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I lose things.

I am continuing to learn how to identify grief as it comes, both in the small and simple and in the large and untethered. Growing up, there were not words used to describe the cold chill and aching that comes with loss. I only knew that losing became numbness.

When I was in middle school I would wake up crying because somehow in the night I had cut off the circulation in my arms. I would startle to a lack of feeling in my hands and terror would set in. I had no idea what was going on and my lack of understanding scared me to the point that I became panicked. But, once I began to poke and prod, the tingling would begin, a painful process of blood moving back life back into numbness. At times, the tingling felt excrutiating. Still it was the only way to regain the movement.

Our bodies know the way to heal themselves, but our minds fight it. 

Grief does not play favorites. She visits each of us, and if we ignore her, her cold presence begins to chill us without us noticing, slowing our connection till we can’t feel at all. Her visits vary in length and if we are present with her and ourselves, we begin to notice that her story is valuable. She is telling us what matters to us. She tells us of our deep caring and deep strength. 

I feel her most in the aching of my arms even now. I fight her in the heaviness of thoughts that are attempting to repeat the past with a different ending. I sit with her in salty tears as I wait for her friend Acceptance to arrive with the comfort of ginger tea, the last sip of honey a balm for my hoarse and tired throat.

I am learning my place in the world is not to prevent loss, but to attend to love.

When I try to keep the pain from coming, I only keep myself from noticing the love that is present with me now. Even amidst the pain. When you’re used to the cold, the warmth feels strange, and may even create discomfort. Notice the tingling and anxiety; take another step. Keep going; it’s the way home to yourself.

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Meditation II.

Today I saw a red leaf
calling by the tire of my car;
it had already fallen
and
I could see the brown creeping up its spine as it struggled to hold the life,
as it slowly exhaled,
letting go.

I don’t want to talk about
change,
so I’ll talk about how the leaves fall
even when I don’t want them to.
I’ll refer to the layers of sweaters, scarves, and gloves
till all you see is my nose;
my breath.
I’m still alive under all this.

I’m noticing the air is getting much cooler
and with it,
a thrill,
as well as something somber.
We are all preparing for death,
preparing for something
new.

Patty Griffin

August 4th, 2011

Why are you silent? Because I’ve watched the way you watch the way I watch the way you watch me. We’re just watching. And, I dare not speak the words that ache to pass from gut to throat to tongue to teeth. They are vulnerable. They are questions. You see, they’re not safe. They don’t wrap nicely, brown paper, scotch tape, a little string to fold over, under and tie tightly. And, we worry what will happen if we speak, if we choose, if we make a move too soon, like we were playing an eternal chess match. Like one misstep will create a chasm deeper than hell itself. We build boxes to make ourselves taller, so our voices seem more confident, built on forms of cardboard and air, enforced by judgement, when all we’re doing is whispering the same doubts underneath. So keep watching. My lips cannot continue holding in the provoking thoughts of the reality of love. And, maybe I’ve got it all wrong. And, maybe we both do. But, the passing of air back and forth is about life itself, not victory.

A few years ago I took a trip to a Patty Griffin concert on my own. I stood in the crowd as she sang a note that rippled the chords in my heart. I scribbled this around then, and I made the specific date up. I don’t know if that’s when I wrote this or exactly what it was about but it feels like a fit as much now as I guess it did then. What gets in the way of a proper love poem, I ask myself?

A month ago I spent an entire day in between sand and water. I watched wave after wave come over, was tossed by the ocean, and came up sputtering. Air, sweet air. The in-between is exhausting. When you don’t know if you live in water or on land. When you live in both. It seems easier to pick a side, and plant a pole. It seems safer. But, our bodies are made of both water and material, and we wonder why we struggle in a world that hopes to hold us to some particular reality. As if we could really only be one.

All that metaphorical, vague language is just an opportunity to remind myself movement will lead somewhere as long as I still have have air in my lungs. I’d prefer the sea and salty kind. Breathing is a part of the process.

This building trust takes time. It takes minutes and hours and years. It takes floorboards in shambles and windows, bricks, and mortar. And, sometimes when we start, we can only think of whatever the next step is. And, some days we don’t want to. And, some days we knock down walls. And, sometimes we leave. Whether it’s for something bigger, or something easier, or something really far away. And, the sad thing is that sometimes these lots sit empty, a shell of life. Some buildings take years for us to return to and sometimes we never return. But, sometimes we do. And, sometimes we stay. Our backs ache and muscles are sore. We have dirt on our faces and blisters on our hands and we’re still here. We are stronger. And, maybe we look back and realize, yes, we built this house, but this house also built us.

The Road

We were on gchat. I wonder if years from now, I’ll start this story and my curly headed child will look up at me confused about some archaic structure, “What’s gchat?” in the same way that kids do now when asking about a time before cell phones. Still, I remember when gchat started, that blinking box, connecting our conversation across continents, states, or even the same room. We were on gchat and she had moved to DC and calls were difficult to come by. I’ve always had a hard time on the phone. The box blinked. “Let’s run a marathon.” I’ve been a runner since high school and do it for the sheer joy of the wind and the pounding pavement. A marathon was a challenge feeling seemingly impossible, but a good goal. “Ok.”

I never thought I would actually do it. I wanted to think I could do it, but I had also given myself an out even at the beginning to not go through with it. Still, I told her “Sure.” I mustered excitement about how it would be incredible. We imagined the scene. Two years later we signed up. We planned to do it together in DC and I started training in Atlanta. The hours it takes to train start small, but then they get longer. Five mile runs turn to nine miles, to thirteen miles, and you plan your life around the next three hours you’ll spend with the road. As the day got closer, I struggled with a challenging job and other life variables and then made the choice to run alone in a race in my own city, rather than with her. I told myself I could still give up. I didn’t have to do this.

I started running cross country my junior year of high school. My coach was a wiry old man, white haired and no time for excuses. He had lived a lot of life and appeared to expect us to embrace the pain and thrill of it. This meant he expected us to run every day of the week. It was his proven method. It was his holy grail. He expected it because he was also out there running, every day. That fall, I planned my life around this assumption: that if I got out there, every day, it would change me. So, I made sure I got plenty of sleep and ate during classes to carb load before runs in the afternoon. My weekends were treks that started before the sun was up on buses to old horse racing trails. Even on race days, we trained. We ran a mile before our race and a mile after and we always sprinted the last 100 yards. Over and over. Regardless of how I felt.

I loved running. I hated running. And, it slowly became the place I found myself. I went there to think. I went there to cry. I went there to laugh, to fight, and simply to be. I could feel whatever I needed to. And, I could keep moving. Running became my solitude. The road doesn’t care what you look like or if you failed your last assignment. She doesn’t care about the fight you just had. She doesn’t care about your promotion or the little money you have in your bank account. The seeming good or the bad. She asks you to get out there and accepts whatever you’ve got. She just asks you to show up. 

When I ran that day, I had a couple of friends who followed the course and met up with me along the way, at the parts I felt like I could barely continue on. When my phone died and my music gave out and they let me swap with theirs. When I had a particularly long hill. And, just to say, “You can do it” and then “You did” when I finished, tired and overwhelmed with emotion.

If you ask anyone who has run a marathon about what it felt like to finish, I wonder if they’ll struggle with the sentences. There are few words to really speak when in the midst of a victory. Nothing really does it justice. When you’ve put every last ounce of energy and hope into something and then it’s done. The pure joy and utter exhaustion.

As a counselor, I think about how I feel sitting across from someone who is fighting for their life; like they’re running a marathon, and I couldn’t be prouder and more honored to be there with whatever they bring. I want to see their face and the triumph as they show up through the pain. I want to be there when they get to the other side of that finish line and find the person they are and the strength they have. That’s what the road hopes for. That’s what she taught me.

Crawling Home

At the end of December, I found myself sketching sofas. I was sitting with friends, a crowded room, laughing and planning the year to come. We do this every year, gather together bringing this past year’s joy and hurts, victories and failures, scraping our plates for the last taste of what we have been given, savoring gratitude. Then, we speak into existence our hopes and goals for the dawn that will rise as the new year unfolds, our best intentions and ideals. Or at least that is what I like to imagine it as. As I looked at the blank page in front of me, I slowly started carving out the white for deep lines and folds of penciled fabric. They felt comforting as if I was creating something safe to hold me, a nest that I wasn’t ready yet to leave.

It’s the middle of March and that couch has absorbed a lot of tears. A salty mess of uncertainty, fear, hope, and sadness. In less than two months, I will graduate. I have already accepted a job that I never thought possible. As that looms, I have tried to imagine what will be next. I look back on those short months before when I wrote these things. The future, well it’s terrifying. Funny how something with so much wonderful potential also leaks of so much possible hurt. And, because I am afraid, I practice devastation. I rehearse it as if then I will have some power over the pain. 

I watched a TED talk the other day by Elizabeth Gilbert about this continuum we exist in. She supposed that perhaps both success and failure are the same in the way we experience their powerful sense of altering self. The potential or realization of either throws our balance off. The resilient continuously relocate their center. They crawl their way back to what they love.  Today, I sit again on this sofa, my bones weary from the constant back and forth of miles in my mind and emotions. There are still so many unanswered questions. Today, I crawl back to this sacred space surrounded by pages and prayers. I write my way back to this center. There is a red tulip on the counter that is begging to open. And, the sunlight is coming in, cautiously, through open blinds. My laundry is rolling around in the dryer, humming to the tune of consistency. It is the sound of coming home again.

Letting Go

Letting go is purple. Letting go is paint, layered, full of grey. A whole lot of grey. Letting go is a canvas of pines and the smell of smoke and the trail that you can barely see. Letting go is uncertainty of what will come. Because letting go is not running. And, It is not holding on. It is not pushing away. And, so it can feel paralyzing, as if you’ve lost all feeling in your limbs.

We are connected in more ways that we have ever been. It is so seemingly easy to find or be found, to follow the screen of faces my finger scrolls down. We are the helicopter kids, now all grown up with longer limbs that still don’t touch the sky. We have lost our backyards and the woods to fear and scripted programming when life is anything but predictable. These carefully constructed cardboard lives we lead are two dimensional. There is no breath here. It is terrifying to notice the air in our lungs, the bodies we have and their fragility.

“What are you reading right now?”

Well, that’s hard to say. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I have a few stacks of books. Most of them haven’t been finished. They are unresolved. I think a lot of my life feels unresolved.”

I have been piling up books, across the squeaking hardwood floor, on top of that scratched sidewalk-found chair, and covering the bright red table. They’re under my bed, squeezed between the pallet frames. A few are hidden beneath the nightstand, keeping company with dust bunnies. Some have been opened; others never even cracked. Many though, have at least a few chapters read, earmarks lovingly folded to a place I’ll come back.

I promised I’d come back. Right now, I’m having a hard time sticking though, so I spread them out, trying to string together the meaning in phrases and sentences, hoping that maybe the story will begin to make some sort of sense. There has to be a bigger narrative here if I could just get my hands on it.

Letting go feels like broken promises, as if we just found out we don’t have some cosmic control of the universe. It feels unsafe. It is embracing the unknown without trying to grab hold of it. Destiny, vocation, purpose cannot be clutched; it slips through your fingers. Trust me, I’ve tried.

I thought that letting go meant starting over, throwing it all out. It was loose and open and careless.

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe when we’re frozen and numb, it’s the only way to get back to the slow, painful process of moving. Of rebuilding. Even when the resolution isn’t clear. Maybe letting go is saying what you mean. It is the space between breaths. Maybe it’s this distance that creates the possibility of something beautiful if we give it room for the oxygen to rush in.

Save Yourself

This is what burnout looks like: bare feet.

It was during my last summer directing children’s programs; we had a field trip scheduled. Field trips were one of the students’ favorite activities, and at times, incredibly tiring for staff. The reality is that driving vans full of excited, loud children to a location full of other excited, loud children, can require a lot of patience and vigilance. Not to mention the goal of not swapping kids with any other groups along the way. This field trip was one though that my staff was thrilled about because we were going to Lego Land. They had actually been looking forward to it for weeks.

I remember the phone call with our partner who gave us the tickets right beforehand. “Remember to make sure the children have socks,” she said.

This was important because that was something many of these kids might not have on their own, or even if they did, the probability of them forgetting them was pretty high. During winter months, we usually had at least one child every day whom we had to chase down the road because they had left their coat lying lonely on the gym floor. But, these were the summer months in Georgia and heat was everywhere, as if the pavement was a slow cooking frying pan. The kids would all be wearing sandals or cheap flip flips that would probably break a few weeks in from the wear and tear of quick dodgeball turns.

She told me this need for socks the day of at 8 am. The kids were leaving at 9 am. I had every intention of having socks from our clothing closet. I remember thinking, “Yes, of course, this is important.” And, then I hung up the phone and there was a knock at my door and crisis after crisis walked in. I couldn’t breathe again till after 11. The next call I received was from our staff member at Lego Land asking me where I had put the socks on the bus. They had looked everywhere.

This was when my appearance of put-together, making-it-work, oh-yeah-I-can-do-it-all shattered. It was that small moment when I pictured 48 bare feet hanging off a bench watching others play and there was nothing I could do about it now.

If I sat down (and I did then) and did a step by step analysis of how it all broke down, I would have had to back up weeks ago, even months to when I started believing the mis-truth that “I’m doing just fine. This is just the way it has to be.” Because the reality was that I was making it work and it was also entirely unsustainable. I had built a building that was trying to meet everyone else’s needs, but not my own. And, I was even failing at that. There were so many other stories that were out of my control that last year. Stories of heartbreak and neglect and hopelessness. There were also other stories of laughter. I tried to pay attention to those. The sad ones I buried in deep pockets that grew heavier and heavier till it became harder and harder to move.

But, when I think of that summer, these intense emotions specifically about bare feet come up. Even writing this now brings feelings of familiar shame because who falls apart over socks? Well, it’s because it wasn’t the socks. Maybe you already saw that. It was the shame all along. This is something that’s difficult for those of us who look life in the face and have decided that they should be more than human. The ones who empty as if by doing so they can save others without first accepting their own pain and needs. And, that shame is why we keep silent as if we should be able to handle it. We will be affected. We will fall down. That is the full truth.

None of us are meant to live in burning buildings. Not me. And, not you. Save yourself first. Those that go back in will leave by certain miracles and because they continue to assess their own need. Take the time to recognize the pain you hold. Do the humble and valuable work of knowing your weakness. And, if you do choose to accept the risk to fight for lives, be sure you can ask others for help; you will need someone to remind you again to save your own life and that your wounds are holy. They have always been that way.