How Did I Get Here?

cherry-blossoms

From the angle at which I am lying in my bed, I’m able to peek out at the cherry tree that has just begun to bud. It’s cold outside, and completely perfect. I think, yes, this is Spring. The deep burgundy, backed by the early morning sky makes for a color combination that leaves me feeling grateful. These are details that should never be missed- a tragedy if they are ever ignored.

Birds are chirping; tiny heads tilting to the sun, flitting along on the possibility of bountiful branches, they get closer to our own perch. My four year old lifts the window as to get a closer look. The room fills with freezing air- we laugh as we try to still our breathing so that we can hear a woodpecker working away his morning.

I stare into his deep brown eyes, limitless, so full of wonder, at such a simple thing. I sigh.

How did I get here?

It’s getting colder and we can see our breath. We watch a robin, and a cardinal- he runs off to put his coat and shoes on. I curl deeper, down into the comfort of my bed, welcoming in the first morning air, my ears are open to the chorus that surrounds me. A feeling of blissful contentment flows over. A cry fills the air- his sister is up. It’s time to start the day. And surprisingly, it is all SO very good.

It is shocking, indeed, how good it is.

How did I get HERE?

I have asked this many times- shouting out to the Universe in a mix of raw emotion and confusion. Sometimes railing and shaking my fists in anger at the felt injustice of it all. At 24, already one failed marriage under my belt, and another life needing to begin. Heartbroken and disillusioned, I look at my young, sad self in the mirror, eyes of confusion and disbelief unblinking, stare back at me. I did everything ‘right.’ I’m a ‘good girl.’ I’m only 24, how could he leave? How did I get here?

Standing before my first collection of students in Kenya, 25 unblinking faces stare back at me-WAITING- expecting something wonderfully brilliant. I don’t know where to begin. Feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, thousands of miles from home, swatting flies and sweating bullets, I look around in wonder, and then out the window-it’s so green-and my heart is overfilled, I can hardly contain it. I believe it is joy- I look out my window into the endless green and murmur to myself, ‘How did I get here?’

Staring at my mother’s peaceful body as I press a bright yellow sunflower into her lifeless hand. Whispering to her the words of my childhood, you are my sunshine…my only sunshine….I lay my lips against her brow for the very last time while I am in this body, for she has already left hers. As my brother and sister kiss their mother good-bye, I take them into my arms, knowing that I am all at once, the oldest, and again, therefore the surrogate mother for them now. I silently weep as we place her gently into the ground. I weep for her, I weep for me, for everyone who has lost someone, or who inevitably will. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not now, not yet. How on Earth did we get here? The soul drenching grief feels too heavy to carry home.

Crouching behind a thorn bush, choking down panic and sobs, trying not to let them hear me. Because if they do, I will be punished. Sun is harsh and unforgiving on my back, sweat mingles with dirt, so much dirt, and rolls down my face. How did I get here? How did I get here? HOW DID I GET HERE? The tortured chant follows me back to my mat, where I take my place for the next 12 hours, seated in one spot, beneath a smallish tree. I have been ‘alone’ for so long, I can barely speak; and really, what is there to say anyway?

If I make it through this and go on to have a normal life, what on Earth will I ever tell my children? How do I ever explain this?

I’m just a school teacher from the Mid-West- these things don’t happen to people like me. How did I get here?

It’s just a regular Thursday afternoon, the sun is shining in a way that makes everything feel like it is dancing. I’ve got my third cup of tea brewed and ready- as I sip, I lean against the door way and watch my two children play together in the sandbox cooperatively, for once.  I look around me- I take it all in- the crumbs on the table, the crayons all over the kitchen floor, the sink full of dishes and feel that ever illusive, fleeting moment of contentment wash over me.

How did I get here?

Like a high speed train, memories bullet through my brain in snippets. Fragments of my mother in that blue cotton sundress with the little white flowers, her laughter as we munch popcorn and sing ‘Hi Ho’ together with Snow White- it’s my very first movie. My sister, drawing her boundaries, quite necessarily, by rolling an impressively straight line of masking tape down the middle of our bedroom floor. My mess is my mess she declared, changing her mind as she held my weeping and broken heart on that same bedroom floor, only a few years later.

Falling in love, running barefoot through the grass, the sound of August’s cry when he was finally HERE- the comforting whispers of the doctor, as I cried uncontrollably, of the fear mixed with life that had sprung up amidst so much pain-so much uncertainty. It’s all ok, you are so alright- you made it here. Finally.

And so, it is in those recollections, that I see how I got here.

We get where we are going by wading through disappointment and seas of unending struggle and unexpected pain- We get where we are going by surviving the deluge of rivers filled with epic sorrow and floating on the life preserver of grief-it’s a float, not a weight. We work indescribably hard, only to be disappointed, by ourselves and our own human limitations, as well as by others who were not completely honest with us or, to much to their surprise, to themselves. Likewise, we’ve soared on wings of second chances and opportunities- none of which we will ever be slightly deserving, but OH, how grateful we are for these chances, nonetheless. And because Grace still kisses the world we live in, we have all the support we will ever need giving us the strength to put one foot in front of the other, to continually find the courage to get up out of bed in the morning, and know that it’s all how it should be, and that we are exactly doing what we were meant for all along.

We have been put on this Earth for the purpose of experiencing the journey, although sometimes it may feel like we are only enduring. The destination is completely unimportant in the great scheme of the Universe, because, if you haven’t noticed already, we don’t get to control any of that anyway. Life doesn’t ask for our permission. We must continue to lament on her behalf.

An opportunity comes, we don’t know why, we don’t identify it as such, but for some unknown reason, we walk through the door, and before we can blink, or even think a thought, our entire life has changed. And THAT, that is how we get here.

I saw him across a noisy dance floor room in a far-away place many life times ago. He bought me a glass of white wine and started up a conversation, a dialogue that has taken us through hell and heaven and will carry us through those places, how many times, I dare not guess.

I look out the window again- he’s hauling loads of dirt with a wheelbarrow, he looks up, because he knows I’m there, but says nothing, sees me, in the first thing in the morning light. Our four year old crashes into him, breaking our gaze, the little sister continues crying.

How did I get here? It’s a longer story than can be told, just yet, as it is still being written.

But how beautiful it feels to have finally managed it. Thus far, anyway.

To have gotten here.

 

 

 

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Spring

Spring is here to stay, it would appear. While I’m not complaining about the unusual warmth and the budding of the trees we are experiencing here in Virginia( at the end of February, no less) it’s strange and somehow makes me feel a little melancholy. The itch I feel in my fingers, to get into the garden and start digging in the dirt, planting a small, almost invisible seed, getting up every morning, almost as excited as my kids, to check on the progress, brings with it the nostalgia of watching my mother bring home some little start of something green and somehow miraculously, grow it into beautiful, flowering life.

I guess in short, Springtime makes me miss my mom.

It wasn’t a surprise to me, when one morning a few weeks back, while I was standing in my father’s kitchen, although a space my mother never worked in, I felt her presence so very strongly that the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I was preparing food for my nephew’s birthday party, and in a rare moment of quiet solitude, because it was just me and her, somewhere out there in the atmosphere- I told her how much I missed her and wish she could be with us to celebrate the day.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come, and along with it, the pang of emptiness heartache. I finished what I was doing, tugged on my rain boots, rounded up the kids, and headed out into the wide open spaces of cow pastures and fields ready to be planted. The three of us took deep cleansing breaths, all in our own time, it reminded me of a song, a song we all knew, but didn’t need to rehearse. We searched for funny shaped sticks and discussed as to whether they looked more like woodpeckers or a guns…Let’s go with woodpeckers, I urged. Mentally rolling my eyes.

Boys. Sigh…..

We tried to hang from old dead vines and kept up our pace in hopes that we would find the cows that usually pastured in a neighboring field. We walked slow, meandered about, stopped to check out rain puddles.

It was the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.

We could see the cows further on down the road, and as luck would have it, their keeper was out, feeding them breakfast from bulging piles of delicious hay. We tried to walk faster- hoping to get a front row seat.

Farmer Green (Yes, this was his real name) was on the other side of the electric fence when we approached. Friendly and open, he invited my oldest in to the pasture to meet some of his beauties. They all had names, youngest to oldest;  they stopped munching and stared us as if we were aliens. Auggie, hand in hand with Farmer Green, cautiously walked around to meet these magnificent mamas, and their tiny babies-one was only two days old.

One by one he introduced us to his herd; I was only half listening, as I was chasing my two year old away from the electric fence. I had just noticed her trying to put a round ball of manure and mud into her coat pocket J when my ears perked up because Farmer Green stopped reverently in front of what he referred to as his friendliest and sweetest cow. I took a second to look into her deep brown eyes as I heard him say, ‘Now this one, this one here, her name is Marilyn.’ I stopped messing with Ebba and looked at him, a little bit shocked- what were the chances? He was smiling at her, in a way I couldn’t explain- reverence, pride. But all I could think was, “Marilyn? Her name is Marilyn?”

I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. My mother’s name was Marilyn.

And what he said next, made me have to turn away in order to push down the tears that were inevitably to spill over. How do I explain crying in the middle of a pasture, over a cow I had just met? He put his hand out to a calf standing next to ‘Marilyn’- she came over and nuzzled him, and he just said, “And this here- well, this is Marilyn’s little girl.”

I stooped down, trying to make myself busy with whatever so I could brush away the tears.

Marilyn and her little girl- that was once me, and my mother.

While I realize that this story may not resonate with everyone, and lest you think I am comparing my mother to a cow, all I can say is that you would just have to have known my mother. This was a woman who once spent two entire months trying to find a home for a gold fish that she couldn’t keep anymore. She finally found a farm with a pond that passed her standard of humane care, and off they went, I think she may have cried on her way home from dropping them off. When an inherited bird finally reached the end of it’s life, you would have thought her best friend had died, not the bird that it had come from. And at her memorial service, a treasured friend got up to share her memories of how she had met my mother- they had been in the same grief support group. The friend had lost a family member, but my mother was there to figure out how to get over losing her dog. My mother took in every stray thing with at least one leg and a little bit of fur. We had tail-less cats, fish with no eyes, and if it had an ailment, it definitely had a home with us. We always called it, “Marilyn’s Mission of Mercy.” We teased her, but oh, how we loved her for it.

So of course, OF COURSE, she would connect with me in this way on a lazily perfect Saturday morning in the middle of a cow pasture. She knows me, and knows that I know her, and although it’s been 7 years and my life will have forever shifted because of it, I believe that if I just pay attention, just take the time to notice, she will continue to show me her presence in my life in such sweet and simple ways.

How lucky I am to have these things- these connections with her. How lucky I am to have learned this person, who for all her quirks and passions, in the living of being her truest self, has allowed me to find her time and time again- because of that.

Someday, when I’m gone, and hopefully Auggie and Ebba will be much older than I am today when that happens- but I hope that they will be out in their garden, and be in a time and space where they quietly notice and remember me for just being me- the good, the bad, the funny, and the weird. Just the way I remember my mother today.

One of the greatest things you can leave behind is the memory that you were wholly and completely yourself in this life, because those moments of connection are not only for you while you are living, but will continue to bring connection for others, long after we are gone.

Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. But the connection is possible, and in that, we carry on.

 

 

 

The Gift in Our Struggle

 

It’s a few days before Christmas. It’s on the brink of getting dark- I’m parked in a grocery store parking lot, both my kids are asleep in the back seat. As we wait for Erik to come out of the store with the few things we still need for Christmas dinner, I am about to doze off enveloped in the warmth of the car, when a knock on the window lurches me quickly upright. I peer through the window and see a middle aged man standing by my car, with a wad of cash in his hand- although the light is dim, I can sense a cloud of worry and stress surrounding him. I don’t know why, maybe so that we are more equal this way, I open my entire door, instead of just rolling down the window, and ask if I can help him. He’s embarrassed. A little bit desperate. He explains that his car keeps dying at every stop light. He thinks it’s the battery. He has $76 dollars and he’s pretty sure a new one will cost him $100- can I spare anything to help him?

He says he’s just trying to get home.

I have a bird’s eye view of myself sitting in another car, almost 30 years earlier- same sort of deal. Two children sleeping in the backseat, I’m manning the front- only this time, the kids are my younger sister and baby brother. It’s Christmastime, I know that- and it’s cold, I feel like it’s raining. Something has happened to the car we are in, it won’t run anymore, and we are not even remotely close to home, but there is an urgency to get there as quickly as possible, I am conscious of that, but I don’t know why.

My awareness comes back to the man standing in front of me. I remember that I have $20 in my wallet and I dig it out of my bag and hand it to him. There are tears of relief in his eyes, furthering his embarrassment. I wish there was more I could do, I say to him. He thanks me for the help and wishes me a Merry Christmas- I see him drive by a few moments later in a late model car that appears to back up his claim.

My youngest begins to stir, Erik comes out of the grocery store, and my time is not for investigating the past right now, and so I forget about it all until I have one of those rare pockets of time alone with my dad. We go for a short ride and then a walk along the Piney River; in the winter, it’s my favorite. I run a bit and then fall into pace beside him. Bundled up, we point out the woodpeckers and chat about the level of the river. We sweet talk the coon dog that has come to trot alongside us and watch him meander along, back to his home. As we lean against his truck, I relay to him the story of the man in the parking lot, and how it brought back this memory-but it’s so spotty. What happened? Where were we? Help me fill in the blanks-

It’s was New Year’s Eve, actually, he says. My mother was so very sick- she had spent Christmas in the hospital. Without going into too much detail, the culmination of losing her family as a young child, combined with the demands of her own young children, had sent her down into an indescribably deep, dark place- one of which I am still afraid to think about too much, for too long. Her brother’s family had offered to help out by keeping us kids over the Christmas vacation so my dad could have a break, but they quickly realized how overwhelming we were and called my dad a few days later asking him to come and get us.  Without a question, my dad climbs into the car, drives non-stop for five hours, loads us up in minutes, without even turning the car off, and gets us the hell out of there.

He was trying to outrun a few things right then, I suspect, but the most pressing of them was a huge ice storm that was taking over the Midwest. In my mind’s memory, I can see us kids, giddy to be back with someone who loved us, singing along to Christmas carols gleefully, completely naïve to the struggle that had become my father’s life.

That’s the beauty of childhood- or what every child should be allowed to have.

And what a beautiful man to absorb it all, in order to let us have that.

My dad goes on to recount that, as if it weren’t enough, as we raced down icy highways cutting through Indiana corn fields, he can remember watching the dash lights of the car grow dimmer and dimmer as the odometer hit 100,000 miles. He knew what was happening. The alternator was going out. We coasted to a stop some 30 miles down the road, ending up on the edge of an industrial town along the Ohio River.

He says he just couldn’t believe it, and all he could think was: “What am I going to do?” These were the days before mobiles and GPS- there was no location app to help him find the nearest auto repair shop, or cell phone to call AAA for help. He got out of the car, to keep breathing instead of freaking out. He looked around. Off in the distance he could see what he thought was an auto parts store and so putting me, the eldest, in charge, ordered us to lock all the doors and under no circumstances were we to talk to strangers (these were the days when you could do such things) and took off running, with a prayer on his lips and an ache in his heart, for an alternator.

It’s 5:50pm on New Year’s Eve, 1991. A stressed and worried, middle aged man walks through the door- the bell, attached to signal customer entry, rings hollow.  The man stands at the counter with a hand full of cash and explains his car has just died. He knows it’s the alternator, and can even replace it himself, if they have one. He’s in luck, they do. It’ll cost him $120. Problem is, he’s only got $80. What’s he going to do?

He’s got a check! It’s good, he promises. Sales clerk looks at it, shakes his head- no out of town checks accepted. His boss would kill him. The man frantically explains that he’s got three little kids waiting back in the car and the ice is coming. The clerk is sorry- but there’s not really much he can do. The man rifles through his wallet- looking nervously out the window in the direction of the car that has his life in it. He’s got an ATM card for a Cincinnati bank- would it work here, even though he’s still in Indiana? The sale’s clerk looks at his watch, then stares at the man who is peering out at him from wire rimmed glasses, nervously waiting for an answer. He lets out his breath. He thinks there’s a 5/3 Bank on the other side of town.

The clerk makes a split decision that will impact someone else stranded in a parking lot, 30 years later.

And he decides to help.

Pulling the alternator off the shelf, he closes up shop, drives my dad across town to the ATM where he’s able to get the rest of the cash, then drops him off, where, thank God, we were still locked in the stranded car, moderately happy. He manages to replace the part and get us home without any more drama worth retelling, but the details of that day were obviously etched in his memory forever.

We both came back to the Piney River, after time traveling to a place and a time, that was difficult then, and somehow, even harder now. On opposite sides of the truck, and with the sound of the running river muffling out the sound of our sniffles and tears, I was able to thank my father for his struggle that day. Had it not been for that moment- that wretched and stressful day so many years ago, I might have been more suspicious, might not have connected, might not have made the decision to help the man standing there in the grocery store parking lot those few days before Christmas.

Hearing him retell this story, and thinking of it from his perspective now as an adult, as a parent, just as a human being, makes my heart ache for the many more stories of struggle he has yet to retell. But I look at him now and see a strong and capable man who has quietly maneuvered his way through life, and taught me so much, just in the living of it all.

He has modeled the truth for me: I will struggle, day in and day out, from the moment my feet hit the floor in those early morning hours- but it’s not ever all about me. I may see it as mine, but I am understanding that the reason we struggle is also so that others may gain strength, so that those around us can become better versions of themselves, better versions of us.

We will most likely not witness the impact of our dealings on others, but it is there- it has to be, because we are all one giant web of interconnectedness- we are humanity. We are each other. And when we beg for the burden to be lifted, are we then keeping someone else for whom the effects of the struggle were meant for, from actually getting what they need?

If we view the struggle as being more than just what it seems in that moment for a solitary self, then it seems insurmountable, exhausting, and unnecessary. But if we allow the purpose of all of the life stuff to sink in, and surrender to it-because life WILL have it’s way-then I wonder how much less striving we will have to do in the first place. Maybe there will be acceptance, and while challenging and painful, hectic and heart numbing, it will be just like all the other worthy things in life- work, learning, and in the end, triumph.

Today is my dad’s 65th birthday. It’s hard to verbalize what this man, who is partly responsible for bringing me into the world, and sustaining me with his presence, perseverance and character, means to me. All I can say is thank you- Thank you, Dad, for surrendering to the struggle. I know you don’t feel like you had much choice, but your decisions made me who I am today, and for that, I am truly grateful.

If there is one thing I have learned in my short, yet struggle filled years, it’s that life doesn’t ask us for our permission about anything, however, it will always require a response.

Surrender to the struggle, my friend, because it’s more than just about you- if you let it, it will change not only your life, but could impact someone else’s. Someone standing in a grocery store parking lot, 30 years from now.

 

 

 

The Hollowed Out Tree

 

hollow-tree

It has finally stopped raining.

I’m usually not too bothered by the rain- I understand and embrace the benefits, sometimes look forward to the excuse it gives me to stop, sit down on the couch and slowly sip cups of hot steaming tea. But the rain we have had over the last couple of days has made me feel cooped up and anxious, moody and in a state of angst. There’s an energy in the air that is leaving most people feeling that way these days, I would imagine, but enough.  I just want to get out. I need, if only for a few fleeting moments, to feel free.

So grateful, I was this morning, to see the sun peeking out of the thick overcast sky. I laced up my running shoes, and took off, grateful that the only thing I had to think about for the next 45 minutes was breathing in and breathing out.

I ran my usual route; through the trees, up the hill, onto a quiet back street. I was thankful to see my half way point in the near distance, and as I dragged in long strains of cold air, I made a U-turn and started back around. For many reasons, this is my favorite part of the path, not only because I’m half way done, but mainly because I am running next to a wooded area that is teaming with wildlife and vegetation, even in the middle of winter, and if I can get my breathing really quiet, I can hear the trickle of a small creek, just a few yards down into the leveled bottom of the woods. Most soothing to my soul is the sound of a running stream.

I’ve run and walked this path hundreds of times; it’s familiar, comforting somehow. I’ve pushed my kids to sleep in the middle of frustrating afternoons next to these woods, I’ve memorized every tree, every leaf, each thicket, or so I thought, until this morning, as I was trying to motivate myself to keep moving, I noticed for the first time, a tall and very weathered looking hollowed out old tree. It was stately, despite having lost all of its branches, it looked ancient, as if it had some stories to tell- tales of flooding and clearing, maybe a bit of heartache and loss mixed in as well. As I slowly approached it, I chuckled as I saw two squirrels play a game of hide and seek, winding their way in and out of the cavern of the once magnificent tree. I could see tufts of green and yellow poking out of various parts of the piece of wood, and although it looked exposed and weary-maybe BECAUSE of exactly that-I felt some sort of solidarity with it. Here was this tree, who had obviously been through a lot, hollowed out, yet it was still standing, roots tightly gripping the solid ground, regardless of being so weathered, gnarled, and aged.

“That’s what I feel like”, I thought to myself, as I kept moving forward, running down the street.

Weathered, a bit gnarly, still standing, but hollowed out, just the same.

My first reaction to that thought was chastising- how sad. I’ve been through so much in the last five years, and this year, while it’s been tough, has not been my hardest. How could I call myself hollowed out right now? My life is full, bursting at the seams, if I were a tree, I SHOULD see myself as vibrant and budding, about ready to head into full blown Spring.

But then I started reflecting on all the times I’ve been out with my kids on various hikes, rambling through hardwood forests, wandering old and new trails. Whenever we find a tree or a log that has been hollowed out by the seasonal elements, insects or other wild life, it’s like we’ve hit Nature’s jackpot. When they come upon a cavernous type of place found in the middle of these trees, they immediately drop to their knees, check out who might be living in there, pondering on what more this tree has become. They can spend the better part of an hour hiding inside it’s shelter, climbing to new heights, as they dream up stories of trolls and bug cities and reflect on the possibility of taking refuge inside, during the inevitable thunderstorm.

To them, the tree is anything but hollow, it’s just an opening, an opportunity for new life to begin, epic adventures to be had, discovery of a different world than they have ever encountered before.

I always thought when we were playing in these hollows, that the tree had died a slow death by some unfortunate natural cause. I’ve come to learn that these trees are actually very much still alive, and although they are old and gnarly, experienced in the ways of harsh and unforgiving elements, they are still very much thriving, as their cells actually continue breathing, right beneath the surface of their bark, regardless of their lack of leaves or green, giving the appearance that there is no life left in them.

They have been opened up by Nature, virtually emptied out, but the purpose in it is to allow room for new things, new life. They are incredibly important to the natural world around them, just in a different way than they were before.

Imagining, as I got closer to home, all the animals and insects that have now claimed this particular tree, I couldn’t help but think of all the experiences over the last five years that have hollowed me out, leaving space for new things, the opportunity for a fresh, new start.

Today marks the five- year anniversary of freedom for me and my family. And while at the beginning of it all, I thought it was the actual captivity that was doing the hollowing, I’ve finally understood that it’s surviving the survival part- figuring out how to be a mother to two babies in the midst of recovering from trauma- working hard to be a wife to a man who thought he had lost everything, and in instant, had gotten it all back again- how to tell the story in a way that brings respect to those who put their lives on the line every day, and leaves people feeling inspired rather than afraid. These things, they have taken all my resources; but they have left an opening for my heart to expand in areas of compassion and empathy for those who are struggling right alongside me, standing strong, rooted to the Earth, all while being hollowed out for a variety of reasons beyond their control.

They have inspired me to plant myself deep and surrender to all that has become, because this is good, this is natural, this is necessary.

Every day we all wake up and stretch our limbs, raising our faces to the warm rising sun. Disillusionment, tragedy and loss, exhaustion and crisis thrash us about like this tree, being battered by the wind and rain. We go through our days- giving, hurting, loving-often, with nothing in return.

I’ve come to believe that the hollowness we sometimes may feel is actually one of the most essential parts of this natural thing we call life; it’s creating a better ecosystem for all that inhabit the space within and around us, above and below us.

I’m grateful today. For the process of hollowing, for those who have helped me dig deeper, rooting down, just a little more. For my children that fill my cavern with wonder, so infinite and deep, it cannot be contained inside this old tree. For my husband, my best friend, helping me lean in when I get so tired of surviving survival-for my best friend, my sister, my brother, my dad, who together, have rooted themselves alongside me, committing themselves to carrying on, weathering all of life’s storms.

Look up, sweet friends, the sun is shining. It’s a glorious, beautiful day.

This Won’t Last Forever

winter-fog-snow-night-nature

This won’t last forever.

That was my thought as I drifted back into a fitful sleep, a few nights ago.

How many times have I breathed this mantra in and exhaled it out throughout my lifetime? Not only to find a way through the hard things, but in gratitude for the beautiful things in life, as well.

I find myself whispering these four words when I’m out for a run- gulping for air, legs aching, sweat pouring down my face- my God, it’s HARD. That’s why it took me almost 38 years to even try it. I get to my half-way mark and feel relief. Relief to have made it this far, relief for the gratitude that my lungs are still working, my heart is still pumping, my legs are getting stronger every day. Just a regular day, out by the woods, the sun working her way in and out of the clouds; in this moment I appreciate it for everything it is. The sun finds shelter and rests behind a cloud, the moment is over- it was fleeting, it didn’t last.

Painful memories of lying semi-paralyzed in the center of my yoga mat on a cold tile floor, lost in grief of the death of my mother, the only person who knew me the way only a mother can; ragged breaths caught between my words.  Immovable, on my back, the loss so heavy on my chest, I can barely sit up. Locking myself behind closed doors, because my world has ended, and another one, a world without my mother, has begun.

It can’t feel like this forever- I moan repeatedly into the rubber of my mat. It’s not humanly possible to feel this way for too long; I feel like I am going to die.

My ears, waking up in a cold hard space by the chirping and twirling of desert swallows, warbling me back to my reality- All this before I can find the courage to even open my eyes. Staring up at the clear and infinite blue above me, and when I finally feel strong enough, whispering to myself, “This can’t last forever-it just can’t”- before lifting my head to meet the day. The day that would bring me release, the night that would bring me a miracle of the most intrepid kind.

Gunfire, breathing, endings that can’t be described.Oh, God, this can’t last forever.

It took some time to understand, in fact it’s still going on, but forever still hasn’t come.

Cold and lonely winter nights, broken hearts and cracked promises, fear of the unknown, fear of the all too well known. Financial burdens causing hours of exhausting work away from the loves of our lives, the mystery of physical pain, the suffering that comes along with misunderstandings, the grief of saying good-bye too soon- It’s like a brick in our pocket. When we first find it there, it is all we can think about, the heaviness, the presence of it, throwing us out of balance as we try to make it through the day. But after some time, we grow used to the weight, and absentmindedly, we repeatedly slide our hand inside our pocket in order to make sure that it hasn’t gone away, because it’s ours to carry, no one can take it from us, and even if they could, we wouldn’t let them anyway.

The load will not go away, but the heaviness of it does not last always. Does the actual physical weight of it change? No, but our perception of it’s burden does. And maybe that is why things don’t last forever. Perhaps it’s not the circumstances that change, it’s just us that does the changing, our understanding of the pain, our belief laying the foundation of our own suffering.

With that change comes the yin and the yang- the good with the bad, the constant with the fluidity.

We must hurt in order to appreciate how beautiful it really is to feel good.

We must grieve in order to understand the depth of a love that was even possible to be called ours.

We must struggle so that we CAN’T pass up the gift to help.

We must break, so that we can understand it is not all ours to carry.

We must go without so that we appreciate the times when we won’t have to anymore.

We must fight so that we can understand what peace really is.

We must suffer in order to understand we are not truly  suffering in the first place.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote:

“Light is the left hand of darkness…how did it go?

Light, dark.

Fear, courage.

Cold, warmth.

Female, male.

It is yourself…both and one.

A shadow on snow.”

 How long will the shadow on snow last? How long will it be for the snow?

And while it was just the pitter patter of 4 year old little feet in the middle of the night and then the inevitable little boy body crawling over me to find a pillow and a safe spot to rest, that brought this into my mind, I couldn’t help but feel the yin and the yang, as I lay there with his ever growing hand, lightly clasping mine.

The sleep deprived side of me asked into the darkness: ‘How long is this going to last?’

As we both fell back into that beautiful space of sleep, my aching heart answered back:

Enjoy it for what it is, because nothing, not even this, will last forever.

Still is Still Moving

 

still-is-still-moving-image

 

It was one of those rare evenings where I had some time for a phone call catch up with a childhood friend. It’s amazing to me first off, that I have had the same friends for over 25 years (seeing as I made them when I was like, 2, obviously 🙂 and secondly, that these friendships have continued to be cultivated and are still a source of significant connection for me, no matter how much time flies by, no matter where that flying time may take me.

Getting the chance to chat with this particular friend always takes me back to those late nights curled up on my bed in a shared room with my little sister-I would most likely have shooed her out, and opened up the only window in the room. I would breathe in deep, the sweet country air. The sky would be dark all around and I’m twisting my fingers through the curly cue chord of my prized touch tone phone; we’re gossiping about boys, figuring out what next to do with our hair, contemplating who will be dating who, giggling as we share secrets.

We were taken care of: futures bright; fear and regret, inexplicable hardship, the sheer will to survive- those were never even a blip on our strawberry fields.

Decades later, I’m still curled up on my bed late at night, giggling with my friend. Hair cutting conversations have been swapped for recommendations on the best wrinkle creams, and rather than getting opinions from each other on the names of our future children, we are shouting out those names given: Time to get out of the shower! Stop fighting with your sister! Promising to be there in “just a minute.”

We are both motherless in this life now, further sealing our connection; 25 years ago, our mother’s faces would have been popping through the door, notifying us of the late hour and ordering us to bed. Tonight, we were the one’s keeping tabs on bedtimes, kissing sweet heads, turning off the lights.

Time has changed us. It’s been beautiful and bittersweet.

We have both experienced hardships in life, and while things feel like they have sort of leveled out for me, for the present time at least, for some unknown reason, she is still just going through it. It’s like she’s treading water and every time it seems she makes some progress, this big, dark wave just slaps her back down under the surface. I hold my breath in solidarity with her. Each time, she resurfaces, somehow a little stronger. This has been a theme in her life and as per usual, she fights, because that’s all she’s ever done. She fights for herself, for her child, for their future together. She is the ultimate survivor- extraordinary, resilient, resourceful.

We were going over the state of things and I felt there really just wasn’t much to say. She’s in a place of uncertainty, with very little control over her circumstances. She really, really needs things to change, for many reasons, but it looks and feels like nothing is happening- that there is no space, no way for things to get better. I feel I can only imagine how overwhelmed she must be at certain points throughout her day, and while I am not there now, I can identify with those feelings of being so buried that you feel like you are literally going to crawl out of your skin because you are so out control, so out of the realm of being able to predict how this whole thing is going to turn out.

It kind of feels like your world has stopped turning, things are in slow motion, time is inching by.

And as the days crawl on, it seems the only place you end up traveling to is to the land of minutiae, zero progression and WHAT THE HELL? You wake up from this nightmare and look at yourself in the mirror, and whisper, so that only you can hear: ‘How did I get here in the first place? How did this happen? How is this thing going to end?’

I am sitting under a tree.

There are termite hills surrounding me- red, red dirt, packed high, tall as a full grown man. I watch the termites work, adding to their fortress- I study for hours, that then roll into days. I can’t see the progress on their towers with my physical eye, but over time, I believe, the structure of the hills will change. They will become greater, more protected, more intricate. It’s the way they work, the design of it all.

Poul is watching the same work and quietly reflects out loud, the prolific words of none other than the great Willie Nelson: Still is still moving to me. He keeps repeating it, like a mantra, and I think I’m watching him go mad.  But then I start contemplating those four, actually three, words. ‘Still is still moving’ and I realize he’s not going crazy, it’s just the truth of the state we are in. Thousands of termites and two worn out hostages.

We can’t see ANYTHING happening. We feel we have been forgotten. We believe there is no progress, and we are no closer to getting home than we were two months ago. But if I sit with the truth- the reality is that we have no idea what is going on around us, behind the scenes- it’s invisible to us, but just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean things aren’t moving in the right direction. Who knows, we could be free tomorrow. Or, as Providence would have it, in just a couple more days. But we don’t know this, how could we?

So, we make ourselves busy by sitting. We figure out how to wait. Because still is still moving.

My friend is in another desert right now. But she knows, she BELIEVES. She is a person of unwavering faith, and that is why she survives. She sits still, because her Creator is moving things along. When it is time, she trusts that she will understand the intricate workings, the tunnels that are being built, the connections that are being strengthened, because still is still moving to her.

My four year old is in a constant state of wonder at the moving sky. He’ll ask me on a weekly basis about the floating clouds. I wrack my very tired brain and try to explain that the wind is moving those wispy puffs of white, and that the Earth is also moving around the Sun, so fast- so very, very fast.  We both stand still for a minute and he asks why we can’t feel ourselves moving. In my heart, I smile as I make the connection. How very fundamental this lesson is, that even the physical Earth is displaying for us, if we will take the time to understand: still is still moving- All the time, all for us.

Be encouraged-things take the time they need to take. No more, no less.

You have what you need for right now, and that is all you can really ask for. If your heart is still beating, and you can feel the Earth beneath you, it may be hard to believe, but you are going to be ok, it’s all going to turn out the way it needs to.

We just need to trust the process, because things will move where they need to, when they need to, especially when we figure out how to just sit still. We don’t need to see it happening, manage it’s progress, or give it permission to hammer out the things that we don’t understand.

Still will always still be moving to me.

Image by Tycho/Elegy

 

 

Happy Birthday….

So. I turned 37 today. Humphh.

Maybe it’s the just ‘getting older’ idea ‘that has put me in a funk today- and I am very aware that the ‘getting older’ part is relative, however, for me, it’s still true.

At the end of the day, I’m just glad to have the chance to be having another one.

However, there is still a small thread of sadness weaving it’s way through this day.

I think it all came together when I found myself at the cash register of a shoe store yesterday morning. From the moment I opened my sleep deprived eyes, I had this raw, fragile feeling, one that made me feel completely out of sorts and vulnerable-tears brimming at the surface so close that even burning a piece of toast could send me over the edge. Everything felt off, and I couldn’t really figure out why.

I started chatting with the sales lady at the counter and she made some passing comment about being from West Africa, and naturally, I asked about what part and shared that I had lived in East Africa for many years. She was from Liberia and started talking immediately about her mother, and how she had not been home to see her since 1998. Tears welled up in her eyes when she talked about losing three family members to the recent Ebola pandemic; she said she didn’t know what she would have done if she had lost her mother. Although it had been almost a year since she had spoken with her mother and heard her voice, she was the most important person in her life. She wistfully reflected on the fact that she had come to America for a better life, but had been forced to sacrifice so much in the pursuit of betterness. Tears welled up in my eyes as I shared with her the loss of my own mother about six years ago and that I knew what it felt like to lose yourself in the need of hearing your mother’s voice. We stood there, two strangers, tears dripping onto a pair of cheap black sandals, finding comfort in each other’s grief.

It was clear that we both deeply missed our mothers, and although our circumstances were different, as my mother is no longer living, and her mother, as far as she knows, is still passing time in a Liberian village, dead or alive, the reality is that they are both unreachable to us in the immediate. And sometimes, you just NEED YOUR MOM.

The tearful moment awkwardly passed, and I quietly gathered my things and told her that I hoped she had the opportunity to talk to her mother soon. I gave a weak wave and blindly walked back to my car.

While driving home, I thought about the fact that, although I will be celebrated very sweetly by my dear husband and little ones on the next day, and while I’ve already started receiving phone calls and text messages and Facebook posts wishing me the happiest of birthdays on my special day, the truth is:

There is one person who will not be calling me today- she will never again send me a specially selected birthday card in the mail, and she will never again reminisce about that beautiful spring day in a Portland hospital, where I calmly came into the world around 4:00 in the afternoon, delivered by a practioner appropriately named Dr. Miracle. I will never hear my mother’s laughter as she remembers that I didn’t cry for several minutes after delivery, but instead, quietly observed my surroundings with wide eyes and a serious face. Here she would insert her initial feeling that she had just birthed a laid back, go with the flow, kind of girl, but as she watched me grow and mature, later would come to the realization that I was so quiet because I was just thinking to my newborn self, ‘Ok, that’s over. What’s next?!’

I loved hearing those stories from the one who carried me in her belly for all those months, and then named me Jessie Corinne. I cherished hearing my mother give another embarrassed laugh when she remembered how she brought me home from the hospital and realized she had no idea how to change my diaper. She was a new believer at the time, and always told the story that she just threw her hands up in the air and did the only thing she knew to do: Pray. She said, ‘Ok, God, I don’t have a mother here to show me how to do this, so you are going to have to be my mama and help me figure this out.’

I never really heard the end of the story, but I guess God showed her how to change a diaper, because she went on to have two more babies, and as far as I know, we all came out of the diaper stage fairly unscathed.

My mom’s childhood was filled with one tragedy after the other. At the tender age of six, she watched her mother suffer terribly and die at the age of 32 of ovarian cancer, leaving behind three children and a husband, all wandering and lost in unrelenting grief.

My grandfather remarried, but when my mother was 11 or 12, her father, who worked for the local electric company, was electrocuted while working on some power lines, and she and her two brothers officially became orphans.

I remember her telling a story about her oldest brother, Steve, whom my baby brother is named after, to whom she was particularly close with;

She said she remembered crying at her father’s funeral, panicking about what was to become of her. Her oldest brother, Steve, just 15 at the time, wrapped his arms around her and said, ‘Don’t worry Marilyn, I’ll take care of you, I’ll make sure nothing happens to you.’ My mother’s child self took solace in that, until Steve was killed, about a year later,  in a car accident. He was only 16.

My mother was 13 years old and had lost all but one family member. She was left to a step-mother who didn’t want her and a brother that was as traumatized as she.

I’m pretty sure the worst thing I had faced by the age of 13 was the cliques of middle school and the disappointment over not making the cheerleading squad.The thought of death and abandonment was not something I had ever had to face in such a stark reality, and to this day, I still can’t figure out how she was able to function through all of that tragedy and leave the memory of her contagious laughter with everyone she came into contact with-how was she so….happy?

I’m guessing I come from a pretty long line of survivor’s, and my mother, Marilyn Jane Osmon, was one of the toughest, fighting tooth and nail for the gift of life, her mental clarity and emotional freedom. And by God, she earned it. It wasn’t easy for her (I’ll write more about that in a later post) but she was more than a conqueror when it came to life and figuring out how to live it.

I remember being in my parent’s Midwestern hometown visiting my grandmother one summer, I must have been about 15. I was in a Hallmark card shop, looking for a birthday card for my mom, when suddenly, I was overcome with this massive wave of empathy for her and I just started sobbing in the middle of the birthday aisle. I couldn’t get it out of my head that my mother had most likely never had a birthday cake and candles prepared for her, at least not that she could remember. She had never been celebrated, even remembered, as a child.

Instantly, I understood why, to my massive irritation as a teenager, our birthdays were SUCH A BIG DEAL deal to her. EVERY YEAR, she would go about planning a massive party, with cake and streamers and our favorite meals. We were encouraged to invite friends over, and she always took such great care in picking out a special gift for us. The best part of our special day, was that we never had to do any chores on our birthdays; we were allowed to lay around and she would serve us as if we were the Queen of Sheba for the day. She would always let us off the hook for everything saying, ‘It’s your birthday! Enjoy it!’ The anticipation of birthdays was almost more than I could stand when I was little, and in that moment, standing there amongst all the messages of birthday celebration and good cheer, I suddenly understood what it was all about.

My mother had taken her own tragedy and neglect and turned it into beautiful memories for her children, because we were her beauty for ashes. We were her eternal birthday present.

That summer my mother turned 42, and I baked her a lopsided birthday cake complete with sprinkles and as many candles as I could find. I have a picture of her excitedly blowing out the candles as I held it in front of her- the looks on each of our faces  so appropriate for the roles we were playing. She the celebrated child, me, the proud preparer.

Fast forward to July 21, 2010, I’m now 31 years old. I was home in the US on annual leave from my aid job in Somalia. I had been back for a couple of days, but was still suffering from terrible jet lag and had gotten up much earlier than my mom, to go down to the basement to check my emails and do a little work before she got up. It was her 57th birthday, and I had left a card and her birthday present on the kitchen table, thinking we could have breakfast and then she could open them.

When I walked up the stairs, I started chuckling to myself, because I could hear the card that I had gotten her singing, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ over and over. I was laughing because my mom was always like a little kid when it came to birthdays and of course, she hadn’t waited for me, but had torn into it like she was six years old again. I figured, maybe in some ways, birthdays were the only time she could let that pre-traumatized child out and allow her to live in a few moments of pain free joy.

I was so excited when I found a card at the local card shop singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ because I remembered my mom saying one of the only memories she had of her own mother was of her dancing around the kitchen, singing that song.

When I walked into the room, I found my mother standing at the table, card open, tears streaming down her face.

I felt terrible and asked her what was wrong.

She said between sobs, ‘Sometimes, I just miss my mom…..’

I wrapped my arms around her, explaining that I hadn’t meant to make her cry or feel bad. I clumsily thought it would make her happy and reminiscent and she just said simply, ‘It’s ok, it’s very thoughtful, it’s just that sometimes, I still just need my mom…..’

She was turning 57 that day; she’d missed celebrating 51 birthdays with her mother, and while I’m sure it felt wonderful to be celebrated and loved by all of us, in the end, what she really needed was to just spend some time in the comfort and company of her own mother.

The irony is that five days later, my mother unexpectedly took her last breath here on Earth. The first thing my sister said to me after we found out that she had gone, and something I took great comfort in, was that at least, now, she was finally in the arms of her mother, which she had longed for, so much.

And so, I sit here, on the day, celebrating my 37th year of life, so very grateful for it, and so very thankful to my Mom, for giving it to me, but very aware that this is my 5th birthday celebrating without her.

Today is a good day, but as is the case with most things in life, it is also bittersweet.

As my husband and two babies came parading into the bedroom this morning with gifts and cards and excitement, my heart was overwhelmed with blessing and gratitude at being allowed to have yet another year to spend with all of them. The moment was beautiful, yet somehow incomplete, because all I wanted to do was pick up the phone and call my mom and relay the silliness and celebration with her because she would so appreciate it.

It’s impossible to call her up, so I decided the only thing I can really do is write these thoughts down and release them out into the universe, hoping that she, along with my grandmother whom I never got to meet, are sitting up there in Heaven right now, having a wonderful party, laughing over all the birthdays that they are witnessing from above.

So, here it goes….

Mom, I hope you know how thankful I am for all the birthday parties, and the cakes, the candles and the granted wishes. I thank you for making me feel like I was the only one that mattered on March 8, every single year- for the beautiful memories, and for modeling how to love my own kids on their very special days. I’ve never felt forgotten, unwanted or unloved, but have always felt celebrated, treasured and cherished. What a gift you gave to me, every single year, one that did not need any wrapping paper, but one that I treasure and hold dearer to my heart, with every passing day.

I thank you for surviving, for thriving and for living a beautifully imperfect life. Because of your strength and will to experience something better, I am here today, celebrating my 37th year in this wildly wonderful gift of life. You gave me a wonderful opportunity so many years ago, and even though you are not here to celebrate with me, you continue to sustain me with the memories of your laughter, slumber parties past and chocolate cakes shared and enjoyed.

You are my hero, an inspiration, and I miss you so much, not just today, but everyday.

I hope you know that you are my sunshine, my only sunshine- you make me happy, when skies are grey…..

xo

 

 

,

Dear Chief Byers,

My heart is very proud.

As I read this morning, that Chief Special Warfare Operator Edward Byers will be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama on February 29.

What an unbelievable day it must be for him, for the entire community that makes up the elite group we know as, the United States Navy SEALs.

As I continue on in my journey of sharing what this community means to me, I have had the privilege of meeting many of the men, women and children that make up this group.

I am always astounded at the level of courage, strength and fortitude with which the ENTIRE community operates.

It’s inspiring, motivating and always leaves me in tears. Every single time.

Until January 25, 2012, I had never really even thought about US Navy SEALs and what they meant. It’s embarrassing to admit, but all I ever really knew about SEAL Team VI was their success in ridding the world of Osama Bin Laden.

But it’s been four years now since I became intimately acquainted with our US Navy SEALs, and I tell you, I CAN NOT nor will I EVER forget.

I think about them everyday. Usually when I’m watching my children play together or when I am in the company of good friends. I am acutely aware of how closely I came to never getting to experience any of it.

As I watch the news clips about Chief Byers, I also can’t help but wonder, in the deepest parts of my heart, “Was he there that night?”

If I do my math correctly, Chief Byers most certainly could have been. It’s a strange feeling to stare at his picture in the newspaper and wonder if I’ve ever seen that face before.

Was he among the many who parachuted into the dead of a moonless night, walked twelve plus miles into a camp of drugged out, crazy pirates, and found two hostages, huddled under blankets, sick, terrorized, and at the end of their mental ropes?

Was he the one who offered me clean water and medicine when I was so very sick and in so much pain, weak from infection, riddling my starving body?

Maybe he was the one who offered to go back and get my Birkenstocks because he knew we had a long walk ahead of us, and when asked, went back into carnage, TWICE, to bring back a small black powder bag upon my bold and most insane request.

Was he part of the group that piled on top of me, to shield me, while we waited for the Black Hawks to come in and whisk us away from hell?

It’s difficult to believe that I can’t remember, but in the most extreme circumstances I will ever experience in my life, I was in so much disbelief that I was actually still living- I could hardly put two words together and remember my own name, let alone anyone else’s.

Or their faces.

They were covered, for a while, and then they weren’t.

But still, I sit here, wracking my brain…..

It could have been him, who was shaking my shoulders and pulling the blanket away from my face, delivering the message that I was, after 93 days, FINALLY FREE.

It could have been him, that brought be back to a full and beautiful life- in which I now get to walk safely, the sidewalks of my suburban neighborhood, waving a normal hello to neighbors, breathing in the fresh air of American freedom as I take my little one to school?

If I sit back and think long and hard about it, it probably doesn’t make sense. He was in Afghanistan only weeks before I was successfully rescued in Somalia. Chances of him being sent on two massively risky operations in two different regions, so close together, could be pretty low, I would imagine. Or maybe not.

I’ll never know.

What I DO know, however, is that while it may not have been Chief Byers forming a human shield around me while I laid on the cold desert ground, shaking with such immense relief at being found ALIVE, it was BECAUSE OF HIM, that I was able to limp myself to the Black Hawks, and slump against the side, tearfully whispering the truth to myself: It was all FINALLY OVER.

Because of Chief Byers, and all of his brothers and colleagues, because of their beautiful wives and faithful families, humanitarians such as Mr. Joseph, and myself, get to continue living, having been given the unique task of making sure everyone knows what these men are capable of, what they have done for us, and what they will continue to do for our country.

After having spent so much time with some of our nation’s finest, I can GUARANTEE you, as Chief Byers humbly accepts the Medal of Honor for his acts of valor for the rescue of an American citizen, it won’t just be him standing up there.

He will bring with him the spirit of one courageous man, one step ahead of him, who took the first bullet, and he will bring with him the commitment of those who are out there right now, working tirelessly to make us one of the safest and freest countries in the world.

It may be about him for those few moments, as it should be.

But, when he was lying on top of that American hostage, in the rubble of an Afghani tomb, and when the soldier who swooped me up, over his shoulder, running with me out of captivity and back to a life of my own, he did it for ALL OF US.

He would do it for any of us, and he would do it all again, in a heartbeat.

Because that’s what they do.

And that’s why I’m here.

Thank you, Chief Special Warfare Operator Byers, and to ALL OF YOU, even if I don’t know who you are, for continually putting your lives on the line, and for sacrificing so much so that we can live ours.