meeting myself in time

Journey

(Artwork from the book, Journey, by Aaron Becker)

I just got back from a trip through time to my teenage years. I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird with my book club, and as I’ve read, my mind has jumped back to being on stage in my high school auditorium, performing in the play as Miss Maudie Atkinson my senior year. Even with my bit part, the experience made a significant imprint in my psyche – I remember feeling like I was a part of something. After four years in high school theater, I felt like this show was IT, the one with meaning, the one that everybody came to see (even the jocks), the one that moved people. I was telling my daughter about it a few weeks ago, trying to remember the names of some of my classmates who had also been in the play. This led me downstairs to one of the endless plastic bins in our basement – this one held my yearbooks and my high school and college diplomas. I brought my senior yearbook upstairs and it’s been floating around the house since. I can’t seem to get myself to bring it back downstairs.

“Look Mommy! You’re on the first page of the senior photos. You look so pretty Mommy!” my daughter said to me as she looked carefully through each portrait.

Really? I thought. That’s when I had already started gaining weight after my mom left. And my eyebrows are so bushy. I didn’t say this aloud, but it was the first thing that went through my mind when I saw myself again. I also noticed that I looked kind of sad. She said it several times over the next few weeks as she picked up the yearbook again: “You look so pretty, Mommy.” I know she meant it completely – she isn’t the type to say things she doesn’t mean.

“Take that in,” my husband said to me when he heard her say it the second time.

I sat with my yearbook over the next few days, reading the notes people had written inside its covers and pages. It’s been years, possibly decades, since I’ve reread them, and I tried to put myself in my almost-18 year old shoes to remember how they affected me then.

The words of my best friend, surprisingly unsentimental. But then again, we had only known each other for 8 years then. (That felt like centuries, 8 years, when we were not even 18.) Now all these years later, she has stood by my side and held my hand for 34 years. She knows me like only someone who has been consistently present for 34 years can know you.

Then this jumps out unexpectedly: A single message from a guy I remember knowing only barely, who nailed me probably most perfectly. I’m sure it made me uncomfortable to read at the time. Or maybe it made me feel seen. However it felt then – understanding my younger self as I do now, with the perspective of all the years that followed – he got it. The essence of his words was, You are such a giver, you care so much about others. I hope you will let them give back to you. I hope they will.

I kept reading and found this several times in the words others had written: Never lose your optimism and idealism. They are the most special thing about you. 

I sat at the dining room table with tears in my eyes. I felt as if I were sitting with almost-18 year old me, getting to know her again. Discovering how much she already was so completely the person she could only dream of becoming.

Already I was exactly who I am still. 

****

This past week I read a work of fiction written by someone who had known my father shortly after my parents divorced. They had known each other well for several years, and kept in touch in the years that followed. She had known our family during a difficult time of enormous transition, and she had known that same teenage me I had just become reacquainted with through my yearbook.

While her work was fiction, there were some familiar pieces in her story. And it took me back. Back to how it felt to be figuring out what it meant to be a family after one-fourth of our family had disappeared. Back to driving my little white VW Rabbit – anywhere that was away from home – to get some space from what felt heavy. Back to finding a home in theater, a place that gave me meaning, community, confidence. Back to eating Ben & Jerry’s at 11 o’clock at night watching reruns of Welcome Back Kotter.

But there was also this: The perspective of someone who had known not only my father, but also his daughters. She had had her own experience of me as a teenager, her own view of that younger me. Hers was another lens through which I could revisit myself, another impression of the person I had been. Just like the words of those kids in my yearbook. I was seeing me as they had seen me.

****

I felt warm towards her, that teenage me, but I didn’t feel sorry for her. Already then, she was mighty. Already then, she was finding resilience, she was finding joy and meaning amid loss and sorrow. Even then, she was unescapably hopeful. Even when she felt alone in her heart, she continued to care for those around her.

I think we can choose how we tell our stories. I have told mine in many different ways, but I don’t like the version of the abandoned daughter anymore. That one doesn’t serve me, it hasn’t for years. Neither does the one about the girl who never felt cool enough, the one who was always overly self-conscious and insecure. And the story about the girl who got fat from grief, and then overcame that anger and sadness and released the weight? That one doesn’t really speak to me anymore either. There is no victory in overcoming our pain – only the important experience of letting ourselves truly feel it, and the peace that comes out of that.

They have all been my stories, though. Even if I no longer tell them the same way, I have told them, and they remain a part of me. 

I used to feel regretful that I had wasted so much time in all those self-pitying places my soul has taken me. But I know now that this is where I needed to go. That entire sophomore year in college that I spent on the rooftop of my apartment building, feet soaking in the hot tub, writing furiously about my sorrows and my rage in a dozen journals? I had to go there too. Those journals – however depressing and endlessly circular – are also a part of my story.

What comforts me now, all these years later – here where I am surrounded by the love  of others, blessed by family and home and a life of great meaning that I dreamed into being – is knowing that she was there already, that much younger me, even when she thought she had barely begun being herself. I don’t know that we are here to become ourselves, so much as  our journey is about returning to our essence.

Maybe she is the one who traveled through time to see me. Maybe she doesn’t need me to go back in time to comfort her and tell her she will get there. Instead, perhaps she is the one with the message for me:

You are already there. You are already you. Your destination is inside you and you have been carrying it all this time.

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on fear and courage

DCIM100GOPRO

I went ziplining with my daughter and a small group of women and one man a few weeks ago. My daughter was the only one I knew well in the group, but there is something about cruising 210 feet above the ground in 30 seconds, between two trees that stand a quarter mile apart from each other, that brings people together.

I was absolutely terrified but I knew I had no choice but to try it. I’m not much of a fear of missing out kind of person, for me it was more of a fear of disappointing myself, a fear of regret kind of thing. I knew that if I had the opportunity and didn’t take it, I would be letting myself down.

I told myself that I had already done something much more terrifying: I had jumped out of a plane on a tandem skydive for my 25th birthday, an unforgettable experience. How much more frightening could ziplining be? But then I told myself that I was almost 20 years older now, a wife, a mother, more personally aware of things like pain and suffering and loss… and death. I’ve noticed something about inhibition as I’ve gotten older: Certain things are more scary now than they were when I was in my twenties, while others feel so much more surmountable.

There was nothing logical about my fear. I knew that if anyone had died or been seriously injured on that zipline, the place would no longer be in business. I knew I wouldn’t fall. I knew I wouldn’t crash into a tree or fall off a platform. I knew that the worst thing that could happen was that I would spin around, go too slow and have to drag myself in at the end – basically that I wouldn’t get to go fast enough to have the most fun possible. Our guides were phenomenal and professional, I knew I truly had nothing to fear.

But I could still feel my heart thumping, fast and hard and loud. I still couldn’t believe what I was about to do.

My 11-year-old daughter was 100% totally and completely unafraid. She knew there was no real risk, so why waste a second being scared? She was excited and confident and I did my best to follow her lead. The other people my age and I were not surprised; we talked about how invincible you feel when you’re a kid – of course she was undaunted and brave. That’s also her personality – she came into this world with things to do and she has never looked back.

I asked myself when that changes, when fear enters in and why. I told our guides I would need to be one of the first to try the first zipline in our group of nine because I knew that watching eight people go ahead of me would give me too much time for further freak-out. My daughter said she would go first, and I would go second.

There were seven zips, and there was the option to stop after three. The fourth and fifth were the longest – the quarter-mile ones that last for 30 long seconds, provide the most beautiful views and are the most exciting. I knew I had no choice but to do all seven. Not because of any pressure from my daughter, but again… that fear of regret thing. And the determination that I could turn my fear into one of those surmountable things.

I was shaking and about to cry after the first short zip. I knew that my response was purely physical, it felt beyond reason and out of my control. I wondered what had just happened in my body chemistry as I experienced fear, and as I overcame that fear enough to do something absolutely frightening. What was going on inside my body that caused my hands to shake and brought the tears I did everything in my power to breathe through – all of these physical feelings I was having after having successfully crossed the first line and reached the second platform? Why was I clinging for my life to that tree trunk, afraid beyond logic of being so high up while I could see, not six inches from my face, the harness that would keep me from falling?

DCIM100GOPRO

I shook a little less after the second zip across, and by the third I was no longer shaking and I no longer felt like crying. Then I found myself staring down the fourth zip – the longest, highest, fastest one. The one where the opposite platform – my destination – was so far away that I couldn’t see it nor the guide who would be waiting there for me. We were told to look to our left at the incredible view of the Smoky Mountains as we zipped across, that it was breathtaking.

My heart raced, and I surrendered to trust, lifted my feet and told the guide on my platform that I was ready and she could let me go. My body felt rigid but I was determined to stay straight and move gracefully across. I could hear myself breathing as if I were laboring to birth one of my children – rhythmic breathing, consistent, loud and determined. I did look to my left and I did see the view, quickly, afraid that if I turned my head too much I would start to spin. It was breathtaking. And then I was on the other side. And I almost cried, but not from fear. From elation, from relief, from pride in myself.

I zipped back across that same distance on the fifth run. By then I felt like the fear was no longer a part of my experience, a thing I had surmounted. The sixth and seventh zips were short and easy and I even let go completely of my hands and let myself spin and play. The final tree’s platform sat way high up and the tree was small and swayed in the wind as it held us – 8 women, 1 man and 2 guides. I can’t say I felt stable until I was back on solid ground, but by then on that final platform, I knew completely that I was safe.

****

I’m not sure exactly when, but sometime in the last few years I’ve become increasingly aware of the finite nature of the years I have ahead of me. That is assuming, of course, that nothing unexpected happens and I get to follow in the footsteps of my paternal family and live an abundantly long life that takes me almost to 100. Ninety-something is a lot of years, and yet it feels like not enough as I find myself about halfway there. I have moments of panic where I think, How did I get to my forties already? Have I done enough already? Have I wasted time I can never get back? My usual response to calm myself down is to think of all the things I have done – the big things – and tell my story in a different way: My, how full and abundant the last 44 years have been! Look at me. I am so incredibly lucky.

Still, I feel closer to aging now than I ever have. My father struggles with a degenerative disease and I can’t help but wonder how long I have left when I can still call him on the phone. I think about my beloved great aunt who died two years ago at almost 96, how even though she lived overseas I could always call her and hear her voice, and how even though I can’t anymore it still feels like she is close. My parents’ generation has now become the grandparents, and my generation – we are the grownups. We are the ones holding the challenges our parents once held – the aging parents, the mortgages, life insurance policies, illnesses. We are the ones becoming aware of our fragility, of our finiteness.

I ask myself if it’s death I am afraid of. I’m not sure. When I was a child, maybe around my daughter’s age, I was sometimes afraid of going to sleep, fearful that I wouldn’t wake up. I’m not sure where that fear came from and I don’t remember ever speaking to my parents about it. I was a bit of an insomniac then, and I would stay up very late, the last one in the house to go to sleep. I would lay thinking and sometimes I would worry, and eventually sleep would take over. I felt relief in the mornings when my parents would wake me up and I was still very much alive.

****

I heard a story once about a very old woman who was on her deathbed. Someone was interviewing her for a magazine article and they asked if she was afraid of dying. She had a smile on her face and a sense of peace in her entire being, and she responded that she wasn’t afraid at all because she would at last be reunited with her baby. She had lost a child over 65 years before, at birth, and decades later she still waited to see her again.

Tomorrow will be seven years since I held my daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. She feels closest to me in the most full and courageous moments of my life – which are sometimes also some of the most challenging moments. It’s as if she is saying to me, Yes! This is how to live your life deeply. I could feel her spirit whirling high up in those trees I zipped through. I knew very soon after she died that the grief I had to work through was for me, not for her – that she didn’t need me to spend the rest of my days sad and bitter because she was gone. I knew that I would honor her life most powerfully by living my life well. By truly living.

****

I consider myself an emotionally courageous person. The hardest parts of life don’t scare me, and I have been through my share. I am an easy crier, tears don’t scare or worry me, my own or others. I worry more when I’m going through something difficult and I can’t seem to cry, because it usually means I’m stuffing something down that will eventually catch up with me. (And it always does).

In seventh grade peer counseling class, I learned about active listening, and I found a language for something that already came easily to me. I know now that I was learning then about the power of compassion, about unconditional love. I learned early that connection is what I live for, that friendships feed my soul. I don’t shy away when those around me are going through something challenging. I can sit with emotional pain, with loss, grief, sorrow and anger – others’ and my own. In this space, I am unafraid.

But I have always felt much braver emotionally than I am physically. At least that’s what I came to believe. Maybe that’s just the story I’ve been telling myself and it’s actually just that – a story, one that isn’t really true.

I used to say that I can handle any amount of emotional pain, it’s the physical pain I can’t do. But then I gave birth. And I had shingles. And I’ve struggled with an autoimmune condition that at times has been incredibly painful. And I’m still here, a little scarred, a little cracked, but very much intact. Still courageous. Perhaps more courageous now than before. Definitely much more aware of the preciousness of life.

I used to say that I my strength is in my heart, in my mind, not in my body. But it takes great strength, great courage, great faith and fearlessness to live with a chronic illness – and to live well. And I think of all the physical things I have tried at different times in my life: Skydiving. Ziplining. Boxing lessons where I sweat more than I ever had before, and which made me feel like a total badass. Dance classes where I had so much fun even while getting tangled in my feet. Rock climbing at the climbing gym and feeling mighty and high (and totally badass) as I looked way down to the floor. Lifting weights with my husband when he was a personal trainer, spotting him on weights twice as heavy as those I lifted myself. In perfect form on the pilates reformer, unleashing the strength in my core. That moment when I had done yoga long enough that even the most challenging poses came with ease. And even those six months I spent trying out running before I acknowledged that it wasn’t for me.

****

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where fear originates, and also what creates fearlessness. I’ve been thinking about the true meaning of courage and all the ways every single one of us is courageous. I’ve been thinking about aging and death, and what it is that scares me when I remember, Holy shit, I’m 44?! I’ve been thinking about how fragile we all are, and how mighty we are at the same time.

I don’t think they are exactly opposites, but perhaps fear and courage are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps they need each other, cannot exist without each other. Perhaps it is fear that inspires courage, and I needed the fear to push me off that platform and across those trees.

It’s been a strange summer, one in which I have spent a good deal of time extremely aware of the fragility of life. The days I sat at my father’s bedside last month reminded me of the days I spent in the NICU sitting with Tikva seven summers ago, as she struggled to breathe and even on those days when she breathed a little more easily. I remembered the fear I felt in those moments when doctors and nurses would rush to her bedside in response to a code pink, and also the grace I felt knowing that she was held – I was held – by something so much bigger.

I held the image of the red tail hawk so tightly throughout Tikva’s short life, and seven years ago tomorrow I released it as her spirit was finally able to soar. When I went skydiving almost 20 years ago, what I loved most were the moments before the parachute opened up, the moments that were the closest thing to soaring I have ever experienced, when I was literally floating on the wind.

I tapped in just a little to that feeling as I zipped across the trees two weeks ago. Even in those moments of fear and courage, I knew I was held. And like my Tikva and the red tail hawk, I knew that it was up to me to play.

DCIM100GOPRO

on writing and authenticity

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Self-Portrait, college photography class, 1991

I started blogging in February 2007. I didn’t set out to write a blog, at least not one that would become public. It began as a log of my second pregnancy, and I wrote mostly for myself and eventually to share with family and friends. I don’t remember blogs existing when I was first pregnant with my oldest daughter in 2001. Pregnancy and motherhood blogs were not yet everywhere, nor was Buzzfeed or Twitter or Instagram, even in 2007. I didn’t have a Facebook account until sometime in 2009, still hesitant about my online presence.

That second pregnancy ended in miscarriage at 10 weeks in April 2007, and my writing took an unexpected turn. I found myself in shock to be among the 1 in 5 (likely more like 1 in 4) women who have miscarried. I found myself publicly grieving what could have been. I wrote a lot that month, and then I slowed down, less attached to my online space until I got pregnant again in September 2007. We were living overseas by then, far from family and home, and this was a way I stayed connected to my people.

I was thrilled to be pregnant again, hopeful. In spite of my previous loss, I trusted my body and my baby. The only time in early pregnancy when I remember worrying was when I first suspected I might be pregnant and had some cramping, likely from the fertilized egg implanting into the lining of my uterus. But after that, after that pregnancy test that was so vividly positive, I was full steam ahead. Positive and happy in spite of the morning sickness. Confident.

I spent 6 weeks of that pregnancy in agony on the couch with a horrible case of shingles. I didn’t take antivirals or pain medicine because I didn’t want to endanger my baby. I made it through what was by far the most physically painful 6 weeks of my life straight into a 10 day sinus infection. But still I was undaunted. I was pregnant  and I could feel my baby kicking inside me. I had no reason to think anything would go wrong.

And then it did. At my unborn baby’s 21 week ultrasound, the doctor told us there was a problem. And I found myself relating to my online space differently. It became my lifeline to those who loved us who were far away, across the ocean. As I journeyed through the second half of my now-high risk pregnancy, my online space grew as my circle of support grew. We returned home from overseas to navigate uncharted waters with support and familiarity, and to do so in English. When Tikva was born and for the 58 days she lived, I shared our powerful story together at Growing Inside. I shared our love. And the love that surrounded us – the love that held us – that love grew.

After Tikva died, I kept writing. I wrote for my survival. I wrote also at Glow in the Woods, a website created by and for parents who had also lost babies. I wrote – again – about the loss of all that was possible, the loss of my dreams, the loss of my child. I connected, via my blog, with other babylost parents, with women who held me and whom I was able to hold through their grief and rebuilding. I wrote 471 posts at Growing Inside, and at the end of December 2009, almost a year and a half after my daughter had died, I felt it was time to stop.

I started a new space, at the time a more private space, a few months later. I called it Clearing Space and Settling In and I wrote in it sporadically, but without the momentum I’d had writing at Growing Inside. The internet is like that, you can exist somewhere, then you recreate yourself and exist somewhere else. It’s still you, still your story, but the space feels fresh, new, and I think I was hopeful it would inspire movement within me. Inspiration. Maybe it did. I’m not sure.

Then in late 2010, again with news to share, I created another new spaceA Radiant Beam of Light. With some help, I had gotten pregnant again, this time with twins. Here in this new place, I wrote about the ups and I wrote about the downs. I wrote about sharing the news with our older daughter, her joy, my joy. When one of the twins died just after we had told our daughter she was going to be a big sister again, I wrote again about loss and grief and sorrow, and this time I wrote about anger. I wrote about fear. I shared my prayers that I wouldn’t lose the second baby. I held the loss of Tikva and I held my breath. I could not drop into this pregnancy with ease. This time pregnancy was scary.

That post I’d written about telling our daughter we were expecting twins breaks my heart to read now. What do you do with hope that existed – hope that was put into words – and then was lost? Does its energy still exist in the history of all that has been?

And then I could no longer feel the second twin moving inside me, and on Valentine’s Day I found out he had died. A few days later, I delivered my almost-babies. Again, I said goodbye to my dreams, to what might have been. Again I grieved. This time it was angry, hopeless grieving. I wrote sporadically at A Radiant Beam of Light and then I stopped in April 2013, two years after losing the twins.

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The desire to write – at certain times the need to write – hasn’t left me since I discovered it almost 35 years ago. I have always written and I have always wanted to write. I have always had the desire to share my stories. I’ve filled countless journals since I was 10 years old. I’ve submitted stories and won prizes. I’ve written long letters and postcards in tiny print to and from countries all over the world. I’ve kept lengthy computer diaries on my DOS word processor. I’ve written down a piece of my family history that grew into my college honors thesis. I’ve written pages-long emails over years of correspondence with friends – all of which I’ve kept and some of which I’ve dreamt of editing and publishing in some form because they are so heartfelt and true. I’ve taken creative writing classes and participated in writing workshops for women. I’ve written fiction. I’ve written almost-fiction that comes from my experiences. I’ve written professionally. I’ve been published in the media a few times and had so many ideas for other pieces I want to write.  I have written down story ideas on tiny scraps of paper and begun stories and even finished some. I have dreamed of writing books. And I have blogged.

There have been times when my writing has surprised me, as if I were a channel for something that simply needed to come through me, but not responsible for the words themselves. As if the words came from a place other than my mind. My soul? It’s not a religious thing and I am by no means any kind of sage. I think it is what writers – or artists of any kind – refer to as being in the flow. For me, it is creating while connecting to something bigger – or connecting to something bigger by writing. At times writing at Growing Inside, I felt this so deeply. I would sit down to write at the kitchen table or, after we moved, at my desk in the sunroom, and it would just come out, and out, and out. And then I would read what had just come through me and say, Yes. It was cathartic and healing, and I learned later that it was sometimes healing, or nurturing, or validating for those who read my words, too. To me, that was the greatest gift my writing gave me – knowing that it could help others in some small way to know they are not alone. I thought of the books I’ve read, the ones that have touched me most deeply – the way they have spoken to me, the way they made me feel understood.

Isn’t the purpose of bravely sharing our truest selves to be able to resonate with each other?

My whole life I’ve written to make sense of my world and myself. I’ve shared my stories because I suspect – I hope – they are in some way universal stories. We are all on our hero’s journey, with its losses and triumphs, its lessons and its incredible potential for growth and for love. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become braver about sharing my thoughts, my beliefs, my personal philosophy as it becomes concrete. I’ve been bolder about being authentic, and as a result I’ve discovered that it is the only way I truly want to be in the world. It is the only way I can be and now, at 44, it hurts to be anything else.

So I started writing here, in this new space, just 8 months ago. I thought of the words that make my heart sing and the energy I want to put out into the world and Love, Beauty & Abundance became its name. I thought of how much of myself I want to share, and confronted the fears that came up about being too public in an online universe that can be crazy and unforgiving. I think each time I write about the people closest to me and their privacy, their own personal stories that are theirs, wanting to respect them while respecting my need to share my own experience. I think of how I can honor them with my words. That’s not always easy to navigate – I think for any writer – but I can tell you that my intentions are good.

I don’t lie in this space. I’m not here to pretend I am something I’m not. I try to be humble and I let myself be confident – because I think we (especially women) are quicker to play down our strengths than to share and celebrate them. I am not a competitive person – I believe in abundance, that there is room for all of us to share our gifts, to share our stories. I am inspired by so many people around me – those I know and others I know only by name, or by their words. What inspires me is connection.

Thank you for joining me here, in this space. And for sharing this piece of my story.