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:

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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.   

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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.

Family, redefined.

“The _________ family is coming.  And so are the _____________’s.  Oh, and… Erin and her kids.” The words came out awkward and trailing.  As if she said it quickly/softly enough, no one would notice the difference.  But, I did.

She didn’t say family.  She left out the line, “the Hecker family.”

The absence was obvious.  A Freudian slip, maybe?  A subconscious statement?  Or a social affirmation of what family is?

I remember the first day that I didn’t wear my wedding ring.  I was in Kansas, visiting family and escaping the pain.  I went because I didn’t know where else to go.  What else to do.  I had always believed in marriage.  I wanted it to last, to grow old.  I wanted to relish in old memories and inside jokes.  And not in a fluffy, meringue kind of way.  I wanted it to work in the hardest of ways.

But marriage takes two.  Two people who both choose each other.

At least a good marriage.  (I know a few marriages that look less like love/companionship and more like obligation and tiredness.)  And sometimes, marriage is better off left alone.  After years of keeping it on life-support, it’s time to let it slip away.  The hope of it waking up from its coma transforms into an acceptance that it’s okay to say good-bye.

I took off my ring.  I chose divorce.  For me.  For my kids.

I was ashamed at first.  I felt the eyes of judgement.  Worse, I heard the words of judgement.  People, particularly Christians, felt the need to condemn me.  Or, the need to convince me that I was making the biggest mistake of my life.

I still chose divorce.

I still do.

And I didn’t choose it lightly.  Just because marriage is hard, doesn’t make divorce easy.

But now I don’t fit the mold.  Especially, the Hobby-Lobby-framed-Christian mold.  My kids are shuffled between households and expectations.  They have two churches and celebrate double holidays.  They have to keep the peace between their parents who couldn’t.  Instead of being a part of one family, they now have two.

Do we look like a typical family?  Two parents, two kids, one dog, a white-picket fence?  No.  But, we are still a family.  We. Are. Still. Family.

And while the divorce signaled the end of one thing.  It’s also the beginning of another.  A new life.  A new chapter.  A family, redefined.

What Wasn’t

I set the table, placed the candles in a stack of pancakes, began singing, and started recording.

It should have been simple.  It should have been like any other birthday breakfast.  Happy.  Smiling.  Sugary.  Sweet.  But what should have been, wasn’t.

Half-way through my serenade, Duke realized that his sister wasn’t singing.  “Eloise!  Sing!” he demanded.

“My voice… I can’t,” she croaked while pointing to her throat.

“Yes, you can!  SING!!” His desperation became obvious as tears welled up in his eyes.

I put down the camera and tried to salvage the situation.  “Let’s do it again.  Eloise, please sing.”  I started slowly, “Haaaaaaapy Biiiiiiirthday…” waiting for her to join in.  But, she just sat there.

“I forgot the words,” she offered coyly.

Duke, by now, was in a full blown melt-down.  Sobbing.  Begging her to sing.  Reminding her that he sang on her birthday.  The candles still lit.  The wax melting.  Pancakes wilting.

By the third try, Eloise – deadpan and dramatic – sang along while Duke stood grim-faced and frustrated.  He blew out the now-stubby-candles.  I cheered and Eloise fled to her room, crying.

It was everything that shouldn’t have happened.  It was disappointment. Harsh words.  Hurt feelings.  A lot like life.  Not one of us will get to the end without a long list of shouldn’t-haves and I-didn’t-ask-for-this.

I remember telling a friend how I hate seeing my kids in pain.  Especially when my choice to divorce is the very thing causing their pain.  And you know what she said?  She reminded me that we’re all given a bad hand.  That we all will experience pain.  She added, “your kids are just experiencing it earlier than others.  And you’re giving them tools to help them deal with it.”

It was comforting – in a weird way.  It helped me reframe the purpose of pain.

When I was young and super naive, I thought all you needed was love.  That the Jerry McGuire “you complete me” line was real.  And that happily ever after was possible.  But things didn’t turn out that way.  Turns out, you need a lot more than love.  And that if you’re looking for completion, you’re doomed before you begin.  It turns out that happiness is one of many side effects of living, along with  frustration and pain.  Fear and delight.

I never knew life would be hard because growing up was easy.  I assumed it would always go as planned.  And then it didn’t.

Lately, I’ve been listening to Anne Lamott’s s new audiobook, Hallelujah Anyway.  She quoted Frederick Buchner as saying the main job of the teacher “is to teach gently the inevitability of pain.”

It’s hard lesson to learn, but I want my kids to learn it.

Because, life isn’t fair.  Sometimes, you don’t get a happy birthday.  Situations/relationships/experiences will disappoint you.

And it’s okay.

It starts with acceptance.  But it doesn’t have to end in defeat.

Reality.

To most of the world, Texas must seem a strange and foreign place.  It was once a republic. It has more land than any country in Europe.  And it boasts enough high school football stadiums to hold the entire population of Oklahoma.

I hadn’t been back in nearly two years, and with a list of restaurants to visit, I met my friends for a BBQ dinner.  As we pulled into the parking lot, I laughed.  Two well-fed (and well-sedated) Longhorns stood in the To Go Food parking spaces.  We learned that they were hired for a rehearsal dinner, which helped explain it.  Kind of.

Once inside, Matt and Mendy tried to convince me that the horned rooster on the wall was real, while Chris pointed out the black-and-white photo of an old Texas rancher.

“Do you think people in Texas actually decorate like this?”  I asked the table.

Erin quickly answered, “No… This is just what people think Texas is like.”

“Yeah, but did the stereotype of Texas come from a reality?  Or, did the reality grow from the stereotype?”

Maybe my question was irrelevant.  As full-blooded Texans, most of them had never considered the Texas-themed-image.  That’s what they knew.  What they lived in.  The restaurant looked like Texas because it was Texas.

But, I couldn’t help but wonder how often an image or false reality is played off as true reality.  When the cubic zirconia is misidentified as a diamond.

We live in a world where social media is often our only lens into another person’s life.  And trust me –  that filtered, edited, glossy image is not the authentic reality.  But we create this online personality.  This image.  We create a brand.  And with enough time and enough practice selling the brand, we believe it.  And become it.

The imitation is our reality.

I can’t imagine that Texans decorated with the chintzy, over-the-top decor of the BBQ restaurant.  But now, perhaps they do.  The cheap, gaudy imitation is now its own brand.  And people buy into it.

This past year, I’ve stepped back from a lot of social media.  It’s hard not to see through the superficiality.  The platform for selling skincare and snake oil.  Accomplishments and accolades.  There must be something deeper.  Under the surface.

And yet, I fear that for many, the mask has become more comfortable.  Or, it’s been worn so long that it’s impossible to peel off.

 

 

I want you to know that you are enough.

Exactly as you are.

You don’t have to pretend.

 

 

 

 

When Ready

The desert is like Mother Nature’s modern art gallery.  It’s blank and spacious and then pop! A burst of color.  Or a strange Picasso plant.  Bizarre to some, captivating to others.  For me, there is something alluring/exotic about the desert landscape.    It reminds me of the bottom of the ocean – but instead of blue liquid, it’s blue sky.  Cactus instead of coral.  Gliding birds instead of swimming fish.

I met my mom and sisters in the desert.  Tucson, to be exact.  And while there, we decided to hike the Catalina Mountains.  We planned on the Canyon Loop Trail, “an easy hike, with rugged mountain views.”  But, when we rolled up to the Ranger Station, the smiling-eyed volunteer insisted that we take the Wildflower Trail.  No need to convince us!  It was our bi/tri-annual girls trip and without kids to drag entice, we could spend as much time as we wanted.

We set off with no expectations. No preconceived ideas.

The night before, we had been talking about Things.  The heavy Things – like relationships and boundaries.  Regrets and decisions.  My sister, Laurie, had unpacked an old diary and read an entry dated six years ago.  Words that she wished she could have shared with me.  I cried the silent way as she read.  I confessed that I had no idea she had felt that way.  That my pain had caused her pain.  And I said stoically that I couldn’t have received the message then.

I wasn’t ready.

Now, on the wildflower trail, our conversation bounced between these same thoughts and memories.  We talked about the fact that you can’t change people.  And as we walked, more and more colors dotted the landscape.  Obnoxious fuchsias and canary yellows, all the more vibrant against the sandy canvas.

Our pace became slower and slower as we stopped to take notice and take photos.  We mused at how amazing it was that we happened to be here at this moment when the wildflowers burst open.  Of all the weeks, in all the months.  Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

And yet, it wasn’t the calendar that prompted it.  The flowers bloomed when they were ready.  The right conditions.  The right amount of sun.  The right amount of water.

Those closest to me waited patiently until I was ready.  No amount of talking, coaxing, or convincing could have changed me.  Which is extremely and tragically frustrating.  All you can do is wait.  Pray.  Hope.

Some seeds, despite the best conditions, simply won’t sprout.  There is no explanation or reason.

Others, if they’re ready and when they’re ready, will finally/beautifully bloom.