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DISAPPOINTMENT

Disappointment in life is a given. It is as predictable as the pull of the tides, ebbing and flowing through our lives. Not only are we ourselves constantly disappointed, we are constantly disappointing others as well.

Like everyone else ever born, I was often disappointed when I was a kid. I felt let down by people or circumstances whenever things didn’t go the way I expected them to. If Christmas came and went and I didn’t get the gift I had prayed for, I felt completely and utterly crushed.

I remember one Christmas in particular when I’d been made to feel entirely left out. It is not a feeling I wish on anyone. I was old enough to understand that Santa wasn’t real but young enough to not fully understand exactly how it all worked.

Early that morning, I sat hopeful and still, patiently waiting for my name to be called out and be passed a gift to while watching the enormous stack of gifts be whittled away at until there was nothing left under the tree and nothing there for me. To say that I was disappointed would have been the understatement of the year.

And I was not alone. Another of my sisters had been left out too. I remember wondering what the hell was going on. What had we done that year that was so bad to warrant us not getting a single gift?

Eventually, once the excitement of the morning had worn off, my mother must have seen the devastated looks on our faces and realized was what was going on because before we knew what was happening she flew down the stairs into the cellar with my father and lo and behold they emerged with an entire box of forgotten presents for my sister and me.

Christmas was saved, but I will never forget the feeling I had that morning, that I was being punished for something I didn’t know I had done.

Throughout my childhood, I was often punished for things I didn’t do which only made me want to do them more if I was going to be punished for them anyway.

It was deeply disappointing not being trusted when I had told the truth. It made me feel like my honesty didn’t matter.

In some ways writing this blog has me feeling the same way lately. With each new post, I am peeling back the layers of my life and revisiting the stories I have been telling myself forever, and much like peeling away the layers of an onion, in the process, I’ve made myself and others cry. I have inadvertently caused people pain that I never intended to inflict.

When searching for long-buried parts of myself, I am forced to shine a light into the dark, exposing some things in the process that did not sign up to be seen. I guess that sometimes happens when you search hard enough for something. There is risk involved that you may not be aware of before you begin.

I began this blog to sort through my stories. I will be turning fifty at the end of this year, and I want very much to put the painful parts of my past back where they belong – in the past – so that I can move forward with a clean slate. But as this process unfolds, I’m beginning to realize I was also trying to find something I didn’t initially know I was searching for.

I had already written a dozen posts to this blog by the time I finally heard from my intended audience. (That my parents were my intended audience was a recent revelation to me.) During all that time – twelve weeks – I tried to remain patient. I tried making valid excuses for them. I tried not to take it personally.

But the longer I went without hearing from them, the more I began to realize just how much I’d been desperately seeking their validation. Though if someone were to have told me that before I began this, I would have argued that had nothing to do with it.

I had invited them both to read my blog repeatedly. I emailed them and called them (yes, I did pick up the phone – http://relishyourstory.com/courage/ ) and even gifted them a copy of Consolations. I essentially told them they had front row seats reserved for them. But after finally sitting through the opening scene, they not so politely got up and left the building.

I was accused of intentionally hurting someone that I love very much, and no amount of explaining would suffice. The verdict was in. I was guilty. The sentence that was handed down was as unjust as it was predictable.

I was informed by my parents in a letter that after reading only a couple of my posts, they had had enough and had no wish to continue reading into the future.

Once again I was being punished for something I could argue I didn’t do, and in the process, I had given them the excuse they needed to stop reading.

The very thing I didn’t realize I had been searching for, would likely never be found. I would never be seen and understood by them, which is ironic since the only post that I am sure that they both read – my first post ALONE  http://relishyourstory.com/alone/  divulged how I had felt invisible for much if not all of my life.

I was incredibly disappointed. I did not think my expectations were unrealistic. I had waited my entire life to be this candid and was rewarded for my efforts with further exile.

I was wounded, and I began to question whether or not to continue writing, whether or not to continue to risk further alienation or throw in the towel and call it quits.

“The great question in disappointment is whether we allow it to bring us to ground, to a firmer sense of our self, a surer sense of our world, and what is good and possible for us in that world, or whether we experience it only as a wound that makes us retreat from further participation.” – David Whyte Consolations 

Then something amazing happened. Within only a moment or two after reading their letter, a tremendous sense of peace washed over me. I didn’t need to retreat to lick my wounds because without my even knowing it those wounds had already healed. Maybe it was the act of writing it down. Of releasing it in these blog posts along with all the pain that had accompanied it for so long.

My mother’s words ended up being a gift to me. She had inadvertently validated my feelings of being invisible, and the effect was terrifically freeing. Her gift gave me the courage I needed to keep going. It gave me a firmer sense of myself and my place in the world and reminded me of all the good that was still possible to achieve.

“The measure of our courage is the measure of our willingness to embrace disappointment, to turn towards it rather than away, the understanding that every real conversation of life involves having our hearts broken somewhere along the way and that there is no sincere path we can follow where we will not be fully and immeasurably let down and brought to earth, and where what initially looks like a betrayal, eventually puts real ground under our feet.” – David Whyte Consolations 

My parents had broken my heart. The disappointment I felt was palpable. I was fully and immeasurably let down. But I embraced it with very little effort when I realized it had taken much more of an effort to keep the charade going for so long.

“Disappointment is just the initial meeting with the frontier of an evolving life, an invitation to reality, which we expect to be one particular way and turns out to be another, often something more difficult, more overwhelming and strangely, in the end, more rewarding.” – David Whyte Consolations 

I know my parents love me and I know they know I love them. Nothing they could ever do or not do could ever change that. We all strive to do the best that we can with what we are given.

I was given a roof over my head and a quality education and a warm bed and clean clothes and homecooked meals every day. I was given love and support from my parents and my entire family. And I was given a voice that has remained silent for far too long.

I am trying hard to rid myself of any expectations on how this blog is received or what good it could do in the world.

But I am tired of being punished for something I didn’t do and more determined than ever to continue doing it if I will be punished for it anyway.

I know for certain that no matter how terrible and painful your story, there’s always something to be grateful for, always something to be relished.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

 

NEXT WEEK: FORGIVENESS

DESTINY

No matter the course we chart for our lives, and how many times we may veer from it, we all live out our destiny: we are born, we live, and we die. That much we can be certain of.

For some that may be only a few precious hours, others more than a hundred years. Still, there’s much more implied by the word itself that makes it difficult to define.

Destiny may speak to a feeling we intuit. We may feel like we are destined to do something specific with our lives. We may feel strongly called upon and expected to answer. But that same feeling can be a trap if we surrender control and allow ourselves to be cast as a character in our story instead of its author.

I’ve always envied people who from a very early age, intuit exactly who and what they’re meant to be and do with their one precious life. They make a good case for destiny being a series of fated events. Still, there’s also a part of me that rejects that our stories have already been written in stone.

“Destiny is hardly used in everyday conversation; it is a word that invites belief or disbelief: we reject the ordering of events by some fated, unseen force or we agree that there seems to be a greater hand than our own, working at the edges of even the most average life.” – David Whyte Consolations

The fact that I envied people like that tended to automatically make me feel worse about myself. For the longest time, I considered myself defective. Unlike those lucky souls, I did not come with a set of instructions and spent my childhood and most if not all of my adult life joking that I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

When I was a kid, I only remember ever having one dream for myself. I wanted to be a wildlife photographer for National Geographic. If a picture told a thousand words, then I longed to tell those stories.

I remember one day in particular when I was very young and happened to find an antique camera tucked away in an old desk drawer that belonged to my mother. The eyes in the back of her head must have detected my movements because before I knew what was happening, it was taken away and swiftly put back in its rightful place with an admonishment not to touch it again.

I had never seen my mother use it before so I couldn’t quite understand her reluctance to at least show it to me. But like most admonishments from my mother, I ignored her wishes and from time to time would take it from its hiding place if only to hold it in my hands.

Once I was a little older and deemed responsible enough for a camera of my own, I was hooked. From the moment I first pushed the button, more than the shutter clicked.

Days spent waiting for my prints to come back felt like torture as if my future was being held captive in the nascent images waiting to appear.

But my passion for photography was not encouraged and was short lived. Throughout my childhood and for the rest of my life I would always be the one taking pictures – I have at least a dozen photo albums just of my kids. But it felt apparent to me early on that I would never be good enough at it to have it become my profession.

Reflecting on this now makes me think I must have known in my heart all along that it wasn’t strictly the photography that called to me, so much as the adventure and the experience that I so longed for.

Only in looking back am I finally able to connect those dots.

Who knows, had I pursued it with more discipline and determination maybe I could have done something with it someday. But so many other things were pulling me in different directions back then that it was hard to know which direction to follow.

I remember being told once that I had a gift for writing by my AP high school English teacher. Much like photographs, stories were open to interpretation, and I liked that. I liked that two people could read the same story or view the same photograph and come away with two very different interpretations of what they were reading or seeing.

I was a senior when she told me this, and while it definitely made an impression on me, once again I never believed myself good enough to give it a go.

As far back as elementary school, I realized I had a knack for telling stories, but so did every other kid I knew.

I was in the fourth grade when I put together this little magazine about dogs. It was recently resurrected from an old folder my mother was thoughtful enough to save for me and has me wondering if the writing was on the wall way back then.

I must admit, it looks an awful lot like my blog does now. A short story accompanied by a picture, in my adolescent effort to reach out to people.

But despite the pull I felt from time to time, I don’t think I ever considered writing to be my destiny. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever considered any one thing to be my destiny; it just feels like too small a word to encompass its own meaning so I never gave it serious consideration, that is maybe until now.

But that’s only because I find myself writing about it this week after just having met my inspiration for this blog, David Whyte, at a reading of his poetry in Boston this past blustery St Patrick’s Day morning.

I’ll be the first to admit the timing felt too spot on to automatically write it off as a mere coincidence. Maybe there was a greater hand than my own working around the edges this time.

Still, I can’t help feeling like I met him by chance, not by choice, and I believe choice plays a much bigger role when it comes to our destiny.

“We are shaped by our shaping of the world and are shaped again in turn.” – David Whyte Consolations

And we shape ourselves and the world by the choices we make, so maybe the real question becomes, who or what guides us in making those choices and do we honor or squander that?

Do we take the time to seek out the silence that is often necessary to hear what our intuition is trying to tell us when faced with making difficult choices?

What if we thought of our destiny as being like a tiny acorn of truth already containing everything it needs to become a mighty oak. We are born with the answers somewhere deep inside us, so maybe we just need to ask better questions.

When faced with an important choice, whenever I’ve asked myself an honest question seeking a truthful answer and have the courage to follow the advice that comes from my heart vs. my head, it always feels right to me. The results of that choice may not be what I had hoped for or expected but soon enough I see that it was necessary for my own evolution.

The more I look back the more dots I am able to connect and I see enough of the picture now to understand that the dreams I may have had for myself when I was a child were largely dependent on other people making choices for me. It was not until I was older and started making my own choices that destiny began to shape me.

“It is still our destiny, our life, but the sense of satisfaction involved and the possibility of fulfilling its promise may depend upon a brave participation, a willingness to hazard ourselves in a difficult world, a certain form of wild generosity with our gifts; a familiarity with our own depth, our own discovered, surprising breadth and always, a long practiced and robust vulnerability equal to what any future may offer.” – David Whyte Consolations

We must be brave enough to get off the bench and participate, despite feeling vulnerable and despite the danger involved and despite our preconceived notions of the direction we presume our lives are supposed to take.

Fulfilling our promise to life implies action must be taken. Even when we’re lucky enough to be born knowing exactly what we were put on this earth to do, we cannot and must not sit in the back seat and hand over the wheel to some unseen force that will drive us in the direction we know we must go. I have had more dreams of that nature than I care to admit whenever I relinquish that power to someone else.

We must participate, bravely, if we ever want to feel that sense of sublime satisfaction that we achieved something worthwhile.

When I look back at my life now, I see this has always been true, even if I didn’t know it then.

But knowing it now is everything if you’ve spent your entire life feeling like your contributions don’t matter. To be not only familiar with your depths but comfortable diving into them headfirst, allows you to be wildly generous with your gifts and offers you an olive branch in return.

As you fulfill promises to yourself that you may not have even been aware of making, you are offered a sense of peace in return, along with another piece of your puzzle being put into place, and if you’re lucky, with patience and determination, the big picture may just come into focus.

 

NEXT WEEK: DISAPPOINTMENT

 

DESPAIR

After my sister died, I stopped answering the phone, too fearful to learn that someone else I loved had died.

I was a mess. My feelings were in a constant state of flux between denial, anger, and despair. Acceptance was nowhere near the horizon because the horizon was no longer there. I was no longer there. I had retreated somewhere deep inside myself in an effort to heal, but that damn phone kept on yanking me back.

The first of many calls we received over the coming weeks and months was to let my husband and I know that the daughter and grandson of one of my husband’s former co-workers had been killed in a fiery car crash. Soon after I learned that a good friend’s father had passed, then another dear friend’s mother, an uncle’s mother and a niece’s cousin. After that, another dear friend’s uncle and a co-worker’s grandmother. And at some point in the midst of all this, I watched in horror as bodies and lives were being shattered on live TV on the day of the Boston Marathon, in my home state.

It felt like being a kid and having a bigger kid hold your head underwater to see how long you could last only now anytime I was allowed up I barely had time to catch another breath before being pushed back under again.

I had always been good at holding my breath. Underwater backward somersault competitions and handstands and submerged tea parties were everyday occurrences at the lake when I was growing up, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Now every time I was forced back under I had added weight attached to me. I would sink straight to the bottom never entirely sure that I would resurface since by that time I lacked the strength and the will to push off and rise and had grown overly fond of the silence in the depths of my suffering.

“Despair is a necessary and seasonal state of repair, a temporary healing absence, an internal physiological and psychological winter when our previous forms of participation in the world take a rest; it is a loss of horizon, it is a place we go when we do not want to be found in the same way anymore.” – David Whyte Consolations

Not only did I not want to be found in the same way anymore, I did not want to be found, period.

But there came a day when something inside me changed. It was a lot like when I was pregnant with my son. After one miscarriage, then the birth of my daughter, then another miscarriage, when I learned I was pregnant again an irrational defiance took over and stayed in charge a little too long.

I remember feeling compelled to challenge death. I took risks that I shouldn’t have believing myself to be invincible for having somehow survived what I’d been through.

Until one day when I was more than four months along. I was nearly finished painting the entire house, climbing up and down the scaffolding on a daily basis, when I looked down at my daughter in her playpen in the backyard from the peak of my roof while dangling from a ladder hooked over it. I was swatting away a bee while stretching as far as I could reach to paint the last of the peak before nearly having a heart attack when I realized how insane I was behaving.

This was like that, only this time I wasn’t challenging death so much as I was challenging my understanding of it.

I had long been fascinated by the idea of having a home death and a home funeral when it came my time or time for someone that I loved. But I never dared to investigate it honestly before.

After having so many people close to me or close to other people that I cared about die, I suddenly felt compelled to explore it. I felt emboldened – as insane as that sounds – believing I’d been hurt so profoundly already that confronting it head-on couldn’t possibly inflict any more pain then I’d already experienced.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming to ground in our wish not to be here.” – David Whyte Consolations

So I signed up for a workshop nearby to where I live, and although I was trembling when I pushed open the old heavy wooden door of the Unitarian Universalist church, I entered.

And I stayed.

Somehow, through tears I told a group of perfect strangers what I’d gone through with the death of my sister and since, explaining how desperate I was for there to be some other way than the way I’d been forced to follow. I’d been inside too many funeral homes and suffocating incense filled churches to know that that was not what I wanted for myself or for those that I loved.

What I learned there changed my views of death profoundly and somehow made me a little less afraid to come out of hiding and rejoin the land of the living.

But when I exited the church early that afternoon, my phone began to ring. Forgetting for a moment my reluctance to answer it, I did, only to be told that someone else very close to someone we loved, was in a horrible car crash and was on life support.

He would pass one week later from his injuries, on the very same day I stood in a hospice room watching my uncle – my godfather, leave this world that was coming apart at the seams.

Soon after that, a sister’s brother-in-law passed after a massive heart attack at forty-two years old.

Not long after his death, I learned of yet another uncle’s passing, this time a great uncle who was like a grandfather to me. I felt as fragile as a glass ornament hanging from the bough of a branch in a hurricane, desperately trying to hang on when all I wanted to do was let go.

The phone never ceased being the bearer of bad news, informing me of yet another death, another dear friend’s father passing, then another uncle, and a close neighbor’s dad.

In the midst of all this pain, I was sure that my shattered heart could not possibly be broken any more than it already was, and so, was brave enough to attend a Death Café for the first time.

I was welcomed with open arms and open hearts, and I left feeling hopeless but in a good way. No longer would I long for a future I knew I had no control over that had only ever left me feeling powerless. Instead, I would abandon all hope and allow it to die so that some sort of action could begin.

I had heard the expression “life goes on” at least a hundred times, but until I abandoned the ridiculous expectation that I would somehow be spared any more suffering, life did go on – just without me and I now found that despite the risk I didn’t wish to be left out anymore.

By the close of the year – almost exactly one year from the death of my daughter’s good friend, I learned that Nelson Mandela had passed. His was the last in too long a line of deaths, eighteen not including those helpless young souls that perished in Newtown, Connecticut or the innocent victims of the Boston marathon bombing, that I had been touched by in twelve short months.

A whole year had passed but the seasons were not the only things that had changed. I had changed, profoundly.

“The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying a profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath, independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even strangely, in paying attention to despair itself, and the way we hold it, and which we realize, was never ours to own and to hold in the first place.” – David Whyte Consolations

Life taught me so many lessons about death during that year that it was hard to keep up.

I learned that death does not end our relationship with the dead. My sister would always be my sister, and I am still visited by her in my dreams.

I learned I could be courageous enough to face death without the hope of the outcome being any different, and that nature’s final victory is necessary and natural and will come when it comes, and I don’t have to fear it but accept it.

I also learned to think about death as change and accept the peace it offers as it simultaneously feeds new life.

And I learned that the dignity we seek in our death can only be found in the way in which we’ve lived our lives. That yes it’s a great idea to live every day as if it were my last but also live every day as though I will live forever through the memories I leave behind.

Over the course of that long emotionally exhausting year, I became obsessed with death. I stood no chance had I attempted to fight it, so I didn’t.

Every time my children left the house I imagined they would not return. Every time I saw or talked to a loved one, instead of thinking about how that day could be my last, I imagined it might be theirs, and in doing so, I began to cherish everything and everyone around me even more.

I no longer take life for granted. I have a much healthier respect and a greater appreciation for everything in my life now. Death has taught me to relish life.

Now, when the phone rings, my first thought remains that I might be receiving bad news, but now I feel more prepared, and I am as ready as I am ever going to be for that inevitable eventuality that awaits us all.

 

PART III of III

NEXT WEEK: DESTINY

 

DENIAL

Forty-five days before my sister died, twenty-six people – twenty small children and six adults – were shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on the morning of my forty-fourth birthday.

The morning marked the ten-year anniversary of my mémère’s death, so I was already feeling melancholy, but when I turned on the television and saw first-graders being led out of buildings by police officers, my sorrow was replaced by something else.

It was a combination of disbelief and anger, but above all denial.

This. Could. Not. Be. Happening. This. Could. Not. Be. Happening. This. Could. Not. Be. Happening.

The words became my mantra and ran incessantly through my mind.

A close friend of my daughter had just passed away one week before in a tragic car accident. They were the same age, both nineteen, and though I had never met her, her death hit very close to home. All I could think about for days was this could have been my daughter.

After Sandy Hook, I couldn’t think, period. I couldn’t conceive of a world where first-graders would be gunned down in their classroom. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to bury my child with bullet wounds. I couldn’t imagine it because it was just too painful to face.

“Refusing to face what we are not yet ripe and ready to face can help us to live in the present.” – David Whyte Consolations

So for the next forty-five days after the shooting, that’s what I did. I refused to face the horror of what had happened. It was too painful to try and comprehend. I hugged my kids a little tighter, told people how much I loved them a little more often and tried harder every day to find beauty in the world, the beauty I too often took for granted, but appreciated nonetheless.

But when my sister died, that all changed. It was hard to feel grateful for anything any more. She was too young to die. She was too kind to die. She was too important to die. Her son, who was her entire life, had just married the love of his life only four months before. It was not possible that she be taken away from him just when he was starting his new life. A life that would never be the same without her.

She became pregnant with him when she was eighteen. It was a shock to our devoutly Catholic family, but we rallied around her and promised we would all be there to help. She would raise him entirely on her own. She would put herself through nursing school. She would buy a house for them to live in all on her own. And she would watch him walk down the aisle and send him to the Galapagos Islands to honeymoon with his new wife.

But she would be diagnosed with MS in her early thirties, and she would suffer more than she ever let on, never wanting to be a burden on anyone. She would organize fundraising walks, and be the first one across the finish line, often, towards the end of her life, needing the help of her cane. And she would cut off her security blanket before chemo could steal it from her.

She was the glue that held our family together. She always had been for as long as I can remember. Now that she was gone I worried we’d come apart at the seams.

The adage, time heals all wounds, felt like bullshit. This wound was deep and jagged and bleeding profusely and just when you thought it had knit itself together, albeit tenuously, it would split open again plunging you back under into your well of pain as if being waterboarded by grief.

If time was going to heal this wound, I had two choices: withdraw from the world and wait for enough time to pass until I felt safe to come back out, or do something with that time that would speed up the healing process.

Every morning when I would open my eyes, there would be a few sacred seconds where nothing had changed. My sister was still alive. Our family was still in one piece. My nephew still had his mother.

Then the tears would come, and I would wrap the blankets around me a little tighter as if cocooning myself would protect me from the truth.

I would emerge, eventually, and try and go about my day striving for some new normalcy, but nothing felt normal anymore. My sister, who I cherished, was dead, and try as I might I could not and would not accept it.

But my soul wasn’t having any of it.

“To understand the true nature of our reluctance through observing and then inhabiting our denial is to see directly into the soul’s wish to participate.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was directed to get up and look in the mirror and face it. To look past the pain distorting my face and into my heart – my soul, where I could intuit the answers I needed.

It directed me to leave the safety of my cocoon and participate in life again.

“Denial can be a prison if inhabited in too concrete and unmoving a way, but denial is also a stepping-stone and a compassionate foundation for viewing those unable to take the next courageous step.” – David Whyte Consolations

There were so many people around me whom I loved that were having a much harder time of it than I was, too afraid to take that next courageous step.

For many, it was just too great a shock to the system, and I knew they would need a longer time to recover. But for others the denial wasn’t just a prison, it was a sanctuary. It was a port in the storm, a place to hide away and if they had their wish, never be seen again.

The pain was too excruciating for them. They were even closer to my sister than I had been and you could see the emptiness they felt inside as plain as you could see a hole in a donut. There was a giant piece of them missing, and their puzzle would now forever be incomplete.

Knowing this only added to my pain but it also gave me something to do with this “time” that was supposed to heal us.

I found that despite it being the dead of winter and bitterly cold, spending even more time in nature felt like an embrace. Being surrounded by white light dispelled the darkness and being sandwiched between the snow and gray sky offered me much needed solitude and silence and brought me stillness and peace during the turbulence that was now my life.

I also found my pain being transmuted whenever I put myself out there in the service of others. Regardless of whether or not I was making a difference, though I certainly hoped that I was, the anguish and grief that had consumed me began to release me back into the world slowly, bit by bit until I felt myself morphing into something else.

I was made out of scar tissue now. Each one of my experiences with death had cracked me open so wide and so deep that when I eventually mended back together, I was stronger for it instead of weaker.

It still hurt like hell to be alive every day knowing that she was not, but each day I could feel myself gradually getting stronger. Like working a muscle, each time I tested that strength and pushed it past its limits, it grew larger and stronger allowing me to offer more of myself to others in an effort to lighten their load by taking on some of their pain.

I would still have my days. There were still many times when my resolve would falter, and I would drink until I was sufficiently numb enough to sleep. But taken on the whole I had more good days than bad, and with the passing of time, things did seem to be a bit more bearable.

Until just three weeks after my sister’s death, when I would be forced to attend yet another funeral.

 

PART II of III

NEXT WEEK: DESPAIR