Tag Archives: wisdom

What to say when someone dies

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No one really knows what to say to someone when their loved one dies.  You can say, “You’re in my thoughts and prayers,” and maybe that’s true.  Maybe you actually know what to think or pray on that person’s behalf.  Personally, I’m never sure. 

You can tell them that you’ll be there for them—that you’re their middle-of-the-night-phone-call friend, and promise to sleep with the phone near your bed.  You can write them a With Sympathy card and let Hallmark say something in lofty cursive and sign your name with love.  Or make a digital card with organ music to have a more flashy effect.  You can go to the funeral and wake and talk about all the good memories of their loved one, memorialize them with a slide show, give a toast, even ease the pain with some good jokes. 

You can bring them soup.  Bone soup, if you’ve been there.  If you know how hard it is to eat when you are in emotional triage.  It gets physical fast.  And every bite needs to hold health.

You can use social media to show support, post by post.  But do you “Like” an announcement of death?  Do you “Share” it?  Do you “Comment?”  It’s all a way of observing your friend’s loss.  But in the same place you share about what you ate for breakfast? 

You can give them books:  A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, in which the minister rages against the loss of his beloved wife, himself, his God, and Who Dies, by Stephen Levine, especially Chapter 8, where he goes deeply into Grief as an ultimate vehicle of liberation, saying, “We are dropped into the very pit of despair and longing…an initiation often encountered along the fierce journey toward freedom, spoken of in the biographies of many saints and sages.”  But most people are not open to that journey in the first place, and certainly not when their hearts are shattered into splintered shards.

The truth is, and it hurts in the worst way…that ultimately, the mourner will be alone in their grief, and who wants to say that?  Who wants to bear the news that soon…people will stop Thinking, and Praying, and Liking, and Sharing, and Commenting, and bringing soup, and sending cards and emails and books.  Even the phone calls and texts will fall away.  The unspoken reality is:  People go back to their lives and you are alone.  You are in a club that you never wanted to be in.  And that’s when you watch Renee Fleming singing “Walk On” over and over on youtube as loud as you can.  And eventually…you do.  You absorb the grief.  And you start to see the “golden sky” she’s singing about.  But you never get over your loss.  Never.222

There is the opportunity, however, to use it.  If you’re in the club, you might as well be a steady and gracious club member.  I’m in the club.  And recently, one of my dear friend’s beloved husband dropped dead out of nowhere.  She’d lost her grandparents in their old age.  No one else.  She was bereft.  She asked me to write her a list of things that would help her, based on a phone call we’d shared.  Her mind was in a triage fog, my words were helpful to her, and she wanted to remember them. 

Here is what I wrote.  I offer it to you, if you are a new member of this club.  You are not alone.  And I offer it to you if you are one of those people wondering what to Think, Pray, Say…do: 

Hello, beautiful.  I am thinking of you non-stop.  Thank you for calling on me to be in your circle at this impossible time.  I am not afraid of this, so I’m glad you called me in.  I will be there for you.  The books you asked for should be there by the end of the week.  I will write some of the points I made on the phone here, since you asked for them.  If my words on the phone were helpful, it’s only because you are open to them.  I truly hope they help.  Here is what has helped me and some of the people I know who have been through deep loss: 

  • First of all:  Breathe.  I mean it.  That’s your most important tool to stay in the present, out of fear, and to sustain yourself.  You will find yourself holding your breath.  Try to stay aware of your breath no matter what and keep breathing…in…out…in…out.  Deeply if you can.  Little sips when deep is too hard.
  • Lean into Love.  Wherever you can find it.  In your God.  In friends and family.  In yourself.  Let it hold you for now.  Call on friends and family to give you what you need.  You cannot offend anyone right now.  Let us know what you need and tell us how to give it to you.  “Bring me dinner, please.  Come sit with me.  Read to me.  Sing to me.  Rub my back.  Draw me a bath…” 
  • That said, be careful who you bring into your circle.  Stay away from people who say things like, “He’s in a better place,” or “Everything happens for a reason.”  They’re trying to help, and maybe those things are true, but right now you need people who are not afraid to hold the space for your pain.  You need to find the people who feel easy and safe and not necessarily wise.  Keep your circle small for now.  It might be that you call on people very different from the ones you habitually have in your life.
  • Make sure to eat.  Even if you want to throw up.  Please, eat.  And drink a lot of water.  You don’t want to block your natural energy flow.  Your body actually knows how to handle this immense pain.
  • Lie in bed with your feet up. 
  • Take a walk if you can, every day.  Even if it’s short.  Just get outside.
  • Take Epsom Salt baths.  Lavender oil helps.  Keep some in your purse, put a few drops on your palm, rub your hands together, then cup your hands to your nose and breathe deeply when you need grounding.
  • Write.  If you can.  Just a little bit.  If you have it in you, at some point sooner than later, it’s incredibly useful to write down your vision of what was “supposed to be.”  I heard those words come from your deepest place of sacred rage and I believe that to write that story, as fully fleshed out as possible, would be an important step in one day sending off that “supposed to be” into the sea of surrender.  So that you don’t have to hold it anymore and you can live into your future.  Letting the supposed-to-be go doesn’t mean that you do it injustice or that it no longer exists in dreams and heart.  But it’s important not to have it become armor of some sort.  It’s not time now to surrender it.  But I do believe that it would be helpful just to write it out with great details as a way to honor it.  And one day…yes, to let it go.  Writing is the most transformational and therapeutic tool I know and I think it should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of wellness.  Keep a journal by your bed.  It helps.
  • When the terrifying, claustrophobic, impossible thoughts come, do not let them multiply.  Literally put up a wall that keeps them on the other side.  They are not your friend.  There is no making sense of this loss.  Unless your thoughts are loving and forgiving and helpful, banish them.  If you have to shout “NO!” then do it.  What you let into your mind should feel and act like the very best friends and family who would never let you entertain fear, but only shower you with love.  Love yourself.  There is no thinking your way through this.  This is a time to really find what it is to just…be.  Breathe.  Breathe.  Breathe.  In out in out.
  • There is no check list right now.  There is nowhere to get.  There is no goal other than to fully live in the present moment.  You can’t skip steps with triage, grief, or healing.  Grief attacks at will, it seems.  Be gentle with yourself if you feel graceless around it.  You have to feel it to shed it.
  • Go slowly.  Be careful.  The only real wisdom I have gleaned from Grief is this:  Grief is one of our greatest teachers because it doesn’t allow for hiding places.  When we open to our sorrow, we find truth.   Your tears then, are truth.  Honor them.

That’s enough for now.  The main thing is to be gentle with yourself.  I love you so.  And the love you two shared will never ever go away.  He is Love now and he is all around you and in you.  If you can’t feel him, feel Love and you will be feeling him.

Hope that helps.  You can do this.  I am here for you.  I promise.  If only just to listen to your tears and let you know you are not alone.

Love, 

Laura

In honor of Dr. Nick Gonzalez 

205

 

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What I Learned on Career Day…

career
as featured in Huffington Post 50

Recently, I was asked to be on a panel of professionals for Career Day at a local therapeutic prep school in the Montana woods. I had no idea what to expect. I went to a prep school, but not a “therapeutic” one. I went to one that was all about having big answers to the “what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you- grow-up” question. As a dreamy, driven teen, it was a challenge that both daunted and inspired me throughout my high school career. My dreams were always out-of-the-box — an artist of some sort — an actress, maybe a film-maker … but luckily I was someone who figured out how to be comfortably in-the-box, keeping my out-of-the-box thoughts mostly to myself. So I wrote a lot. That practice turned into an obsession which turned into a craft which turned into a career. That was the goal for this Career Day: panelists were supposed to tell our stories — talk about the arc of our careers, then and now. But we weren’t talking to in-the-box kids. It turned out, we were talking, quite frankly, to our interior adolescent selves.

Given the nature of the students at this school, I knew that my story had to be as transparent and true as possible. These weren’t kids who dance to any level of BS. They’ve been through hard stuff and they don’t want the Kool-Aid. They want the raw, the real, the impossible possible.

I practiced my 15-minute presentation in the car as I drove further and further into the woods. I speak and lead retreats about the power of using my profession (writing) as a therapeutic tool, so I figured I had this one in the bag. All I needed to add to my well-developed story was the part about how I discovered that creative self-expression on the page is an excellent way to process life, and how I’ve learned to practice this every day, against the odds. How it sustains me personally, and now financially. Lesson: find out what you love and do it with all your heart, no matter what, and eventually you will succeed, whatever that means to you. I’m living proof. Easy.

The first panelist to present was a prosecuting attorney. I prepared for a serious talk from a serious person. Instead, he talked about wandering. Living in Hawaii. Surfing. Snow-boarding. Bartending. Being misunderstood. Feeling like a loser. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. And finding his way eventually to a profession that meets his needs. The second panelist was a successful web-developer with prominent clients all over the world. In his presentation, he talked about wandering. Living in New Zealand. Surfing. Skiing. Bartending. Turning down corporate America for mountain living. Worrying his parents. Wanting something different. Inventing things. When it was my turn, I found myself telling a very similar story, mostly the wanting-something-different component. Oh, and I bartended too. And wandered. And worried my parents.

We had three rotations of students who listened to our presentations, all with interesting questions, and a modicum of blank stares. These kids were listening. And we on the panel were listening to each other … three times. It’s one thing to wow a crowd with your best one-liners, cutting honesty, and slightly irreverent stories. But looking into the eyes of these kids who’ve travelled miles of hard road, there was zero room for schtick. I pride myself on heart language. Turning heart language into schtick is a depressing trajectory, but truth-be-told, it’s happened to me along the way, likely out of a self-preservation that grows from being constantly on the road, sharing your message. Given this Career Day format, there was no way it was happening here. Quite probably because of this fact, what I saw in myself and my co-panelists (we supposed “experts”) was a fountain of truth.

The first time around, we gave blow-by-blow plays on the journey of our careers. Fascinating details. Twists and turns. Yellow brick road of success with pitfalls you only admit when you’ve found your way to Oz. The second time, we three offered more — personal stuff, odd vignettes that ended up inspiring major life choices right down to a conversation on a plane and a pair of flip-flops. But before the third group of students came into the classroom, one panelist admitted, “I’ve been telling it wrong.” His eyes lit up and he offered to go first. He spoke about inventing things — got deep into what made him want to invent things and why. Which begat a confessional from the other panelist about how he didn’t always love his profession, but how he has learned to live by his principles, moment by moment. And when it was my turn, I got ready to tell my usual story — about wanting to follow my passion with all my might, even if it left me poor and unpopular … but instead, this voice escaped like it was pulling free from very old shackles:

“I wanted to be famous. Really famous. Meryl Streep famous. I was jealous of Julia Roberts. I wanted that career. I was jealous of the literary brat pack from the 80s. I wanted those careers. Desperately. But the voices inside my head were so loud: you’re not good enough, your dreams will never come true, who do you think you are to have those lofty dreams, you’re a show off, you’re self-centered, you’re not talented, you’re an embarrassment to your family, you’re a failure.” My heart pounded and my face heated, but I continued. “I’ve let my inner critic run me. Until very recently. Even though I give speeches and lead writing retreats about how to become aware of that voice and shed it, I’ve still allowed my inner critic to hold court. I don’t want that for you all.” And then privately, a very new thought brought me to my proverbial knees. And I added, “I never realized until this moment … that I’ve allowed her to be much freer than I am. She lives out-of-the-box. I’m the one still somehow in-the-box because she tells me the story, and I dance. I don’t want a story. I want to be rid of stories and just be.”

I looked at those kids and I realized: that’s what they wanted — to be free of their story. Of their pain, their pressure, their past. To free themselves of boxes altogether. And yes, to have permission to wander. And worry their parents.

I ended up staying for lunch. I sat with the students and answered more questions but mostly I listened to them. I commended them for being different and admitting it and wanting to understand themselves, truthfully. I commended them for being honest and outed for exactly where they are in their evolution. “Most of the stories we tell ourselves are myths,” I told them. “If there’s one thing to live by, it’s that. Find your truth, no matter how inconvenient, and live into it. And for what it’s worth, the “experts” are really grown-up high school kids, scared, just like you.”

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Commencement Speech– David Foster Wallace

I love this bit of genius. It’s all in how we look at things…
RIP, DFW.

Commencement, Kenyon College. 2005

(reproduced from the Wallstreet Journal)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth…

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

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Certainly Uncertain

As published on the Huffington Post, and Relationship Advice Cafe

I know my way around uncertainty. Namely in the form of marital crisis. I wrote an essay and a memoir about a particular season of my life in which my husband wanted out of the marriage. I felt that he was in a deeper crisis of self, brought on by career failure. And rather than “kick him to the curb,” as so many have told me would be their reaction, I chose to hold the space for him to get through it. I had limits. I wasn’t going to go on like that forever. But I loved him and had twenty years invested in the life we’d created together—two wonderful children, a farmhouse in Montana, a life we’d so deliberately built. I privately gave him six months and stood back while he behaved in ways that challenged me to the core. I practiced living in the present moment, focusing on what I could control and what I could create, letting go of the rest and trying not to take his actions personally. My commitment was not to suffer emotionally. This was his issue, not mine, but when you are in a marriage, the actions of your spouse are likely to ultimately affect your emotional and even physical safety, especially the overall climate of the family. It was my job to keep my children’s life as normal and safe as possible, hold down the “fort,” as it were, and communicate with them throughout. We can love and respect someone, but not necessarily love and respect their choices. Life isn’t always black and white. Crisis does not have to be your undoing. These were the concepts I tried to model for them.

It was a fine line I walked…between taking a stand for myself and my own well-being, (as well as that of my children), and giving my husband the space to work through his crisis. Three years later, things are not all tied up in a pink bow. Not at all. I don’t look at marriage like that. Marriage is about ebb and flow. And some marriages are meant to end. Mine has never been a strategy to stay married. Mine has been a philosophy about how to live your life during hard times, especially when you are dealing with rejection—something I know all too well from being a writer and dealing with the publishing world. People like to use my story as an example of how to save a marriage, but to me, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about living in the grey zone and how to cope, moment by moment.

For whatever reason, I have been given the opportunity to learn much about crisis and have often asked myself: How long is too long? When is it time to move on? Even if you still hold hope that your spouse is going to heal and come back as an equal loving partner, at what point is it taking a toll on your well-being and even your health? At what point do you model graceful endings to your children? There is no rule. There is no road map. Each marriage has its complexities and mysteries that cannot be understood from the outside. Or even sometimes from the inside. It’s a fruitless pursuit to judge that which you do not understand, even though people seem to consider it a lusty sport on the internet.
I do know this for sure: life is ever-changing, ever-evolving. Ever-uncertain. When the kids were little, it felt static. My life was measured by nap times and play dates. Now with one in high school and one in middle school, each day brings last minute “surprises”: “Mom, I just remembered, I have a soccer meeting tonight at 7:00.” There goes the roast chicken/dinner around the table fantasy. “Mom, can I spend the night at Ryan’s tonight and then go skiing tomorrow with his family?” There goes the family game night/popcorn fantasy.

It turns out that a lot of what I have built is in fact, a fantasy, or in laymen’s terms: goal-driven. And while those fantasies/goals might have been sustainable when the kids were little, they aren’t now. Everybody has their own needs now and voice them boldly…and we dance together to meet them, not always well. Life has turned into more of a democracy in our home than anything else. And there is always the knowledge that you just might get voted down. What was familiar and felt “safe” not long ago, has been replaced with surprises. Some bittersweet. I have been there for my children every step of the way. Very suddenly, that changed. The last two years I’ve been travelling, promoting my memoir and doing speaking engagements. I’ve worked a long long time for career success and on top of it, we need the money. Because I live in rural Montana, that means I can’t commute into New York City to do a reading at a library while the kids are at school, or pop up to Boston to speak at a fund-raising luncheon. It means that I am on tandem-airplanes, thousands of miles away from home and usually for at least three days. The constructs upon which I co-built this family are different now. We have been through upheaval. We have learned that upheaval is the natural course of life. It doesn’t have to be “bad” or scary or resisted. There is no such thing as the perfect family. But no matter what, we know that we love each other.

Life is ever-changing, ever-evolving. I have learned that when we accept the “groundlessness” of that, as the Tibetan Buddhist Pema Chodron says, when we breathe into it and find that there is actually comfort in the not-knowing, it’s easy to hold that space. For going slowly and not projecting into the future, worrying about the turns life might take. I read a quote recently: Something to the tune of—“if you worry about something and then it actually happens, then you’ve worried twice. And if it doesn’t happen, you’ve worried in vain.” I want to live my life like that. Not in an ode to what I had envisioned. But to what’s actually happening. Right now. In this moment. Certainly uncertain.

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Filed under Huffington Post Blog Pieces, Motherhood, My Posts

Great pearls of wisdom for writers!

The wise Bill Kenower of the free online magazine Author speaks about writing. This is vastly helpful…and beautifully pure. Check it out.

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts