FOUND, a life lost and

christmas-starI wouldn’t be exaggerating to say this has been the hardest year of my life.

My closest friends, who went through much of it with me, agree. And now that it’s over, I am ready to show hardship and heartache the door, even though – as the saying goes – I am better for it.

Nobody said reinventing your life would be easy. But I just had no idea. A year and a half ago I woke up from what felt like a long coma, determined not only to make each day count, but live the life meant for me.

Really live it. Not just go through the paces. Not settle. Not pretend it all was OK. And not get to the end wishing that I had taken a stand, or done anything differently. Because then, of course, it is too late.

A metamorphosis like this is illuminating and wonderful, as well as discouraging and sad. My outlets for stress became tennis and yoga, and the belief things couldn’t get worse — which they often did, despite my efforts to stay positive.

Compounding things, my son left for the Army, my teenager had two major surgeries in nine months, and my husband and I made the wrenching decision to end our 23-year marriage. If that wasn’t enough, our beautiful dog suddenly died, I had unexpected personal and financial issues, along with a big, old house that refused to sell — life seemed determined to push me to the breaking point to see what I was made of.

I’m still here, I am happy to report. I have learned that I am stronger than I ever knew. In fact, I not only held it together but I balled up the angst that threatened to overwhelm me, and used the passion instead to write a novel; inspiration comes at the oddest times. We also took in a foster puppy who within days became our own.

Such accomplishments might not stand out to others, but to me they are huge. I have solved problems, one by one, when I would rather have given up. And what I couldn’t fix I have held out to the universe, trusting that spirit, and God, and anyone else out there, will help.

And so, here I am, looking at my 50ish self with a little more pride as this year ends. For having learned to sway, but not break. To hang on to what nourishes me, and lovingly release the rest.

Starting over is terrifying. And, for me, excruciating. Which I hope explains why I have not blogged much, and not at all since October. There were days that I just stared at the blank page, knowing my thoughts were too intimate and painful to try to share.

But then today, for some reason, I felt strengthened and renewed. My feet just sort of led me to my laptop. And as the snow ended and sun streamed in through the window, the words decided to come.

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FIDDLE-de-dee

One sunny and beautiful morning this week — yesterday, in fact — I awoke after a rare solid night of sleep, got into work early and was sailing into my workday with a smile on my face when an inaccurate barb from an arriving colleague about the quality of my mood proved such a self-fulfilling prophecy that I closed my door for the rest of the morning. After relating the episode to a friend via email, she wrote back, “have you tried the Joshua Bell station on Pandora?”

photo of violin

Dreamstime.com

For the uninitiated, Joshua Bell is the preeminent classical violin virtuoso of his age. He happened to attend my alma mater, and I also happened to have studied classical piano for many years as I was growing up, so I know who he is. Even if you don’t know his name, you may have heard about the world-class violinist who played for spare change one morning in the D.C. subway tunnels and was pretty much ignored by the commuters rushing by. That was him. The Washington Post did a story on it and it the accompanying video made its way onto YouTube. It’s a fascinating read.

In any case, I love the violin and, depending on the composer, I love classical music, so off to Pandora.com I trotted. Type “Joshua Bell” into the “station or artist” slot, and they describe his music this way: “features a singing, mellifluous aesthetic, a tranquil mood, a bittersweet sentiment, a well-known composer and a romantic-era style.” Not all of what I heard throughout the day lived up to the quality of Chopin, but within about an hour I felt like someone had slipped me a Valium.

Safely cocooned behind my door, I relaxed. I smiled. The world fell away, and it was just me, the music and my computer screen. It was the happiest day I’ve had at work maybe ever. I was productive, mostly uninterrupted, and immune from the social vagaries of my office mates, who sometimes forget they’re in a workplace and seem instead to think that they inhabit the halls of a sorority, God love them. I finally opened my door, but left the ear buds where they were.

This morning, I again gravitated to Pandora and was immediately treated to the rich, mellifluous renderings of Yo-Yo Ma. My heart rate slowed immediately. My shoulders relaxed. I imagine my blood pressure dropped. As though the station really is Valium, I am hooked. And now, I’m dealing in the stuff: go try it. No charge.

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FOUND strength

I have a handful of friends going through challenging divorces; several more have put at least one behind them. Emancipated myself for over nine years now, there are days when being independent and responsible exhausts me, and I want to curl up into a ball on the couch and have someone make me hot soup and clean up the kitchen afterward. And then go mow the lawn.

yoga strength

Dreamstime

But mostly, I have come to cherish my freedom, my re-discovered ability to handle life on my own, and controlling my own schedule and my own space. That feeling of empowerment is exhilarating, and hard-won.

I am so, so lucky. I have a solid, stable job that pays me well, if not extravagantly; wonderful friends who love me, as I do them; a comfortable house I adore and a yard, currently under slow and gradual renovation, that I’m coming to treasure just as much. I’m healthy, and I live in a beautiful region. I have retirement savings (at least until the government collapses). My divorce was amicable, and my ex and I are still in touch occasionally. My problems are first-world problems, although I tend to forget that when I’m yawning at my desk in the middle of the day or picking myself up off the sidewalk when my bad ankle gives out or watching my father lie in a hospital bed. After all, we both have insurance.

I am rarely lonely – the benefit of being an only child who, at mid-life, has lost friends and lovers, jobs and illusions, and gained perspective and wisdom. My life isn’t perfect, and neither am I, but at long last, I accept the former and forgive myself more often than not for the latter.

The biggest difference, though, from my days as a new divorcee is that fear is not my dogged companion. These days, I don’t worry about professional enrichment; it will come. I’m not concerned about unearthing love; I’ll find it when the time is right. Barring disaster, the money will last and the house won’t flood. Yes, there are slings and arrows sure to come my way, but now I know that there’s always a way through. That’s not security that’s found anywhere but deep inside. Sometimes, you just have to clear everything else out to be able to find it.

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FORCE, life a

LAST HYDRANGEAI found some late arrivals in my garden today, long after it seemed to have stopped giving.

A hydrangea along the driveway, framed in faded red for weeks, had produced from dormancy a bloom of brilliant blue among those that had already gone by. Then I noticed a clump of Shasta daisies had suddenly opened by the front porch.

The nights have been cold, with temps in the freeze zone, and the date, obviously, is October. But still, the flowers endure in this show of strength against the odds.

When I look at them, as the leaves begin to fall around the yard, I’m reminded of how resilient we really are, often, more than we know.

Life has been filled with endings lately that have forced some new beginnings. Some changes have been welcomed. Some were inevitable. Others have been hard and scary. Sometimes, when little feels recognizable, I try to remind myself of the old saying that when a door closes in one place, a window opens somewhere else.

When I was a kid I had no idea what that meant, and rolled my eyes at yet another inane thought from the nuns at my school. Now that I am older I see the wisdom, and the truth, that in letting go you open yourself to receive.

LAST DAISYIt’s been a challenging few weeks that includes a bucketload of work up to the gills. Yesterday, I got to my laptop at 7 a.m. and after a handful of appointments and commitments, was still there well after 1.

I woke up with an exhaustion hangover that two huge cups of French roast couldn’t cure. Then, as I was driving my daughter to school, I saw the flowers, and I felt refreshed, remembering that good things never fail to come to good people.

I am thankful for the simple blessings I have received lately — whether in uplifting notes from friends, or the offer of warm hugs from my teenager who has a sixth sense for when I need them. And, as I saw today, in this unexpected new beauty, the not-so-subtle reminder that — like the flowers — I am stronger than I think, and everything is going to be OK.

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FLUSH with change

Courtesy of the University of Vermont

Courtesy of the University of Vermont

I was going through my phone this week, cleaning out contacts, deleting photos, and giving unused apps the heave-ho. I needed to make room for the new operating system, which refused to download, as jumbled as things were.

The task dovetailed with the urge I get this time of year to clean up and clean out, leaving myself with only the absolute necessities as summer turns to fall.

While I was purging, I came across a list of F words I apparently jotted down at least a year ago or more. I don’t remember doing it, but I can imagine myself grabbing a moment after deadlines, or during a break as the kids’ chauffeur, or even in those groggy last seconds before sleep when I try to capture ideas that are intent on slipping away.

The list covered ground I’ve been thinking about for a while, like FIGHTING for the life you want and deserve, and FRAGILITY in making changes that might hurt.

There was FEAR that the going will be hard, FAITH to take it moment by moment, FOREVER knowing you have what it takes to succeed, and finally, and so true as it has turned out, that FRIENDS will get you through.

I’m amazed, looking back, how words that probably poured from me in frustration eventually triggered a massive personal transformation. It is one thing to write about how you want to change, emotionally and otherwise, and another thing altogether to make it happen.

The day we started this blog, almost three years ago now, I felt like I had awakened from a long, deep sleep where everything in my life had changed and I was damned if I knew how, or why, or even what to do about it.

But then it’s easy to feel like you are in a foreign land when you reach mid-life. There’s a panic when you realize how time has flown and the focus turns to where you are going, rather than where you’ve already been.

I’ve found a lot of my answers although some still elude me. Some routes were easy. Bang. Done. But most times, I had to take the long way around. Which left me exhausted, but grateful. Not only for each breath I take and every single beautiful thing I notice as I work to live in the moment, but for lessons learned that have forced me to dig deep and set a course.

Cleaning house feels good, whether it’s as simple as organizing a new phone system or the more complicated task of sorting through and releasing what no longer fits your life. As hard as it is, it’s the only way to make room for the things that really do.

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FINIS, et

caliblankieIf only people could be more like dogs. Kind. Loyal. Committed to a fault. Always playful and interested. How about a treat? I really love you … was that a squirrel? Oh yeah. Back to you. I love you. So much.

You are either a dog person, or you aren’t. Some people run for the hills when a dog comes along. Oh. Ick. Dirty. Smelly. Others (like me) kneel with open arms for the wet kisses and hugs. Smells like a wet blanket? Good! Love it.

I’ve learned a lot from my dogs over the years. Like all you really need in life are the basics. Food. Water. A treat now and then. Some toys. Affection. And unconditional love.

There was a day about three years ago when I was lost in grief. My faithful dog had just died, not so long after my mother. I wondered how much sadness a person can bear. And then came Cali, this yellow dog that I found on an adoption site, who took my breath away. Five years old and sick as can be. Promising to be complicated and expensive. Hey, who needs it?

I couldn’t get that dog out of my mind. Her soft brown eyes drew me in time after time as I cruised that site looking for a puppy in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine. And in the end, I learned the sick, complicated, expensive dog that haunted me lived less than five miles away and was absolutely desperate for a new home. Could I take this on? How could I not? Am I nuts? Well, yes.

This was a story that was supposed to have a happy ending. I adopted the dog and gave her a middle name, so if I had to raise my voice at her it would be like correcting my kids. Fast forward to today, and I had to unexpectedly cradle my beautiful girl as she took her last breath. I whispered the words I needed to say as she left me. And then she was still.

A consoling friend told me this afternoon that I had committed the ultimate act of love by being willing to break my own heart to allow her to go. I am not sure about that as I battle the grief.

My dog is now lying in a peaceful grave out back under her favorite tree. She has been laid to rest with a cherished toy and the season’s last flowers, all wrapped in a blanket of warm fleece. There is a cross made of rocks culled from around the yard, and from near a woodchuck hole that she stalked.

I was at odds at dinner time, when there was no meal to be made. I walked around the house, instead, seeking something I couldn’t find. And now, at the time when we would take a nightly walk up to the corner mailbox and back, I am alone.

It will take some time to acclimate to the absence of routine, and the big, warm body sprawled half across my bed. Some will think, God, it’s only a dog. Get over it already. Think about world events. Do some work! And others, like my friend, and legions of others who touched base today, will say, yes, you have lost someone dear, and it’s OK.

One of those people told me it was great that I had cared enough to save Cali. But in my heart, as I sit here, I know with everything that I am, that it was Cali who saved me.

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FALLING into place

PUZZLEI’ve been having a little trouble lately believing that things happen for a reason.

Pretty much everything I need to get me where I want to be, from my house sale on down, has just refused to cooperate, leaving me — more often than not — just spinning my wheels. It has felt so unfair, and really, what reason could there be for keeping me from my happiness? I think about that.

But then, it seems like everyone I know is in upheaval, too. Is there something going around? Some friends have been struggling with their kids or spouses. Others are completely rethinking jobs and careers, or are about to lose them, and hell, even my dog has been diagnosed with a disease.

I try to remind myself in this angsty ebb and flow that time is a teacher. And my job is to open myself enough that the lesson can sink in. Even, I think, if I am not quite sure what it is. I tell myself it can’t stay this rough forever.

I am also feeling the melancholy that comes with the end of summer, a deep seasonal yearning for something I can’t name. Add it all up and it is an emotional one-two punch.

My co-blogger Mindy suggested I try seeing things from another perspective and what she said struck me. Instead of feeling like life is falling apart, why not see it as the deconstruction needed so it can fall into place?

“It’s a sure sign that you’re moving in the right direction,’’ she said. “You have to tear everything down so you have a clean slate on which to build.”

That thought buoys me when I am frustrated at how little control I have of my circumstances. I remind myself that things do happen in their own time, and not my time … for their own reasons, and not mine. And that the pieces will all come together eventually.

I am grateful for how many good things I do have going on, and how many people are in my corner. I know I am lucky to be so loved.

So, if I can just hang on a little longer I know I will get to that personal place I am seeking that is meant to bring me joy. And there, angst like this will be long forgotten.

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FLAME, keeper of the

CANDLEMy cousin Bobby died last week. It was expected after a long illness, so it shouldn’t have thrown me like it did when I got the call. But my heart sank to a very sad place that I didn’t get there to see him.

I had thought about packing up and heading south a few months ago, when I learned he was sick, and then again earlier this summer, when balmy sunny weather made me restless to blow town.

But things piled up as they always do. I got busy and have been going through a lot. And then, as I learned the other day, best intentions are one thing, but if you miss your opportunity, well, you have missed out.

Bobby was related to me on my mother’s side, a romantic, intriguing family of Virginians I hardly know. She came north to work and met and married my father. She stayed in touch with her folks, but her acclimation was to the north, and she made her real life here.

Still, the affinity I feel with her people is strong, forged by the mysterious strain of southern blood that also runs through me.

It’s been a good lesson the last couple of days. Everyone has a tendency to plot a course for a better time, but the question is this: does that time ever arrive?

I have been at a crossroads of choices for months, which all depend on one thing that just refuses to occur. The frustration is indescribable and I fight every minute of every day not to succumb to it.

I take refuge in my relationships, which range from fabulously wonderful to challenging all at once. These are the components that make each of us who we are, and I welcome them.

Showing the people I love what they mean to me — in the here and now — has been my mantra this year. When it comes down to it, I feel it’s all we have. But then comes a total fail, like what happened with my cousin, and I know I still have a lot to learn.

At my wedding, my brother described me in his toast as the keeper of the flame, the one who tends the family fire and holds things together. Lately, though, my role has changed: the only flame I can feed seems to be the one burning within me.

I have to focus on what make sense to me as I work to open up that stubborn path. I am mindful of how this fiery passion for life can be shared with others, and I offer it freely.

Still, as circumstances made clear last week, life isn’t often tied up with a bow. It flows forward consistently, yes, but you have to make a choice, and then accept the accompanying consequences: are you with it, or aren’t you?

Both answers involve risk. But, as I ask myself a lot, doesn’t it make sense to do what makes the ride worthwhile?

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FOR granted

My father, who is a week shy of his 88th birthday, has always been a quiet man. My mother used to reminisce, annoyed, about parties at which he would stand silently in a corner while she attempted to draw him into a conversation. The engineer in him has always been happiest puttering around his workshop, chasing the answer to a puzzle or conducting surgery on a recalcitrant small appliance. Thoughtful and methodical, he has always approached a problem with an analytical mind and a patience that was not a genetic trait passed on to his only daughter.

sun shining through autumn leaves

Dreamstime

For a while now, I have watched that meticulous mind slipping – his thought process slowed, easily overwhelmed by too much information, flummoxed by elusive dates and origins and stories. Determined to organize, categorize, grasp, he will ask repeatedly for information he has already received multiple times. I imagine that it frustrates him as much as it does me.

Three weeks ago, his body uncharacteristically followed the path his mind had blazed, one moment upright and supportive, the next, horizontal and helpless. The emergency room doctor sounded the death knell for his left hip, and before I could book a flight, he was in and out of surgery in a hospital OR not an hour’s drive from the small farming community where he grew up and the university where he met and fell in love with my mother.

I am certainly not the first child to watch a parent fail, and my mother’s demise was long and difficult. My parents, God love them, didn’t expect that I would surrender my life to help with her care; that was my dad’s job, and he did it with the same patience, dedication and love with which he approached any challenge.

My father, though, has been different. Rarely ill during the majority of his life, he still drives, golfs, volunteers, dines out, sings in the church choir and regularly walks the hills of his neighborhood. He doesn’t look a day over 75. But he’s due soon for cataract surgery, and a series of too-frequent infections has added a specialist to his appointment schedule. Still, he’s always been independent, and I haven’t had to worry much. Until now.

How does one treat a parent who suffers a seismic life shift? As I tried last week to help him ease back into life at home, I wavered – between taking care of him and prodding him to do more without my help. I have ridden the emotional roller coaster along with him, sensitive to his ebbing optimism, alert for the signs of depression that flare up as the day wears on and he wears down. Along this bumpy road, we have been immeasurably blessed by the support of friends, family, neighbors and strangers – the dozens of doctors, EMTs, nurses, techs, physical therapists, aides and others who have cared for him and reassured me. In many ways, this could have been so much worse.

Saturday – the beds remade, the refrigerator stocked, the neighbors on alert – I packed my suitcase and headed home, exhausted, tears stinging my eyes. He’s so much better, physically, but his surgical scar hides new wounds that lie below the surface. It could go either way – he could rally and reach out, or regress and recede – but either way, it’s largely out of my hands. To watch – powerless, worried and eight states away – feels like the most painful thing I have ever done. But he has chosen his life, and I have chosen mine.

For far too long, I have taken his hardiness for granted, behaving as though he really will live forever. And so his change in fortune last month became mine, as well. At some point, most of us will face our own frailties, our own mortality. His current malaise, I pray, will be temporary. But it foretells of frailties and pain – physical and emotional – still to come. And as the assumption I make becomes one of inevitability, I can only hope that we both can accept that with grace and with love.

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FOLLOWING UP

BUTERFLYI can hardly believe it has been a year since my life reared up last summer and smacked me in the face.

Wake up! it shouted at my dreary routine. You call this living?

Well, OK. Obviously, no one really said that. But you may remember me writing about it then, and periodically over the winter, describing how it felt to emerge one day from the fog that had surrounded my life only to learn I had lost the sense of who I was, and what I wanted to do.

It wasn’t like misplacing my wallet. I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to be happy, which sounds a little pathetic. But I have learned over this year that the dumbing down of hopes and dreams is pretty common. Some people I know are feeling the same thing.

It’s nothing we do deliberately, mired as we are in work and marriage and kids and bills. And, somewhere in there, life somehow shifts from being the tender treasure it is to a heavy load of mortgages, orthodontia, and taxes on the rise. Everyone and everything else comes first.

Lucky is the person who can keep it all in stride and remain true to self. I’m just glad for the wake-up call.

Twelve months ago I was a different person. Then, I had a routine with few choices and no exit. Now, I am redrawing my roadmap. Then, I felt empty and somewhat hopeless. Today, I allow myself to feel deeply, to enjoy the simple pleasures all around me, and to think freely and take risks.

I have learned to remind myself that joy and contentment are not waiting around the corner or down the road, they are with me already, in the here and now, if I will only open my eyes to see them.

Take something that happened the other day. I was talking with a friend when a sudden tidal wave of emotion overtook me. In fact, it was so strong I was almost unable to speak, and I struggled with it as we said our eventual goodbyes.

I was confused as I tried to figure it out. What the hell was wrong with me?

Nothing, I realized later, as I thought about it some more. I wasn’t fighting tears because I was sad, or hormonal, or for any other reason I can come up with. I was overcome because I was happy. In that moment. In life. Just in general. I felt something big. So, I cried.

Learning to navigate this good, perplexing, unpredictable life of mine is a challenge, but I am finding now that it fits me well.

Rediscovering yourself is a hard, cathartic job. Still, if I had to choose between then and now, I would take the “now” me. Not just because change forced a path, but because I am so very eager to see where it leads me.

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