The rapids

I have this giant hourglass that used to belong to my grandfather.  It reminds me of him: poised, stately, round, and steady.  I’ve never actually timed it to see if it takes an hour for the teeny tiny grains of sand to fall through.  But, I do know that once you turn the hourglass, you can’t rewind it.  It’s not like a stopwatch.  The sand moves in its own time.  And in one direction.

As life does.  Time moves in one direction.  

I remember when I was younger hearing someone describe time as an accordion.  How some moments drag on and on and on while others pass in a flash.  Of course, you wish you could control the perceived pacing of each.  Like, you wish you could fast-forward through the lonely nights, and slow down the first encounters.  Skip the contractions and pause the newborn-hand holding your finger.

I’ve also heard that time is like a river.  And I have never been more aware of the time/accordion metaphor than while rafting the Deschutes River.  You see, there is nothing steady about it.  Floating doesn’t flow to the beat of a metronome.  Instead, you are at the mercy of the rocks and rapids.  Channels and eddies.  Often, you get thrown into a rapid with little warning or time to prepare.

Our guide yelled commands like “Paddle two!,” “Lean in!,” and “Now THREE!”

And without hesitation, we followed his directions – fooling ourselves into thinking we could actually control this inflatable raft.  Adrenaline pumping.  Water surging.  Muscles flexing.  It was heightened senses and insanely fun.  (Which is why they call them rapids.)

But, how much did we actually control and how much was perceived control?  What if it’s all an illusion?  Because sometimes you can’t steer the raft where you want it to go.  You don’t get the guy, or the job, or the dream house, or whatever.  Despite your hardest paddling and line-picking, the current wins.  You float along.

Looking back at the experience, the rapids lasted maybe five minutes out of a sixty minute trip.  The majority of the time was slow.  Unassuming.

It’s funny, isn’t it?  We yearn for excitement, adrenaline, romance, and adventure.  Yet, that’s not how life works.  And frankly, that pace is not sustainable.  Life is lived in the slow waters.  The laundry and to-do lists.  Netflix-binging and online bill pay.  The headaches and broken hearts.  Oil changes and emails.

And if we’re lucky, we’ll experience both types of life.  The dull ones mixed with splashes of excitement.  The slow water and the rapids.

With the illusion of control, we’ll steer.  Paddle.  Give in to the mercy of the river.  And hopefully float through unscathed.

 

The depths

From the top, it is utterly surreal.  Like a postcard, it is both glossy and pristine.  Greetings from Crater Lake!  Caribbean blue against rock and evergreens.  It is breathtaking and beautiful.  And then you step close to the edge and see the cliffs diving hundreds of feet below.  Your heart rate quickens, as panic/awe races into your blood stream.  One slip, and death is there waiting.  L’apple du vide.

So you step back.  Slow your breathing.  Talk yourself off the ledge.  Life is safer standing at a distance.  And prettier.  From afar, you don’t see the blemishes and bruises.  It’s filtered and fun.  Glossy and bright.  Superficial.

There’s one, lonely path that winds down to the water’s edge of Crater Lake.  The sign states that the hike is strenuous.  It warns of the danger involved.  The inherent risk.  But the thing is, there is always a risk in going down to the depths.

Recently, my sister was saying how she felt my writing had gotten better this past year.

“Really?  I don’t feel like it’s changed,” I replied.

Then my sister-in-law chimed in, “Maybe it’s not how you write, but what you write about.  It feels more vulnerable.  Less superficial.”

And I couldn’t argue with that.  I think I stopped pretending.  Because you can’t hide divorce like you can a meh-marriage.  I used to think you could fake it till you make it.  As if by forcing a smile, you can trick yourself into being happy.  Or if you take enough photos, you can capture the good times and ignore the bad.  And now, I’m walking slowly into the deepest parts.  The painful ones.  The hidden ones.  And being at this level, I have a whole new perspective; I see how far I’ve come.

When we finally reached the water of Crater Lake, the cliffs no longer looked scary.  Like a fortress, it felt safe.  Secure.  We scrambled over the rocks to a 15 foot cliff and this time we talked ourselves over the ledge.  We touched the void.  Jumped into the water.  Over and over again.

These days, I still find myself faking it, but in a different way.  Now, I think that if I act brave, maybe I’ll feel brave.  Or if I hold my head up, maybe my body will follow.  Fragile courage.  Wobbly strength.  And maybe that’s all you can do on the journey to the depths.  Know that’s it’s strenuous.  Dangerous.

But worth it.

Unanswered

There’s this tree that I love.  It stands alone among the lava rocks.  Bent by the wind.  Stunted because of the landscape.  But still, it stands.

Every time we go to Lava Butte, I have to see it.  It’s stark and strong.  And it makes me wonder so many whys.  Like why did that tree find a way to grow when others couldn’t? Why did it end up in the path of a volcano, of destruction, when others, just a hundred yards away, were untouched?  Why it?  Why then?

Why?

The thing is, you can drive yourself crazy asking why questions.  Because there might not be a good reason.

Some say we often don’t know the reason why God puts people or experiences in our lives until later.  It’s only in looking back that we can connect the dots.  But what if some dots don’t get connected?  What if some things have no explanation?  No lesson/moral/theme?  What if we only assign them meaning to make sense of the world?  What do we do with that?

While we were driving home from dinner with a friend who has been asking a lot of why questions, I kept thinking of how the older I get, the less I understand.  I’m afraid I was a terrible help, because the only hope I could offer her was that her journey will get easier.  But she’ll never have all the answers.  And that she can only focus on what she can control.

My driving/musing was interrupted by my kids’ backseat fighting.  Snap back to reality (oh there goes gravity).  In my frustration, I decided to drown out their bickering with music.  I rolled the windows down.  Cranked Jon Bellion up.  And miracles of all miracles, it worked.  Not only did they stop fighting, they started singing.  Singing.

We sang at the top of our lungs as we cruised into the neighborhood.  Then we sat in the driveway until the song ended.  The chorus still swirling in my mind, hours later.  The lyrics go like this:

…Although I guess if I knew tomorrow
I guess I wouldn’t need faith
I guess if I never fell, I guess I wouldn’t need grace
I guess if I knew His plans, I guess He wouldn’t be God
 
So maybe I don’t know, maybe I don’t know
Maybe I don’t know, maybe I don’t know
But maybe that’s okay…

 

I love that my kids know the words.  I love hearing their innocent voices sing along.  And I wonder if they know the feeling.  Do they understand the meaning behind the melody?

Because the world is full of unanswered questions.  Full of volcanoes.  Lonely trees.  Destruction and growth.  Unconnected dots.  Mystery.

Any maybe we won’t know.
But maybe that’s okay.

Old tapes

We drove away from the big-box stores and suburbia and straight towards the mountains.  Rolling over pavement onto gravel until we reached the country.  Our friend had invited us over for horseback riding, and without hesitation, we said yes.  Her home oozed out adjectives like homey and warm.  Quilts draped on couches, family photos grouped on walls, bible verses engraved on horse paintings. Like mulberry and vanilla; 90’s style and sugary sweet.

Right away, we met the animals.  Nosey goats and aging horses.  Chickens, rabbits, cats, and a dog.  It was like a real-life Little People farm – complete with a tiny tractor and movable pens.  Later, the kids got to ride her Palomino named Issac.  But before they did, my friend told us his story.  A local ranch had rescued him from an abusive home.  His previous owner had tried to control him by power and fear, rather than trust and relationship.  And after a trailer accident, he ended up with a broken nose and worse, a broken spirit.

My friend had acquired him a few years ago in the hopes of rehabilitating him.  She warned us that while he was a good horse, she couldn’t guarantee when/if he would panic.  When something would trigger feelings from his past.  Past trauma.  Past hurt.  Scars that still festered that would cause him to react.  Loud noises could startle him.  Sudden movements could agitate him.

And I couldn’t help think of how much we are like him.  How are experiences shape us, stifle us, motivate us, and paralyze us.  How our pain is part of our story.  And you never know what/when/who will trigger those feelings.

Recently, I started talking to someone from my maiden-name-days.  A conversation was started and we decided to catch up over coffee.  Days before D-day, I was a nervous wreck.  I worried that the anticipation wouldn’t match the reality.  That one/both of us would be disappointed.  That we actually liked the idea of the person more than the actual person.

Then, some poisonous feelings surfaced unannounced and uninvited.  I was talking to my girlfriends, and I told them how I couldn’t imagine anyone being interested in me.  And if they were, well… it wouldn’t last.  They would leave.  They would find someone else.  They would figure it out.  And then, I would be left alone.  Again.

As the words and tears slipped out, they listened.  They encouraged.  Rallied.  They told me words that mattered: that I mattered.  Yet, the old tapes were still there.  The experience of betrayal still lingered.  I thought I had buried those feelings at least six feet under.  I thought the scar tissue was strong enough.  And I was wrong.

I wonder how many of us have these old tapes?  Tapes that say things like success is only measured in dollar signs.  Or, beauty looks good skinny.  Or, failure is not an option.  Or, the exterior matters more than the interior.  Or, men don’t cry.  Or, good moms raise good kids.  Or, fill-in-the-blank.  How many of us go through life, pushing these tapes down, only to hear them surface on one random, uneventful day?

I’m going to guess, all of us.  Every single one of us.  Some of us just have better masks.  Or push them under thicker rugs.  But, we all have issues.  Hurt.  Broken tapes.

And by being aware of them, we learn to deal with them.

My kids spent the afternoon riding Issac.  My friend even let us help give him his very first bubble bath.  Miraculously, there were no incidents or reactions.  With tenderness and awareness, we navigated the entire ordeal.  Does that mean he will never react again?  That he has been healed from the trauma?  No.  But, at least we know the trigger points.  And we are fragile with his sensitivity.

I think maybe that’s all we can really ask for from others.  That they know our story.  And that they tread gently around the edges.

During the reunion coffee date, and while giving the CliffNotes versions of our lives, I apologized to this guy for unloading such heaviness into the conversation by bringing up my divorce.  I had every intention of keeping the conversation light and airy and fun!  (No one wants to hear about baggage, do they?)  But instead of dismissing the recap, he reminded me that it’s part of my story.  That it would be hard to disconnect it from my life.  From ending up here.  Now.

He’s right.  Perhaps our vulnerability makes us more human, after all.  When we own up to our past.  Recognize our pain.  Our old tapes.

And with awareness, move forward.

Hope

Fly fishing in Central Oregon is like coffee drinking in Italy.  It’s everywhere and abundant.  Tourists book trips months in advance and locals stake out their sites hours before daybreak.

I joined some girlfriends on a hot-sun, cold-water kind of day. It was our first ever fly fishing trip, and with no expectations, we drove past civilization and cell reception towards the Crooked River.

Our guide, a die-hard fly fisher and patient instructor, got us looking the part.  Then, he carefully showed us the 1-2-3 cast.  The lines dancing above our heads before deliberately laying down on the water. 

For a field dominated by masculinity, the movement and rhythm was full of poetry and precision. Light and swaying and silent.

As we waded further into the current, the conversation churned towards the fly fishing culture.  I asked our guide the longest he had waited to catch a fish. “78 days. I went 78 days this winter without catching a single fish.”

“Are you serious?!” I incredulously asked.

“Absolutely. But it’s not about the catching. It’s about the fishing.”

I was stunned. What compels a person to try and try and try again?  Even after endless failure.   Never-ending rejection.

Why not quit?

Because… hope. 

Like champagne bubbles floating to the top, hope is buoyant and beautiful and altogether necessary.  It is the idea that things will get better.  That there is a purpose and reason – even for the pain.  Stephen Hawking said, “While there’s life, there is hope.” Because as soon as you lose hope, you give up.  You stop trying, stop working, stop looking, stop feeling.  You stop being.

At the end of our trip, we left with no fish.  Not even a bite.  But we all agreed that we wanted to come back.  To stand in Nature’s veins, surrounded by wildlife, and smothered in serenity.  Believing that there would be more fish.  More bites.  More somedays.

Hope is what keeps us holding on.  Waiting for the good news, changed heart, better life.  Hope, like a current, moves us.  It reminds us that while change is the only constant, why not believe that the change will be for the better? 

You can’t give up.  Maybe it’s been 78 days.  Maybe 78 years.

But what it, what if, everything changes tomorrow?

Change

The bookends of experiences hold time in its place.  We celebrate beginnings: births, weddings, first days, and first times.  We sentimentalize endings: death, retirement, movings, and goodbyes.  And then there’s divorce.  This thing we don’t really talk about.  The gray area that is smudged around the edges.  It stretches across months, sometimes years, and then eventually capsizes.  Heavily.  But finally.

And for me, I felt like it needed a bookend.  Something tangible to symbolize the end.  The release.

I wanted my kids to have a moment to look back to.  A ceremony of sorts.  So, with my friend capturing this sweet and solemn rite, we hiked up to Sunset Hill.

As the sun went down and the wind picked up, we let our butterflies float away.  Then, with my emotions getting the best of me, I read them this:

************************************************************************

This past year has not been easy.  You have had questions and doubts.  Anger and tears.

You don’t understand why Dad and I couldn’t work it out.  You don’t like splitting time between us.  Splitting homes.  Splitting lives.

         It’s okay to be upset.

         It’s okay to be sad.

         It’s okay to cry.

I wish I could tell you that things will get better.  That life will be easy.  But I can’t.  Because I don’t know.

I can’t promise that I’ll never disappoint you.  

     I will lose my temper and say the wrong things.  

     I’ll forget something that means a lot to you.  

     I’ll embarrass you.  Hurt your feelings.  Let you down.

     I can’t promise that I won’t make mistakes.

But, I can promise you that you were not mistakes.

I can promise you that our divorce was not your fault.

I can promise that you will always have a place to call home.  That I will listen.  Hold your hand.  Help you out.

I promise to accept you – regardless of what you do, how you look, or who you become.

I promise to never leave you.  Nor forsake you.

I promise to protect you and keep you safe.

I promise to love you.  

Forever.  

      No matter what.

A few weeks ago, I got a letter saying our divorce was final.  That same day, the first caterpillar started forming into a chrysalis.  If you didn’t know any better, you would have thought it was dying.  But, in fact, it was quite the opposite!  The stillness and covering just meant that it was changing.  

What was, was dying.  But what is, has been reborn.  It’s the same, but different.  It grew wings and can fly.

Kind of like us.  Our family is the same, but different.  We’re bigger now.  More colorful.  Transparent.    And when things on the ground get difficult, we can float above it.

Because like the butterfly, we grew wings.

And with love propelling us…

we

      will

              fly.   

************************************************************************

It was sacred and beautiful.  Forever, I’ll hold it in my mind.  Together, on top of the hill. Together, closing that chapter.

Together.

 

 

The Deal

There’s a danger in love.  There’s a danger in losing yourself to love – whether it’s the love of a parent, a child, a friend, or a friend-friend.  It’s a set up, of course.  Because while saying you want them, need them, in your life – you’re also admitting to the very real chance that they won’t stay in your life.  In committing, you’re gambling.

Is the happiness now, worth the pain of losing them later?

I was talking to a friend who said the whole “better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all” is crap.  Total crap.  Because, you see, she had experienced love with a man.  And it was everything it should be.  They were soulmates and business partners.  Best friends and each others’ better-halves.  And now they’re not.  And she didn’t choose this life all alone.  She lamented that she wishes she had stayed single – because then she wouldn’t have known the difference.  There is no loss without something to lose.

Yet, isn’t life lived in the depths?  In the extremes? It would be one thing to play it safe.  To stay in the shallows.  But think of all you would missing.

There’s a poem by David Whyte called “The Well of Grief.”  It starts like this:

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear…

He describes grief in this tangible and evocative way.  In a way that only those who have loved and lost can understand.

This past weekend would have been my anniversary.  A year ago, a lifetime ago, I never would have predicted to be here.  And preparing myself for a toxic cocktail of emotions, I booked a retreat at The Queen of Angels Monastery.

Surrounded by this aging group of nuns – these 30 or so women who chose celibacy and singleness – I was struck by the structure and safety of it all.  To be insulated from the outside world seems so nice.  So easy.  Why didn’t I think of entering the monastery instead of marriage?!

Because.

Because I was 21 and in love.  Because I thought I could muscle my way to happily-ever-after.  I could feel significant because I had a significant other.

I rolled the dice.  Gambled.  And lost.

So here I am.  Healing from a broken heart.  And for the first time, I’m able to say that I don’t regret my past.  Truly.  There was happiness and hope and this kind of bittersweetness.  C.S. Lewis says, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers.  But you learn, my God do you learn.”

And part of the healing – the diluting of the pain – is being able to admit being grateful for the lesson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The struggle

I stared at the computer screen and started crying.  It was too much.  This was too hard.  Going back to school had seemed like a good idea at the time.  I had imagined myself with dark-rimmed glasses, hair pulled back, scribbling down notes while the kids were sleeping.  It would be the classic single-mom/badass story.  One of triumph over tragedy.

But the reality didn’t match the romanticized version.  Instead, I was still in my pajamas at noon, trying to figure out this dang APA formatting and write like I knew what I was talking about.  Paraphrasing, pasting, toggling tabs, double-checking rules.  I was hangry and overwhelmed.  And then pity hit and the tears fell.  I. can’t. do. this.

It reminded me of when Duke was learning to tie his shoes.  After a lifetime of velcro, then a year of someone else tying his shoes, it was time to teach him.  Demonstrating the technique on several occasions, we both ended up impatient.  Each time, I would give in and tie them.  Frustrated and resentful.

Until I finally had enough.  He wasn’t going to take advantage of me anymore!  I prefaced the lesson by saying that I wouldn’t tie his shoes again.  This was it.  We went through the steps, slowly and cheerfully – just like the YouTuber.  Together, we did it twice.  Then, on the third try, he was on his own.

“All right, Duke.  You can do this!” I cheered as I walked away, pretending not to analyze his loop-pull-lace technique.  I nonchalantly started cleaning some dishes, when Duke suddenly yelled, “I can’t do this!  It’s TOO HARD!!”  Each word louder and angrier than the first.  He stomped his foot, slumped on the stairway, and sobbed.

I walked over to sit beside him. “You’re right,” I whispered.  “It is hard.”

And you know what?  He got it.  Eventually.  After more tears and more mess-ups and more tries.  You see, the struggle was part of the story.

Struggle shapes all of our stories.  And that is what makes us stronger.

I remember when I was a kid thinking that adults had it made.  I couldn’t wait to grow up and escape the demands of childhood.  I would have nothing to worry about besides carpooling and cooking, laundry and littles.  Adulthood seemed like a breeze.

Funny, isn’t it?  Because the demands of life are never ending.  You trade cafeteria drama for family drama.  Homework for to-do lists.  Tests for deadlines.  Things don’t get easier.  Just different.  We each have a cross to bear – and often, as soon as we lay one down, another replaces it.  We cry.  We cuss complain.  We cope.  And then get to choose: quit or persevere.

Me?  I’m choosing struggle.  New skills.  Strength.

I know it won’t be easy.  But that’s what makes for the best stories.

Serenity

It wasn’t the first time someone had accused me of being laid-back.  But it was the way she said it that got me thinking.  She grinned as she told me that she was intrigued by my easy-gong nature.  My “whatever” (said in a sing-song voice) attitude towards life.

For me, being laid-back is not an aloof, laissez-faire existence.  It’s not a careless, irresponsible thing.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  It’s an intentional, grounded lens on life.  You see, I’ve come to realize the lightness of living.  Maybe it’s because things haven’t turned out the way I wanted them to.  Or my dad’s example of this cool-under-pressure attitude, with a heavy topping of silliness..

Either way, I think people take themselves way too seriously.  As if this life, this meeting, this moment was the only thing that mattered.

And yet it’s all so temporary. So finite.  So uncontrollable.  Like we’re all floating on water: this moving, rolling, unstable platform.  Can you imagine the absurdity of people trying to stake claims on the ocean?  It would be nearly impossible – not to mention, insane.  Yet, here we are, doing the same thing with our lives.  Gripping for control.  Demanding attention.  Then a storm comes, and a wave crashes over us.  And we surrender.  Because the irony of staying afloat is that you have to stop trying and simply relax.  Lie on your back.  Breathe.

So maybe that’s why I seem laid-back.  I’ve surrendered.  I’ve realized the power in letting go.  After years of trying, of planning, of white-knuckling, I’ve come to what C.S. Lewis calls, “the vital moment  at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this.  I can’t.'”  Kind of like the serenity prayer.  There are things I can’t control.  There are things I can.  And I pray to know, and accept, the difference.

 

 

 

At Least

I woke up before my alarm normally sounded.  UGH.  Really?!  The one day I didn’t have to hustle or help little ones, and I couldn’t sleep in.  I flipped back the duvet and stiffly stood up.  Might as well take advantage of the freedom, I thought, and decided to go for a run on the river trail.

I dressed in my brightest clothes to match my mood.  Playlist pumping.  Pine trees towering.  Sunlight reflecting.  My steps were light.  My lungs full.

And then I saw something out of the corner of my eye.  It was so faint, I had to focus.  Then, there was more.  Is that…??  NO.  It couldn’t be.  It was the middle of May and the forecast said mostly sunny.

Snow.

I stopped for a photo; the snowflakes floating and fluttering in the sunshine.  It was exactly like living inside a Snow Globe.  Tiny people with rosy cheeks.  Optimistic music.  Joy contained.

Seconds later, I looked behind me.

Dark, ominous clouds were pushing their way into my idyllic world.  Worse, I wasn’t even halfway around the loop.  My pace quickened as the sun was swallowed up by the clouds.  The wind stinging.  The snow turning sideways.

CRAP.  What if I get stuck in this storm?  Or my phone/GPS freezes and I can’t find my way home?  Or what if I get hurt and no one is around to help me??

Shoving my fears aside, I leaned into the calloused weather.  As I did, it hit me: at least it wasn’t raining.  It could be worse!  I slowed to a walk, looked up, and tried catching snowflakes in my mouth.  (As you do.  When you’re, say, six.  Or crazy.)

I laughed at the comedy of it all.  Being stuck in a snowstorm and feeling grateful?!  It’s the idea that anything/everything is relative.  And by comparing your situation to something worse, you feel, in a strange way, better.

It reminded me of something that Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, said in an interview with Krista Tippett.  Sandberg, who lost her husband in 2015, said “you would think that when you’re trying to find a way forward, you want to think about happy thoughts, but actually, what you want to do is find gratitude, gratitude for what’s left. And one way of doing that is to think about how things could be worse. And that really did work, because the minute I thought about the fact that I’m lucky to still have my children alive, what I found was gratitude. Thank god my children are alive. And I can raise them, and I can raise them to know who their father was, who their father would’ve wanted them to be.”

Beautiful, isn’t it?

Also, in direct contradiction to Brené Brown’s advice on empathy.  And while I agree with Brown that hearing someone else say “At least __________ ” about your own situation undermines your experience and invalidates your feelings, there is something healing when you’re the one saying it about your own life.  There, in the reframing, is relief.  Peace spread softly over the sorrow.

The awareness that things-could-be-worse makes you feel better.  So much better.