A lighted match

Anytime I think I don’t need to go so frequently to the therapist, I’m proven wrong. Every. Single. Time.

Sometimes I internally measure my need for therapy by how long it takes me to start crying in a session. I get a cup of tea from the Keurig that’s provided in the practice I go to, get settled on the couch (yes just like the movies except I’m drinking tea so ya gurl is sitting, not laying down) and let out a big breath.

My therapist sometimes has knitting in her lap when I come in, or meditation beads, or just a pen and her leather bound journal. This time she had beads, and I envied the fact that she had, for all intents and purposes, a fidget. I want one.

Anyway, something had been bubbling up for a few days before that because when she asked me, “How are you? What’s been going on?” I felt a huge release. And that’s because she actually means, “How are you? How is your life? What do you want to explore today?”

And I broke down in tears, not quite to the ugly cry stage, but it was a cry from my soul that I didn’t realize was there until it happened. But I was glad she had the good Kleenex.

“I want my life to have meaning,” I said through tears and exaggerated gestures.

And that’s what we explored… for an hour.

She told me that when people have experienced mortality in some way — through suicide or loss of a family member, or through a different kind of loss like infertility — they begin to think about these things. And I’m two for two on that list.

What I pictured in that moment was that I had been in a dark room, completely dark, so that I couldn’t see even my hand in front of me. I wasn’t even fumbling around; I was just standing in the dark room.

Then, someone lit a match. It doesn’t matter who. But the weak glow from a singular match started to illuminate the dark room, and now I could see things.

And those things I can’t un-see. 

Even if I stand in the same room, pitch black where I can’t see anything in front of me, not even my hand, I will know what’s there.

And that for me is like seeing mortality.

Now that I’ve seen it, I can never go back to not knowing.

I can’t go back to living a life that’s not headed somewhere important. I may not know where that is, but what I’m learning is that the journey is the important part.

We’re all going to arrive at the end of earthly life. The destination is not a mystery. But what we’ll be wondering about is the journey that started with a single match.

Honesty is the best policy, with yourself

It’s two weeks into the new year but I think I’m finally coming up with a solid resolution. Sure, getting up 15 minutes earlier on work days is great, but I thought of something that will help every minute of every day become better.

This year I’ve decided to be honest with myself. This phrase “honest with myself” has been hiding in my shadow for a couple months now.

What exactly does it mean to be honest with oneself? It should be easy to be honest reflexively because we are the only ones with ourselves all day every day. Right? Wrong.

What I could be is different than what I should be, and all of that is worlds different than what I am. And what I am is what’s getting life done day in and day out. It’s who people see, who they talk to or about. It’s who I represent. The who that could or should be is all in my head. Reality is not matching the beautiful but deceptive picture in my brain. And it all comes down to pride.

No wonder I have issues.

For me this year being honest with myself will be focused on my commitments. This means everything from work to volunteering to running to frequency of phone calls to family and friends….

What I want to do and be committed to has gotten really fucked up in the past several years. Everything has been on the table because the way I thought my life was going to be most definitely is not. It so far has been the biggest eff you ever. And in this process I’ve found out how to be honest with myself. It hurts, so be prepared.

So it starts with the outward – the commitments and relationships – and moves inward to the feelings and intentions. It’s okay to not want to do something just because I don’t want to. It’s okay to consider committing to a 30-day yoga plan and then finally deciding not to. It’s okay to tell myself that I don’t want to be in x relationship anymore because I honestly don’t feel like it’s being reciprocated. It’s okay to be honest with myself about my hostile and violent feelings towards all pregnant women at Ikea on a Sunday afternoon.

And it’s okay to let all the barriers down and cry when I need to cry and laugh when I need to laugh, even if that means being best friends with the Kleenex box in a therapy session in a room that smells like lavender and patchouli.

Expectations, meet Reality. I hope you’ll get along.

Watching someone die

Watching someone die. A participial phrase hanging in the balance.

One evening this summer I watched someone I love die. It has to be one of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful events I’ve witnessed in my third-of-a-century life. It’s beautiful in the objective sense of the word… unique and relatable and human and precious. All at once.

Time passed but at the same time it stood still. I felt like I was witnessing her walk into the afterlife. And watching her die, there was no wondering if there was an afterlife. It exists and she was headed there.

All my memories of her came flooding back to me all at once, and at the same time there was only that moment. Breathing, waiting. She was hugging me for the last time, though she was supine on the bed. I could feel her soul hugging mine as she slipped away. I would say “literally” but you wouldn’t believe me. But it was a literal embrace.

When I first saw her on the bed, I knew that she was dying. There had been other times where family members had thought she was dying, or that my great-grandma was dying, that this was it. But as soon as I saw her, I knew. And it felt like it was time, and it felt like it wasn’t.

Since then, I thought that maybe I should have stayed until the end. But I’m human, or maybe just more selfish than most, and I wanted to go home to get some sleep and see her in the morning. I knew in my heart that she would die in the night, but in my head I’d see her in the morning.

Her dementia daily robbed her blind, and it robbed the whole family too. I hated the feeling after I got off the phone with her on my more infrequent calls. They were different than the phone calls in the past. She’d call me on her way home from work across the river, telling me that I just have to go outside and see the sunset because it’s a pretty one. But then the calls were five minutes long, if that. Full of questions or sighs or little laughs because she couldn’t remember things anymore. But she remembered me.

And I thought about this on a cold windy walk with my dog. A singular phrase entered my mind: watching someone die. And my heart took it from there and remembered. I experienced a squeezing feeling in my chest that was her saying, Don’t forget me. Remember what we had. I love you. You’re okay. You make me proud. 

Grocery Checkout Memories

I was finishing my Christmas shopping at the grocery store just a mile from my house. The check out line wasn’t particularly long but the person in front of me needed a price check. So there I was, browsing the candy like a kid when I saw it.

Mentos.

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I love the fruity ones, but I usually default to the minty ones since they seem to have a purpose outside of being basically candy.

Generally I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it but since it was a few days before Christmas I was already thinking about my favorite church service of the year, Christmas Eve by candlelight, and therefore I was thinking of the church I grew up in. Which meant I was again seven or eight years old, sitting in the third, or was it fourth? pew from the front, next to Mimi.

She always had everything in her purse. Name it, she had it: clippers, tiny notebooks, pens, pencils, rose gold lipstick, Winterfresh gum, maybe even a small pack of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies. She was the consummate old lady with a carpet bag. And she had Mentos. Just like the ones in the grocery store.

This was my, our, first Christmas without her. She’d been declining for years but I always like to remember her at her peak Mimi phase – taking us shopping, making us food, cuddling in bed and watching Mary Tyler Moore. And some days I wish I could go back to that. She provided a safe loving space for me for the majority of my formative years.

It’s so interesting how many days I can’t remember what I had for breakfast by noon, but I see one tiny thing at a busy place and a flood of memories, feelings, and grief overcome me even for a second. Memory is a funny thing.

Breaking News: “Top Nine” Doesn’t Capture Most Important Moments

I use Instagram fairly regularly, probably with more regularity now that I have opted out of Facebook. I know, I know, Instagram is owned by Facebook blah blah blah.

Everyone’s been posting their “Top Nine” recently – the most liked photos in their feeds. Once again, social media panders and quite frankly takes advantage of our desire to be liked and seen and celebrated.

I share my Top Nine, because why not? But I have to add that my top moments most were not shared on Instagram for the world to see.

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I can make quite a few assumptions about 2018 from these pictures. I traveled a lot, spent some time in the hospital, exercised a bunch, and am apparently still in love with my spouse. These are all true, but there’s so much more that happened in 2018 not pictured here, like that kid who was absent on picture day.

I will spare the weary reader nine things that happened in 2018. But I will share that one of the best memories is sitting with my sister on my parents’ porch late at night pondering the recent death of our grandmother and watching an amazing Midwestern thunderstorm. I will share that the reconciliation of a friendship was culminated in lovely time spent with her and her family. I will share that the financial and childless freedom to travel to new places has really helped me settle into my unforeseen reality. I will share that my husband and I are indeed more in love than ever. I will share that modern medicine is amazing and I am forever grateful to the surgeon who listened to me and finally was able to diagnose me with endometriosis.

All those moments and more made up a painful, wondrous, family-filled year. They say that one’s formative years usually happen before age 25, but I argue that all years can be formative, some more than others. I’m thankful I have the maturity and wherewithal to really appreciate the important work that time and openness can do for our souls.

Here’s to a blessed, wonderful, hard 2018. And let’s welcome 2019 with open arms.

 

Who Am I?

This question makes me think of the character Jean Valjean in my favorite musical of all time, Les Miserables. Prisoner 24601. That’s how he was known for years and years. And I think up until his dying day, it’s an identity forced on him that he carried to his grave.

We all have identities that are either chosen or forced upon us. Up until I was about 30, there was always an epithet after my name… Elizabeth the oldest daughter of Jon and Melissa. Elizabeth, Eileen’s granddaughter. Elizabeth the honors student (again and again and again). Elizabeth the piano teacher. Elizabeth the college student. Elizabeth the wife, and then Army wife.

Alternate identities can be a welcome invisible shield from who we really are, especially if the underlying being is of an unsure form. Like me. I grasped onto any positive or powerful or proud name I could through my childhood and early adulthood. I really wanted to please people, anyone: my parents, my grandparents, my sisters, my teachers, and then my boyfriend now-husband.

I wanted to look good on social media, on Christmas cards. I wanted to convey a sense that I had my life together because it was much easier than being honest with not only myself but everyone. It hurt to be honest, to myself especially because you have to live with yourself.

So for years I hid behind my shield, and I had an acute awareness that hiding was exactly what I was doing. But I didn’t know how to put that cloak on the floor. I’d be naked. I’d be seen for who I really am. (FWIW I know this all sounds cliche but guess what? I don’t care. It’s honest.)

I remember a distinct moment when all my alternate identities no longer were serving me. I was “home” in Illinois visiting for Christmas. Earlier that year I’d just graduated with a Master’s degree (a welcome accomplishment and identity to add to the list) and I’d landed a job as a professor.

I made sure that everyone knew I was a professor and not “just” a teacher, like I’d started my career years before that. I felt I had really made in the world. Even if during my ridiculously short tenure as a professor I felt like an imposter the whole time. I didn’t even had a PhD. I wasn’t “Doctor”. Hell, I’d barely even studied much of the subject of the department I was a part of. But I was all of a sudden an expert in my area. No pressure, right? But I clung to that identity as Professor as tightly as I could.

The tidy list of accomplishments that I thought made up who I was began to really unravel for me when we were trying to get pregnant and couldn’t. If I’m honest, my whole life all of my identities were just placeholders for when I’d be a wife. And then they still stayed tight in their places until I would become a mother. But in the same time of about six months, I lost my title of Professor due to moving and having to resign from the job, and then I really lost the possibility of being a Mother when we decided to not pursue treatment and live without children.

That moment during a winter break, I was just Elizabeth, Elizabeth who was loved and who loved her family. Elizabeth who barely wore makeup except mascara or changed her earrings or went on runs before Christmas dinner or watched silly movies with the kids while the adults played games. Elizabeth who likes to read and play music and drink wine and talk about deep things. Elizabeth who’s been in love with the same man for almost half her life. Elizabeth who loves deeply and a little recklessly and takes almost everything personally. Elizabeth who is generally anxious and has a penchant for situational depression. Elizabeth who has big opinions about a few things and doesn’t care much about the rest.

When I realized all the other identities, or rather, qualities that made me up as a whole person, it began a search for truth about who I am, what’s important, and why I’m on the earth. And the answers to any of those big questions really don’t have much to do with my alter egos, my other identities I hide behind in order to not face the fact that most days I am confused about my purpose on the earth. And least of all it doesn’t have much to do with whether my uterus will sustain a child or not.

At first taking off the cloak of epithets was difficult. Painful. Soul-wrenching. I grieved. And then after awhile it was freeing, and now I’d never dream of putting the cloak(s) back on.

 

The Day After

Long have I despised the day after Christmas. All the hype, expectation, and anticipation ends even before midnight on Christmas, because soon we understand that the magic of the season is over.

This is the attitude about the days following Christmas I grew up with. Often as a family we would take down and put away all the Christmas decorations the day after. If I’m not mistaken, there was even a year we began on Christmas night.

As an adult in my own house with my own family (of three) and my own traditions, I keep up the decorations as long as socially acceptable, which for me is right before I go back to work as a teacher, or even the weekend after that. It’s an act that has rebellious roots, and it’s an external way for me to keep the spirit and warm and fuzzy feelings of Christmas alive in light of my childhood traditions and the after-Christmas sales.

The truth is, the wisemen were still searching. Purportedly, it could have taken them up to two years to finally visit Jesus. In a cursory search about this, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the length of the wisemen’s journey. What I take away from it is that after Jesus’ birth, they were still searching. The story wasn’t over.

Another external observation that helps me not fall into a post-holiday depression is that the days are now becoming longer, if only by a couple minutes. This year the winter solstice really meant something to me. The longest night of the year was far from the darkest: there was a full moon. In another cursory search (I’m ashamedly a fan of these quick Google searches…), it’s believed that the sun dies and is reborn. In fact, in .many cultures, a god or goddess of sun is born.

So on the day after Christmas, I’m still pondering what it means that God was incarnated onto the Earth in the form of Jesus. It brings all of Advent, and quite frankly, this whole crazy year of 2018 into perspective.