Friday, October 07, 2016

5 Years: Onward

Why do multiples of 5 get so much attention? The silver anniversary is 25 years; the golden, 50. Pins are given for 5, 10, 15 years of service. Multiples of 5 feel more like a milestone. A beginning runner may feel good about running 2 miles, though finishing a 5K is that first big accomplishment.

Tomorrow is the 5 year anniversary of Ed's death. And, it’s on a Saturday: the same day of the week he died. So, this October 8 is particularly poignant. This is the first year I feel like we're starting to come out the other side, like we've crossed a threshold.  I have more fortitude and bandwidth to carve a new life: skills five years in the making. This is the first year I actually remembered more than a week out to take time off from work in the days leading up to the 8th, to have the conversation with Jack about which day he should take off from school to sleep and recover. Sometimes I think I am a slow learner that it has taken this long to see ahead and plan for this time. Other times, I am amazed that it has only taken five years to better see and plan for what’s ahead of us.

Gretchen Schmelzer, whose blog posts more often than not resonate deeply on trauma, posted earlier this week Finding a Way Forward When the Path isn’t Clear. She wrote about cairns when hiking foggy paths:

I saw my first cairns hiking in the White Mountains when I was a teenager. On the first day, in the bright sunlight of a summer day the cairns looked totally unnecessary—the trail ahead was obvious; it looked like there was no need of a giant pile of stones every 20 yards to mark the way. But when I woke up the next day to fog and rain—and I couldn’t see more than 25 feet in front of me—then the purpose of the cairns shines bright and clear—they are beacons. The cairns were the only possible way forward. Our group traveled for two whole days above the tree line on that trip only ever seeing the way to the next cairn. And that summer I learned this amazing lesson that you don’t have to be able to see the whole trail ahead of you in order to keep going—you just need to be able to see to the next cairn.

Until my husband and father of my children died, I didn’t realize how much of my/our life’s path had been carved for me and us. When were creating our life, we were working really hard to create what we thought was a new path, chopping down the forest growth, stomping the plants beneath us, inch by inch by inch. We had long talks about what values we wanted to adopt (and decline) from our families, friends and movies, books: the values of facing challenges head on; being honest and genuine with one another, allowing for what felt genuine to change and evolve; education and critical thinking; taking risks; being true to self. The tough decisions we made were based on those talks and values, challenging choices that felt unique to us. More and more, though, I am acutely aware of how much assistance we had on that path: our privilege, the fact that we were partners in the task, and all the examples readily available to observe and learn from. Even though it was scarry at the time, we weren't the first to choose advanced education over immediate security. I realize how much easier it was to have multiple examples that worked within the framework of our own relatively familiar and traditional lifestyle.

I understand that creating and navigating the path of a single working widow with children is nothing new. I know I’m not alone on this path nor entirely creating it myself. And, I am profoundly aware of how lucky I am to have the resources, support and circumstances to move forward, even if there are still times when I feel cheated that those have been cut in half. It is also harder to find examples; the most I can usually do is look for examples and say “nope, that’s not me, that’s not us.” I’m 42 years old, and defining relationships I couldn’t have ever imagined, approaching work in ways I never thought I would, parenting differently than I could have seen-- all the result of adapting to this new framework. The tough work in creating this new path is in striking away the noise, the overgrown expectations, the implicit and often inaccurate desires without a clear goal or destination. In so many ways, the world has opened up; the possibilities are limitless because I don't have as many ready examples; often, though, I am untethered and uncertain, anxious to find my footing, realizing the need to create my own example.

Remember in the movie, Inside Out, when Riley’s sad and happy emotions finally allowed themselves to  blend together into something new: something nostalgic, nuanced and rich? That was the brilliance of the film, right?  It made a complexity simple without losing the truth of the complexity. The film’s popularity is in how much that moment resonated with people everywhere. Part of this new path is recognizing, accepting and finding value in the strange, new concoction of emotions that comes with grief, highlighted this time of year. There’s mix of resentment and possibility, of rage and gratefulness -- a formerly unfamiliar blend of beautifully nuanced emotions. For example, I quickly and easily recognize couples who have a true bond because I am lucky enough to have known it. I want to get inside their souls and show them how much they have to cherish… and many of them do know, they get a hint of the miracle of intimacy in between the slog of daily life; though, I so want to infuse a sense of that into every minute of their lives: particularly in those mundane, repetitive, seemingly routine moments.  At the same time, I feel wordless rage for some of those bonds. Because we were four days short of our 15 year anniversary when Ed collapased, I can celebrate all wedding anniversaries except for 15. Good luck to you all, but fuck the universe for taking 15 years away from me and Ed. This year would have been 20. Damn multiples of 5.

The accomplishment of five years is recognizing the new ground beneath our feet. It’s a small patch of the path, but it’s all ours. The destination isn’t clear: that’s the main difference from before when Ed & I could more clearly paint a picture of what we wanted our life to look like. These days, I am feeling my way through: paying closer attention to moving towards what resonates, and away from what doesn’t. I am more comfortable waiting to figure out what is right for us even if it isn't clear, and I have more courage to step away from what isn't quite right even though I don't always know which way to go once I step back.

For example, for a while--about three and a half years, I was blindly focused on finding someone to fill Ed's void. At the same time I knew no one could take his place, I also wanted someone to share and create a life with, to be another adult presence in my kids' lives. It took four years to realize that in redefining the love and security of our family of three, and leaning on people around us in ways I never had to before, I no longer have a void to fill. Sounds positive, right? I guess so, but it also means that my life will never, ever look like it did. Which would be fine, I guess, if I didn't really love that life. By focusing on the value Ed & I cherished of creating an authentic life, I have to let go of that traditional, fabulous and fulfilling life we had. I don't know if I will find that fulfillment again-- whatever form it takes. And, I don't have the same need to find it; it's more that I'll be pleansantly surprised if I do, like coming upon a clearing of wildflowers. After five years of forging a new path, step by step, there's no urgent need to know what it looks like. There's also an awareness I may not find it. Laura of 2010 would find that incredibly depressing. I'm now indifferent. Go figure.

Tomorrow we: me, Jack, Reese, family, and friends will celebrate Ed, we will celebrate surviving without him, we will cherish the richness he brought to our lives. I don’t think about Ed, the person, much. It’s still way too painful. But, I think all the time about living intentionally. That’s all Ed. I think about the people in his life, what their faces look like when they talk about Ed or how their faces lit up when talking with him. I recognize the genetic markers in his incredible children. These are my cairns.

Friday, November 20, 2015


Dumb Ways to Die was one of the summer hits for my kids. If you didn't know the lyrics, you would think it was a lovely tune, one perfect for whistling. The tune was only one of the reasons they loved the song; they preferred singing lyrics that explained less than ideal ways to cash in one's chips, including: "use your private parts as piranha bate" and "scratch a drug dealer's brand new ride." I enjoyed their thorough enjoyment of the contrast of tune and message.

This week Reese had her cast removed. She broke her arm at the end of September falling from the monkey bars. At one point in the emergency room, Jack turned to me and voiced what I'd been thinking: that it was only a matter of time before the monkey broke a bone. Much like when she cut her own hair or when she takes my car without asking not too long from now, my initial response was a "check that one off the list."

The same day Reese got her cast off, I took our cat, Max, to the vet. Since we returned from a trip away last weekend with friends, he hasn't been himself. He's wobbly, not eating and not getting to his cat box. He would only sleep in the bathroom on the heated floors.

Max is fabulous. Everyone who meets him who has any sort of pet or cat appreciation comments on his markings, or his big, amazing eyes. Ed and I got Max about a year into our marriage, in 1997 (or 1998, not sure). The first winter we had Max he got a virus. I was working in North Seattle, a two hour drive from home. We were both working in jobs just out of college and not making much money. Ed was so worried, he told the vet to do whatever was needed to figure out what was wrong. He called me at work to let me know he spent $300 on tests, about 2/3 of our monthly grocery budget, and later told me it was totally worth it to make sure he was okay. It was one of our first parenting conversations.

Since then, Max moved everywhere with us, including a road trip across the country. At one point, Max thought it would be a good idea to escape the car onto the Chicago streets. Ed played frogger to get him back safely. When we were looking for a place to live in Bellingham for graduate school, we couldn't find anywhere that took cats. Ed was so annoyed, he started listing folks who could take Max for us. I said no way. I am pretty sure I had a similar conversation when Reese wouldn't stop crying for six weeks when a baby. That time, it was Ed who convinced me to keep the kid.

Max is a neat cat, doesn't put up with any shit, is friendly with everyone (often a little pushy for attention), enjoys the outdoors, was pretty crazy in his youth (climbing the screen door and meowing to get outside before we gave in and let him be an outdoor cat), and knows how to settle in for a good snuggle purr; his presence melts away all the other crazy and there's just solid love there. In some ways, I think Max prepared me for Reese.

In the last few years, Max has become Jack's cat. He sleeps under the blankets, right next to him. Max greets Jack after school, and looks to him for attention and food. In the morning, no matter how much I'm yelling about how late we are getting out the door, Jack will take at least two minutes to sit next to Max, snuggle, say goodbye and tell him he'll see him after school.

One the way home from cast removal, we landed on a discussion about the day Ed died. Every now and then we talk about the details of that unforgettable Saturday. I think Jack does it to remember and Reese does it to have the memory. We don't get sad when we talk about it; there is a kind of bonding in talking about the day, or a kind of  "wow that happened, and look, we're still standing." After discussing the details, Jack reminded us that Ed died surrounded by people who loved him. At the same moment I remembered how lucky Ed was to have died quickly, unlikely to have felt any pain, Reese said, matter of factly, "Well, that's definitely NOT a dumb way to die." Indeed.

The vet let us know that Max's body is shutting down. His kidneys are failing and it is impacting the rest of his functions. His body temperature was pretty low when I first took him in and he was dehydrated. We brought him back to the vet for a day of fluids to see if that would make a difference. They were able to warm him up. The vet said Max might perk up, though it's pretty clear his days are limited.

We've been holding vigil the last two days. I am so grateful that I had planned to work from home this morning to wait for the heater maintenance person because it meant I could work near Max. Now that the weekend is here, we can be with him every minute.

I'm surprised at how hard this is for me. I am normally somewhat insensitive about pets. In fact, I can be downright judgmental about how much effort some people will go to for their pets. I've always been clear: people first, then pets. It doesn't help that one of the guys I dated after Ed died, who was flying out of town to visit his dying dog at his ex's house, expressed that I wouldn't understand how hard the trip was, because, he said, and I quote, "you don't know what it's like to lose a dog." We broke up shortly after.

I don't know what it is: maybe it's because Max is one of the only things in my day to day life that connects me to those early days with Ed, and with my emerging adulthood. Maybe it's because I know how hard this will be for Jack, who has never not had Max in his life. Maybe it's because Max has lived through everything, spent way more than his nine lives, and was still trucking along just great. Maybe I just really love him and hate that he's about to leave us.

The three of us sat down around Max tonight and made the decision to take him in to be put to sleep this weekend. Jack doesn't want Max to be in any pain. I am continually amazed at Jack's selflessness.  Tonight, we're going hold him close in a blanket to keep him warm because he's starting to feel cold again.

I keep thinking about Reese's observation. Definitely not a dumb way to die, to be surrounded by those who love you.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Holiday Grab Bag

Every year I start my Christmas cards a little earlier. It’s part of giving in completely to that roller coaster ride that is the holidays: the waves of joy and despair ridden the last two months of the year. This year, I have two designs ready to choose from; all set to order before the coupon code expires. I’m more prepared this year. I have a grab bag of tricks to pull from to make sure we all come out unscathed. Or, with fewer bandages anyway.

Trick one: Get out. The kids and I find our groove with retreat and adventure in equal measure. Adventure means getting lost in the city and letting the day unfold, to return home late and sleep in the next day. A few weeks ago, we ended up at the bowling alley, unplanned, on a Friday night. They still talk about how much fun that was. I'm pretty sure the spontaneity was as much if not more fun than the actual bowling.

Trick two: Borrow Momastery’s goal to complete the shopping by December 1st. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this idea. We’re also adapting the approach to presents: one need, one want, one read, one wear, one give.

Trick three: Make it a game. This comes from Martha Beck. As adept as I can be at stepping outside a situation to observe so as to avoid losing my shit, I have yet to turn observations into a game. Beck’s game is a Holiday Bingo.

The other day, on the way home from the second soccer game of the day, I asked Jack (for the fifth time in a day) if he had found his toothbrush. The Sonicare toothbrush that is less than a few months old. He said he hadn’t. I asked Reese if she was ready for a bath. She wasn’t. They both hollered at me; I hollered at them. Then we were silent.

A moment later, I noted, from an outsider’s point of view, how goofy it was that I was getting yelled at for trying to parent --to help the kids take care of themselves---and how I’d really rather not have to deal with that anyway. Jack thought that was hysterical. He chuckled the rest of the way home, mumbling to himself “getting in trouble for having to parent stuff you don’t want to…”

“Moments that highlight the ridiculous” for 200….

Holiday Jeopardy.

Arms up!

Monday, October 05, 2015

Four Years

At 5:30 AM this morning, I went for a walk in the neighborhood. The stars and moon were as bright as they could be for city dwelling. I came back and other than a minor pain fest trying to change Reese’s earrings (“hold still, babe, I just need to poke through to the back of your ear..”) we were able to eat breakfast together and get out the door on time. Work was mix of getting things done, moving things forward, answering emails and feeling productive. I came home by 5:30 PM to receive a “no issues” report from the nanny while I was polishing off side dishes for the roast I had started in the crock pot this morning. The kids and I sat together at the dinner table, everyone ate (nearly) everything on their plate and I connected with each kid about their day, and then homework after dinner. Aside from the fruit flies that landed in my Pinot at dinner, I’d give the day a solid A.  Even traffic home from downtown was a breeze with the Seahawks playing at home for Monday night football. Somehow the stars, moods, emotional resources and planning rendered a full and good day.

I am not bragging. I didn’t post a picture of my dinner plate on social media (though I thought about it). This “no issues” day, one that borders on good where all aspects not only run smoothly, but in many cases, are somewhat enjoyable---happens approximately once a season, if that.

For the last four years, the kids and I have put in our 10,000 hours (or more) redefining what defines a good day. And, if recent days were any prediction of what this Monday would look like three days before the fourth anniversary of Ed’s death, I would have expected October 5th to be a full on shit show. I have been showing all the familiar signs of seasonal grief: irritability, exhaustion, impatience, cravings for alone time only to crave company when I’m finally alone.

I re-watched an episode of Elementary this weekend while working on a fundraising project for the kids’ school. “The Eternity Injection” was one of those episodes that sneak up, particularly one scene where Sherlock (the wonderful Jonny Lee Miller) articulates the tedium of maintaining sobriety. The first time I watched the episode, I was in the thick of a many month long battle just to get through each day. Sherlock’s monologue was a salve on my unnamed reality, one so familiar I couldn’t see it anymore. It gave me language to tell a chapter of my story. Not much helps more than the ability to tell one’s story. It’s my best therapy.

I highly recommend that the monologue be watched: it’s on Hulu: Episode 3, Season 9, around 27 minutes. Miller executes the words perfectly, so much so, that I hesitate re-typing them here because they lose their impact in printed form. It captures well the reality of grinding out a new life being sober; for me, it's a new life in the wake of the death of my spouse and children’s father.

Here’s the monologue:
If you must know, Watson, I've been feeling a little bit down of late. It's the process of maintaining my sobriety. It's repetitive. And it's relentless. And above all, it's tedious. When I left rehab, I... I accepted your influence, I committed to my recovery. And now, two years in, I find myself asking, 'is this it?' My sobriety is simply a grind. It's just this leaky faucet that requires constant maintenance, and in return offers only not to drip.

Here’s what I heard/felt:
I've been feeling a little bit down of late. It's the process of maintaining my life without Ed. It's repetitive. And it's relentless. And above all, it's tedious. When Ed died, I committed to continuing our life. And now, four years in, I find myself asking, 'is this it?' My grief is simply a grind. It's just this leaky faucet that requires constant maintenance, and in return offers only not to drip.

My “leaky faucet” is figuring out how to take care of basics; and by basics, I mean keeping the house running, doing a good enough job at work and as a parent to avoid despair, reading most of the school emails, putting basics on hold to be the “fun” parent even when I am in no mood.  I have long since given up on my previous life’s notion of more than a few minutes of time to myself each day or being able to ask the question “what should we do today” because the to-do list is relentless. I no longer have expectations for any sort of social life that I used to strive for after having children. Working out is akin to dessert: a rare treat. What makes the fourth year different than the third? Last year, this list would have been a list of complaints. This year, it’s a list of acceptance. With acceptance, good days are being redefined.

A good day is when I don’t notice there’s a fixed faucet. Like today. A “normal” day that, when good, doesn’t automatically remind me of what once was. Or when the daily grind doesn’t feel like a grind. Don’t get me wrong, I have tremendous gratitude for all that I have, mostly for my kids and the people we care about and who clearly care about us. I am acutely aware that I am in a stable social and financial situation; I can't imagine being a widow in the majority of the places on earth, including some in this country. But, it’s not like a pie of emotion: a big fat slice of gratitude doesn’t take up the grief pieces; they coexist.

I am grateful that the outward toll of grief shows itself less regularly, more so with each passing year (which could mean I’m learning to manage it all better): I notice it when it appears, which means, thank God, that it disappears for longer periods of time. I am grateful that I’ve learned what usually works for me and the kids around critical days and times. For example, I have discovered that vacations are like relationships: they should not be used to make one feel better; they are much better enjoyed when you’re in a good place (I will save a LOT of money not traveling at Christmas). I’m grateful that one of my strengths has gotten stronger: the ability to adapt and improvise in almost any situation.

And, I am grateful for this day. It was a good day. I have no idea what tomorrow will be like, or the day before the fourth anniversary of Ed’s death. And, that's okay. My kids and I are slowly learning that nothing is permanent, for good or bad. And, the good days return.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fall In

This Saturday morning, in an attempt to wake up energized, I listened to a TED talk by Lean In’s Sheryl Sandberg, given before her husband died. She talked about how she was once offered a promotion, but turned it down because she didn’t think she could do it. She thought more about it, decided to take the promotion, went home, and, in her words, “gave her husband the grocery list.”

I went back to sleep.

Earlier this year, about six months ago, I asked for more help at work. My boss, who was new, had been working 12 hour days to stay on top of the work needed to be done. Because I am the only parent of my two children, 12 hour paid work days are not possible- mostly because I’m working at least that (and not being paid) for the other waking hours. I got to the point where I was tired of feeling bad about what couldn’t get done; I finally figured out that it wasn’t that I was an ineffective worker; the job was nuts. This was a significant hurdle in my career and life: to distinguish a situation from my capabilities. I am still learning this.  I continued to work even when the additional position I requested was not approved. I eventually hit a wall of exhaustion, walked into the Vice President’s office and said I needed to leave my position.

The night before I knew I was going to resign, I had the thought that what I was about to do was incredibly brave or stupid. As the sole breadwinner of our family, it was easy to see my decision as foolish: I was going to put my family, my children, in financial risk. Yes, I did have a full time, tenured teaching job to “fall back” on, but one that would lower my annual salary by 20%. I knew I’d be facing big decisions about where we lived, where the kids went to school, how we lived our life. I didn’t know exactly how I would make it work, or what exactly would change. Despite the risk and potential stupidity, I only knew something needed to change and it started with work.

Sheryl Sandberg reflected in her TED talk about how she never talked about being a woman in business. Implicit in her discussion is what I suspect all women still wrestle with professionally and personally, consciously or subconsciously: that by stating our gender difference we are in a vulnerable position to be seen as less than. HOW DOES THIS STILL HAPPEN!!?!

Six months later, I have accepted a promotion. My boss ended up giving his three week notice, left on my tentative last day, and the college responded by giving the division what it needed: another position. I took my boss’s job, and waited for the hiring of my replacement and the new position, and I have been doing pretty much all  three for six weeks, with a few weeks more before the new people start. This is not what I pictured when I walked into the Vice President’s office in late spring. I thought by now I would be re-grouping, preparing for classes, picking up my kids from school, coupon clipping and breathing out regularly.

Just this week I had the thought, maybe it’s not possible that a widow with two children could be head of division. Maybe it’s silly for me to group myself into the women who can take a promotion because they have a partner to share the load. I STILL REFUSE TO ACCEPT THIS. And, yet, after a particularly rough week, I lost it. A parent of a student came in to let me know how unfair a situation was. The father said some particularly cruel things to me. I didn’t have the resources to step outside his words. I fell back into the mindset that it was me failing the situation, not the situation failing me. In an attempt to appeal to his humanity, I explained the challenge in our division, the transition we were in, that things aren’t able to be attended to in the timely matter they should. I acknowledged that it was an excuse, but it was also the reality. As I was I saying it, I realized the excuse didn’t matter. It sounded weak. Which must mean that I am weak (HOW DOES THAT THINKING STILL HAPPEN?!)

The parent left and I was a mess. I cried. At work. I shut the door and sobbed. At work.

I talked to a colleague and friend and relayed my biggest fear and frustration: because I am the only parent, it is that much more critical that I do what I can do make the amount of two parents, but it is because I am the only parent that I am less likely to be able to do the work required of the jobs given to men and women who have a partner at home to do the grocery shopping.

Of course, grocery shopping is just the logistics. What I miss most about not having my partner is the processing and support. When I walk in the door at home, I am still “on” -- I am holding it together for my kids. I go from boss to mom, employing an adjusted version of what happens at work: setting the tone, being calm, facilitating, negotiating, doing by best to be reliable, consistent and responsible. And, as much as I still crave it, I can barely remember what it’s like to come home after a particularly rough day to a familiar face who reads my exhaustion, or me his, and turn it up a notch: kick in the unconditional love, listen fully without judgment and with support, and let the other fall in and crumble a bit. More likely, neither of us would get to that complete state of exhaustion because there would be just enough give and take each day between us to adjust either emotionally or domestically to the other, to lean on one another just enough to get our footing back again.

Fall quarter at my school starts in two weeks. The kids are two weeks into their school year. The leaves are starting to change and the air is getting crisp. We are less than one month away from the fourth anniversary of my husband’s death. I am reminded of how far we’ve come. I am also wondering what it means for us to be whole, what it means for me to be whole. Most days I go back and forth between absolute gratitude and grumpiness. And so it (this life) goes.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 to 2015

Like many others who are fortunate to enjoy a low-key new year's day, I am reflecting a bit on the transition from 2014 to 2015. I remember a short, yet wonderful conversation I had with Jack on a Christmas Eve drive into the city.

Jack: There are extra DUI patrols out this time of year.
Me: Yup.
Silence as I wonder why he pointed that out….
Me: You know, people often drink more during the holidays. As good a time it is for some, it can be just that bad for others.
Jack: Uh huh.
Me: Drinking can be celebratory or used it to escape or numb emotions.
Jack: Looking directly at me: But, we’re mostly celebratory, right?

This moment, by far, was the best part of a somewhat challenging Christmas. I’ll do my best to explain what made the conversation so meaningful.

It all started on Ed’s birthday, which is the week before Christmas. As much as I try to tell myself to be strong and not feel like crap, there are days where all the mental toughness in the world is worthless. The grief barrels through like a globally warmed hurricane. Tears fall down my face no matter what I’m doing (taking notes at a meeting or talking on the phone to an upset student who has no idea how grateful I am to have the details of the injustice of her math grade to focus on). I have to decide between allowing bitter burbs to erupt throughout the day or save it all for one loud resentful belch all over my kids at the end of the day. Instead of giving into such a depressing dichotomy,  I emailed a few friends to express how bad I was feeling. The response-- as is always the case when I reach out honestly, openly and without expectation-- was full throttle support, empathy and love.

Nicole, from Portland, gave me permission to give Reese a mop and tell her to clean the bathroom the next time she called me Miss Hannigan (which she did that morning).

Another friend, who juggles running her own business with her home/wife/mother/friend realities, gave me this amazing paragraph:

There is something about this time of year that just invites commercial grade stress into the mix on top of an already stressful life and I feel like throwing my hands up and waving a white flag. Then going offline and smashing my phone and speaking to no one. But then we still have to deal with our kids. "When are we going to make gingerbread houses mom?" (in my head: never, we don't have time for that shit this year) in real life: Maybe over Christmas break! "The advent calendar is broken mom!" (me: in my head: Who the hell cares, we don't have time for that shit). "I don't have any clean underwear mom!" (me in my head: go do the goddamn laundry yourself then. Or grab your brother’s underwear or the ones on the floor from last night, that you NEVER put in the dirty laundry bin 2 feet from your face. I don't have time for this shit. I have a company to run.) " I don't want to go to church today at school today mom!" ( the hell you don’t. You are going because I have 3 meetings today and can't cancel and someone has to go and talk to God and represent this family because I sure as hell am not her, and I don't have time for this shit!) oh, but I do love you; you are just making my life insanely hard right now. I am a Hannigan too, much more often than I like to admit.

I have read this paragraph multiple times, comforted by how much it mirrored my own sentiments. And, the line about someone representing the family at church, well that is just brilliant and hilarious.

This Christmas was harder than any other mostly because it was my “no” Christmas. 2014 focused on establishing boundaries, which meant saying no to activities, traditions, feelings and anything else that I simply no longer have the energy for. Maybe I’m finally growing up, or maybe this what happens after 40, but the last year was all about recognizing where the line is, being comfortable about where it is and not worrying so much about what others might think and/or how our lines may overlap or contradict. To both recognize the line AND be fine with where it is has been a slow epiphany. The world looks different and the emotional refrain is now mostly acceptance rather than should.

Over the last six months, I paid careful attention to cutting out unnecessary mental or emotional work. I determined what was necessary and when I found myself overwhelmed or overstepping what I knew was too much, I pulled back, damn the consequences. This meant not living up to all those family, friend and work expectations: both real and perceived. I gave them up as best I could. For example, I was invited to a handful of holiday parties. My cup overflowed with just how lovely it felt to be invited. In the past, I would have spent a lot of time figuring out child care, outfits, and giving up other holiday chores so I didn't have to say no and explain why I seemed to be refusing kindness. I really wish I could go to every party. The truth is it's not possible. For lots of reasons, reasons everyone has for not attending parties- the ones they write in the RSVP and the reasons they may not say. One of the reasons I don’t explain is financial. One Christmas party costs between $60-$80 just for babysitting alone.  That adds up quickly after the mini mortgage that is my monthly childcare bill. Not to mention the time it takes to find coverage this time of year. Also, this ugly Christmas sweater trend is getting a little out of hand. As a middle-aged single parent who looks haggard at best on most days during the week, the last thing I want to do is look purposely ugly or ridiculous. But, I don’t explain this. I just trust the invitation for what it is: an open invitation without expectation. I mean it when I say, no, thank you.

Drawing the line and holding it takes discipline and practice, particularly when not explaining my reasons. Reasons are easily heard as excuses and excuses blur authenticity. The shifts are subtle, if significant. In accepting my own parameters, I better accept everyone else’s. Interactions are more authentic. I know, without a doubt, that I was able to reach out to my friends as honestly as I did on Ed’s birthday in part because I wasn’t spending time explaining myself everywhere else.  

Extra time, normally a welcome gift, was challenging, too. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I landed upon Christmas week, having established boundaries for how much I could drive or deck the halls, that without work, school and ALL the extra stuff, that I was alone, with my kids. Alone to feel the familiar absence. Alone to realize I was moving towards living Anne Lamott’s quote that "what you are looking for is already inside you."  Apparently, I had to empty my life a bit, live the blank canvas of "no's" to begin to see what might be inside and worth exploring.

Of course, no one said charting your own course is easy. I mostly wanted to curl up in a ball, toss my phone next to my friend's broken advent calendar and speak to no one, including my kids. I would lie in bed in the mornings, wondering how long I could wallow before I’d be swallowed up by depression. But, then, I’d remember that awful, wonderful, sobering truth that I tell my kids: you have the power to determine what happens. I always remind Jack, before a soccer or basketball practice he doesn’t want to go to, how better he feels -- how much more energized he is - after he goes. He just needs to get moving, and for inspiration, remember the after feeling to combat the lethargic before feeling.

We had no plans Christmas Eve. I didn’t know exactly what we were going to do; the only parameters were that it was important for me that we go to our church for Mass and that it was important to Jack that we went to the service where his friends were altar serving.

To honor both our parameters, we stayed in town on Christmas Eve. No plans with friends or family. I could have easily moped around all day. Instead, I got us moving, having faith in the after joy despite the before blues. I suggested to the kids that we head downtown and soak up the festivities. We could soak in the energy of the city and the people in it. I had no idea if the outing would help or make it all feel emptier.

Jack’s "mostly celebratory" comment about drinking during the holidays was a sobering reminder of the privilege and burden of free will. The magic of the moment in our short conversation was in his declaration that we are mostly celebratory. It hinted at a reality his ten-year old soul is coming to understand: that there are days where the expectation of celebration on birthdays or holidays can actually make those times feel worse. But, we do have some room to choose what to celebrate. Like Christmas Eve, driving to the city with no pretense or plan, just getting moving. When he said “we,” I pictured the people in our lives that  I can reach out to on a shitty day, not worried that I sound like a whiny broken record. And “mostly” -- well that’s just beautiful. It reveals that nothing is absolute: not loneliness, happiness, life or death. “Mostly” allow us to fully accept those real deep down lonely blues AND the ability to  brush them off like crumbs because the weight of them is near nothing when they are honestly shared. In that one exchange, I knew we were slowly building an authentic family, despite all the grief, stress, and confusion of the last few years.Best gift of the season.  And this, my friends, is one of the hardest aspects of moving on in life -- from whatever transition we happen to encounter: the letting go has to happen before the new can fill in the space. And that transition is often lonely, painful, but necessary. It is often easier to fill time explaining ourselves or just saying yes to everything than it is to inhabit the empty space crucial for building on the ever-evolving, if authentic life.

Ironically enough, the miracle of Christmas came in the midst of feeling like there was no miracle. Damn. And, so, I can say this without most the familiar bitter bile of the holiday season’s emotional complexity: I wish you a happy, happy 2015.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thankful *and* Wanting... Ugh.

Ed's doctorate was in psychology. The branch of psychology he subscribed to was cognitive psychology, which basically means paying attention to how we think about things. Ed used this approach to fuel his philosophy that we get to choose how we feel about everything, that the brain is a mental muscle and the more you choose good, the  more you see good. Yeah, sure. I get it. It's all about the "it's not what happens to you, it's  how you react" approach to life. In theory, this makes sense. And most days I convince myself that mental will is what will keep things moving forward. But, I'll tell ya, when the winter holiday season settles in, I have all but used up my mental resources. Usually, it's all I can do to write the bills or finish the laundry, let alone be a model for being positive. The last few years at this time of the year,  I've fought my negative tendencies and pushed through, gritting my teeth, forcing a positive outlook. I can only imagine how confusing that must be for Jack and Reese: seeing mom clearly frustrated with tears in her eyes saying "We'll have fun today!"  This year, I'm not forcing anything. Which means, veneer pulled back and honesty revealed, I am a grumpy goose.

I blame Ed. He set the bar way too high. He couldn't just be happy with the basic American dream: steady job, family, friends, house. Nope, he wanted more. He wanted to be fulfilled, find meaning and richness in all of these. It's why he decided he needed to move us across the country and take on more debt right when we started our family, a year after Jack was born, to pursue his dream job by getting a doctorate to practice sports psychology. He was almost careless in the risks he took to find richness. Or knew what most mattered and was worth the risk. 

Of course, Ed's drive is one of the reasons I wanted to make a life with him. I have a similar affliction: this need to secure meaning and connection to work, family, friends.... daily life. I call it an affliction because it's incredibly easy to fall short of the high expectations. Lately, I've been thinking  if I had lower expectations, I could be content with what I have, appreciate all the goodness around me and my kids. To my dismay, I'm realizing, though, that there's a difference between being content with what I have and being true to myself.  I wrestle with the tension between these abstract realities so much I'm exhausted. It's why my liquor cabinet needs stocking. 

Concretely, the wrestling manifests itself in everything: how I view relationships (current and pursuing new ones), parenting and work. On paper,  I have a great job for someone in my circumstances. I work close to home which means I can maximize all the hours I need in the day to get things done. It pays well enough, so I can pay my West Seattle mortgage and send my kids to private Catholic school. I am fairly autonomous, which means I get to decide -- for the most part- what I focus on each day. On the other hand, the job is remarkably taxing and overwhelming; it is sucking my soul and pulling me away from all the reasons I thought I wanted to move into college administration. Of course, if I didn't have the expectation that my job should be fulfilling and have meaning, I wouldn't be so miserable.

I read too much about "simple steps" to a living a full life and then counter that with articles on being realistic about what that really takes to make the life happen.  Ultimately, I often don't have the energy to sustain the expectations Ed and I set for life before he died. Of course, I also don't have the constitution -- based on my nature and the nurturing of a marriage and life that pushed for greatness- to accept a mediocre life. In short, I'm trapped by what I have trained my gut and self to know is fulfillment and what I can physically accomplish as a single working mom of two grade school children. 

I am pretty sure there are many people who have their basic needs met who have similar mental struggles. I'm also sure that it doesn't consume them the way it seems to consume me, or maybe they don't say anything because they will feel like I do now (self-centered and ungrateful). So, I write. I write to figure it out. I write to articulate what are the core challenges. I write to more contently walk the tight rope of gratefulness and seeking what truly resonates. I write to not make a martini before noon the day after the start of the holiday season.