Out of grief, thankfulness

As the plane circled Midway, I was fuming. Angry. Upset. And desperately wishing the pilot would turn us back to Baltimore.

I looked out the window and my body told me that it remembered the intense, confusing, and raw grief I experienced several years ago when my grandpa died and I flew ‘home’ for the funeral. I had to borrow money from my parents to afford the plane ticket. I was alone. I was utterly broken and anxious and exhausted.

The body remembers, and this past December, it was internally screaming, making sure I didn’t forget the grief.

It seems the number of times I’ve gone ‘home’ for funerals have equaled the number of times I’ve gone for things other than funerals. As I write that and count it in my head, the latter is more. But the sadness and grief seem to often outshine the happiness and delight on trips back to the Midwest.

As we deplaned, I thought about the long ride ahead after picking up luggage from baggage claim while also taking a breath and gearing myself up for an emotional few days.

We drove to central Illinois from Chicago, and my heart jumped as I looked out the window and found some comfort in the monotony of the flat, flat farmland dotted with groups of trees, shielding houses from wind and bad weather.

Over the holiday, I wrestled with the grief and the togetherness. I was angry, and also felt blessed (but not #blessed). Angry at my grandparents for all leaving me in the world to figure it out on my own without their physical presence and guidance only a phone call away. Feeling blessed that I was able to have them in my life for as long as I did.

Today is Mimi’s birthday. She would have been 86. And damn, don’t I know that she was born in 1934 because every. Single. Time we went to Steak ‘n Shake, she let me know that she was born in the same year the restaurant was founded.

Two years ago on this day, I don’t remember if I called her or not. After the dementia started progressing more rapidly, it became more difficult to call her, though our talks would last only about 5 minutes.

Two years ago on this day, I had no idea that only 7 months later, I’d be grieving her deeply, having spent some time at her side while she was dying. I wasn’t there for her last breath. But I think my soul felt at peace when she passed.

Now, as I’m in, and have been in, a phase of my life that has been difficult and confusing and sometimes frightening, I wish I had her here more than ever. Time and time again in my mind I imagine walking into her house, through the back door after climbing a few steps. Coming into the kitchen, TV turning on with a quick press on a button. All the scents of her wrapping me in a blanket of safety and acceptance. Downy and Dove and Glade Plug-Ins.

We’d sit in the living room and she’d tend to her nails while I tried to figure out how to get my toes unstuck from the stretchy afghan on the couch.

We watched a lot of reruns of I Dream of Jeannie and Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers and Golden Girls and Designing Women and The Nanny. After I’d get ready for bed (showers because to her baths were just washing with dirty water), I’d put on one of her nightgowns or cinch up some of her PJ pants (she weighed more back then and shopped in the ‘big mama’ section). She would tell me that wearing a sports bra at night would keep my chest from growing (that’s not true, btw).

In the winter we’d watch figure skating. I was mesmerized by the grace and talent of the athletes. And after I’d become older and didn’t spend as much time over there, she’d call me on her way home from work and tell me to look outside because there’s a beautiful sunset or that figure skating was on tonight.

For some years after that, I wasn’t as kind or innocent towards her and I didn’t always keep my negative thoughts about her to myself. I’m sure I rolled my eyes when she called me some of those times. Now I’d kill to have that call, and have her remember where I live (not Texas anymore, Mimi) and that Aaron and I are married (When are you getting married?). I’d share my story of infertility because I know she’d give me a hug and love me just the same (When are you and Aaron going to have kids?)

As I let the emotions roll through my body, juxtaposed with grief is an equal or greater amount of thankfulness and security from my memories with her. Memory is beautiful. I can travel back anytime I want for a hug, a kiss, a call.

Happy Birthday, Mimi.

Just Say No, AKA the Year 2020

How are your New Year’s goals and resolutions going? Did you make any? I haven’t made them since probably around 2013 when I resolved to make the bed every day. I have to say, it’s stuck and I still make the bed five out of seven days.

Instead of resolutions, I try to stick with a theme that’s a bit more overarching and esoteric. 2019 was the year where I declared to myself to Be Honest. And I was. I was honest about everything from what I ate making my body feel like garbage to the nasty habit of rarely cleaning my bathroom to the negative garbage I continue to spew at the girl in the mirror. I was honest about my feelings about my weight, my house, paint colors on my walls, how I really feel about baby showers (heh), and about the things on my calendar that I actually like doing (I’m at about 70% right now).

It was a year of self-discovery, though I am ashamed that it took me 32, wait no, 33 years to discover the person I’m with all day long. But guys, I did it. And did I die? No. I did not.

Twenty-twenty is the year of Just Say No. I have to say that the DARE program with the cute little bear we got to pass around the class (and Mom made me tumble said bear in the dryer for no fewer than 30 minutes) didn’t do much for me in the way of saying no to drugs (probably because I came off as a goody-two-shoes and was never offered them…). But hell, it would have been nice if someone had told me as a young woman, There are going to be lots of people who will pressure you to do all the things. Just say no to 80% of the things, and focus on the other 20%. Nope, none of that.

I’m on to you, all you people who keep asking the same people over and over and over again to do more things. My type of people are responsible, organized, loyal, dependable, and sadly, but not so sadly for you, yes people. And frankly, I’m sick of it.

I know the door swings both ways. I do not absolve myself of responsibility in saying yes to all the things. And I will not deny that there was a time in my life I really needed to say yes to all the things… during college, for example (as in classes and papers and odd side jobs). During student teaching… working my way through new and different jobs the first ten years of my career as we moved around the country.

Goals are weird, amirite? You make a goal and think you want to reach it until you’re almost there, or actually there, and then it’s like, huh. Wow. Okay. That’s it? (This has been my personal experience for the accomplishment of many goals.) I think that actually, one of my goals all along has been to put myself in such a position that I could say no to things and either 1) not give a shit about what people think of that dreaded two-letter word coming out of my mouth and/or 2) financially and professionally afford to say no.

I’m now a recovering yes person on a multi-step program (don’t ask for specifics, maybe that’ll come later) to becoming a no person. So, let’s focus on the positive… what are the things I’m currently working on saying yes to in 2020?

  • Reading. Lots and lots of it. Mostly in front of my YouTube fireplace. With a dog. And a blankie. Because 10-year-old Elizabeth is resurfacing. My current goal is to read 40 books this year.
  • Spiritual introspection and discipline. Continuing to find new ways of approaching my Christian faith in a way that edifies myself and the Church.
  • Exercise that isn’t running. Gasp. Hold the damn phone. I know. This year I think might be a running sabbatical.
  • Making good food in my beautiful kitchen.
  • Drinking less caffeine. Also on the list of things that don’t make sense.
  • Being honest about who I am and what I want out of life. Approaching my weirdness with a curiosity rather than contempt.
  • Connecting with family and friends.
  • Reflecting and revising my teaching practice.
  • Making the bed every day (???)

[Insert conclusion here]. Aren’t conclusions the worst things to write? All said, I’m on this journey to become a more decent human being. To treat myself and other with respect and dignity. To stamp out evil and poverty of the mind. To expose myself to new experiences and live in the moment. Whew. Let’s do it.

Time and space

I’m beginning to think that sleeping in is overrated. Not only is there science to back this up (REM cycles and all that) but I feel so much more at ease in the mornings if I give myself more time to wake up, enjoy coffee, and read a bit. On days like today, I’m promised the possibility of a nap, so it makes waking up early that much easier.

There’s something incredibly serene about coming downstairs to the soft light of the end table lamp, making coffee, and getting some thoughts out either in silence or with the dryer tumbling in the background. Most mornings I’m working on my side hustle(s). I have some of my best ideas right when I wake up.

Growing up, I always thought it was crazy that my dad would be up so early, usually around 4. Actually, what do I know? I was sleeping when he got up so I have no idea when he usually wakes up. I have specific memories of waking up early and the coffee pot would already be on and full of heaven’s nectar. In the winter he’d sometimes be sitting on the register when the furnace came on. Now when I visit, I actually try to get up early so that I can join him on the porch for coffee, deer watching, and a chat.

In general I’ve been trying to give myself more time, provide some “spaciousness” as a yoga teacher might say. Along with therapy I’m trying to make allowances for anxiety that I experience. I almost said “deal with” or “combat”, but anxiety is dare I say a part of me that is trying to tell me something:

Slow down, Elizabeth. It’s all going to be okay. The world is not on fire. Take your time.

I tell my students these things in so many words on a daily basis. I teach English for Speakers of Other Languages and part of helping them acquire language is giving them ample “wait time”. That’s science, too. Increasing wait time shows them that it’s okay for them to take a little longer processing, that what they have to say or write is important even if we spend a little more time on that part of the lesson.

The other day I didn’t wear a watch to work. It felt rebellious and irresponsible. But I realized that there are clocks everywhere. On the wall, on screens, on my computer, on my phone, on SmartBoards, on bank signs as I drive by, literally everywhere. The world reminds us that we are owned by time. And here I am dictating it to myself as well throughout the day.

No wonder I’m stressed and anxious about getting everything done. But recently even with all the things I’ve committed myself to, I haven’t felt as stressed as usual. I’ve been honest about the things that actually take time that I’ve been forgetting, and I’ve been making allowances for that: putting dishes away, folding a load of towels, going grocery shopping, getting my work bag ready, turning down the bed, making the bed, even stopping for coffee (I’ve really become a Dunkin’ girl lately…)

My point is that everything takes time, but our little agendas and Google calendars can only fit in so much. I’m beginning to learn what is really a priority to me and what makes me feel at ease, and giving myself that time. Making space. Really though, I’m not making space – you can’t make time. So I’m reserving space. And I feel so much calmer.

It was evident to me yesterday, the beginning of November and it seems also the beginning of the holiday season, that people are stressed. People are pulled in all different directions. I refuse to let myself not bask in the joy of the fall season, and soon, Advent. This is my favorite time of year, and I’ll never be “too busy” for admiring the trees, the gray cloudy skies, trick-or-treaters, making my home a cozy sanctuary, or enjoying a conversation with someone I love.

When we all look back on life at the end, whether we know it’s the end or not, I believe these are the things that matter. The little moments. The moments that disappear as soon as you become unaware of them and rush on to the next thing.

Self-actualization

I’ve learned a hell of a lot about myself in the past few months. Summer was a lovely time of watching sunrises, reading books (check out my Goodreads on the side bar), namely, getting back into fiction and even fantasy. I’ve been really connecting with who I am at my core. And also getting shit done. (That last one is vague but still hopefully conveys a strong message.)

Running has taken a back seat, though my most recent ink pays homage to my hobby-turned-natural-antidepressant. In fact, I’ve been pursuing this hobby, and PRs, for ten years now.

Ten years of running, of training, of actually only a couple of injuries. This past year held some roadblocks, like the month I had to wear a walking boot for plantar fasciitis, or the time I fell on concrete going downhill and gave myself a painful elbow sprain.

After the bout with PF, I achieve a couple PRs this year: the 10K and the half marathon. And I worked my ass off for those PRs.

Throughout this decade, running has been an outlet for all the self-guessing and -doubting from not being able to conceive. It was damn near necessary for my mental health while my husband was across the big blue ocean in the Army. It has helped me process a lot of life’s quandaries.

Now I’m no longer surviving, folks. Life is now not a struggle. That sounds quite melodramatic, right? But when you’re kind of wired to be a person who looks at the glass half empty (and at the same time don’t like what’s already in your glass), this is kind of huge.

Most people just go from day to day protecting themselves and making sure nothing goes too wrong…they see life as a threat. A good day means you made it through without getting hurt.

The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for a good chunk of my adult life. I moved in and out of this way of thinking, but now I’ve crossed “survive!” off my list.

When you’ve been doing this for so long, it’s hard to know where to go next. So I’ve been letting my heart lead me instead of my brain.

I’m reading, sitting in silence, going for a kayak, doing some yoga, exploring my faith and spirituality in a much deeper way, opening myself up to new relationships and opportunities.

And guess what? I’m thriving, yo.

Anyone who’s studied education or any related field knows about good ole Maslow. I’ve moved past the bottom two rungs and now I’m thriving in relationships. I’m doing a pretty good job in esteem, and mostly concerned about how I esteem myself. And I’ve been doing a lot of work in self-actualization.

I’ve been focusing a lot of energy here, and also in being mindful and aware. I’ve needed to slow down and take everything in. Instead of getting my views from the road, I’ve been getting them from the porch or the water.

And now that I’ve moved up to the upper echelons of this pyramid, my question is, how can I help others do the same? I have some ideas….

Unconditional ice cream

School is out here in Maryland (finally) and consequently I’ve been able to do errands like grocery shopping and running to the post office during regular business hours. It’s been glorious. And I know when late August rolls around I will whine and complain that now I don’t have time for work because I just have so much other stuff to do.

But at the grocery store, I’ve seen more than one grandma carting around her grandkids, picking out things. Today I was at our local grocery store and noticed that one grandkid was asking for some sort of ice cream treat. “Mom-mom, can we get….?” I don’t remember how the grandma replied because immediately I was thrown into my own repository of memories of these exact trips with my own grandma, Mimi.

The first anniversary of her death is approaching (August 11) and besides being reminded on my own trip sans children to the grocery store about our close relationship, I’m reminded of how she gave ____ to me unconditionally. Fill in the blank with whatever – love, chicken wings, Little Debbie cakes, cups of Sleepytime tea – and it’s still true.

Holy heck, I love her. I miss her. I thought she was one of the richest people in my own little sphere, simply because she just gave and gave. As I got older, I realized that she was not well off (she lived on a fixed income from the State of Illinois and the Social Security Administration) and sometimes she gave more than she had. But you know what? She always, always, gave with joy.

Now lest anyone thinks that I was spoiled only with 12-packs of cream soda and Zebra Cakes (I was), I never ever doubted that she loved me, supported me, and would open the door for me at any hour.

I blame Mimi often for my sweet tooth. We had treats at home, too, but man I loved it when she bought TV dinners and pudding.

I recently had some bloodwork done – I had a high fasting glucose reading awhile back and wanted to follow up on it. Turns out my glucose is fine, and so is my A1C. I thought maybe it’d be high from the sweets I ingest and sometimes binge (Oreos….?).

While I’m thankful for my health and no evidence of Mimi’s generosity as it relates to my A1C, I am equally grateful for the long-term effects of her emotional generosity as well.

I think as time passes and memories resurface, I will discover and realize more things about how she lived her life. Memories will always be alive and have the ability to be examined different ways.

I hope that grandkid sitting in the cart being pushed by his grandma realizes how special those mundane moments are, because someday they will be gone.

Scaredy cat

I am a scaredy cat. I may not look like it on the outside, but my mantra basically my whole life has been, “Fake it until you make it.” Through school. Through college. Through job after job. I reach higher ground and I’m still telling myself to fake it until I make it.

Except I have made it, in a lot of ways. I am it. I’m doing it, being it. And slowly as I get older I’m finally owning all the its.

I am a leader. I do have expertise. I get things done. I do hard things. And it’s been too long that I’ve been thinking I’ve been faking it to get here.

That’s what my doubt wants to tell me, that I don’t deserve to be this far or have accolades for doing hard things. Doubt wants to make me think that I’ve gotten here purely on luck, because the right door opened at the right time. That’s true, but only some of the time. In reality if you look back at the security cameras, this girl was the one actually opening the doors and not faking a damn thing.

Writer’s block is a bully.

Maybe if I write about writer’s block, it’ll go away. You know, just like those bullies that called me “four eyes” and “nerd” and “goody two shoes” at school.

In a way, writer’s block bullies me too. There are many times throughout the day whether I’m in the car, in the shower, on a run, teaching a lesson, that I have this idea that is just bursting forth like a storm on a warm summer day.

And then by the time I have the time and space to write about it, it’s retreated. And it’s hella frustrating. And probably the #1 reason I haven’t been writing here regularly, as regularly as I’d like.

However, those moments of existential clarity as frustrating as they are serve a purpose. They remind me that I’m a whole person. A human being with a soul experiencing life and emotions to the fullest. Someone who is more than aware of her own struggles and attempts to overcome them.

Tangent: do we really overcome our struggles? Climb them like a hill and forget them when we get to the bottom? Because of my experience this week with a resurgence of depression, I don’t think we fully overcome them. I think they become a part of us, perhaps to the extent to which they’re a thorn in our side. Or they serve to make us stronger.

I’ve been living with dysthymic disorder since I was probably 13. Before that, I remember feeling an awareness of emotions. I don’t particularly remember if I was a “high-strung” child, but I know I screamed for basically the first six months of my life. I think they call those kids “high needs” now.

I don’t know when or how it kicked in, but I don’t remember a time without it.

Sarah Wilson

For twenty years, I’ve been trying to tamp it down, hide it, and bury it six feet under. I’ve been in therapy, taken medicine, prayed for healing, and created endorphins by running to overcome it. Recently I read this book called First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson, and it’s all about depression’s cousin Anxiety. And for the first time in my life, I came away with an understanding and hope that anxiety can actually be a good thing, and it doesn’t have to rule over me, and I can use it in a positive way.

And all the while you’re being told there’s something wrong with you that has to be fixed. All the while you’re dependent on others’ ideas about what’s wrong with you.

Sarah Wilson

I had a moment this weekend when I realized depression could be used in the same way, or at least the type of depression that afflicts me. (I still struggle with how to word this… I hate saying ‘I have depression’, like it’s a pet.) Depression has spurred me into so many things that are actually good for me… cue the list:

  • regular exercise for those sweet sweet endorphins
  • staying involved in a church for the positive environment
  • prayer
  • writing… this one is probably the most significant
  • openness and vulnerability about my struggle, which can contribute to a larger sense of community for myself and others
  • eating/drinking well – I had a philosophy professor that said if we all just eat lettuce we won’t be depressed. He was kind of right, kind of wrong, but I see his point.
  • Self-examination
  • Yoga/meditation (totally prefer the former and avoid the latter….)
  • Getting regular sleep

I believe with all my heart that just understanding the metapurpose of the anxious struggle helps to make it beautiful.

Sarah Wilson

And as it turns out, all the things listed above help with anxiety too. The truth is, these mental health issues are part of who I am. But they’re not the whole picture. I am lucky (blessed? happy?) that the type of depression and anxiety I have are not debilitating. I am very thankful. And as sad as it is to me that I won’t be having any of my own biological children, I am glad that I won’t be passing on whatever genetic makeup has been responsible for depression/anxiety in my family for generations.

What I’m understanding from this early-morning writing session (fueled by coffee, lolz) is that we need to talk about this more. We need to talk about how it is to live with these ailments and how to be a fully engaged human on earth. We need to talk about how they affect our lives but also make us who we are. It emboldens me to see the stigma and conversations surrounding depression/anxiety changing in my lifetime. People seem to be more open about it than ever, and I think that is the true balm… connection and community.