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ROBUSTNESS

I could run barefoot for miles. I could climb stairs three at a time and leap over rock walls with no care to where I’d land. I climbed trees and did flip dismounts from their low hanging branches, and could walk on my hands.

I was skinny but strong; wiry but robust. Like a fast-moving stream being powered by the melting snow, every spring I couldn’t wait to run again. I almost always ran barefoot, even sometimes when I ran cross country during my junior year of high school.

I remember one meet, in particular, that was a pretty big deal for me. I had been making steady progress throughout the season, increasing my training runs from three to four to six and at times eight miles at a whack. This particular meet was going to take place very close to where we lived, so I had asked both my parents to try and be there to cheer me on. In all my years of taking part in any kind of organized sports (which to be fair only included basketball in elementary school and cross country that year in high school) it would have been a first.

“Robustness is not an option in most human lives, to choose its opposite is to become invisible.” – David Whyte Consolations

I already felt invisible for much of my childhood, so maybe that’s why I trained so hard; to stop myself from disappearing altogether. I honestly never thought about it like that before, but the idea has some merit.

When my parents never showed up that day, something inside me broke.

It happened with only a couple of miles left. I remember scanning the faces of the fans that had made their way to that part of the course to cheer us on. I remember searching for a familiar face but finding none.

I instantly went from feeling this robustness coursing through every inch of my sweaty body to feeling weakened and drained of all forward momentum.

My pace slowed to the point where I considered simply stopping. I already knew in my heart that no one would be there waiting to see me cross the finish line so I figured I might as well throw in the towel.

That’s the moment I felt a Neal grab my hand. He was a year older than me, a senior, and we had become quite good friends during our time running together. He knew how much it meant to me, to for once have someone there supporting me, so that’s what he did. Despite having just finished the course himself, he came back for me and ran beside me the rest of the way, cheering me on the whole time.

It meant everything to me, but in the end, it wasn’t enough to keep me going. I finished that race, but I never ran another meet again.

By the time summer rolled around, I would have a new boyfriend – a young man who I would end up marrying just four short years later. I was still quite thin, but certainly not as robust as I’d been. I started smoking more and drinking more and running less and less.

By the time I had my first child, I had pretty much given up on exercise of any kind altogether. Baby weight packs a punch, and I was slow to get back up. After my second child was born, I became determined to get back into shape. I started walking regularly again and was relieved when the weight finally, albeit slowly, began melting away.

But eventually, the demands of motherhood and later homeschooling, had me working harder and harder just to keep up, which meant less and less time to take care of myself.

“A lack of robustness denotes ill health, psychological or physical, it can feed on itself; the less contact we have with anything other than our own body, our own rhythm or the way we have arranged our life, the more afraid we can become of the frontier where actual noise, meetings and changes occur.” – David Whyte Consolations

My lack of robustness did feed on itself. It was a vicious cycle, and my psychological and physical health began to suffer for it. Since I wasn’t taking great care of myself, my weight started creeping back up. The more weight I gained, the more I began to hate myself. The more I hated myself, the more I squirreled away from society in general, refusing invitations that required me to step outside my front door and leave the safety of the cocoon I had made for myself. Unlike when I was a child, now I was choosing to be invisible. Accepting an invitation to a party meant I might be asked to another, and then another, and I wasn’t willing to take that kind of risk.

At a certain point, my isolation became a real problem in our marriage. My husband started to resent always being asked, “Where’s Amy?” and I couldn’t say that I blamed him.

The guilt I felt over continually disappointing my family, only added to my overall unease.

I was running out of excuses and was exhausted from lying to myself about it. I knew I needed to do something that would force me to change.

I didn’t know that the catalyst for that change would come from having an x-ray taken of my back.

It happened at my chiropractor’s office. After taking a series of x-rays, he called me into his office to have a look. I vaguely remember him saying something about the curvature of my spine, but I was no longer listening. He may have been pointing out the spaces between my vertebrae, but all I saw were shades of gray.

It looked like I was wearing a fat suit over my skeleton, which I guess essentially I was.

I was mortified. I never felt more ashamed of myself than I did at that moment and I have never forgotten it.

Like that day so long ago on the cross country trail, something inside me broke, only this time I let myself feel it. I had no choice; I couldn’t get that image out of my mind.

I started walking every day again, and each time I did, I felt like I was being healed. Being in nature brought me back to my senses, quite literally.

Reconnecting to the ground, grounded me, and reconnected me with all the parts of myself that had been neglected for far too long.

Slowly, over time, I became less afraid to say yes.

“To come out and meet the world again is to heal from isolation, from grief, from illness, from the powers and traumas that first robbed us of that meeting and of a vital sense of presence in the world; to be robust again is to leave the excuses we have made not to risk ourselves and to find ourselves alive once more in the encounter.” – David Whyte Consolations

I can’t run for miles barefoot anymore, or climb stairs three at a time, or leap over rock walls, or walk on my hands.

These days, I often catch myself involuntarily groaning when I sit or stand, and the more I find myself doing it, the more I don’t like it. I long for the days when I had more energy; when I felt bone-deep robustness as I moved effortlessly through life.

But while I may no longer be as robust in the physical sense, I’m now able to engage in robust conversations; conversations that would have scared me back then. Conversations where I’m willing to risk myself that leave me feeling heard and understood, which at times can be no small feat.

 

NEXT WEEK: ROME

REST

A couple of years before my mémère died from cancer, she had a serious health scare that required heart surgery to remove blockages in her arteries.

Until that point, she had otherwise been the picture of health for all of her eighty-six years, so it was a very frightening time for myself and my entire family, being forced to see her so helpless and so close to death.

As the date for her surgery drew closer, we drew closer together as a family. We had a family meeting, something we hadn’t done in a good long while, where we came up with a plan to be there to support her at the hospital around the clock until she was well enough to be released, so she would never, even for a moment, be alone.

The surgery was a complete success, and as best as I can recall, it only took a couple of days for her to recover. I had signed up for the first overnight shift figuring I could sleep the following day since both of my children would be in school. (This was pre-homeschooling.)

I remember sitting by my grandmother’s bedside watching her sleep while listening keenly to every beep, never sleeping, just remaining on high alert throughout the night for anything unusual.

As stressful as you can imagine a situation like that to be, and it was, I remember feeling oddly but deeply at rest.

Instead of worrying about how my husband would have to get the kids ready for school the next morning, or what they would have for breakfast. Or if there was food in the fridge or if I would need to go shopping. Or if I would be too exhausted to do the laundry that was piling up, or pay the bills – if we even had enough money that week to pay the bills. Or the dozens of other things I worried about back then on a daily basis. I had one job and one job only. To be there for my grandmother in the event she came to so that she would immediately know she was not alone.

My only other job was to remember to breathe.

Watching her sleep was foreign to me. It was not something I had ever done before.

I remember trying hard to sync my breathing with her own. I remember staring at her face, weathered by life as it was, and holding her hands, hands that held mine when I was a child. Hands that were the epitome of grace and love for me then, and again in that hospital room as I kept her company.

And I remember trying hard to recall every memory we ever made together. Like the time when, for my thirteenth birthday, she invited just me over to her house for dinner (a right of passage when turning thirteen in our family) granting my special birthday request by making me steamed lobster and hand cut french fries for dinner.

Or recalling all of our many sleepovers (she was within walking distance of our house) where she would make big bowls of buttery popcorn for my sisters and I that we inhaled while sitting on the floor of her living room watching Lawrence Welk sing Tiny Bubbles. Often she would set our hair in small plastic rollers before going to bed so we’d wake up looking like Shirley Temple in the morning, even if the effect was only temporary.

“Rest is the essence of giving and receiving; an act of remembering, imaginatively and intellectually but also psychologically and physically.” – David Whyte Consolations

As I watched her laying there looking so helpless, I could feel the love we shared almost as if it was another physical presence in the room.

When my sister came into the room the next morning to relieve me, the first thing she asked was whether or not I had gotten any sleep. I told her no, I didn’t think so, but that strangely despite the seriousness of the situation, I felt more rested than I had in a good long while. Then I kissed them both goodbye and left as quietly as I came.

She had arrived at the hospital earlier than I had expected, so everyone was still asleep when I returned home.

After greeting our two black labs, I made a beeline for the couch and collapsed. I’m sure I was asleep within minutes because I was awakened only a short time later by my then eight-year-old daughter who had worked her way between myself and the back of the couch before curling up in a fetal position inside my arms.

“To rest is not self indulgent, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and to perhaps, most importantly, arrive at a place where we are able to understand what we have already been given.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was comforted by the warmth of her small body next to mine and would have loved nothing more than for us to stay that way the whole day, weary as I was. But there was school to think about, so after allowing for a few minutes of rest that felt like floating on a cloud of my gratitude for her, I whispered that it was time to start getting ready for school. No sooner had the words left my mouth could I felt her body begin to tremble and sense her starting to cry.

I knew she was extremely worried about her great grandmother’s surgery. We all were. But I don’t think I had taken into account how she, too, was probably up half the night worrying about us both.

As I gently rubbed her back to console her and assure her that Mémère was going to be just fine, she asked if she could stay home from school to be with me, and without a moment’s hesitation, I said yes.

I’m sure we fell back to sleep curled up like two cats napping together in the sun on the couch very quickly. At least that’s how I remembered it.

But as I reached this point in writing this post, I realized I wasn’t so sure.

It was the first time since beginning this blog that my memory was failing me. What did we do for the rest of that day after that? Did we sleep a while then get up and make cookies? Or did we stay on the couch and watch movies all day? Or maybe we went for a walk together in the woods? Any of them sounded like something we would have done.

I couldn’t say for sure, so I had to ask my now twenty-five-year-old daughter to see if maybe she remembered.

“I remember that day. I was wearing overalls and green socks,” she said.

I thought, OK, wow. Clearly, she does remember then. Then in the next breath, she adds that she remembers Mémère looking extremely frail when we went to see her.

“When we what?” I asked.

She went on to tell me how, at her insistence, I had driven us both back to the hospital – about a forty minute drive, so she could see for herself that her great-grandmother was indeed okay. She remembered the urgency in her needing to lay eyes on her as if to confirm what I had already told her.

When we then talked about the rest of that day, about what we did when we returned home, neither of us could say for sure.

It still strikes me as odd that I would choose to write about what was such an exhausting day, both physically and mentally, when telling a story about the word rest.

I love my hammock. The screened in porch that houses my hammock is my favorite room in my house. Why am I not writing about long lazy summer days spent idling away the hours resting in it?

Maybe because even though I was facing a serious crisis with my grandmother, I was so focused on her and only her that when everything else slipped away, it felt like rest. Organic, pure, soul-soothing rest. I trusted her doctors, and I trusted that she would be okay, so all I had to do was be in the room with her. That’s it. Well, that and send copious amounts of love her way.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I most often feel more rested when out walking in the woods then I would be if I was lounging away the day in my hammock where I would no doubt feel guilty for not being more productive.

“We are rested when we are a living exchange between what lies inside and what lies outside, when we are an intriguing conversation between the potential that lies in our imagination and the possibilities for making that internal image real in the world; we are rested when we let things alone and let ourselves alone, to do what we do best, breathe as the body intended us to breathe, to walk as we were meant to walk, to live with the rhythm of a house and a home, giving and taking through cooking and cleaning.” – David Whyte Consolations

In this crazy world of constant distractions, how often do any of us ever find an ideal time to rest? Even when I’m laid up sick on the couch all day and all night, I’m almost always distracted by the television. I may be resting my physical body, but my mind will be fixated on how terrible I feel and, if I’m watching the news which I usually am, how dire the future of this planet appears to be.

But when I’m walking alone in the woods with only the company of my dogs, everything else slips away. My body might be feeling the physical demands put on it, but my mind is free to wander. I am conscious of each breath as it fuels me. I am present in ways that are impossible to stay present within the confines of our ever more demanding world. Even if I only have fifteens minutes to walk to the end of my road and back, in those fifteen minutes, it is possible for me to feel more rested then had I never laced up my sneakers.

In the process of telling this story, I am figuring some things out.

Just the other day while walking through a darkened section of woods so thick with hemlocks that it allowed very little light in, I heard a snort.

It was a loud, quick burst of air being expelled by something quite large.

My mind immediately went to a time earlier this summer when I startled a doe in my backyard. She was with her fawn and with a series of loud, angry-sounding snorts she let me know I’d better keep my distance.

This was like that, and when I heard it again (this time both of my dogs heard it too), every tiny hair covering my body stood at attention, sensing the something I could not see.

By the time I returned home I had walked just shy of five miles, up some steep hills and across a few streams. Considering the heat and high humidity of the day I should have been exhausted for my efforts, but I felt more rested than I had in very long time.

 

NEXT WEEK: ROBUSTNESS

REGRET

When I began this blog I had no idea of the scope of the journey it would take me on.

I also had no idea how much I might unintentionally hurt people that I love in the process.

Not only my parents who from time to time I talk about when telling the story of my sometimes painful past, but also any of the people who might feel I have overstepped my bounds or crossed imaginary but implied boundaries.

I regret that.

I do not, however, regret starting Relish Your Story.

“To admit regret is to understand we are fallible: that there are powers in the world beyond us: to admit regret is to lose control not only of a difficult past but of the very story we tell about our present; and yet strangely, to admit sincere and abiding regret is one of our greatest but unspoken contemporary sins.” – David Whyte Consolations

I believe with every cell of the trillions of cells in my body that it’s vitally important to follow where your heart leads you and to always trust your gut. Every time I have ever ignored that impulse, I have lived to regret it. My heart led me to write this blog. I needed to tell my story. I needed validation. I needed to be heard.

It has taken courage and determination, patience and persistence and an awareness that I am risking important relationships in the process.

My stories are mine to tell, but it is not lost on me that many are entwined like a vine with others making it impossible to entirely separate them from my own.

I regret that I do not have the type of relationship with my parents that would have allowed me to feel at ease talking about the past with them. I regret that some of what I have written about may have caused them to feel ashamed about the way they parented me.

That was never my intention, but I accept responsibility for any hurt feelings I may have caused or any pain that I have inflicted.

In earlier posts, I wrote about feeling invisible for much of my young life, about feeling neglected and at times unwanted. But in the process of telling my stories, I became aware that those very same stories were not always true. At least not my interpretation of them anyway.

I may have felt that way at the time, as I suspect any child would, but looking back now I can see many things that I couldn’t see then which has allowed me to forgive myself and others for painful actions I sometimes (wrongly) perceived to be intentional.

I have carried these stories around with me like a weighted backpack never putting them down and only now by my releasing them into the world do I feel heard; only now does my load feel somewhat lightened.

I have mentioned several times throughout this blog that I will be turning fifty in December. For whatever reason, I felt it mandatory to reflect on my past with as much honesty as I could muster.

I have shared stories that some people may rather I didn’t, but in doing so, I have given myself what I believe to be the greatest gift I could have asked for as that milestone birthday fast approaches.

I needed to feel my pain so that I could own my past. I needed to tell my story so I could finally let it go.

I will no longer be defined by what happened to me; my life is now my own again.

“Fully experienced, regret turns our eyes, attentive and alert to a future possibly lived better than our past.” – David Whyte Consolations

I also regret that I have not had more opportunities to share any of the so many happier stories from my past.

Stories that would describe every holiday that was made to feel magical – and they all were, even Halloween.

Or stories about our huge family summer barbeques with all the cousins that lasted until all of the kids were exhausted from hours of playing wiffleball or badminton or hide and seek until it was too dark to seek.

Or stories about every summer spent at the lake, sleeping on cots in tents, preparing our meals in an outdoor kitchen and eating them inside a large screen house. And fishing alone in a rowboat every day it wasn’t raining and often even when it was. Campfires and marshmallows almost every night. Epic games of softball and capture the flag with all of the other campers. And the best part – never leaving there from late June until Labor Day, (unless you had the bad fortune of being sick enough to require a trip to the doctors). The effect was that I always felt like I was entering a new home when I returned months later to get ready for the start of a new school year, which added to my overall excitement.

And in those days leading up to the first day of school, the most exciting moment for me was always the same every year. It was when my mother would walk through the door with several large shopping bags in her arms and call us all to our large dining room table where we would gather around and excitedly wait for her to pass out our new school supplies.

For the most part, I had a very good childhood. I was fortunate to have had loving parents that always tried their hardest and did their best. Parents that were and still are devoted to their children and to each other.

I learned everything I know about cooking, not from The Food Network, but by watching my mother slave away at the stove every night and learned how to identify the wild birds that would visit our feeders by my father teaching me each of their distinctive songs.

By basing this blog on David Whyte’s essays in Consolations, I have had to stay within the parameters I established for my telling my stories by using the words he writes about in his book as prompts each week. As a result, I have been accused of taking advantage of tapping into other peoples pain. I have been told that it’s no surprise people relate to my stories because all I focus on is the negative.

The person who said this to me said it as an accusation and meant it as an insult. It hurt to hear it coming from someone I love, but it made me more determined than ever not to quit. Not to throw in the towel the dozens of times I was ready to.

This past week Nike came out with a new ad that boldly states: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

I believe in this blog. I believe that by sharing my stories, I might inspire others to reflect on the stories they’ve been telling themselves all their lives and ask themselves, are they true?

Might they be trying to tell us something different?

Might there be something buried under all that pain for us to relish?

I suspect and regret that many of us may never know.

 

NEXT WEEK: REST

PROCRASTINATION

It’s six o’clock on Sunday morning. The dogs have been let out. Everyone else is still sleeping. The house is still. It’s the perfect time to write. I can no longer put off until tomorrow what could be done today. It must be done today. I am out of time. I am done procrastinating.

Occasionally, after reading David Whyte’s essay for the word of the week in Consolations, I know exactly what I want to write about, and the words flow from my fingertips effortlessly. But more often than not I struggle. And I procrastinate. A lot.

What may seem like a great direction to go in, at times, brings me to a screeching halt and the delete key. I must turn around and go back, only this time deeper into the dark to allow my memories to take me in the direction they want to go, reminding me I’m not always the one in charge. It takes time and patience and yes, procrastination, to get there.

“Procrastination when studied closely can be a beautiful thing, a parallel with patience, a companionable friend, a revealer of the true pattern, already caught within us; acknowledging for instance, as a writer, that before a book can be written, most of the ways it cannot be written must be tried first, in our minds; on the blank screen on the empty page or staring at the bedroom ceiling at four in the morning. Procrastination enables us to understand the true nature of our reluctance.” – David Whyte Consolations

The true nature of my reluctance comes from knowing that people close to me, friends and family as well as complete strangers, are reading what amounts to my diary. The strangers I’m fine with, but for the people that know me, I am often reluctant to follow in the direction my writing wants to go precisely because it’s so personal and makes me feel so vulnerable.

I remember when I was younger and still in high school, I would often be criticized by my English teachers for my reluctance to write anything too personal. I could tell a story well enough, but the reader would be left unsatisfied. My stories were like a bland meal without any interesting or juicy details, leaving the reader still hungry.

At the time I didn’t care. I didn’t see my writing as I do now – as a way in – as the key to unlocking doors that have been locked my whole life.

“What looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavor to which we have set our minds.” – David Whyte Consolations

Looking back at the whole of my life – almost fifty years – I see a pattern emerging. My whole life can be seen as an endeavor. All the (many) times I procrastinate, put things off, lack commitment, or am just plain lazy, were times when for whatever reason I just wasn’t ready.

Like a tight bud, I needed time to unfurl into flower and be pollinated by life before becoming fruit, only ripening when I had something ready to offer.

And like the ripe fruit that falls to the ground, my seed has also been passed on to a new generation, a generation that given enough time and patience and maturity may germinate and eventually give away its own fruit one day.

Often I am impatient with this process; impatient for an imagined future to arrive. Impatient to see my kids walk down the aisle someday. Impatient to bounce my grandbabies on my knees and hold them close to my heart. Or, instead of focusing on whats right in front of me, I might dwell in the past to a time when they were young and playing in the hot sand at the beach or picking ripe round apples at the orchard.

Thinking about life in this way by extension makes me think about death. It reminds me of how fragile it all is and how quickly it all passes by.

It also makes me think of my sister, Karen, who died unexpectedly more than five years ago from complications of MS.

She was a nurse who gave everything she had to give to everyone who ever knew her, her family, her friends as well as her patients. When she became sick, she suffered in silence. When she was unfairly let go from her job two weeks before Christmas due to physical limitations from the progression of her disease coupled with the hospital’s bottom line, she never let on how devastated she must have been.

After learning that she had lost her job, I began thinking about her every day. She only lived about fifteen minutes away, and I wanted very much to set aside some time to go and see how she was doing and if there was anything I could do to help her out even if it was just to spend time together in an attempt to brighten her spirits.

For whatever reason, I kept putting it off. I kept procrastinating.

I remember coming across this poem and copying it down for her in a letter. I should have delivered it to her in person, but for some reason, I opted to mail it to her instead.

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-Rumi

It said what I couldn’t find the words to say. It said that she shouldn’t lose hope, that the situation she found herself in was only temporary. That as much as it sucked to have been betrayed by the people she worked so hard for, for so many years, something better was waiting for her in the future. That maybe she was being cleared out for some new delight.

Every single day after I sent her that letter there would come a moment when I would stop whatever I was doing and think to myself – I should get in my truck and go see her right now. I felt a weird sense of urgency coupled with fierce resistance.

“Procrastination does not stop a project from coming to fruition, what stops us is giving up on an original idea because we have not got to the heart of the reason we are delaying, nor let the true form of our reluctance instruct us in the way ahead.” – David Whyte Consolations

Reflecting on this now is still difficult. It is my single greatest regret.

At the heart of my delaying going to see her, of procrastinating to the point of self-hatred for my unwillingness to confront what made me deeply uncomfortable, was knowing in my heart that I could do nothing to make her better. I was too scared to come face to face with her pain.

She died unexpectedly about a week later. I had waited too long. I would never feel the warmth of her beautiful smile or get to spend another precious moment with her again.

My reluctance to face her illness and bear witness to her pain had me procrastinating about going to see her for weeks, and now it was too late.

But as painful as this story is for me to tell, reliving it through this particular lens has gifted me with a new perspective on it. I cannot rewrite it. I cannot go back and edit anything. But perhaps now I might finally be able to forgive myself.

It’s what my sister would have wanted.

 

NEXT WEEK: REGRET