Grief

It’s funny how these posts tend to pour out of me in bursts. Once I give myself permission to write, the floodgates open. This part of me is like a faucet I keep clamped tightly shut, knowing the water will consume me. Once I start, it’s hard to focus on anything else – to participate in the stream of life in a way the capitalist machine would deem “productive”. I struggle with that concept even when the faucet is secured in place.

I told myself I wasn’t ready to write about my grandmother. “It’s too new,” I cautioned, like a helicopter parent aloft in her own spinning anxiety. I haven’t had a chance to organize my thoughts and feelings in the orderly fashion with which I typically approach life. Truth be told, I don’t know what I feel. I thought I knew what grief was supposed to look like and I was wrong.

The first night without her was gut wrenching. I had the first legitimate craving for a drink I’d had in years. I begged my wife, the dog, the darkness – whomever or whatever was listening – to knock me out. When her house hit the real estate market, I felt an almost-equal sense of devastation. I do not consider the town where I attended high school “home”. It’s a place that will always be synonymous with suffering. My grandmother’s, on the other hand, was a place where I felt grounded. The tidal mud pulled me out of suffering and into the stream of life. It bubbles, quite literally, with activity. When I was almost three years sober, I stood in that tidal mud and sent a plea out to the Universe: “I need something now or I’m done. I’m going to drink, I’m going to use, and I’m going to do whatever feels good. This isn’t worth it”. Not thirty seconds later, my new sponsor called my phone and told me there was another way to live.

Sadly, my grandmother’s became a place synonymous with a different kind of suffering: her own. Now that she’s gone, I feel relieved. For several months before she died, I experienced terror inducing heart palpitations. Sometimes hundreds a day. My empathic heart was literally broken. When she passed, the palpitations slowed and ceased.

If I am honest, most of the death I have experienced has been accompanied by a sense of relief. When my biological father died by suicide, I was relieved. He suffered more than I have ever seen a human suffer – at least in the mental sense. I still have not, as yet, met anyone as lost and sick. And once he was no longer hurting, he could no longer hurt me. Today I understand that hurt people hurt people. I think, wherever he is now, he understands that, too. He may not have found the answers he was searching for when he was alive, but his death validated my choice to continue pursuing recovery.

I know for a fact that there are people reading this and wondering, “why the hell does she reveal all this?” Humans are inclined toward judgment. I don’t let it stop me. Also, if you think this is too much, you should hear the things I don’t say. Friends, my boundaries are FIRE. (I love throwing in lingo I learn from barely twenty-somethings.) That being said, the reason I am so forthright is because I meet people on a weekly basis who wonder, “Am I supposed to feel like this?” And what I’ve learned is there is no guidebook for this shit. Believe me – and this is something I say a lot – I spent the better part of my life searching for the instruction manual to human existence. I loved my philosophy courses. And I’m still prone to search for an adultier adult. Most of the time, I have no idea what I’m doing, and my poor inner child screams, “No! This is chaos! This is scary! I need order! I need predictability!” And my stomach aches and my heart pounds, and the Universe laughs and laughs at my incorrigibility.

So, my grandmother died – my beautiful, beautiful grandmother – and, as it turns out, there is no “right” way to be. Most of the time, I’m okay. But then there are moments when I find myself crying at dinner and not really understanding why. And if you asked me to go to certain parts of Maine, I would vehemently decline. Photos of the coast make me sick, nevermind the rocky landscape itself. That is pain I am not ready to touch. I am not ready to fully immerse myself in that feeling of rootless-ness. At first I berated myself for being avoidant – like an active addict without drugs – but, with a little help, I’ve come to understand that this a gradual process: Our brains have built-in mechanisms to keep us safe. I am not selfish for honoring my process.

There was a period when I worried that my grandmother was out in the ether feeling hurt that I’m not “sad enough” or not “grieving right”. After I spoke those words out loud to another person – who assured me I was being absurd – I turned on my car and it was 11:11. I’ve seen 11:11 multiple times a week since my grandmother died. Sometimes twice a day. I see it on the Roku screen when I shut down Netflix. I see it when I walk by the stove. I see it when I open my phone. I’ve seen it in the company of witnesses who can attest that I’m not sitting by the clock, watching the minute hand creep forward. It startles me. And it might seem silly to some, but to me it seems like a sign.

At the exact moment my grandmother died, a beautiful red bird burst in front of our windshield. “My angels are with me today,” I remarked to my wife. Five minutes later, my mother called with the news.

If that image doesn’t sum up life, I don’t know what does.

A violent pop of color. A brief rustle of wings on the currents of time. There and gone.

Self-Forgiveness

This is an update – of sorts – because I haven’t done any blogging for myself since June. I know I repeat this triviality more than you might care to read, but I’m a Virgo and I like (need?) a rough plan when I start a piece of writing. However, having spent the early morning drinking coffee and catching up on blog subscriptions/Tricycle magazine articles, I decided to go rogue and put my thoughts down with no plan whatsoever. Watch out kids, I’m wildin’. (Whatever that means.)

Does this mean I might actually be learning to relax? Ha! What a lovely thought. In all seriousness, I have been doing a lot of work on myself. These are not small victories by any means. You are dealing with a woman who has to make a conscious effort not to match her food to her plate. Just take the first plate you grab, is an almost-daily mantra. Yesterday, for example, I endured butternut squash pasta on an orange plate. Oh, the horror of two similar shades commingling together! Sure, I could buy white dinnerware and save myself the trouble. But I like my Fiestaware and I refuse to live a life devoid of color.

There are times when I simply cannot abide the spicy black bean soup in the orange bowl. There are times when it needs to be in the blue bowl. And it’s in those moments I need to forgive myself the most. I can control the blue bowl. I can’t control that my grandmother died in July. I can’t wrap a good night’s sleep in a box and gift it to my tired wife. I can’t divert the week’s latest nonsense to some mystical drama llama who exists solely to unburden me of responsibility. When I dig out that blue bowl, it means I am suffering in the Buddhist sense of the word. It means I am resisting the fact that absolutely nothing about our human experience is certain, and it’s causing me pain. And the only way out of that resistance is to acknowledge why I’m doing what I’m doing and greet myself with compassion.

If I were to look at myself objectively – as I might in a clinical setting with a stranger – I would certainly not respond with, “Wow, you are a piece of shit. Why can’t you be normal? It’s just a bowl. Use it. It’s just food. Eat it”. Never – in all my years of working with wounded people – have I found that approach to fast-track healing. That is the voice of a critical, abusive parent. So, if my inner two year old is feeling scared – and she wants the blue bowl – she can have it. Then we can talk about why she needs it. We can examine if there are other ways to get those needs met that don’t include obsessing over which vegetables match her plate.

I have been forgiving myself a lot lately. Over the past five years, I’ve set a number of bottom lines around so-called unproductive behaviors. This summer, I’ve steamrolled over all of them.

For instance, I bought more holiday decorations because my apartment is bigger now and, well, I can. And why not? My choices are in line with my minimalist values because these items bring me joy. Today, I believe I deserve joy.

I’ve also transitioned from a (mostly) plant based to pescatarian diet. If that mutinous diversion from my value system isn’t shocking enough, I also buy many meals from my favorite cafe. Consequently, I’ve put on a little weight. My cold weather jeans pinch my mid-section, and my bikini belly is more Buddha than Bali.

All of the aforementioned is okay. I was tired of subsisting on salad, processed fake meat, and pasta with red sauce. I am also tired of berating myself for not being a cook. (I bake like a mofo. Baking has rules. Baking is safe.) And I am so thankful for that cafe. Some weeks they provide the only nutritious food I eat. Long-term, I’d like to come into balance rather than live in extremes. Can I learn to cook a few simple, healthy things? That process is an on-going struggle – and a messy one at that. The other week, for example, I managed to bastardize a bag of frozen ravioli. That takes skill let me tell you.

Today, I’m allowed to be messy. I am a human being. I am no longer answering to that nasty inner voice telling me I’m not enough.

I am not advocating we all sit around and co-sign our own bullshit. I am merely acknowledging that I am doing the very best I can in this moment. I have to trust that when I learn how to do better (or have healed enough to do better), I will. Historically, that has always been true. In order to accomplish that, however, I need to love the woman I am today. She is not going to grow in soil embittered by self-loathing.

 

Dark Night of the Soul

My sobriety date is July 14th, 2009.  God willing, in just over a month, I’ll have made it to the ten year mark. It’s no secret that this year has been one of the hardest of my recovery thus far. Pretty much everything I’ve written since last Fall has alluded to my dark night of the soul. It’s become a running joke in our household: “Guess we’ll just chalk it up to 2018-2019”. The reason I continue to write about it is because I want to be a voice of authenticity. In the recovery world, you read a lot of positive quotes and saccharine soberlogues. I’m guilty of sharing from these categories. What I read about less, however, is reality. Recovery isn’t a happily-ever-after affair. It’s unadulterated experience. It’s being more awake than most have the desire to be. Yes, recovery is the miracle of life – but when you live you hurt.

I want to read fewer commercialized yoga studio clichés and more truth. I guess that means taking Gandhi’s advice and “being the change”.

Although I believe in metaphysical principles like the Law of Attraction, I think there is a limit to their merit. Yes, if you fixate on how much your day sucks, you will attract more bullet points to support your argument. Yes, if you habitually complain, you will attract more things to complain about. However, no matter how positive you are, pain has its place. The question is – are you willing to learn?

I’ve stopped fighting my dark night of the soul. I’ve surrendered to the boughs of the inky forest. The darkness is a womb.

Marianne Williamson uses a building analogy to describe the rebirth process. She writes about how you can’t always renovate the rooms in your house. Sometimes you have to tear the whole thing down.

I hadn’t really penciled a demolition into my 2018-2019 calendar year. But that is recovery.

Over the last eight months, I’ve discovered that I don’t need a demolition so much as I need a stack of eviction notices. If you told me a year ago that I was subletting my identity for free, I’d tell you that you were crazy. In my mind, I had the whole authenticity thing in the bag. I wrote an entire post dedicated to the subject. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t in the people pleasing business anymore. Little did I know, squatters were still overrunning the place and I had only managed to repossess a few closets. And yes, they were lovely, wild closets – Narnia-esque cupboards filled with shells and feathers, fireflies and baby animals. But they reached capacity, as cupboards do, and the suffocation became a sickness.

It’s one thing to recognize sickness and another thing to do something about it. That’s where pain comes in. Pain runs a twisted delivery service; it dispenses the gift of desperation and transforms anyone who dares to unpack the contents of the box. Without pain would I really be willing to change? Would I really be willing to ask for help?  Truthfully? No. It’s easier to doze off under the pretense of wakefulness.

Most of us say, “someday I’m going to [insert lofty accomplishment here]”. This sentence prevents me from ever being enough. It gives the squatters too much room to weigh in on the paint color.

What strikes me is that in 20,000 years, it’s unlikely anyone is going to know Shakespeare’s name. Or Mozart. Or Kim Kardashian. Or Mark Zuckerburg. (Definitely not Kim Kardashian). It will be impressive if the human species even survives. The real question is – did Shakespeare enjoy his food? Did he notice the sky? Did he love his dog? Did he smile with every ounce of his being? Did he see and experience everything he could? Did he use his gifts to connect with others? Did he know himself?

Part of recovery, for me, is giving up “the chase”. And it’s fucking hard. I’ve been publicly wrestling with it since I started this blog – and privately wrestling with it for my entire life. Just when I think I’ve abandoned all pursuits, I realize sweat is pouring down my chest and I’m still wearing my running shoes.

It’s so easy to forget that our lives mean something without “someday” or that “really big thing”. We don’t have to strive toward “enough”. We already are. In a purely scientific sense, our existence serves the purpose of perpetuating life on earth. If you leave someone to decompose in a field, they become part of the system that sustains all living things. If you consider the majesty of our planet, there is no loftier aim.

I don’t know if I will ever achieve all those big “somedays”. Most of them were never for me anyway. Someday the dust of my bones will become ocean silt. The simplicity of that is beautiful. And when I unpacked my box of pain, I learned simplicity was what I was trying to get back to all along.

A newborn has no memory of the womb. At the end of my life, I imagine it won’t be the night I’ll remember, but everything juxtaposed against it: I’ll remember J.L. slipping my wedding band on after a minor medical procedure, and how startlingly tender it felt for her to make my ring a priority when I was weak and unattractive. I’ll remember the warm smell of my dog’s velvet ears, my favorite coffee shop, and teaching myself to cook something new. I’ll remember the songs that defined me; the piano and cello. I’ll remember the cool, tall grass and the heady flowers. I will be grateful I was willing to unpack – to change the sheets in the guest bedroom – to make room for more of the simple things – the things that matter.

 

 

Boot Camp

I chose “quiet” as my word for 2019. I didn’t understand the irony of my choice in January.

This year has been the opposite of quiet as it’s traditionally understood. I already talked about some of the upheaval we’ve experienced, but life has added several more layers to a cake I’d like to return to the bakery. I don’t need to get into specifics but let’s just say I don’t dare ask, “what else?” Experience has demonstrated that I will invariably find out. These days, I try to laugh, throw up my hands, and say, “okay, we’ll play your way”. Sometimes my laughter borders on hysteria.

On Thursdays, my dear friend and coworker, Jen, often drives us to a local eatery to pick up lunch for our afternoon meeting. Sometimes she also listens to me rail against the onslaught of lessons the Universe has deemed necessary to assign. “It’s like boot camp,” she sagely observed, “sometimes the Universe has to tear you down to build you back up”.

“I thought I went through boot camp when I first got into recovery,” I whined. “I don’t want to do it again”. But Jen was right. These lessons – unpleasant or not – are all part of the spectrum of human experience. Walking through them with an open heart is the only way to move forward.

I don’t know why I was naive enough to think that once I got through early recovery it was going to be smooth sailing. I guess I felt like I had “paid my dues”. But so many people have paid a much higher price in pain currency. There’s no debt ceiling. Life is not fair…it just is.

Jen went on to tell the story of the Tibetan saint, Milarepa. Rather than try to recount the story from memory, I am excerpting it from a fabulous article by Aura Glaser, which appears in Tricycle magazine:

One day Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, “I have got to get rid of them!” He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma. If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and nonexistence, compassion and kindness, the nature of impermanence. After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there. They simply stare at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving.

At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.” In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.

The tale of Milarepa revealed that I’d spent months in full on demon opposition mode. Resist! Resist! Resist! My one woman protest rivalled Occupy Wall Street. If my imaginary tent had a sign, it would say: Welcome to Occupy Cave – No Demons Welcome. But Jen’s words helped me lower my angry little fist. “Gag on this, demon,” I taunted. We had a giggle as the dialogue went further sideways.  As it turns out, “offering yourself completely” is a little easier said than done.

Not long after Jen bestowed her words of wisdom, I heard someone else say, “recovery is about making yourself visible”. I had to scrape myself off the floor. (I also have to eat crow for claiming I don’t hear new things very often. Maybe I just haven’t been listening.) These words resonated because I still love to hide – even after almost ten years. I’m the stereotypical alcoholic writer – without the bourbon and chain smoking. While I’ve been working on making myself visible in a very literal sense – like, for example, hanging out with our new (awesome) downstairs neighbors – this lesson also applies to hiding from my so-called dark side. Active addiction, in its most naked form, is the avoidance of pain. So recovery isn’t just about connecting with others, it’s also about connecting with our “shadow” selves – otherwise known as our humanity.

Glaser writes:

When we don’t acknowledge all of who we are, those unacknowledged parts will land in what Jung called the “shadow”… This is one way of seeing Milarepa’s encounter with the demons. He was encountering his shadow—all that he had suppressed and rejected in himself…We come upon our greediness, jealousy, or impatience, and the next impulse is to go to war… We don’t realize that all the while we’re strengthening the thing we’re fighting against. It’s like trying to push a beach ball into the water. Holding it down requires a huge amount of energy, and inevitably it pops back up with equal force, taking an unpredictable direction. But if you give the beach ball space and let it be, it will float effortlessly along the surface.

2019 has looked something like this: I shove each new beach ball under the water. It shoots up and smacks me in the face. I push it back down. It flies above the surface and lands 100 yards away. I swim after it – water splashing and limbs flailing – and it bobs just out of reach. I splutter and gag on the water… and it continues along undisturbed. Who is really causing all the commotion?

The infuriating answer is that it’s not the beach ball.

Glaser talks about being “willing to be with our experience, whatever it is, without judgment, without trying to fix it or get rid of it. And somehow this willingness, this gentle allowing, starts to calm things down..We discover that the journey is a dynamic process, full of alternating successes and failures. And we discover that failures are not dead ends. Every time we’re up against the wall, we’re also standing at a threshold. The invitation to open to our experience—whatever it is from moment to moment—is always there, no matter how many times we need to rediscover it”.

My definition of quiet has changed. It’s returning to center – the nucleus of existence – despite the noise. It’s the giant flamingo float in a pool of beach balls. It’s the eye of the storm. It’s the vantage point from which I can greet storm and sphere alike and acknowledge the purpose of our proximity.

September

I always hated my birth month. September signified a new school year – the arrival of which I despised more and more as the years passed. I was expected to sit still and think thoughts that were no longer my own. My teachers reported that I was easily distracted by windows or daydreams. They compared me to a butterfly… darting from one flower to the next. They wanted to pin my wings inside a glass case.

When I didn’t understand the math problem or possess the necessary patience for hours of bland nightly reading, I felt stupid, angry, and worthless. I wanted to read a book that didn’t traumatize me with religious teachings beyond my developmental capacity to process. I wanted to mix mud and decaying plant matter into secret recipes of my own imagining. I wanted to climb trees and survey the world from behind a lush screen of pine. At those heights, I felt momentarily safe from all who wished to enslave my mind and crush my spirit. My only agenda was freedom. My only obligation was to execute my own self-directed curiosity.

September was physically uncomfortable, too. The mornings were bracingly chilly but, by the time afternoon recess passed, the classrooms reeked of sweating children. At days end, an open lunch box smelled slightly sour; hints of warm milk and stale peanut butter and jelly.

Not much has changed in thirty two years. I may no longer wish to live in a treehouse or a boxcar (and even that is only a half truth), but I am still resisting the glass case. I am still heeding the call of wild meadows, tangled with blooms of freedom and self-directed curiosity. I still dread the coming of September. I  press each passing wildflower between gossamer pages and run my fingers longingly over the stationary. I know my ministrations won’t bestow the weight of permanence upon page nor plant, and yet I devoutly honor the ritual.

Dr. Gabor Maté – a man who possesses one of the most beautiful minds on our planet – describes this phenomenon as counterwill. I have spent most of my adult life hating this mysterious characteristic. “You need to fix it,” became my internalized mantra, born of years of external pressure. Much to my surprise, there is nothing to fix. The work is to accept my natural wildness and refrain from self-punishment. It is only from the safety of this space that authentic growth can occur.

Everything I know about healing is counterintuitive. The less I resist my own resistance, the more liberated I become.

September was somehow different this year. I never noticed it before, but everything looked so gold. The landscape was sun drenched and harvest-colored. Some website on color symbolism says that gold is “associated with higher ideals, wisdom, understanding and enlightenment. It inspires knowledge, spirituality and a deep understanding of the self and the soul”.

Maybe it’s not that September changed. After all, it was still cold in the morning and sweltering in the afternoon. School commenced as usual, congesting the highways with extra commuter traffic.

Maybe I have changed. Maybe I put down my sword and discarded layers of heavy armor. Maybe I grew weary of waging a war that had already been won.

Maybe the only thing left to do was surrender, propelled by easterly winds and the promise of foreign flowers.

The equator is middle ground. A halfway point between two extremes. Balance.

Maybe I am finally ready to drift in that direction.

If Anything Good Can Happen

I can’t remember the last time I woke up and consciously decided I was going to spend the day doing whatever I want. That may sound silly to those of you who know I recently returned from a trip to Chicago (more on that momentarily), but traveling has an agenda: to feast with all your senses. As the stereotypical Virgo, I feel a compulsory need to have a goal for the day. The same could be said for my writing. On this day, I am devoted to mental repose. The morning breeze feels good… a mug of peppermint tea feels good… listening to music feels good. These are the only things to which I want to devote consideration. However, when I allow myself these indulgences, I inevitably find myself longing to write.

One of my bucket list items is to become a travel blogger, so I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Chicago. In a nutshell, Chicago devastated me. That’s what the best things in life do; they break your heart with their magnificence. I think the experience was more shattering because – for some reason – I had very low expectations. Maybe it was because Chicago is not a coastal city. Or maybe it was because of the negative press. The Uber ride from the airport wasn’t particularly compelling, either. But as soon as I descended the stairs onto the River Walk, I was a goner. I doubt the architecture of any other U.S. city could move me so profoundly. Chicago is a marvel. It is the embodiment of the phoenix risen. The only thing I would change is the ‘Trump’ logo on the side of his namesake tower. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The sign mars the vista with its cheap arrogance. Ah, well. I digress.

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The River Walk view on our first night

We arrived in Chicago at the tail end of Pride month, and I felt welcomed and comforted by the display of support all over the city. Rainbow colors adorned buildings and buses alike. However, we weren’t there for Pride, although our cause for celebration was strongly related; J.L. and I were celebrating our 3rd wedding anniversary. And Chicago – a box we wanted to check off our destination list – became so much more than a check mark to me.

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Pride lights adorning a Chicago building

Sometimes when I fall in love with a place, I am vulnerable to brief moments of self-loathing. I start thinking about how I “robbed myself” when I was college-aged; how I should have gone to the University of Chicago; how I was capable of so much more academically and professionally. The stark reality is that, at the time I was applying to and starting college, I was barely capable of keeping myself alive. I had never been on an airplane. I had no conception of my own identity, let alone my geographical preferences.

Thankfully, I am married to the most beautiful human being to ever walk the face of the planet. She reminds me why my life needed to follow a certain course. On the morning of our wedding anniversary, she walked miles to find me a vegan donut. When she accidentally bought a non-vegan donut, she insisted on going back out to find one. It was at least ninety degrees in the city, and yet she tromped cheerfully down the humid sidewalks in a grand demonstration of unselfish love. What can I say?  The woman loves exercise (and me).

Despite its transcendent beauty, Chicago would be devoid of the same meaning without my wife.

J.L. and I are often complimented on our relationship, which is not something I will ever take for granted. We are either told a.) we are sooo cute together or b.) our love is enviable. The former makes me nod in not-so-humble agreement. The latter makes me sad. When someone says, “I want what you have,” my heart aches for omnipotence so I can distribute love like Halloween candy. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so hard for people to love each other but, when I catch myself in the wondering, I know I’m asking a question I can already answer:

Humans are increasingly disinterested in self-evaluation and self-growth. (Or maybe it has been this way for millennia? Certainly a topic worth considering another day.) I am thoroughly convinced that working on yourself is key to relationship satisfaction and longevity. In today’s instant gratification culture, so-called “intimacy” is just another thing you can order from a mobile app and have delivered to your door in thirty minutes or less. Genuine intimacy, in sharp contrast, requires honest communication and committing (and recommitting!) to demonstrate appreciation for your partner.  If we examine these “Prime delivery” expectations (i.e. a full blown relationship with zero effort)  – coupled with the pressure we feel to make our lives look a certain way by a certain age – it’s no wonder we are collectively so unhappy. We settle for less and simultaneously suffer from a plague-like societal unwillingness to work for more. We place gargantuan pressure on our partners to make us happy. This is one of the greatest travesties of all time. How dare we place the burden of our happiness on someone else? We are the sole proprietors of our own wellbeing. That’s not to say it isn’t impactful when someone treats us poorly. However, we can’t change other people. So if someone treats us like shit, it is our responsibility to make a decision regarding whether we will or will not tolerate it. When we accept intolerable circumstances, it is a direct reflection of how little we think of ourselves.

“Whoa, Ego Queen,” you might say, “Slow your roll. You’ve been married for three years. How does that make you an expert?” Well, I’m not an expert, but I have been guilty of using people as a substitute for my own self-cultivated peace and contentment. As a result, I have learned some gut wrenching lessons; namely, substituting other people for self-growth is not love –  it’s addiction and codependency. Believe me, my sense of self-worth was forming a slow trickle from the gutter to the sewer. When I started treating myself like I was worthy and deserving, I attracted a partner who shared similar values. Getting to that point was like climbing out of a dark well; the bottom of the well was comprised of abuse, and sickness, and settling. That’s what I thought I deserved. I didn’t realize I was holding the ladder the whole time.

If you’re reading this and you’re unhappy, maybe that’s not what the bottom of your well looks like. Maybe it’s mediocrity. Maybe it’s self-imposed isolation. Either way, climbing out isn’t going to feel good. It feels like loss. But you have to say ‘goodbye’ to that life if you want to say ‘hello’ to a new one. It’s also not enough to say ‘goodbye’ and wash your hands of it. I had to ask “Why do I feel deserving of less than I’m worth?” and “How can I create my own peace and contentment rather than relying on someone else?” Then I had to take action. If I had continued to harbor the same negative feelings about myself, I would have attracted someone who was operating on the same level. Furthermore, as I climbed the rungs of the ladder, I had to say several more goodbyes. One day, without quite realizing it, I was ready to feel the sun on my face. I was ready to climb out of the well and share the life I created with another person, versus silently demanding she pick up the broken pieces.

It didn’t stop there, either. No, sir, it certainly did not. I have to keep working on myself so I don’t stagnate and regress. I have to confront my (numerous) less than savory characteristics in order to be the best possible partner. I have to nurture my own growth and interests. If my marriage wasn’t in the picture, would I still like my life? I’m happy to report that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. I love my job, my friends, my recovery, and my various hobbies and projects. When I have more than one source of joy and satisfaction, it takes the pressure off J.L. to be the be-all and end-all of my existence. She’s pretty great – so the temptation is hard to resist.  

One of my major weaknesses is that I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when I’m working hard and doing everything right. It’s that old feeling of unworthiness trying to regain a foothold; how is it possible for me to get wrinkly with an amazing spouse? To fill volumes and volumes of memory books? Chicago was a breathtaking reminder not to underestimate life’s potential – and to delight in unexpected joy. Twelve years ago, I couldn’t conceive of any of this, and yet, here I am.

The Universe speaks to me through license plates and bumper stickers. In fact, my last blog made reference to one such sticker. It never fails. On my way home from work this week, I received another reassuring message courtesy of a fellow commuter. It said: “If anything good can happen, it will”. I pulled dangerously close to the grimy bumper and leaned, squinting, over my steering wheel. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How can I not believe in miracles?

Selfishness

When I woke up this morning, there was a coating of snow and ice on both the ground and my vehicle. It took me nearly thirty minutes to scrape off enough ice to complete my admittedly wasteful and compulsive drive-thru coffee ritual. I couldn’t get the ice off the hood of the car while safely parked in the driveway and, thinking it would still be solidly frozen for a three minute jaunt down the street, watched in alarm as it peeled off and smashed on the roadway. In my Monday morning misery, I had acted out one of my own greatest pet peeves.

Sitting down – coffee in hand – to begin my home-office work day, I felt the hot release of tears stream down my face. My seasonal affective depression reared its ugly head, trampling on my motivation.

Living in New England was never my ultimate goal. When I was younger, I dreamed of moving to San Francisco – a temperate climate where I thought I would be “safe”. Now I dream of beach town life, where there is never a shortage of vitamin D for my winter weary brain. But I have to be wary of this “grass is greener” syndrome. Just yesterday I wrote about how I don’t want to spend my life chasing the next thing; true contentment exists only in the now.

The two things that help me shake the “grass is greener” syndrome are playing out the tape and making a gratitude list. Let’s get real, even if I did live in Florida, I wouldn’t spend every waking hour on the beach. I’d be working and dealing with the same stuff I am responsible for in my much colder northern life.

At the end of the day, I am selfish. I want complete and utter freedom over my own brain. But that’s not how it works. I need to utilize my capabilities to contribute to this planet. Furthermore, my own brain is not a place I need to be hanging out 24/7. After all, my addictive wiring is what got me in trouble in the first place. I need to spend time giving to others and earning my place in society.

On our last day in Florida, a young couple pulled up to the condo next to our rental and proceeded to move in. I seethed with resentment. As an older person, I should be in a position to move to a waterfront Florida condo. How dare they?

The real questions I needed to ask myself were “How dare you? What gives you the right to be so entitled? What gives you the right to presume to know anything about them? What gives you the right to think you deserve anything?”

This is a prime example of how dangerous it is for me to think I know best rather than trusting the timing of the Universe. If I think about it from an objective perspective, I know for a FACT that living in that condo would not be a good choice for me. I would go bananas living next to a weekly vacation rental property. I hate noise. I am also an ironically private person. A condo complex with shared walls and wide open patios is not an ideal set-up for a painfully introverted writer. It would be character-building… to put it nicely.

Walking the beach on our last afternoon, I recited a mantra as I sloshed through the water and perused the shallows for shells: “Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me. Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me. Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me.”

When I wrote about privilege, I talked about how I used to pray for a fraction of the things I have today. Moreover, I know there are many people who would love a week long vacation or a loving marriage, not to mention the luxury of working from home. Who am I to forget these things? It’s NOT okay… and a sign that I need to do some work on myself in the form of cultivating gratitude.

Luckily, I am plugged into my higher power – a power I choose to call “the Universe”. Even when I’m choosing to wallow in a swamp of selfishness, I’m still tapped in and willing to listen. That day on the beach, a woman walked by with a 12 Step triangle on her t-shirt. The shirt said: “Acceptance is the key”. I was flabbergasted.

Acceptance is the key! I need to spend less time obsessing over what I can’t change. The timing of my life has always worked out in my best interest.

It wasn’t just the woman with the t-shirt. That morning, Rhiannon came on the radio as soon as we started the car. Rhiannon comes on randomly whenever I need a sign. For example, it played when I pulled into the courthouse to face a dangerous man I had no desire to ever see again. It played when I was nervous about a photo shoot. It plays every time I need a little faith. The music that empowers me played for the rest of our trip. Stevie sang in the store. She sang on the highway. She sang in the airport. I haven’t heard her on the radio as much in the last six months as I did in the space of two days.

I am exactly where I need to be at this moment in my life. Most of the time, I can’t understand that until I see it in hindsight – and that’s unfortunate. It also doesn’t matter how many things I check off my bucket list. Those experiences will enrich my life but they will bring me neither serenity nor contentment. The only thing that can fill the gaping, insatiable void is connection. There is nothing else that can pull me out of the most dangerous neighborhood in my head. Believe me, I tried seeking out every other alternative. The only way I can quiet my mental malady is by connecting to the divine in others – and striving to channel that divinity for the benefit of those who are also in need of connection. The paradox of my freedom is that it doesn’t exist when I get my own way; it exists when I open myself to the flow of what is. 

I will strive not to forget the strange angel who passed me on the beach: Acceptance is the key.