26. Head and Heart

I know. I’m behind. I’ve avoided writing the last few weeks… because I want to write only good things. Because I get tired of the saga. 

I have realized something. For eighteen months I have been waiting for my life to return to what it used to be… for myself to return to who it used to be. I understand now that is never going to happen. There is a low grade anxiety, a sadness, that has become the undercurrent of my life. It tinges everything, makes life subtly more difficult and adds a level of exhaustion that I can never quite catch up to. This is the new norm. I’m not sure this is ever going to go away. Not because of my brother’s death. Because of everything that came before it. Because of genetics. Because of history. Because there is no such thing as a life without struggle. Because happiness is an emotion and not a state of being. Because sometimes, the cumulative effect of life is a curbed joy, a weight that simply becomes a part of our being.  

Depression? Undoubtedly, though I rise to meet it each day, do my best to banish it each night. I’m still not sleeping. 

I feel that, in feeling this way, perhaps I am not trying hard enough. Perhaps I have grown comfortable with the sadness so that I continue to draw it into my life, continue to manifest challenges. I cannot help but feel that I am making my life harder than it needs to be. I just don’t quite know how or where or what to do to stop it. 

In June, I set myself to work on our new place. It’s a sweet but old townhome in a great neighborhood. It needed so much work. The more time I spent on it, the more apparent it became of how much it had been neglected over the years. It is silly, I know, to put so much effort into a rental. But above anything else this past year, I have craved to make a home for us. 

I am only too aware of how little time I have left with my daughter before she graduates and heads out into the world on her own. I don’t want these final years of her childhood to feel as though they were spent in temporary space, subpar living. I want them to be beautiful. We spend the duration of our adult lives carrying around the memories of our adolescence. I want to furnish her mind with recollections of a home that held her. 

Still, it consumed so much of my time and energy. Every inch of the place needed attention, from floor to ceiling. Things kept breaking. The place, without air conditioning, was hot, adding to a sense of weariness that showed no end. And then there was the actual move, which felt fragmented in a space that wasn’t entirely done. Toward the end, I hit my head and gave myself a pretty nasty concussion. I realized then how little rest I was giving myself. Even with the concussion, I struggled to slow down. It had been weeks since I’d taken a day off.  

Let me say, though, my people showed up. I am so grateful for the incredible armload of friends who helped patch and paint, mow and powerwash, clean and repair. This has been the thing I come back to again and again. The friends around who have buoyed and bolstered. Who continued to believe. 

In the midst of it, I tried to allot time to the new business and to writing. There was so much to learn about the new business. It changed shape, morphed, got better. I applied, interviewed, and was admitted to a local small business program that was meant to begin next week. I continued to look for part-time work. I knew that, above all else, I needed to keep forward momentum. Even if there was uncertainty, I had to try at something. 

Two weeks ago, I ended the long day to begin dinner. Some friends had just left after helping me finish another project. It was the last of the projects, and I walked into the kitchen feeling that… finally… I was nearing the end. I felt excited at the progress we had made, so glad to have the last of the big things done. And then, standing at the kitchen sink, I felt water dripping on me. I looked up to see a steady stream coming from the ceiling above. 

I texted the property manager. He told me to turn off the water and asked my address- and then he went radio silent. I didn’t hear from him the next day either. By 3pm, I texted again to ask if anyone was coming. A large crack had appeared in the ceiling and it looked as if it might come down any minute. I sent a picture. Silence. And then, while sitting in the living room, I heard a loud crash and knew the whole thing had come down. 

I walked into the kitchen to find a wet mess of moldy plaster. Finally, the property manager called. The conversation did not go well. When I insisted that someone come by before another day passed, he responded that he doesn’t take dictates from anyone…. And that he had 14 days to fix the problem. When I pushed back, he threatened to evict me. 

I cannot describe the feeling I had in that moment, standing with the phone in my hand and staring at the pulpy mess of mold and plaster. I felt as though I was existing under a dark cloud, that perhaps my life and being was cursed, that perhaps I invited this strife into my life. I battled my childhood narrative- that if something bad happened, I was somehow at fault. I had, in essence, manifested this into my own life. 

As I write this- two weeks later- the kitchen still has not been repaired. It’s been fourteen days of back and forth with the property manager- of untruths and misrepresentations and no-shows. I moved our kitchen items to the living room and set up a make-shift camp there. 

And as if to drive the point home, I stepped outside last Wednesday evening to let the dog out before bed. As I walked out the door, a large and excitable bat flew straight in. It swirled around the living room for a minute and then flew upstairs. It was near 11. I texted my new neighbor, a single woman my age with an unflappable sense of humor. Five minute later she showed up in a winter coat and a broom in hand. We went upstairs together to find the villain. She bravely opened the bedroom window to let the bat out… and…. I kid you not… a second bat flew in. 

We watched them swirl around my bedroom for a good long while, waving our brooms and willing them to exit, but our efforts were in vain. We called every 24-hour pest service we could find on the internet but not a single one answered. At some point, we decided to close the door to the bedroom and call it a night. I retreated to the trundle bed in my daughter’s room where I proceeded to stare at the ceiling and wonder with bewilderment how this had happened. 

It was funny. But also, it was awful. I simply felt that I could not catch my breath. Again and again, I felt that I was somehow writing my life into a tragedy. That I had invited the ceiling to fall, the landlord to scream, the bats to fly in. 

I didn’t sleep. At 4:30, I got up to confront the bats. I am absolutely terrified of the creatures. But I couldn’t lay there any longer feeling that I was powerless to this thing. I felt the need not just to banish the bats but also to stand up to the chaos. To prove to myself that I wouldn’t be the victim. It took an hour and a half. I was shaking the whole time. But I finally evicted both of my new tenants. 

Ok, so here’s the good news. At least, I think it’s good news. In between the ceiling falling and the bats, I received an email. The subject read: urgent, time-sensitive, open immediately. 

I did. It was an email from VCU. The single assistantship the school had to offer had fallen through and was now available. They wanted to know if I wanted it and if I could begin school in four weeks. 

I was dumbfounded. I had spent three months shaping a new vision for my future and laying the groundwork for that foundation. I had built not one but three websites. I had scheduled events. I had spun through countless sleepless nights staring down the uncertainty of starting a new venture. 

I had also missed the window to complete my prerequisites. 

But… the PhD had been my dream. For at least ten years I had wanted to pursue it. So, I chose to go forward with it. 

I write this from an airport where I wait to board a plane. After making the decision, I didn’t feel the elation I thought I would. Instead, I merely felt depleted. Exhausted. 

I had accrued a good deal of flight and hotel points over the past year of living off credit cards. So I booked a short getaway at the beach. I need sleep. I need rest. Because I know that in a few short weeks, I will begin to climb the next steep mountain.   

This is good news. It is a clear path forward. It is a good decision. I will feel all of these things soon. What I need now is to get unstuck, to crawl out of this tarpit that has been the last 18 months of my life. 

To be clear, I have been provided for. I have been loved. I have been tended to. I have been cared about. I am grateful for all of these things. I am joyful at the options I have had available to me. I know there is growth in the midst of these challenges. I know it all leads somewhere. 

I just need it to be a little less hard for awhile. I am hopeful that in the airport on the way back, I will have a very different perspective to share.

25. All Things Made New

It’s my 25th post.

It has been nearly a year since I began this blog. The title of it… (un)tethered… was shaped by the profound sense of disconnection I had from my own life after my brother’s death. Not just his death but the abandonment of my vocation and, consequently, home. I had the sensation that I no longer knew who I was. Everything was inside out, as you witnessed.

For most of 2020, I felt I was standing outside my own life, examining each facet for meaning and truth. 

As I stepped into 2021, I felt something tangibly shift within me. I wrote about that too. The realization that we can choose who we want to be… that we can become a more authentic version of ourselves… was truly life altering. 

In January, I made the decision to disconnect from my immediate family, excluding of course, my daughter. I encouraged her that she should continue to maintain and feed those relationships. But, I was beginning to understand that those relationships bound me to a version of myself I no longer cared to be. I had been assigned a role that I no longer desired to play. There was no escaping it, no matter how much I tried to change myself.  

I read something the other day that made this make sense…

“With strangers, there is a temporary reordering of a balancing act that each of us is constantly attempting: between our past selves and our future selves, between who we have been and who are becoming. Your friends and family know who you have been and they often make it harder to try out who you might become” -Priya Parker

You, my audience, were those strangers. You saw in me pieces that I did not yet see in myself, and you allowed me to explore them, daringly, freely. 

I thought about leaving Charlottesville, in part because it’s so damn expensive and in part because everyone here knows me within the parameters of who I was before. I didn’t feel I was that person anymore.

I made the decision to stay, mostly for my daughter, but I thought I might retreat inward, abandon my friend groups, maybe become some sort of social hermit. 

And then, something happened. One Sunday morning in February, a long-time friend showed up in my driveway with hot coffee. As we talked, I saw all the ways she had changed and grown in the ten years since we had met. And in that moment, I realized how true our friendship was. There was room for growth. There was room to change. 

A few weeks later, we gathered with several others to celebrate the birthdays that had trickled by through COVID. I was still feeling hesitant, guarded, though I would have never said it. I felt so far from the person they had all come to know. 

And, if I’m honest, for the duration of those friendships, I had always considered myself a step behind, one element removed. They were all married (or were when we first met), all had children and homes and all the stability I longed for. I witnessed their lives with the smallest twinge of envy and a much larger sense of inadequacy. 

But this too was part of an old tape, one I didn’t wish to play anymore. So much of my identity was defined as a struggling single mom, one with a tumultuous past and an uncertain future. I had let the circumstances of my life define who I was. But the truth is… those things are not who I am. 

As I sat among my friends, I contemplated what it would feel like to see myself as their equal, as one among them. And then, something happened. A seed was planted… a passing thought that unexpectedly took root. It was spoken with conviction by my quiet friend who seldom inserts opinion. 

She had an idea… 

for a business… 

for me… 

I listened and then immediately dismissed it. I insisted I had no desire to start a business, wasn’t willing to take the risk, wasn’t able to live without a predictable income or reliable benefits. It was a beautiful idea but completely impossible. There was simply no way I could take something like that on. 

And so, four weeks later I formed an LLC, purchased a web domain, and applied for a city business license. 

I have helped others start small businesses. I love the process. I am good at the process. But my love of stability has always made it a nonstarter. The only way… the absolute ONLY way I would ever consider it… is if every other door had solidly and definitively closed in my face.

Enter 2020. 

I have kept one foot in the door of the job search, but at this point, it seems that I can create my own before I find another (of course, yesterday I got the first call for an interview that I’ve had in months… more on that in a moment!)

The past year has showed me what it’s like to live on faith, without the predictability of all the things I thought I needed in order to be a good parent, to be safe, to be valid. If not for that experience, I never could have contemplated this. 

I’ll still attend the interview next week. The practice is good and I want to be sure to keep every option open. I’ve deferred grad school. I’m giving myself one year to make this work, and if it doesn’t, I’ll return to this option.  

In the meantime, I’m going to give this my all. 

Ok, so what is it?

That, you’ll have to wait for. Soon… very soon, I will be ready to share it. But I will give you one clue… it is about as opposite from a social hermit as one can get.

What my friend saw in me was a piece of identity, a piece that I had carried for years but had never considered as a vocation. In the weeks and months since I have made this decision, I have felt myself step into a part of my being that I never knew existed. I feel more myself than I have in my entire life. 

I am fully inhabiting my own life. It’s the most energizing thing I’ve ever experienced. 

Sometimes I wake in the night to a surge of panic and racing thoughts of doubt. It’s harder to keep that old tape at bay in the midst of sleep. But as I rise to consciousness, I remind myself of the path I have chosen and the truth of who I am. 

This is what it looks like when all things are made new. 

24. The Work of the Living

Well, I had intended to post this weeks ago but, as I was still working through much of this content, it took me a little time to be fully ready. 

The rollercoaster of life continues to swing from big highs to deep lows (I’ll give an update on grad school at the end, for those who didn’t get the new via social media), but I try not to put too much stock in my feelings. My very awesome and incredible therapist reminds me often to pay attention to my thoughts and try to be intentional in the ways I direct them. For instance, that last sentence should be rewritten to eliminate the word “try” and simply say “be.” Because, apparently, words matter. OK, not apparently. Words matter. Period. 

The multitude of closed doors I’ve encountered have forced me to think a lot about who it is I want to be… and what it is I want out of life. Recently, I journaled a sentence that turned out to be a huge revelation. It was this… 

“I never really chose who I was going to become. I simply became without direction or intent, rolling my life out according to the narrative I had grown up with.”

That is likely true for most of us. We often simply assume the selves we were told to be while growing up… or the selves we were told we were. It never really occurred to me until recently that we can, actually, choose who we are going to be. Like… every day. 

As I began to think about who I actually wanted to be, I found myself hitting a wall. While I have no problem producing a long list of my faults and flaws, I found it much harder to define my gifts and strengths. Each time I approached it, I felt panicky. When I attempted to articulate who I wanted to be… who I AM… in a positive light… my mind would freeze up. It’s like it refused to accept any entries other than the ones it had already logged. 

I pitched it to my therapist. Why couldn’t I get clear on this? 

We backpedaled a bit. Who did I currently believe myself to be? What was the dominant narrative taking up space in my mind? What words did I apply to myself on a daily basis? 

Chaos-maker. Rebellious. Inconvenient. Bitch. Idiot. A pain in the ass. Screw up. Argumentative. Ungrateful. Needy. Demanding. Insufficient. The reason things went wrong. Unable to abide by the rules. Difficult. Anger-inducing. Exhausting. 

This is the narrative that had evolved throughout my lifetime. I never questioned those beliefs. I incorporated them into my being as something to apologize for. I approached every situation anticipating that the world would eventually discover these ugly pieces of me, knowing I would simply have to clean up whatever mess came when it did. 

I suddenly understood why applying for jobs has been so absolutely and utterly exhausting. I wrote each cover letter with the unconscious apology that anyone should ever have to have me as an employee. 

It’s why I didn’t date. 

It’s why I shied away from positions of leadership. 

It’s why I second guessed every parenting decision I made. 

It’s why I assumed that if anything went wrong in my life… anything at all… it was exactly what I deserved. 

I had been walking through my life with the inarticulable sensation that I was tainting the world with my existence. 

My therapist utilizes an incredible model of therapy called Internal Family Systems. (If you’re interested in learning more about it, you can hear an interview with founder Richard Scwartz on one of my favorite podcasts- Ten Percent Happier. It has been an invaluable part of my recent journey.) Essentially, we revisit pieces of ourselves stuck in a part of our developmental history. We get curious. What role do these stuck pieces play in protecting our present selves? What do they need in order to feel safe and leave the past? What beliefs do they perpetuate?

We all have these pieces. They’re sneaky. We become so used to their narratives that we no longer notice or question them. 

In the earliest years of my childhood, I was a joyful and rambunctious kid. I was a giddy, giggly firecracker- talkative, animated, extermently energetic. I was determined, sensitive, silly, empathetic, and highly interested in the components of right and wrong. 

When I look at myself that way- as the earliest, most likeable version of myself- it’s easy to see the thin line between who I was meant to be and who I was misconstrued to be. 

That’s a really powerful idea. 

Together, my therapist and I visit those misconstrued ideas. (Sidebar: I realize I’ve now begun several sentences with the words “my therapist”, which puts me solidly in the category of every New York Yuppie who’s ever written about themselves- even though I’ve never lived in New York and don’t consider myself a yuppie. I’m sorry. It just can’t be helped right now!). We pull a specific feeling from the rolodex- one that has been acute more recently- and then to go back in my memory to see if I can pinpoint its origins. Can I remember where I was standing or what I was doing the first time I felt that way?  

One by one, I visit the intersection of where my personal attributes were turned from positives to negatives. I have conversations… actual out loud conversations… with myself at whatever age I became stuck in each belief. I get curious about what that little person- or teen or young adult- needs… about what hurts, what’s confusing, what’s being protected. I tell my small self the truth of who I really am. 

It is unspeakably liberating. 

He offers counternarratives to replace the misbeliefs. In place of “I create dissonance, chaos, and scarcity,” I say, “I create peace, harmony, and abundance in my life and the lives of others.”  Almost immediately, something inside me levitates. I feel light and joyful, free. Yes… absolutely. I want to be someone who creates those things… for myself but more importantly, in the world. He reminds me that the spirit of God does not exist in chaos or dissonance or scarcity and that also, the spirit of God dwells within me. 

It is life-changing. 

When I feel a wave of anxiety presenting me with the belief of my not-enoughness, I repeat the mantra. “I create peace, harmony, joy, and abundance in my life and the lives of others.” In doing so, I am able to worry less about what vocation I land in and more about putting myself in situations that enable me to live this truth. It roots my parenting efforts. It roots my contributions to my friendships. It roots the direction of my healing. 

And that brings me to my most recent update. I did not get the assistantship for grad school. The initial news of that felt like quite a blow, even though I knew it was very competitive and that my chances were slim. I was most disappointed that I didn’t even get interviewed… a common theme across all areas. But, while it was hard to close the door on the idea of grad school- at least for now- it also felt like somewhat of a relief in that:

(a.) I finally have an answer and 

(b.) it just really, really feels like with so many closed doors, something very intentional and specific and GOOD is coming my way. Because seriously, it’s impossible for things to just suck this much just for the sake of sucking. I truly do believe it’s leading somewhere. 

In the past two weeks, a picture of something else has begun to form. A little tiny seed of a something that might bloom into more. In time. I’ll have to hold you in suspense on this one for a while. But I am beginning to create a vision of who I am and who I want to be in this world. 

And it’s good. It’s very good.

23. The Good, The Bad, The (very) Ugly, & the Redeemed

I had an entirely different post lined up for this week, but given the events of the last few days, I’ve decided to hold onto it and talk about this instead…

The Good

The highs and lows of the past few weeks have been so extreme that I never know how I’ll feel from one moment to the next. 

On the whole, I‘ve been sustained by an inexplicable sense of joy. These past three months home with my daughter and our pets have been so life-giving. I never thought I’d want to be a stay-at-home mom simply because I love working. But I see what a gift it is to be able to be so fully present in your children’s lives. Mostly, I’m grateful for the time and space to get myself grounded each day. It changes everything about the way I parent and the way I am able to shape my own internal growth. Sometimes, I walk around the apartment tingling with joy at how much I love my daughter, what a remarkable young lady she’s turning into, how grateful I am that we have this time together. 

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22. The Horizon

For those who follow me on social media, this will come as repeat news. It has taken me a few days to make it over to the blog for an update. 

The very excellent news is that I have been admitted to VCU’s Ph.D. in Education Leadership, Policy, and Justice. It is one of two programs I applied to. Last year, on the same day that my brother died, I received the news that my application had been denied. I didn’t know if I had it in me to reapply, especially with so much uncertainty on the horizon, but with the encouragement of a professor I collaborated with in the Fall, I decided to give it a shot. 

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21. January 27, 2020

The question I am asked most often is, “what happened?” What could have possibly led someone as outgoing, generous, and gregarious as my brother to take his own life? 

I think I understand that answer a lot more now than I did a year ago, though no one will ever be able to say exactly what was going through his head. I don’t know if it is for me to surmise, or to write about. Perhaps in time but certainly not yet. For now, I can only tell my story, witness the places where it overlaps his own. I keep moving from room to room, setting down and picking up items, looking out the window, sitting, standing. I am waiting for some revelation. I am trying to untangle the pieces. Time folds in on itself. The beginning and end and everything in between. 

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20. Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about time lately, mostly because I’m in a place to observe how I spend it. That is probably true for most of us lately.

I’ve been asked a few times recently how I’m spending my days. It’s a tough question to answer. Last week was slightly derailed by the third semi-move we’ve made in the last year. Roughly half our belongings fit into our new apartment, which is roughly half the square footage of our old one. The rest were stored in my mother’s garage, which was attached to the house that she just sold. With a closing date looming, it came time to sort the remaining things. What a strange thing to decide the emotional value of physical belongings. And I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to conjure the energy to do so if it weren’t for my dear friend Sara, whose ability to make one laugh in the midst of a poo-storm is absolutely remarkable. She deserves a special shout out today, because she made the absolute worst task seem like a simple afternoon of girl-bonding time, just as delightful as getting pedicures on a sunny day.  

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19. 2021

Hi. Me again. I wish I could say I woke up this morning hungover from the revelries of New Year’s Eve celebrations, but I was in bed by 10 last night. Instead, I woke up with what Brene Brown refers to as a “vulnerability hangover.” Last night was the first time, perhaps since I was four, that I didn’t stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. That’s always been an uncompromisable tradition for me, but this year, I simply couldn’t muster the will. 

In reflecting this morning with a little more clarity and grace, I understood something deeply significant. 

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18. The Bleak Midwinter

December 25. Christmas Morning. 

I get up early to start breakfast. I make my daughter her favorite hot chocolate- lactose-free milk topped with fresh-made whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg. I want it to look picturesque and abundant, as though I might cram all my best intentions and care-worn love into that single cup. By the time she comes downstairs, the whole of it has grown cold. And anyway, she says, her stomach hurts. It sits forgotten, the fluffy white peaks caving in on themselves. Unwanted, unneeded. I take this in. Motherhood, the teens years.

Her godmother and grandmother arrive, and we watch as she slowly works her way through the piles of wrapped boxes and stuffed bags. We have each overcompensated for this shitty year by buying a few extra things. Still, she is grateful. Still, it seems normal and cozy and worth the effort. 

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17. Home

When I was nearly four, our home burned to the ground. It is one of my earliest memories. We were at church when my uncle appeared to tell us the news. Red-faced and sweaty in his denim overalls, he made his way up the aisle, a stark contrast to the congregants clad in their Sunday best. I watched the interruption ripple through the rows, heads swivelling and mouths falling open. 

When we pulled up to the house, I could see directly into the second story bedroom my sister and I shared. Daylight intruded into the room and I recall feeling a sense of exposure that all the world could see into our private space. And yet, the graceful, hand-carved frame of our bed stood unscathed, the white comforter pristine amidst the charr and ruin that surrounded it. It looked like a painting, an intensional juxtaposition of beauty and ruin. 

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