A Pledge to My Children

What do you want to do when you grow up?

It only took about 39 years. This includes four years of college, two years of graduate school, several years in the real world, and a little over ten years as an at-home mom to figure out…

I AM ALREADY what I WANT TO BE when I grow up.

That’s all it took.

It takes many of us a lifetime to answer that ever-present question: What do you want to BE when you grow up? I think it is true for everyone…you already are what you’ve always wanted to be.

So, here is my pledge to my children: I will never again ask you what you want to BE when you grow up. I will never again ask any child that question.

It is a really dumb question for one simple reason: Asking someone, especially a child, what they want to BE implies that what they already are is not enough. It is just the beginning of a journey down a very long road through a dark forest of trees that cannot be climbed because one is not strong, smart, tall, short, old, or young enough. As we move through the forest we learn from everyone we meet and all the feedback we get that what we want to be is far more important than what we already are. We get graded, we try-out, we make it, we get cut, we fail, we pass, and we graduate, all the time receiving signs and signals that we are not good enough as-is. We must learn more, eat less, and lift heavier weights to prove our worth. When in fact, all along we are worthy.

While I do have ten years in the field, I am sure that most “experts” wouldn’t call me an expert in parenting. That’s my disclaimer. I understand that it is really fun to ask kids this question. They say really cute things in response. Until just now, I thought it was a great question. Especially when followed with some heartfelt encouragement like “That is awesome! You can be anything you want to be!” There is value in challenging children to try harder, of course. We want everyone to be the best they can be, right? I think the way we say things matters though, so we need to be careful.

So, here is what I might say instead, if I really can’t help myself, which is often likely in my case. I might say, “What do you like to DO?” And I could follow that with “Wow, I know some adults who liked to [play with Legos] when they were kids and now they have jobs as [engineers and architects and math teachers]. Do you know any [engineers or architects or math teachers]?…” Stuff like that.

In many places I have heard the phrase, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. I’m sure there is a really smart person I could give credit to for making that statement, but I don’t know exactly who she is (okay, or he). One of my favorite yoga instructors often says, “We are human BE-ings, not human DO-ings.” It’s true. We are human beings, and as human beings we are implicitly given permission to BE. Actually, it’s probably more of a mandate. BEING comes with our territory as humans. It seems to me that us BEING has something to do with the architecture here on earth. I think BEING is part of our mission.

So why do we put so much emphasis on what we DO? It is not with malicious intent that we ask, What do you DO for a living? or What are you DOING right now? or What are you planning to DO? It’s because we are curious and quite often we care about the people to whom we ask these questions. I can tell you from personal experience, however, that if you aren’t too crazy about what you “do” it can be quite awkward, disheartening even, to be asked what you do for a living. I think in generations past, we weren’t so obsessed with what people do. I think we understood that what we do all day doesn’t necessarily define who we are. I also think if we spent less time focused on what we are DOing and more time simply BEing, we would be much happier people.

I think one of my mom’s most lucid moments after my dad’s death was when we were composing his obituary. Someone at the funeral home drafted something for us and we sat around a table reading it. It said something like James Shields Hodges was a Sheet Metal Worker…. My mom looked up and said, “that’s what he did, but that is not who he was.” And then she listed all these really wonderful things that he was, like an artist and an activist and a musician. And yes, you could argue that these are things a person can do, but really, if you know an artist or a musician, you know that what they DO in that case is very much who they ARE too. You are an artist in your soul. You create art because you have no choice, but to create. You feel like you might die if you stop. Creating connects you to all that surrounds you and everything beyond that. I was never an administrative assistant because I thought I couldn’t go on if I stopped filing papers or writing memos. Quite the opposite, actually. But administrative work was something I did because it allowed me to support myself when I graduated from college.

When I was a child I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I also wanted to be a teacher, a nurse, and even a parapsychologist. As I grew up, even though I wrote all the time, I lost touch with my dream to be a writer. When I revisited that dream, I knew I could never be a writer because I didn’t have a degree in writing, I didn’t have a portfolio of beautifully crafted writings, and there were people out there who were much better writers than I ever dreamed of being. I was so programmed to believe that what I did every day defined who I was that I didn’t even realize I was a writer all along.

Some people are really lucky and they have amazing jobs that allow them to express themselves. Some people have jobs that allow them to make a living. I will not stop encouraging my children to dream BIG, but I think we need to be more careful when we talk to children about great big things like THE FUTURE. Notice, I’m roping you into this one. Please consider it an invitation, as I understand you might think I’m full of it. Honestly though, you just never know what a child might hang on to as little he or she continues to travel through the dark forest of life. You never know what dreams will get squashed when he or she hears the message that they can’t do something because they are not qualified in whatever artificial way society has created to qualify them for that particular job. And in the meantime, simply being every once in a while…every day even, has so much more value than doing tons of crap anyway.

Each and every little child, and all of their parents, and every other human out there, is enough. Understanding that and allowing ourselves more time to BE, rather than trying to DO more, will go a long way. There is really no need to ask a child what he or she wants to be. Most of them really just want to be taller. Every other thing they are already, is all that they will ever need to be…a sweet little soul having a human experience.

Let them BE. Let yourself be while you’re at it.

Rockabye Sweet Baby James

Ten years ago today at 6:39 a.m. a new baby boy, James Hodges Oginsky, was born. At the very same time, a new mother was born. That was me.

There are few things as precious as holding your newborn baby for the very first time.

That afternoon my husband – Dan returned to our little bubble of newborn euphoria after going home to take a shower. He burst into the room and said, “Our son must be a poet!”

Why? I asked.

“Because everything is in full bloom!” he responded.

I imagined the tightly closed tulip buds in front of our house. It was our first Spring there. I had no doubt that the tulips bloomed just for James. I would not be at all surprised if his first act on earth was to make the tulips bloom. I can still picture the bright yellow tulips welcoming us home from the hospital a couple days later. We listened to Sweet Baby James by James Taylor as we pulled into our neighborhood. We were so excited. As brand new parents, we had no idea what we were doing and I don’t think we cared.

So, I have been a mother for just about 25% of my life. This is the longest I’ve stayed at any job.

Motherhood thrust me into the fullest expansions and contractions I’d ever known. Before James was born I buried a lot of emotions deep inside my soul. I tucked all that was unpleasant neatly away. I learned that some things were better left unsaid. I decided that some feelings were meant to be kept to myself. That approach to life didn’t serve me well in motherhood. Suddenly, my emotions knew no bounds. Once our sweet and healthy Baby James arrived complete with all working parts, I could not contain my joy. At each and every one of his milestones, I beamed with pride. I soaked up everything he did in pure delight. I lived more fully and I felt more deeply. I expanded. And, I also contracted. I remember sitting at home with James, just the two of us. I was exhausted. I had never been so tired in my entire life. My bones were tired. I felt depleted. I was spit upon, sucked upon, and pooped upon. Dan and I were in a competition to see who was doing the most with the littlest amount of rest. Neither of us seemed to be winning. I had heard about motherhood from my friends. They said it was AMAZING. That told me that becoming a mom was the best thing they ever did. I wondered why my friends lied to me. It was hard. I was tired. Sometimes I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I shrunk into myself whenever I could, trying. Desperately. To conserve. Energy. I think being a mother is a lot like breathing. Sometimes I take deep, deliberate breaths, expanding my lungs to their fullest capacity. Sometimes I hold my breath, waiting, wondering what is yet to come. Sometimes I am out of breath. Most of the time, breathing just happens. I eventually learned that my friends didn’t lie to me about motherhood. It was everything they said it was. But, it is hard too.

About a month after I found out I was pregnant, the Twin Towers crumbled to the ground. In as much as I was overcome with joy when I learned that I was growing a baby in my belly, I was paralyzed with fear on September 11, 2001. I remember lying in bed with Dan the night of 9/11, wondering how I could bring a baby into such a violent, hate-filled world. I was mortified.

A lot happened in ten years. First, of course, Sweet Baby James was born. Dan worked a lot. James and I stayed home playing with trains and watching Oprah. I had a miscarriage. Dan took a new job and the three of us moved into a new home, closer to that new job. Another baby was born. And then another. My dad passed away. I fell apart. We got a dog. I put myself back together. We moved again. Over the last ten years Dan and I built our family. We were happy for the most part. We laughed. A LOT. We cried a lot too. The first day that James was to ride the school bus to kindergarten, Dan and I walked him to the bus stop. James walked up the steps to the bus and he didn’t even look back. Dan and I went home and cried together on our loveseat. Dan cries at most movies. I cry all the time. Our kids cry. Even the dog cries.

The last ten years seem so full to me. Then I think about other people and what they have experienced…getting married, getting divorced, fighting illness, beating illness, running big companies, starting small businesses, leaving jobs and finding new ones. Moving across the country. Moving overseas. Losing loved ones. Giving birth and adopting babies. It is all happening at once. We are all expanding and contracting in our own ways.

I have vivid memories of my labor with James. That could be because I’ve heard Dan retell HIS version of the story so many times. In his version, I slept through labor and POOF! The baby was born. In my version, he slept through my labor. Truth be told, he snored through my labor. When it was time to push, I woke him up. I put on some deodorant. We may have even brushed our teeth. I pushed.

The doctor asked if I wanted to feel the baby’s head.

I screamed, “I CAN FEEL THE BABY’S HEAD!” (this is true in both versions) and then POOF! James was born.

I remember how scared I was when we learned that James was jaundice. I had no idea what that meant, but it didn’t sound good. He had a little box in my hospital room where he bathed in fake sunlight. He wore infant sized sunglasses. Having to put him in a box instead of holding him seemed like the end of the world to me. Then, when our second son, Alexander, was born, he had his own little box too. In the NICU. He was in a medically induced coma for days. Then, that seemed like the end of the world to me. We didn’t hold Alexander until several days after his birth. We left him in his little box when we went back to our room at the hospital hotel each night. It didn’t feel right. All the images I had preconceived about the happy days after Alexander’s birth were blown to bits. James welcomed his baby brother enthusiastically. He stroked Alexander’s little head and whispered brotherly wisdom into his ears. And then there was Sophia. I don’t think anyone will ever dare to put our little Sophia in a box. The fact that the two very same people can have three very different children will never cease to amaze me. It happens ALL THE TIME, but still, how does that happen?

One thing that all three labors and deliveries have in common is Dan repeating to me, “Don’t push back. Let it flow through you…” That relaxed me. Well, you know, as much as one can relax when she is trying to give birth to a baby. Because I have to hear something several times before it finally settles in, he had to say that a lot. He keeps saying it, in fact. Of all the words of wisdom I’ve ever read or heard (and if you know me, you know that this would amount to many, many, MANY words of wisdom), I think this simple mantra is one of the most powerful. Don’t push back. Let it flow through you.

I never really imagined myself as a mother. Sure, I was a nice girl, but I’m not sure I was all that nurturing. I didn’t babysit a lot of kids. I wasn’t a camp counselor. Mothering didn’t come naturally to me. I distinctly remember the first time I ever helped a baby to fall asleep. It was during one of my volunteer shifts at a shelter for battered women and their children in D.C. The baby was crying. I waited for someone to make him stop. It didn’t happen. I picked him up and held him close and bounced a little, like I had seen the moms at the shelter do. I even patted his little diaper coated bottom. He stopped crying right away. After awhile I looked down and saw that he was sleeping and I thought for sure a miracle had taken place. I think that was one of my proudest moments ever. Soothing someone to sleep may seem like a small task, especially if you do it every day, but I still believe it is one of the most magical, miraculous acts of humankind.

It is almost unimaginable to think that the tiny infant I held for the first time ten years ago today was the James I now know. He reads before bed each night. He usually turns off his own light. Could this be the same child who didn’t sleep through the night until he was 18 months old? He doesn’t always order from the Kids Menu at restaurants anymore. He makes his own breakfast. It really does go by so fast.

It is a profound privilege to grow a person. It is simply astonishing to listen as a small child, my child, assembles sounds, then words, then sentences, and then stories. It is remarkable to watch as a baby takes command of his body. He reaches. He discovers his hands. He marvels at these hands as he learns to grasp things. He sticks his fingers in his nose. He learns to crawl, walk, run, and eventually round the bases and do a high-kick in karate.

It is a huge responsibility to grow a person too. Huge. I remember taking James to his well-baby exams. Eagerly waiting to receive professional validation of how he had grown. Hoping I gave accurate answers to the stream of routine questions. When the stats were in and all looked as it should, the pediatrician smiled and said, “Good job, Mama.” I blushed.

I don’t hear a lot of “Good job Mama”s anymore. Not that expect to. I understand that the outcomes are much harder to measure. And, really, most importantly, it’s James who is doing a good job now. He is an incredible kid. He is so sensitive. He defends bugs. He always has. Once when I swatted a bee away from Alexander’s head, and it died, James cried. We had a funeral. He has his dad’s short temper. He is freaky smart. He has a GREAT sense of humor. He believes in fairness and justice (unless it involves his Legos and his little brother). He is a lot like my dad. He even looks like my dad. When he was born Dan said, “I think you just gave birth to your dad.” My dad adored James. Tomorrow would have been my dad’s 65th birthday. It is still strange to celebrate James’s birthday and not my dad’s birthday too.

My mom sat in front of me weeping this week. She was remembering the day James was born. She said the forsythia bloomed at her house that day. She said, “do you remember that little box he was in?” I laughed. I told her I was writing about all of that. She said that she and my dad went home that morning and made a pot of coffee. Then they swapped stories about the early morning hours, when they became grandparents. I never thought I would find an adequate “thank you” for my parents, for all that they had done to support me and nurture me and help me along my path through life. But when I saw the way their faces lit up around their grandchildren, I felt like I had repaid them in a way by making them grandparents. As my mom and I talked and cried, it felt a lot like my dad was here too. He would have been crying with us, remembering the day he met Sweet Baby James.

I just thought of something. In ten years, James will be TWENTY.

And I will have been a parent for almost 2/5 of my life.

Now, THAT is unimaginable.

I thought feeding my kids was a huge responsibility. Um, how about getting a kid through puberty? And teaching him to DRIVE?

I thought sending James off to kindergarten was heartbreaking. What about COLLEGE?

Despite the fact that I’ve been a mother for ten big years, I am clearly still a rookie! I’m not real sure I am qualified to parent a tween, much less a teenager! But, then again, a lot of what I’ve done so far is to help prepare James for his journey through life. My Sweet Baby James is his own person now. If you don’t believe me, ask him. One of our favorite James stories involves Dan pleading with James, who refused to choose a favorite between rivals Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. Dan suggested that since the people who “breathed life into” James are Michigan State Spartans, James might take that into account before making a decision. Wouldn’t that be grounds enough to at least consider declaring an alliance to the Spartans too?

Not really.

James said, “But I breathe life into me now, Dad.”

Thankfully, it only took one amazing basketball season to convert James to a full blown Spartan. He rode piggyback on Dan and they jumped around the house cheering for the Spartans through the season. I loved watching James gain enthusiasm for the Spartans. Maybe it meant even more to me because it was something he chose to do. Eventually.

Perhaps the very best I can do is to be here for James, to stand by his side, and to again embrace the opportunity I have to bear witness to his growth and discovery. To give him the facts and help him to make his own interpretations. To help him with his homework. To help him get along with Alexander and Sophia. To make him laugh. To snuggle with him. To listen to him. To guide him. To protect him. To fight for him. To love him. To expand, to contract, and to make myself available, for the times when I am needed to rockabye my sweet Baby James.

James and me last night - the night before he hit double digits.

Happy 10th Birthday Buddy! I can only imagine what you’ve got in store for this world. I look forward to seeing how your story unfolds. Love, Mom

Please stop being so hard on yourself.

They eat chicken McNuggets sometimes and that doesn't make me a bad mom.

You know what’s funny? I was just sitting here thinking about how cool I am because I can honestly say that my percentage of time spent comparing myself to other people has dropped dramatically in the last year. I used to spend a lot of time thinking I was a bad mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, volunteer, niece and so on because other women seemed to be so much better at all of it than me. Now, I don’t do that as much. Like, hardly ever. But I still feel like I’m falling short in a lot of ways. So here is what is funny: I now compare myself to an IMAGINARY Anna.

IMAGINARY Anna is a lot like me, but not so rough around the edges. All of her laundry is caught up and she makes nutritious, delicious dinners for her family every night, even on the weekends. AND, all three of her kids eat every last bite of these meals WITHOUT COMPLAINING. In fact, they tell her she is an excellent cook and make her promise to write down all her recipes so that someday they can replicate her delectable meals for their own children. She is fashion forward and she doesn’t have bad hair days. She wears high heels a lot and they don’t hurt her feet. AT ALL. She can do a yoga head stand. She never yells at her children or loses her patience. Ever. She weighs… well, let’s not talk about how much she weighs because it’s been so long since I weighed as much as she does. I can’t relate to her on that level, but I do envy her and the ease with which she buys clothing (especially bras). She ALWAYS adores her husband and jumps up to kiss and hug him and thank him every night when he walks through the door, even when it is WAY later than she expected him. She doesn’t even blink an eye when he leaves his dirty socks in random places, like the kitchen counter. She doesn’t nag. She is a saint, really. Everybody loves her. She has lots of friends. She is the President of her Book Club and she volunteers every day in each of her three angelic children’s classrooms. In her spare time, she knits blankets for cold people. She has coffee every afternoon with her mother, who is a widow like my mom, and never once gets distracted as her mother shares what is on her mind. She never says things like, “Mom, I can’t even follow you – you are ALL over the place right now!” She follows everything. She does it all. I know she is completely unreal, but I STILL compare myself to her. I think I might have been better off comparing myself to other women because occasionally I actually saw the human side of THEM and didn’t feel like such a loser.

What I’m trying to say here is, women are SO HARD on themselves!

Maybe men are too. Okay, I know they are. Sometimes. But I am not a man and most of my friends are not men so I am not as concerned about them and their well-being right this minute. I don’t hear how guilty men feel when they have to make a choice between showing up for one of their children at one event or another of their children at another event because both their children want them to show up at the very same time, but they can only be in one place at once. Did you follow that? I may have a future in writing story problems. I don’t hear how worried they are when their children are sick or sad or being treated poorly by someone at school. I don’t hear how conflicted they feel when a dear friend needs them desperately and their family needs them too. I don’t hear how sad it makes them to leave their children every morning and pick them up late at night. How they wished they could be there for every single big and little milestone their children reach. But they can’t because they have to work. And, I have never ever heard a man say he feels bad for doing something special for himself rather than spending quality time with his family.

To be clear, I am not saying, nor implying, that men don’t have the very same heartfelt concerns as women. I just don’t hear about it because, like I said, most of my close friends are other women and other moms and they are the people I hear from most often. Women are the people I most worry about.

I am putting out a desperate plea here to any woman (or man for that matter) who is reading this. PLEASE, pretty please with a cherry on the top, let yourself off the hook.

See, here’s the not so funny thing. If any one of my friends, or even a complete stranger, came to me and said, “Anna, I feel so bad for going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s last night to get dinner for my kids…”

I would NEVER say, “Wow, you’re a shitty mom. You’re so lazy. You totally should have cooked for your children!”

I would probably say, “Please. Your kids are fine. You’re fine. Let it go.” But do I ever say that to myself? Not so much. Imaginary Anna always cooks for her children. As long as I compare myself to her, I will keep feeling like a crappy, lazy mother. That is not funny. That is really sad.

I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. As long as we compare ourselves to others or continue to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, we will never measure up, and we will always feel bad about ourselves.

I am getting better at quieting the voice in my head – my inner critic – when she tells me that So and So is a way better mother than I am. Some of us are still working on that. Some of us aren’t even aware that she has no place in our heads. She is unwelcome. Kick her OUT. You work on that and I’ll work on kicking out my new inner critic who tells me all the crap that she tells me.

I know we all have moments where we feel guilty or ashamed or incapable of doing what we think we’re supposed to be doing. That is natural and normal because we are humans and humans have feelings. We need our feelings to help us move through life. Our feelings are like little street signs, letting us know what lies ahead or which way to turn. We have every right to feel guilty. But let’s not wallow in it. Let’s not live there. Let’s not let ourselves stay feeling guilty.

Let’s just notice our guilt, like a little sign saying Guilt Lies Ahead and move on, in a different direction, knowing that we are doing the very best that we can.

Then, let’s let ourselves off the hook because we are in fact doing our BEST. And guess what? Our best changes every day. Today my best is not as fantastic as it was yesterday. You know what Inner Critic, that’s OKAY. I’m OKAY. My kids are OKAY. I’m letting it go…!

I worry about each of the beautiful women I hear say, “I feel so bad about…” I worry that they will stay feeling bad and not see their very own radiance – the radiance that I see when their eyes light up when they see their kids after school each day. The radiance I see when I know they are doing the very best that they can in every possible way. I admire the way women try so hard. We do hard work. I trust it is worth it. I also trust that with as hard as it is, we don’t need to make it any harder. We can let ourselves off the hook. xoxo

A Different Kind of Love Letter

Dear Dad,
You’re still a jerk for dying. Every once in a while I can be okay with it, but for the most part, the way I feel about you for dying hasn’t changed.

As the second anniversary of your death approaches, I am thinking a lot about what has changed since March 11, 2010.

At your funeral and afterward, a lot of people said to me, it will get easier with an emphasis on the IT. I don’t think IT really gets easier, Dad. I think I just get better at IT. I live and love and laugh a lot and I cry a lot too. I sometimes question my sanity. When that happens, I wonder if maybe I really should be all better now. There is no “all better” in the world of lost loved ones though, Dad. I know that you know that. And, I know that you know, better than anyone, that the pain – the sadness, the anger, the desperation – we feel when we lose someone we love needs to be expressed because if it’s not expressed, bad things can happen. Unexpressed grief festers inside us like an infection. It might manifest itself in another way, like as an illness. So, I don’t need to explain to you why two years after your death, I’m still writing about it and thinking about it…and crying about it.

I still miss you so much, Dad. I miss you the most when I am putting Sophia to bed and we are laying side by side with our faces so close that our noses are almost touching. She stares at me intently and whispers the sweetest things like, “your eyes are like JEWELS!” As if she is so surprised, but also as if she is telling me a secret about the meaning of life, something that only she knows because she is still so fresh in her human body. I wish you were here to tell me what you think of all the things she says and the ways she twirls around the room, dancing and singing, and the ways she taunts her brothers. I loved hearing your James stories. Then, I loved hearing your Alexander stories. I long to hear your Sophia stories.

When Sophia and I meet new people or stop to talk to strangers in the store, it isn’t too long before someone says, “I love her little voice.” Nobody knows as well as Sophia just how lovable she is. She tilts her head and smiles. One day, Alexander was FURIOUS at her. She talks a lot, Dad. Her little voice never stops. She wouldn’t stop talking and Alexander screamed, “I HATE HER LITTLE VOICE!” It was hilarious. I laughed out loud. Really, what else could I have done in that situation?

I parent differently now than I did before you died, Dad. I used to get really stressed out, almost panicky, in situations like that. I wanted to be the perfect mother. I wanted to respond with the most meaningful, profound, and powerful words. I wanted to say the right thing, without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Oh Dad, that just isn’t real. You know? My kids need to see me lose it. They need to see me make mistakes and say I’m sorry afterward. They need to see me cry, Dad. Nothing is real anymore. Between TV and movies and video games, kids just don’t see what’s real. I want to be real for them. They need me to be real for them. When they’re upset, they don’t need me to spout off something I read in a book, they just need me to listen. At the end of the day, if they can go to sleep knowing that they are loved and that they are heard and seen, I think they will be okay. Sometimes I screw it all up, but mostly I think we’re all going to be okay.

I think that is true for most people, Dad. They just need to be heard. So I’ve stopped trying to come up with the perfect response altogether. I’ve stopped beating myself up for falling short of perfection…because I do fall short of perfection. Way short. I listen a lot and think less about how to respond when the person I’m listening to is finished talking. When people ask me what I would do – I try to answer from the heart. But, honestly Dad, we all know that nobody really knows how they will respond to something until they are actually faced with that situation. Oh, the time I wasted IMAGINING how I would respond to a hypothetical situation! I try not to do that anymore. It’s a waste of time.

I also try not to obsess so much. I used to obsess over every little detail of every little thing that I did. Do you remember that? I was so busy obsessing that I was missing what was most important – just BEING. Kids don’t care if their birthday parties have a theme, Dad. For the love of God! But themes are fun. So that’s different. I don’t pretend that implementing every aspect of the perfectly themed birthday party is for them, an essential part of the perfect childhood. I’m honest now, Dad. They may pick the theme, but all the other coordinating and matching and gathering and putting together – that’s for me. They really just want cake and presents.

I guess you could say I’m following my intuition more now. I’m listening to myself more. The funny thing about that, Dad, is years ago – before kids and marriage and a job and all that, I LISTENED to my intuition! Somehow I lost touch with that ability. Or, I lost faith in that ability. I began to look outside myself for answers to questions. I read books. Lots and lots of books. Before I made any significant decision, I checked to see what Dr. Sears would do. I turned to my friends and anyone really, to see what they were doing. Then, I judged myself against all those inputs – the books, the people, the kids’ teachers and our pediatrician… I never measured up, Dad, because that wasn’t me. That wasn’t real. And the other funny thing about that is I’m actually really smart. I have some pretty great answers. But, I still love books.

I still think a lot about God too, Dad. That hasn’t changed. It is an obsession. I really wished I had some solid ground to stand on after you died. I desperately wanted to be able to say with confidence, “THIS is what I believe…” I have some ideas, but I’m still open to possibilities, Dad. I stopped thinking that maybe some people were wrong and some were right about God though. Maybe we’re all right, Dad. Maybe we all just need to figure out what works for us and do that. Maybe we can change our minds as we go. Twice this week already I’ve read stories about how God wants us to treat others as we would treat ourselves AND, here’s the important part, that implies that we actually treat ourselves well. Right? I never got that part. I just assumed I was treating myself well and that is how I would treat others. In actuality, I wasn’t treating myself well. At all. So, I’m trying to treat myself well because I want to be able to treat other people well. Skipping meals and not making time for exercise? Um, no. Not anymore. But Dad, I’m always the first to go when things get rough. I take full responsibility for that. I’m not whining about it. I’m just saying that I’ve still got work to do.

I’m writing all of this as if you have no idea what’s going on down here on Earth. When really, in my heart, I know that you already know all of it. I know you are there in the night with Sophia and me, and maybe it is you whispering in her ear, telling me my eyes are like jewels (although, even you wouldn’t be quite so dramatic about it). I know you still follow James and Alexander and maybe you’ve got some buddies up there who listen to your funny stories now. I know you are here with me, leaving pennies and feathers and messing with the frames on my walls. I know you are guiding me to listen to my intuition…again. I know you are helping me to see what is real and what isn’t and what matters and what doesn’t. This is what you did on Earth. You were flawed, like all of us, but you were real and the way you lived your life was an invitation for all of us to be real too. You believed that the power was inside us, in the people, NOT in politicians or priests or other people like politicians and priests – people we turn to when we feel powerless. As I continue to miss you and live on without you here, I think I also feel closer to you. Closer to what you were and what you stood for. For living and laughing and loving and singing and playing and thinking with all your heart – not so much with your mind. You got it. You knew that nothing but love mattered. You sang about that. You knew that all the power we ever needed was right there inside us. You had it all figured out.

It’s hard to be real, Dad. To be honest and true. To let it all hang out. To be vulnerable. It’s all so very hard. But you did it with such grace and with such a great sense of humor too. So, I’m not giving up. I’m open and listening. I will keep at it as a tribute to you. In my mind’s eye, I can see you smiling now. I see the signs that you give me, and I will continue to follow them right back home – to myself, to my own heart, where you live, always, inside me and all around me.

I love you Dad!
xoxo love, Anna

A Royal Epiphany

To be completely honest, I didn’t care much about Kate or William or their wedding. I was a little turned off by it all. I didn’t have anything against Kate or William, it was the hype. The couple, their plans, their pasts, their futures, their choices, and then all the “controversies”…the guest list, the dress, the hairdo, the speculation about all of it and what it meant. And then the speculation about the speculation. I haven’t even watched a lot of TV or paid much attention to current events lately, but somehow I knew all these things were brewing, and I decided I just didn’t care. So, I didn’t plan a Royal Wedding Viewing Party. I didn’t set the DVR to record the wedding. I didn’t set my alarm to wake up to watch the wedding. I didn’t plan on regretting my lack of interest. Worst case scenario, I’d watch highlights on YouTube.

When I returned home from the morning drop-off routine yesterday, I had a very rare opportunity to enjoy a cup of hot coffee in front of the TV (alone). I turned on the TV and sat down with my coffee and within seconds, despite my best efforts to avoid the hype, I was watching Royal Wedding highlights. Before too long, I was sobbing.

I am laughing right now because it all seems so ridiculous. So there I was crying, and of course I couldn’t just cry, I had to stop and analyze it. Why was I crying? I decided that there were two possibilities: 1) in a past life I had my own royal wedding and seeing William and Kate in HD triggered those cell memories; or, 2) I was uncontrollably, undeniably, and very unsurprisingly moved to tears. It was all very beautiful. That goes without saying, but what struck me, as I tried to figure out what was so moving, was the connection. Here were hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside Buckingham Palace to catch a glimpse of the Prince and his new Princess, maybe millions of viewers watching on TV, and then the actual couple and their true friends and family who were very clearly celebrating love and a new beginning for all involved. In every replay of each lovely moment of that day, we are connected. We are united. We are one in love.

So then I tuned in to the commentators…some British woman sharing her predictions for a dark, lonely, and difficult transformation from commoner to Princess for poor Kate. Sure William loves her, but her life is forever changed and it could get really ugly. She will need to surround herself with friends. Let’s all hope she asks Pippa to serve as a Lady in Waiting… (I’m paraphrasing). This woman was turning a breathtaking moment into mush right before my eyes. And then something clicked.

I have had the privilege of working with a fantastic life coach for the past month or so (grief therapy was great, but a girl has to move on at some point). One of the references he has made over and over is to the question of whether I will stand in choice. I have heard it and theoretically, I get it. In fact, I constantly talk to my kids about choices. “It’s okay to be angry, it’s not okay to punch your brother in the gut when you are angry, what are some other ways to deal with your anger? You have a choice… Your choices have consequences… Nobody can hurt you without your permission (Eleanor Roosevelt)” and so on. I even knew at the beginning of this journey, that at some point, I would need to make a choice about whether or not I would spend the rest of my life wallowing in grief over the loss of my dad. I would always miss him, I might often be sad, but then what? Would I be bitter? Choices would need to be made.

It sounds very simple at first, but in that moment I had a choice too. I could either allow myself to get sucked in to Lady Buzzkill’s analysis of all that laid ahead for the Royal couple, or continue to bask in the glow of the Radiant Kate and William on their wedding day. Simple. I went to the light. My epiphany though, was that this choice mirrored all the others I can make in every matter big and small. The jerk who cuts me off on the highway. Do I let him get me down? In the past I have. There have been days in my life where that careless jerk sent me on a downward spiral and I was stuck there for the rest of the day. I might have even gone as far as to blame him for everything else that wasn’t going right in my life. And then I’d have to order pizza for dinner that night because nobody could really expect me to cook in my fragile state. I was shaken up and it was all the jerk’s fault.

The jerk is just the beginning. Choices get complicated. I could go on for hours about all the injustices in the world. I am not a Saint, but I don’t get hate. I get acceptance. That is who I am. We don’t have to agree with each other, in fact it would be boring if we did, but because of that connection, that oneness that I feel with humanity, I do believe we need to treat each other kindly. And we don’t. And that hurts. I often take it personally. I don’t need to though. I can choose to let the hurt flow through me, or to be transformed by the hurt, and I can choose whether that transformation will be for better or for worse. Kate and I have at least one thing in common.

So often we allow ourselves to get caught up in the hype. Most of it isn’t even real, by the way. I am fighting the urge to run in several different directions here. There is so much to say about injustice, the media, the hype, and so on. I don’t see that as part of this journey. Not now. This journey is about creating a sense of balance in my life. Thank you William and Kate for sharing your extraordinary day with the world. We all need a little more love and light in our lives. I completely understand now, thanks to a few highlights from the Royal Wedding and Ken the Angel Life Coach, that the love and light is always available. Truly. The choice is ours about whether or not to access it. Whether or not to spread it.

Lost and Found

When my dad passed away last year, I lost my mom too. I also lost my sister. My husband and my children lost me. Since then, we’ve all resurfaced for the most part. I had forgotten about these losses until today after a difficult conversation with my mom. When we were finished talking, I had a good cry. I thought a lot about what we had said and the way we had said it, and how I felt about all of it. The little girl Anna, who resides deep inside me, wanted so badly to crawl into her mother’s lap. She longed for the safety she found there after a disagreement. She wished she could be comforted by her mom’s hand stroking her little head as she sat there, releasing the hurt with every pass through her hair.

I, grown woman Anna, am slightly jealous of that little girl. It seems like life was so much easier when anything that ailed me could be cured in the arms of my mom or my dad. As I thought about what had transpired, I wondered why resolving conflict seemed so much more tenuous now, why it seemed so hard. And then I remembered that Wednesday is my dad’s birthday. He would have been 64. I can’t help but to think that no matter what we said or thought, in the depths of our hearts, we were feeling the weight of an upcoming birthday void of its birthday boy. First, I wanted my dad back. Then, I wanted my mom back.

I live within 30 minutes of my mom in one direction and my sister and her family in another. My dad, bless his heart, came to my house several times a week in the last year of his life. He helped me with my babies like only a Papaw could. I rewarded him with leftovers. When he died, I lost my number one go-to guy. In a pinch, I always knew I could call my dad and he would do whatever he could to help me get through the day. My husband, my mom, my dad, my sister, and her husband, each of them has talked me off the ledge. Each of them has rescued me from some degree of parenting disaster. They are my village. It took a long time for me to adjust to my dad’s absence. At some point my husband, who was practically a saint from the moment my dad died, had to switch his focus from grieving wife back to his work. My village had disbanded. I wasn’t always sure where to turn. Forget maternal disarray, I was a grieving mess. How could I call my sister to come and scoop me off the floor, when she had her own floor to tend to? It was hard.

Slowly but surely, my mom, my sister, and I came to life again. My husband and my sister’s husband were no longer on their own. My children looked up to see tears in my eyes less frequently. In times of deficient coping, thank God, I was blessed with fabulous in-laws and superstar babysitters who saved the day on numerous occasions. As my mom and my sister and I came to life, we returned to each other. Since then, I had forgotten about those early days after my dad’s death. Outside of simply being together, we didn’t have a lot of energy to do much else for one another. We were in survival mode. When I turned to my mom, her body sat before me, but her mind was often elsewhere. I haven’t mentioned my dad’s birthday to my mom. I’m sure the fact that April 20 is coming this week is already on her mind. I don’t know for sure that heavy hearts were involved in our conversation today, but rather than trying to analyze it, I am thanking the Universe for the gentle reminder that I am not the only hiker on the path.

Each and every human being on the planet is on a journey. Sometimes we travel together and sometimes we travel alone. We often travel together in silence. In the midst of giving voice to our stories, we can’t be sure who is really listening. We are bound to lose each other along the way. I know that even when I lose my mom, when our paths part or our attention gets diverted, she will eventually come back to me. I may not fit in her lap anymore, but I’ll always have a place in her heart. And her in mine.

Okay, So I Lied and I’m Not Making Anymore Promises

Something strange happened to me this week. I was thinking about this overwhelming desire I have to declare myself all better. All cried out. All finished grieving. This desire is so overwhelming that I keep mentioning it in these blog posts, as if everyone reading is waiting with bated breath for me to make this declaration. I’m like a little puppy when I see someone who knows how sad I’ve been and how my dad’s big one-year-since-death anniversary just passed, I kind-of jump around wagging my tail, waiting for a pat on the head, hoping for a “Good girl!” because I followed directions and did what I was supposed to do and now I get a treat. Not a single person in my life has ever said, “Okay Anna, you’re all done. It’s time to move on.” And yet, I assume that is what everyone is thinking. It’s as if I’ve been deaf to what I’m really hearing which is “Take all the time you need.” So, the strange thing that happened is I began to believe you. And boy does it feel good.

After my last post, a sweet friend of mine shared an article featuring two authors who had written books about how they dealt with loss (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/weekinreview/27grief.html?_r=1. One of the authors, Meghan O’Rourke, said the following:

In those first months, I quickly came to feel almost embarrassed by my sorrow. Most people are uncomfortable around loss. Friends talk to you about “getting through it” and “moving on” and “healing.” We shy away from talking about death, not out of cold-heartedness, but out of fear. No one wants to say the wrong thing; and death is scary. I think this is part of why there are so many memoirs and movies about loss: they create a public space where we can talk safely about grief.

I was so grateful for this insight because, to be perfectly honest, I can’t quite explain why I wanted to share my journey via this blog, but I can tell you that I absolutely believe there is a need to create more space in our society to talk about loss, to support those in mourning, and to honor and remember those who have passed. I also appreciated receiving affirmation that death is scary. I think I told you that one of my first stops after losing my dad was the bookstore. So many of the stories written for children about death and dying emphasize how death is a natural part of life. I latched on to that, thinking that if I could incorporate that concept into my understanding of life and pass that on to my children, we’d all be better prepared for facing our next loss. God forbid. See? Even as I begin to accept that death is a part of a life, and let’s face it, it is, I fear the loss of another loved one. Death is a scary part of life.

Death really doesn’t make sense when you think about it. How could someone I saw several times a week just disappear, never to be seen again? Yet, that’s how it happens. It’s not like my dad and I made an agreement to stop seeing each other. Or, like one of us moved somewhere far away. I had no choice in the matter. One day he was here, in my doorway, talking, breathing, living, and laughing. And that night he died. Now there are no more opportunities to say the things we put off saying to each other. This is what we signed up for though, we may not like it, but death is just as much a part of the cycle of life as birth. And the pain I’ve felt, like my heart had literally broken open, like I couldn’t breathe, like I couldn’t imagine how any of us would go on, all of it, is just as much a part of my emotional range as joy. My pain has turned to emptiness and my disbelief has turned to sadness and as these changes occur, I begin to understand that death makes just as much sense as life. Death is part of life.

When I hear people talk about living life to its fullest I picture myself in the sunshine with wide open arms, a smile on my face, hair blowing in the wind, all but floating my way across a field of wildflowers to a pot of gold, or something. I picture my children and I laughing together and playing together. I picture my husband and I holding hands, walking along the Red Cedar River on MSU’s campus. I never get an image representing the other end of the spectrum. I have never considered what it would mean to live life to its fullest when I’m sad. I never get a picture of myself stomping out of a room, slamming doors, and screaming in anger. I don’t see myself falling apart. Grieving is teaching me that living life to its fullest means living every little bit of life. It means being free to feel every little thing from utter despair to boredom to sheer delight. I don’t get to skip over the sad stuff. None of us do.

I love that I get to live life to its fullest. It is true that I would not appreciate the happiness in my life if I had never known sadness. I love a good cry. I love a good laugh, as long as I don’t wet my pants. I’m finally listening to you. I’m finally listening to me. I think I get it. I’ll take my time, I’ll move through the ups and the downs, I’ll breathe into the waves, and I’ll begin to fill the empty holes in my heart with great memories of my dad. I’m not making another promise about what I will or will not write about the next time I write. I cannot predict how long it will take before a visit to my parents’ house doesn’t end in tears. I don’t want to predict it. I don’t even want to know. I just want to feel my way through, as I go. Wherever I go.

As Long as It Takes

A week or so before my dad passed away he told me about a meeting he had planned with an administrator at the community college where he was enrolled (he was a Gold Card member – free classes for retirees!). At his funeral, we joked that my dad was a man of many faces. He had a lot of great facial expressions, but he also had many different looks. Full beard with mustache, just mustache, goatee, mutton chops, that one with the strange name that I can’t think of… His beard was an ever-evolving expression of his Inner Self. Sometimes it looked great and sometimes I wondered if he had looked in the mirror lately. He mentioned that he was thinking about shaving his beard off before the meeting. I can’t remember what it looked like exactly, but what he was growing at the time was no ordinary beard. It was nothing like the beard you are picturing in your mind. Me, being the mom of three mostly clean-cut children and law abiding citizen that I have become, said something along the lines of, “oh yeah, it’s probably a good idea to shave your beard before you meet with the administrators.”

I can remember the look on his face. He wasn’t quite appalled, but the look definitely fell into the “Is it too late for a DNA test? I’m not sure you are my daughter” category. He was sitting at my kitchen table. He looked at me and said, “I don’t give a shit what they think. My beard is starting to bug me. Plus, I don’t think your mom likes it.” This is just one of the many things I admired about my dad. He didn’t care what people thought of him (except my mom). Not in a punk, ruffian, tough guy, I-don’t-care-what-you-think way either. My dad cared so little about what other people thought of him that he didn’t even need to make them aware that he didn’t care.

He was very handsome. He looked great when he dressed up, but he was most likely to be seen wearing a warm, sensible (partly flannel) shirt with well-worn jeans or corduroys, work boots, and a Carhartt jacket. Maybe a neat necklace with one or two pendants that meant something to him. In the summer he wore shorts and a t-shirt with something cool or funny printed on it. He often sported a hat of some sort. Or, especially if he was working or playing the guitar, he wore a bandana around his head.

My dad was really smart. He read a lot of books and had an incredibly broad world view. We cherish his notes, drawings, sculptures, woodcarvings, and all the other artifacts that suggest this was a man who never stopped learning and who wasn’t afraid to try something new. He was an activist in his Union. He was a lot of different things, truly, but one of the other things I loved best about him was that he was a non-conformist. He wasn’t obnoxious about it. He did his own thing and quietly observed others doing their own thing. He was mellow, grounded, and a peaceful, nature-loving man. As I said before, my dad didn’t really care if someone didn’t like his beard or his outfit or his view point. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if he knew you didn’t like something about him, he relished in that part of himself even more. He didn’t rub your face in it; very simply, he was not afraid to express himself and enjoyed that expression in whatever form it took.

This is a gift for a little girl. I guess I should say, for this little girl. I was enchanted by my gentle, tender-hearted, free-spirited, non-conforming dad. To be his daughter was very special for me. He was sensitive before it was cool for dads to be sensitive. My dad was on the cutting edge.

There were times in my life where I didn’t appreciate just how cool he was. I rolled my eyes and wished I could buy my dad a box of golf balls for Christmas. He needed picks for his guitar. I longed to choose a tie from the Men’s Department at Hudson’s for him for Father’s Day. My dad wore work shirts. None of the Hallmark cards seemed to fit his personality. He didn’t fish. He didn’t watch football.

There were also many times when I was quite proud to be his daughter. As I got older, and less self-conscious, I loved seeing him perform. Or, even better, I loved it when my friends went to hear him play with me. We would dance the night away to the music of…my dad and his band! I cherish the times when I embraced every little quirky and unconventional thing about him. Like when I was finishing grad school and he would arrive with his guitar to care for my then 18 month-old son while I was away. It’s not every child whose babysitter shows up in Carhartts with a guitar. There were also times when I didn’t think much about any of it because he was my dad and I loved him for that and that alone.

Yesterday I had a little bit of a breakdown. We are quickly approaching the one year anniversary of my dad’s death. March 11, 2011. Part of me is relieved that we are so close to this milestone because everybody told me the first year would be the worst. If we made it this far, through the worst year, we have certainly proven that we can keep going. Without my dad. Part of me is scared to lose what feels like a free ticket to grieve. I had one year. It’s almost over. I keep telling myself that I can take as long as I want. Someone who I have always admired as a smart, kind, level-headed woman (I met her when I was about nine years-old) told me that it took her eight years to feel “normal” again after her dad died. If she took eight years, then I could too, if that was what I needed.

I want to rejoice in my new journey…this quest to become whole again. It’s exciting to be learning, growing, and changing in ways that I think are very positive for me, and for the people I love. I like to think I would have eventually taken this path anyway, once my kids were in school or whenever the time was right, but losing my dad catapulted me into a time of change, a time where new interests have begun to emerge. As I have been sorting through all the pieces that made me, that make me, and that will carry me forward, I have been fascinated, even exhilarated. This is a gift that my dad has given me.

My smart-brain is grateful for this gift and knows that my dad was a gift too. In spite of these great gifts; however, there is a part of me who just wants her Daddy back. I thought she was okay. I thought I was past that. But yesterday she showed up and said she needed some attention. This part of me feels tired. She is tired of trying to put a positive spin on everything. I think she may be experiencing some growing pains from all this growth. She might need some rest. Her body is sore from trying new yoga poses, her mind is spinning from reading too many books and wondering what to write in her next blog post, and her heart aches too. I think this part of me feels like this growth opportunity is unwelcome. She was very comfortable in her life before. She thinks back, and remembers that everything was fine a year ago. She is still very sad when she thinks about going on with her life without her dad in it, even though she knows that she can.

I could tell her that her dad is in a better place. I could tell her that he is just a thought away. I could tell her that he lives on inside her and all around her. I could tell her any number of things, but I think she would just tell me to, well, $#%& off.

So, I will just sit here with her. I will hold her. I will celebrate, with her, the first man she ever loved. We will remember the sensitive, unconventional, guitar playing, bandana wearing, beautiful bearded man who was her dad. We will hold him in our hearts. We will sit here together for as long as it takes.