24. The Work of the Living

Well, I had intended to post this weeks ago but, as I was still working through much of this content, it took me a little time to be fully ready. 

The rollercoaster of life continues to swing from big highs to deep lows (I’ll give an update on grad school at the end, for those who didn’t get the new via social media), but I try not to put too much stock in my feelings. My very awesome and incredible therapist reminds me often to pay attention to my thoughts and try to be intentional in the ways I direct them. For instance, that last sentence should be rewritten to eliminate the word “try” and simply say “be.” Because, apparently, words matter. OK, not apparently. Words matter. Period. 

The multitude of closed doors I’ve encountered have forced me to think a lot about who it is I want to be… and what it is I want out of life. Recently, I journaled a sentence that turned out to be a huge revelation. It was this… 

“I never really chose who I was going to become. I simply became without direction or intent, rolling my life out according to the narrative I had grown up with.”

That is likely true for most of us. We often simply assume the selves we were told to be while growing up… or the selves we were told we were. It never really occurred to me until recently that we can, actually, choose who we are going to be. Like… every day. 

As I began to think about who I actually wanted to be, I found myself hitting a wall. While I have no problem producing a long list of my faults and flaws, I found it much harder to define my gifts and strengths. Each time I approached it, I felt panicky. When I attempted to articulate who I wanted to be… who I AM… in a positive light… my mind would freeze up. It’s like it refused to accept any entries other than the ones it had already logged. 

I pitched it to my therapist. Why couldn’t I get clear on this? 

We backpedaled a bit. Who did I currently believe myself to be? What was the dominant narrative taking up space in my mind? What words did I apply to myself on a daily basis? 

Chaos-maker. Rebellious. Inconvenient. Bitch. Idiot. A pain in the ass. Screw up. Argumentative. Ungrateful. Needy. Demanding. Insufficient. The reason things went wrong. Unable to abide by the rules. Difficult. Anger-inducing. Exhausting. 

This is the narrative that had evolved throughout my lifetime. I never questioned those beliefs. I incorporated them into my being as something to apologize for. I approached every situation anticipating that the world would eventually discover these ugly pieces of me, knowing I would simply have to clean up whatever mess came when it did. 

I suddenly understood why applying for jobs has been so absolutely and utterly exhausting. I wrote each cover letter with the unconscious apology that anyone should ever have to have me as an employee. 

It’s why I didn’t date. 

It’s why I shied away from positions of leadership. 

It’s why I second guessed every parenting decision I made. 

It’s why I assumed that if anything went wrong in my life… anything at all… it was exactly what I deserved. 

I had been walking through my life with the inarticulable sensation that I was tainting the world with my existence. 

My therapist utilizes an incredible model of therapy called Internal Family Systems. (If you’re interested in learning more about it, you can hear an interview with founder Richard Scwartz on one of my favorite podcasts- Ten Percent Happier. It has been an invaluable part of my recent journey.) Essentially, we revisit pieces of ourselves stuck in a part of our developmental history. We get curious. What role do these stuck pieces play in protecting our present selves? What do they need in order to feel safe and leave the past? What beliefs do they perpetuate?

We all have these pieces. They’re sneaky. We become so used to their narratives that we no longer notice or question them. 

In the earliest years of my childhood, I was a joyful and rambunctious kid. I was a giddy, giggly firecracker- talkative, animated, extermently energetic. I was determined, sensitive, silly, empathetic, and highly interested in the components of right and wrong. 

When I look at myself that way- as the earliest, most likeable version of myself- it’s easy to see the thin line between who I was meant to be and who I was misconstrued to be. 

That’s a really powerful idea. 

Together, my therapist and I visit those misconstrued ideas. (Sidebar: I realize I’ve now begun several sentences with the words “my therapist”, which puts me solidly in the category of every New York Yuppie who’s ever written about themselves- even though I’ve never lived in New York and don’t consider myself a yuppie. I’m sorry. It just can’t be helped right now!). We pull a specific feeling from the rolodex- one that has been acute more recently- and then to go back in my memory to see if I can pinpoint its origins. Can I remember where I was standing or what I was doing the first time I felt that way?  

One by one, I visit the intersection of where my personal attributes were turned from positives to negatives. I have conversations… actual out loud conversations… with myself at whatever age I became stuck in each belief. I get curious about what that little person- or teen or young adult- needs… about what hurts, what’s confusing, what’s being protected. I tell my small self the truth of who I really am. 

It is unspeakably liberating. 

He offers counternarratives to replace the misbeliefs. In place of “I create dissonance, chaos, and scarcity,” I say, “I create peace, harmony, and abundance in my life and the lives of others.”  Almost immediately, something inside me levitates. I feel light and joyful, free. Yes… absolutely. I want to be someone who creates those things… for myself but more importantly, in the world. He reminds me that the spirit of God does not exist in chaos or dissonance or scarcity and that also, the spirit of God dwells within me. 

It is life-changing. 

When I feel a wave of anxiety presenting me with the belief of my not-enoughness, I repeat the mantra. “I create peace, harmony, joy, and abundance in my life and the lives of others.” In doing so, I am able to worry less about what vocation I land in and more about putting myself in situations that enable me to live this truth. It roots my parenting efforts. It roots my contributions to my friendships. It roots the direction of my healing. 

And that brings me to my most recent update. I did not get the assistantship for grad school. The initial news of that felt like quite a blow, even though I knew it was very competitive and that my chances were slim. I was most disappointed that I didn’t even get interviewed… a common theme across all areas. But, while it was hard to close the door on the idea of grad school- at least for now- it also felt like somewhat of a relief in that:

(a.) I finally have an answer and 

(b.) it just really, really feels like with so many closed doors, something very intentional and specific and GOOD is coming my way. Because seriously, it’s impossible for things to just suck this much just for the sake of sucking. I truly do believe it’s leading somewhere. 

In the past two weeks, a picture of something else has begun to form. A little tiny seed of a something that might bloom into more. In time. I’ll have to hold you in suspense on this one for a while. But I am beginning to create a vision of who I am and who I want to be in this world. 

And it’s good. It’s very good.

23. The Good, The Bad, The (very) Ugly, & the Redeemed

I had an entirely different post lined up for this week, but given the events of the last few days, I’ve decided to hold onto it and talk about this instead…

The Good

The highs and lows of the past few weeks have been so extreme that I never know how I’ll feel from one moment to the next. 

On the whole, I‘ve been sustained by an inexplicable sense of joy. These past three months home with my daughter and our pets have been so life-giving. I never thought I’d want to be a stay-at-home mom simply because I love working. But I see what a gift it is to be able to be so fully present in your children’s lives. Mostly, I’m grateful for the time and space to get myself grounded each day. It changes everything about the way I parent and the way I am able to shape my own internal growth. Sometimes, I walk around the apartment tingling with joy at how much I love my daughter, what a remarkable young lady she’s turning into, how grateful I am that we have this time together. 

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22. The Horizon

For those who follow me on social media, this will come as repeat news. It has taken me a few days to make it over to the blog for an update. 

The very excellent news is that I have been admitted to VCU’s Ph.D. in Education Leadership, Policy, and Justice. It is one of two programs I applied to. Last year, on the same day that my brother died, I received the news that my application had been denied. I didn’t know if I had it in me to reapply, especially with so much uncertainty on the horizon, but with the encouragement of a professor I collaborated with in the Fall, I decided to give it a shot. 

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21. January 27, 2020

The question I am asked most often is, “what happened?” What could have possibly led someone as outgoing, generous, and gregarious as my brother to take his own life? 

I think I understand that answer a lot more now than I did a year ago, though no one will ever be able to say exactly what was going through his head. I don’t know if it is for me to surmise, or to write about. Perhaps in time but certainly not yet. For now, I can only tell my story, witness the places where it overlaps his own. I keep moving from room to room, setting down and picking up items, looking out the window, sitting, standing. I am waiting for some revelation. I am trying to untangle the pieces. Time folds in on itself. The beginning and end and everything in between. 

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20. Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, mostly because I’m in a place to observe how I spend it. That is probably true for most of us lately.

I’ve been asked a few times recently how I’m spending my days. It’s a tough question to answer. Last week was slightly derailed by the third semi-move we’ve made in the last year. Roughly half our belongings fit into our new apartment, which is roughly half the square footage of our old one. The rest were stored in my mother’s garage, which was attached to the house that she just sold. With a closing date looming, it came time to sort the remaining things. What a strange thing to decide the emotional value of physical belongings. And I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to conjure the energy to do so if it weren’t for my dear friend Sara, whose ability to make one laugh in the midst of a poo-storm is absolutely remarkable. She deserves a special shout out today, because she made the absolute worst task seem like a simple afternoon of girl-bonding time, just as delightful as getting pedicures on a sunny day.  

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19. 2021

Hi. Me again. I wish I could say I woke up this morning hungover from the revelries of New Year’s Eve celebrations, but I was in bed by 10 last night. Instead, I woke up with what Brene Brown refers to as a “vulnerability hangover.” Last night was the first time, perhaps since I was four, that I didn’t stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. That’s always been an uncompromisable tradition for me, but this year, I simply couldn’t muster the will. 

In reflecting this morning with a little more clarity and grace, I understood something deeply significant. 

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18. The Bleak Midwinter

December 25. Christmas Morning. 

I get up early to start breakfast. I make my daughter her favorite hot chocolate- lactose-free milk topped with fresh-made whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg. I want it to look picturesque and abundant, as though I might cram all my best intentions and care-worn love into that single cup. By the time she comes downstairs, the whole of it has grown cold. And anyway, she says, her stomach hurts. It sits forgotten, the fluffy white peaks caving in on themselves. Unwanted, unneeded. I take this in. Motherhood, the teens years.

Her godmother and grandmother arrive, and we watch as she slowly works her way through the piles of wrapped boxes and stuffed bags. We have each overcompensated for this shitty year by buying a few extra things. Still, she is grateful. Still, it seems normal and cozy and worth the effort. 

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17. Home

When I was nearly four, our home burned to the ground. It is one of my earliest memories. We were at church when my uncle appeared to tell us the news. Red-faced and sweaty in his denim overalls, he made his way up the aisle, a stark contrast to the congregants clad in their Sunday best. I watched the interruption ripple through the rows, heads swivelling and mouths falling open. 

When we pulled up to the house, I could see directly into the second story bedroom my sister and I shared. Daylight intruded into the room and I recall feeling a sense of exposure that all the world could see into our private space. And yet, the graceful, hand-carved frame of our bed stood unscathed, the white comforter pristine amidst the charr and ruin that surrounded it. It looked like a painting, an intensional juxtaposition of beauty and ruin. 

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16. Joy

I realize my writing has been sporadic the past few weeks. I returned to the full force of life… in all its glory… and my attention has been pulled in many directions. 

We returned to Charlottesville last week. I stayed with friends and my daughter returned to my mom’s, where she is better set up and equipped to do virtual schooling. A dear friend of ours got married, which offered a welcome break from some of the stressors of life. I got to do maid-of-honor-ish sorts of things, which felt productive and life-giving. We set up a small, backyard wedding (the BIG event has been moved to next year), and it was amazing! I realized int the midst of it how few moments of celebration have been had this past year. Like… none. I was dizzy with euphoria at witnessing a friend experience good life things… love and partnership and big steps forward.  

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15. Life Can Be Beautiful

PART I

Because a storm sweeps across the island on the day I am meant to leave, my departure is delayed. I spend two days perched on the edge of whatever must come next. Two days of bluster and white-capped seas and the whole world holding its breath to the count of electoral votes. On Wednesday, I board the ancient ferry clutching a handful of native flowers. I inch near a sublime sort of elation and toss the colorful weeds out the window. An island tradition, a promise to one day return. I inhale the possibilities with the last of the salt air but know I don’t really mean it. I convince myself I have found the courage to build a new life for us. But really, it is only that it has come time to leave. I watch the green-gray of the island fade from sight. 

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