than anyone I’ve ever known!), his dry sense of humor, his beautiful singing voice, love of music, and the joy he found in entertaining people. I remember how much he loved me. Those are the things that matter, and I’m grateful that I can think of him and those things without pain. In fact, that I can think about all of the losses most days without tumbling into an abyss of sadness and for that I’m deeply, deeply grateful. That change was a long time coming.

Time heals if we let it. If we just let it flow – not try to stop it or slow it down – it will wash the pain away gently and leave behind gratitude and joy. Gratitude for the experience, joy in having gained the strength to move on, to be in the moment, open to what (and who) is here for us now.

Like waves in the ocean (or Lake Michigan) – let it flow. Life is beautiful, but loss is inevitable in this human existence. We are tested over and over, learning to let go, until it is our own life we are forced to release. Until then, in the immortal words of Dory:

Just keep swimming.