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Lost.

Floundering.

Blindly making my way around sharp corners and endless dark hallways.

Grasping and reaching, desperately, for something to hold onto. Anything. Only finding empty air.

Heart pounding. Thumping in a panic fueled adrenaline.

The feelings. Fear. Anger. Angst. Sorrow.

Used. Forsaken.

Empty. Always empty.

Then…

Don’t give up. You don’t give up. Keep fighting. Keep trying. You have to keep trying.

So much to lose… but was it all in my imagination?

Carefully crafted illusion?

Keep moving. Forward. Always forward.

But there’s the pull. The pull of turning back. Back to the before. To the always.

Crawl back into the fold of grim numbness.

Back to what served this life so well.

Back to the fractured smile, the hollow eyes. The carefully placed laugh.

It would be the easy way.

But now I know. I know she’s there. Buried beneath the years.

I’ve met her. I know she’s there and I don’t think I can abandon her

She. She deserves a voice… she should be seen.

She should be heard. Felt. Forgiven.

Accepted.

Understood.

I want to allow her.

I want to take off the mask and be free.

I want to shed the cloak I never knew I wore.

What would that actually feel like?

Would I breathe?

Would I take in pure sweet air?

Or would I crumble?

Now that I realize I’ve been living in this guise

I want to rip it off so bad that I feel

Like if I don’t

I won’t be able

To breathe

For another minute.

I want to be me. Finally.

Will you let me?

 

 

 

 

 

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“Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable and lightness has a call that’s hard to hear”

-Indigo Girls, Closer to Fine

I have friends in my life who think I have lived a charmed life. I have fooled them all. My life has not been perfect. I have stuff. We all do. I have suffered my share of pain, both physical and emotional. I have suffered loss. I have things that I have experienced that will never be written about in this blog. But I am immensely happy. I have joy. Even when things in life kind of suck I have usually managed to smile and laugh. When given the choice between being happy and being miserable, I almost always choose happiness.

I realize that happiness is not always a choice. Some people suffer from very real depression and can’t always “choose” their way out of it. But for a lot of us, a lot of the time, it is an option. Even if you’ve gone through stuff, really bad stuff, you have the ability to be happy. Being happy doesn’t mean everything is perfect. It means that you focus on the good. You acknowledge the bad, but you see the good. I guarantee that there is always some good to absorb.

I don’t claim to be an expert on how to achieve happiness. I just know what has worked for me. For some people, happiness comes easy. Some people are born with happy dispositions. But even if you weren’t, you aren’t a victim of genetics. You have been blessed with free will. And with that you can make the conscious effort to choose yourself happy. This is what has worked for me:

  • Music. I am happier when music is in my life every day. I have used music to help mend a broken heart. Music has helped me exorcise some demons and purge anger. Music has given me hope and inspiration when I’ve gone through tough times. I know what songs I need to hear when I’m feeling hopeless, what songs I need to hear when I’m pissed. Music can validate your feelings, it can soothe your soul. Music, for me, can tap into the deepest recesses of my mind and tease out some form of healing or relief or joy.
  • Nature. Get outside. Being outside makes me feel connected with the largest, most nourishing and sustaining thing we all have in common. The earth, the world, mother nature. It is really an amazing thing. We probably all take it for granted at times. Notice all the amazing things going on in nature. It’s really a bunch of tiny miracles happening all the time. Every new growth, every creature, every sunset is pretty awe inspiring. Even if you can’t physically go outside, pay attention. Take it in as you’re driving. Look out the window. There is likely something pretty cool happening.  Even the rain can be refreshing. I sometimes actually look forward to a rainy day. It’s a chance to cozy up inside, read a good book or watch a movie in the afternoon. Seeing the beauty in nature is a spiritual connection for me. It makes me feel connected to something bigger than myself.
  • Laugh. Find things or people that make you laugh. My family always makes me laugh. My friends crack me up. Surround yourself with funny people or with animals or whatever it is that works for you. Maybe it’s watching funny cat videos on YouTube. Maybe it’s a comedian or funny writer who does it for you. Whatever puts a smile on your face is good, but if it makes you laugh out loud then go to it when you’re struggling. This will help you with an important tool for when things are really tough (see next)
  • Learn to laugh when things really suck. Maybe it’s a sick sense of humor. Call it what you want, but laughing in the midst of shit is a crucial coping technique. Remember the scene from Steele Magnolias when Sally Field is breaking down after her daughter’s funeral and Olympia Dukakis tries to get her to hit Shirley MacLaine? They all dissolved into laughter. This is a thing. It really helps. It doesn’t take away the pain or the fear, but it sure as hell helps you get through it. My brother was the master at this. It’s something we’ve always done in my family. My sister and brother and I once spent a few minutes making fun of his XRays, making crude and inappropriate jokes. We were scared to death of the news we were waiting to hear, but we were cracking up at the same time.
  • Abolish the negative. We all have negative thoughts. You have to learn to recognize them when they pop into your head and then kick them out like an annoying guest who won’t leave. You let them in the door, but you can also decide it’s time for them to leave. You may have to do it over and over but eventually they’ll stop ringing your doorbell. Same with negative people. Some people seem to thrive on negativity. They talk about their problems constantly. They aren’t interested in solving their problems, they just want to wallow. And they usually want to bring you down with them. (That’s the whole “darkness being insatiable” thing). These people also seem to create drama around them. There’s always something, some issue, some injustice. You can choose to not partake. You can distance yourself. You can cut them out of your life. You know the difference between a friend who needs a shoulder and a friend who sucks the life out of everyone. I will be there endlessly for a friend in need. I’m not heartless. But I have little patience for people who choose to be victims. Which leads me to…
  • Don’t be a victim. Sure, stuff’s happened to you. Join the club. Everyone has their shit. Deal with it, process it, talk about it. But give yourself a limit. Sometimes talking about a problem crosses the line into harping and wallowing. If you find yourself splashing around in your problems, bathing in them endlessly, then you’ve crossed the line from healthy venting into letting your problems define you. I’ve done it. Most of us have done it at some point. But if you are continuously allowing this to happen then you’re playing the victim. You can choose to be a fighter who pulls themselves out of it or you can choose to be a helpless victim. One of my favorite songs is “The Best of You” by The Foo Fighters. “Were you born to resist or be abused? Is someone getting the best of you?”. This song has helped me pull my head out of my own ass many times.
  • See the good in other people. I have always believed that pretty much everyone is good. (There are exceptions of course). But most people are inherently good. They don’t always act like it. I don’t. And you don’t either. But we’re all pretty decent people. When I don’t act like the kind of person I want to be or should be, I count on my friends and family and people I care about to forgive me and take into context the whole person- not just a moment of stupidity or selfishness. I try to do the same for other people. If you can believe that most people are good, you will be able to have more patience. Give others a little space or a little grace. It’s the ultimate act of kindness to withhold judgement and assume the best of people. And it will make you happier too.
  • Learn from the bad. Take all the stuff that’s happened to you. Try to examine that bad experience, or feeling or pain… whatever. What did it do for you? You already know what it did to you. But what did it teach you? Did it teach you that you are a survivor, stronger than you knew? Did it make you learn a valuable lesson? Did it make you treat people better or value your relationships more? Did it make you more resilient? If you’re not sure, do some soul searching and maybe you can find a take-away. Maybe you can see something good that came of something bad. And if you can’t, then try to find the other things in your life that are blessings. Finding the good in the bad can help you move on emotionally from something painful. It can take you from victim to survivor.
  • Trust your instincts. We spend so much time worrying. Fretting over things. Trust yourself. You have been this amazing gift that’s subtle and intangible but if you tap into it, you can free yourself a little. And I don’t mean leaving everything to happenstance. I mean actively listening to yourself. That little voice in your head or that feeling in your gut, whatever it is for you, stop ignoring it. I know that when I follow that inner compass things tend to fall into place. Years ago, I returned to Atlanta after a visit to my hometown. I drove for four hours choking back tears. I felt an overwhelming desire to move back to my hometown. I had no idea why. Joe and I had just started dating and I was so happy in my relationship with him, but I needed to move home. I nervously told him that evening. I couldn’t explain why I wanted to move and I felt foolish as I told him how I felt. He told me without hesitation that he would move with me. Just like that. We made plans and moved a few months later. A year later we got engaged and then found out days later that my brother had stage four cancer. I am convinced that is the reason I needed to move back. I will forever be grateful to Joe for agreeing to move with me. To my instincts for telling me to do it. And to myself for listening and taking a leap of faith. It meant that I lived within minutes of my family. It meant that I got to spend a lot of precious time with my brother during the last years of his life. It meant that I was established in a job with a wonderful boss who let me take time off or come into work late if I’d spent the night at the hospital. For all of those things, I am eternally grateful.
  • Make connections. This is the ultimate thing that we all seek. We crave it. It’s a primal urge from the moment we’re born. We need to connect with others. We need to have relationships with people. We want to understand and to be understood. We want to feel intimacy. We want to talk and laugh. In order to experience these things, we need other people in our lives. If you find yourself constantly in protective mode, not letting people in, you’ll miss out on one of the most fulfilling parts of life. You don’t need hundreds of friends. A few can do the trick. You have to be able to put yourself out there for this to happen. And sometimes that’s not so easy. We’ve all been hurt, we’ve all lost trust at some point. But isolating yourself and refusing to connect with other people makes you a victim of your hurt. A lonely victim. Even if it’s uncomfortable for you, find someone to connect with. Coworkers, family, neighbors, random people waiting in line with you. There are hundreds of opportunities to connect with other people. The more you do it, the better you will feel. There is no substitute for human connection.

That’s it. That’s my formula. It has served me well. It is not a prescription, maybe other stuff works for you. I truly hope that you have found your formula. I truly hope you’ve found ways to be happy. I hope that you experience more joy than pain. I hope you have more good than bad. Nothing would make me happier.

“I love all of you, hurt by the cold.

So hard and lonely too,

When you don’t know yourself.

Imagine me, taught by tragedy,

Release is peace,

I heard a little girl

And what she said was something beautiful

To give your love no matter what,

Is what she said.”

-Red Hot Chili Peppers, My Friends

*Thank you to the incredible Samara for her post “21 Things I Irrationally Love” for the inspiration!

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“And I know it aches and your heart it breaks and you can only take so much….  Walk on.” -U2, Walk On

It was my wedding day.

We had spent the past year and a half planning every little detail, the string quartet, the candles, the sunset. Yes, even the sunset.

One year before our wedding date I stood outside and watched the sky. I studied the sun as it gracefully slid into a warm golden light. Letting it soak in, I marveled at this moment. The warmth and beauty of the world awash in a sublime glow, this gift for us to witness most evenings. I’ve always felt moved, spiritually connected to the sunset. It’s a daily reminder that anything is possible.  As the sun’s dance came to an end, it washed the sky in pink and purple, one last flourish to remind us of the promise of the sun rising for a new day. This was the moment I wanted our wedding to take place, the beginning of our new life together.

A year later, on the actual day, it was beautiful, the sun was putting on it’s luminous show right on schedule. I stood outside of the chapel and watched as my sisters and best friends filed inside. The strings started playing Canon in D and it was time for me to take my last walk as an unmarried woman. My heart started racing and I could feel the pressure building inside of me, the surge of tears threatening to spill out of my eyes. I looked up at the sun, willing it to work it’s magic on me. Let me feel the hope and promise, the assurance that  it would greet me the next morning and everything would be all right.

Nothing.

I felt completely alone, the sunset wasn’t giving me strength, my family and friends had all gone inside. The only person there was the sweet old lady who worked for the chapel and was there to make sure all went as planned. She looked at me nervously, her eyes darting from me to the door of the church.

And all I could think was, “I can’t do this.”

Before I had the chance to say anything, the doors were flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to watch me. I scanned the crowd….  I saw my family and friends…. I saw my Dad and Stepfather waiting in front of the alter to give me away, but I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone.

And that’s not how it was supposed to be.

I don’t know how long I paused there. It really was surreal. Like time stopped.

Then my eyes found Joe. And right next to him a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and knew that if I could make it to him that I would be o.k.

I felt myself move forward, effortlessly gliding….  Something was propelling me forward.  I felt a sense of calm, warmth and serenity that I hadn’t felt in 18 months.

Eighteen months earlier, my 16 year old brother was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.

Given a grim diagnosis, he remained steadfast. He was going to be fine, he was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.

Ten days before my wedding he lost his fight.

This was the day the world forever changed for the six of us that were there with him. Nothing would ever be the same, there was something deep inside  each of us that had been irreparably changed. I felt gutted, depleted and seething with heartache.

September 15, 1999 was the worst day of my life.

Fourteen years later I still look back and I don’t know how any of us made it through a funeral and a wedding. But we did. We somehow walked through it together, feeling our way through a fog of pain and grief. There would be no postponing of the wedding, as I’d suggested. I couldn’t imagine waking up in a world without my brother, let alone throwing a wedding. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he “didn’t have time for cancer”, he didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do. And he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.

So, we pulled it together, summoned our strength and even though we were surely still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding. The single candle stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. There was a beautiful poem in his memory read during the ceremony, and his favorite song was played at the reception. And we danced and we drank and we had fun.

Inexplicably, we actually had fun.

Fourteen years have passed since that day.

Fourteen years later and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him.

Fourteen years later and I’m still learning how all this works, the after part.

And even though I’m sometimes exhausted by all this learning, I know it’s important to pull my head out of the sand every once in a while and pay attention.  I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back…

but I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned came from a friend I worked with. I confessed to her that I didn’t think that I would ever feel joy again. I knew I would feel some level of happiness, but true, full, unadulterated joy? I couldn’t see that ever happening. I really thought the part of me capable of feeling with abandon had died. She adamantly refused to agree. She said that I would feel joy again. She was so sure. It actually kind of annoyed me at the time. But her insistence also gave me hope.

And she was right. When I had my son 15 months later, I felt joy, a pure unfiltered happiness. And I’ve felt it many times since then. With my daughters, with my husband, with my friends and family. My son’s birth filled a hollowness that had been residing inside my soul. I have thought of her many times since then even though we aren’t close any more. She gave me something no one else had been able to give me at one of my darkest moments. As an outsider she was able to guarantee me that I would feel again. See, she had a daughter already and knew that when I had a child I would have no choice but to feel joy, that my love for my baby would override the pain. The birth of my son didn’t take away the pain of losing my brother, but it allowed me to open my heart up again to hope.

It gave me permission to feel happy.

I learned to cut people some slack.

You really don’t know what people are going through, what they have endured or are battling. I had many nights and early mornings of driving home from the hospital after staying with my brother where I truly don’t know how I made it home. There were times where I caught myself driving about 15 mph on a busy road. Before my brother’s illness I would have been irate over a slow driver holding me up. I still sometimes get a little annoyed but I always remind myself.

We all have bad days and some of us have really bad days and are just trying to make it to tomorrow, so I try to keep my irritation in check. I’m sure many people granted me that grace, and I’m grateful. I was so fragile and raw that to be confronted by an angry driver or shopper at the grocery store would have been too much.

Compassion and grace isn’t giving people a pass when you know they’re suffering.

Real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt, granting them access, assisting them when you don’t know them, when you don’t know what they are going through.  If you have to know the behind the scenes, well then you’re kind of sitting in judgement, right?  I wasn’t an asshole before, but I don’t think I really recognized the depths that people can be trapped in and look completely normal to the rest of the world.

I learned that comfort  sometimes comes from unexpected places.

There are some people who had such an impact on me, who helped me through difficult times and they probably will never know the significance of their actions. There was a coworker who, as I was leaving the office to go to the hospital, stopped me to give me a big bear hug. He knew I was worried about the news we were getting from my brother’s test results, and while I had talked about it with my shy, reserved friend I was completely taken aback with his show of affection. It was a small gesture that I knew wasn’t easy for him to offer. His effort to offer me solace moved me and reminded me that even though many of them didn’t know my brother, there was a whole team of people rooting for him.

Then there’s my husband’s brother and his wife who drove 12 hours to be here for my brother’s memorial service.

My sister in law, who I barely knew was the person I leaned on during that service. I found myself opening up to her and this was only the second time she and I had met. She helped me get through an emotional night and she seemed genuinely touched by the stories she hear from my brother’s friends. She said that he sounded like an amazing person and she felt like she kind of knew him after hearing about his antics.

I almost collapsed with gratitude when she said those words to me.  It let me know that my brother wouldn’t be forgotten, that his spirit and his humor could be translated to people who’d never met him.

I’ve learned that you can, even 14 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.

You can be sitting at your kid’s swim practice just trying to write in your notebook when a memory you’re writing about simply knocks the wind out of you and next thing you know you’re wiping away tears hoping no one notices.

You can be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter looks just like him and you almost want to stalk him, just so you can pretend for a minute that he’s still here.

You can watch your kids doing something especially mischievious and your thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of your brother egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behaviour.

And you can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture you as an adult as he did as a little kid.

And your heart hurts because you know he would have had so much fun with your kids and they would have loved their uncle so much.

You could bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but it’s not going away so you might as well let it happen.

You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but you’ll be ok.

And I’ve learned that I still feel my brother’s presence.

I see him in each of my children, in their personalities…  in their sense of humor, which is what my brother was known for.

I feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time.

I feel him kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me.  I can almost hear what he would say in those situations.

I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me.

They are bittersweet.

They are welcome.

And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.

My brother was supposed to walk me down the aisle.

When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to do that, we contemplated our other options.  We considered having both my dad and stepfather walk me down the aisle, having my sister’s husband walk me down the aisle.

But in the end, I decided that my brother was who I had chosen to walk me down the aisle.

There was no understudy, there would be no last minute stand in.  I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage making that walk without him, I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.  And what I’ve learned is that there didn’t need to be a replacement.

My brother showed up.

He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared and that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.

My brother showed up…

he  was there with me on one of the best days of my life.

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