Maximum Capacity Aliveness

A grieving person is sad, sometimes. However let me be blatantly honest about what the world can feel like following a trauma or loss: dull, grey-scale, lifeless, numb, scary, foreign, and lots of work. The feelings come and go at different times but leave such residue in the well that I forget how the water should taste. At some point I decided to officially make the claim that this is adulthood; that adulthood is primarily characterized by pain or “trudging”. After spending the first portion of my life determined to reach a maximum capacity of aliveness, the single most depressing thought I could ever think is: the best part is over – and I thought it.

It’s hard for me to write this because I immediately want you to understand that my days are filled with good things; one might even say that by some standards I’m living my life to the fullest. Not by my standards. I am not alive like I once was and I have felt like a stranger to myself in many ways. Though I pass the buck to adulthood, it’s not what’s to blame (sorry to ruin a good excuse for many of us). We all must move on from past versions of ourselves, but to forget ourselves is tragic.

I lost my mom during a time that I was adventuring, growing, and learning. I had experienced some highest highs – traveling India – and some lowest lows – relational confusion. With her death went my memories of what those things felt like. I could picture moments from my past but could not empathize with myself. It was a total disconnect.

This week, I unexpectedly experienced a trigger that pricked a pinhole in my mind, allowing a rush of locked-up thoughts and feelings to come back to me. It was perhaps less metaphysical than it sounds, but some group of wires in my brain was reattached. I felt my past; it was hard and confusing, and such a gift. This “awakening” of sorts reminded me that I am made up of more experiences than those surrounding and following my mom’s death. It revealed to me that I have unfinished business in my soul that needs attention, which holds the key to so many frustrating roadblocks I have faced. Needs and voids that are independent of death can be easily covered up by the grief experience, and so the quest to fill them can be futile. That’s what’s tough – defining the boundaries of grief.

Perhaps it’s not always something as dramatic as blacking out after a trauma that creates disassociation within ourselves. Maybe it too easily happens with time. Maybe we call it adulthood so that we don’t have to look back or dig within ourselves for answers. Perhaps feeling past wounds hurts so much that we have to block out the good too. It does hurt to remember it all, let me tell you, but it is nowhere near as painful as living with a stranger under my skin.

I guess my purpose here is to offer a vulnerable piece of myself in sharing this experience, since vulnerability has not been easy for me while emotionally dry. Maybe it’s also to ask some questions. Do we abandon ourselves by choice? Do we choose to forget what we looked like most alive because it hurts too much? Do we forget because it would take such painful work to carry that self into our present situation?

I must say, I’m terrified that I will again lose this feeling of connectedness; that I will forget to keep asking myself these questions. However, I have never been so grateful for the reminder that maximum capacity aliveness is worth fighting for.

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Lighten Up, Love Mom.

I love to laugh. I love to have a good time. I don’t like dwelling on the negative. Yet, I often still lose myself to the tendency of living with a heavy heart. When my mom was around she would say “stop thinking so much”, which in my mind sounded like “be more ignorant”. I always fought her on it; “Mom, you don’t get it.  There’s so much negative stuff going on out there, and I’ve got to conquer it”.

As I get older and deal with more and more heavy experiences, I’m starting to get it. My mom had experienced every bit of hurt and pain and unhealthiness in the world that I had, and maybe more. She wasn’t telling me to stifle my intelligence; she was telling me to choose the light. The world and all that is in it will exist, no matter how much I think about its heaviness. The only thing to reduce heaviness, and to change the world for that matter, is to figure out how to live in the place where light lives.

Simple, but not. Especially for those of us who have experienced the painfully unpredictable (and are prone to heavy thinking).

As I enter year four, I am at a place of rebuilding the depth of my self. It involves reconstructing passions, interests, physical health, deep relationships, and even requires becoming excited about future plans – yikes. It asks me to consider how my life might become full, even though her’s is over. It is in the middle of this fight that I so quickly shut the blinds on the sunshine that irritates my senses. It is this fight that leaves me reluctant to give in to good. And this is where my mom would chime in and say, “Lighten up.”.

There comes a point at which it is largely up to us to direct our lives, by venturing to figure out what it will take to rewire our outlook. This may take more wisdom than our own to achieve, maybe even professional wisdom.

I dared myself today to intentionally choose a good thought over a dark or hopeless one. The opportunity arose before I was even finished writing this, reminding me how much easier said than done this all is. But, if I can do it just once today I have won a battle in the war.

I’d like to leave you with this video about the power of letting your mind accept the positive in the midst of darkness. This TEDX talk features a very brilliant friend of mine who has a whole lot of wisdom to share.

Here’s to heavy thinkers, trying to make friends with the light.

TEDX The Power of Positive News

It Lives in the Little Things

Today I read a letter from a daughter to her mother who had passed away of breast cancer. You can read it all here, but I wanted to share one paragraph in particular with you. Anyone who has ridden this roller coaster may relate to these words:

“I wish I had paid closer attention. The things that really matter you gave me early on—a way of being and loving and imagining. It’s the stuff of daily life that is often more challenging. I step unsure into a world of rules and etiquette, not knowing what is expected in many situations. I am lacking a certain kind of confidence. Decisions and departures are difficult. As are dinner parties. Celebrations and ceremony. Any kind of change.”

The size of my sadness doesn’t always correlate with the seeming size of the hardship. Yes, the big things are difficult – it’s heartbreaking to miss the intensity of her love; I miss her aura; I miss normal life. But at the same time, these are the things I had 26 years to take in. I know them well, I can still feel them when I close my eyes.

“It’s the stuff of daily life that is often more challenging”.

This is why the battle seems unrelenting some days. Because grief lives in the little things. And everyday there is a new little thing to face. New things to know, new decisions to make, new things to experience, without her.

To understand this is to realize that it will never be over. And this is not to bring hopelessness, but hope, and grace. It means realizing that you are a champion right now, when you make it through a day of little things. It means knowing that you will become more and more skilled at facing these daily moments, and after awhile these accomplishments will bring a depth to your life that you wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Grief lives in the little things, but life has it’s home in the little things too.

To my fellow residents in the Afterwards, love yourself, right now, right where you are. This is my pledge to myself today. I will be proud of myself for making it through all the new that today threw at me. And I will consciously seek to notice the little things of today which presented sparks of life.

Braving Happiness

Happiness can be scarier than hardship.

It takes an incredible amount of bravery to be happy. It isn’t really surprising that we may tend to resist happiness; when we are in a place of hurt, sadness, insecurity, weakness, depression, frailty or hardship, there is really not much else to lose. In my own experience, this place can be almost… well, comfortable. It’s like a case of emotional Stockholm syndrome – our hurt  (or insecurity, or fear, or dissatisfaction) can become something we know so well that living without it feels terrifying; we may even develop the urge protect it.

I wasn’t necessarily aware of this until I pointedly asked myself one day: Are you afraid? Be honest. Is it unsettling to think of letting go of what binds you? The answer was yes.

Internal whispers can paralyze us, can’t they?

If I love, I will be hurt.
If I move on, I will encounter the next tragedy.
If I accept it, it will be taken away.
If I try to do it, they will see me fail.
If I attain it, I will have to maintain it.
If I am confident, I will have to let them like me.
If I let them like me, I will have to like myself.
If I conquer my weakness, I won’t know who to be.
If I lose weight, I won’t be able to hide behind it.
If I dream it, I will be disappointed by it.

I was talking with a good friend last night about how many of us “young” adults are now experiencing a realization of mortality. It is nearly impossible to really live or really love when the fear of losing it all has made a nest in the back of your mind. I am curious if this condition is a result of experiencing some form of loss or if it is a normal stage of development (anyone have any wisdom to share about this?). Either way, I desperately find myself hoping that there is more to maturity than simply being made aware of painful realities.

How does one shed the fear of happiness? I’m not sure. I know that I have slowly moved from paralyzed, to nervous, to wanting freedom – which proves that change is possible. But fear is a giant. My counselor used to say that the most important time to reach out for help is when you feel stuck somewhere – this seems to be my cue. I am a huge advocate of counseling and have done my fair share, but I know as well as the next person how hard it is to pick up the phone when you don’t have the energy; To make yourself seek advice when you don’t really know what you need (I’ll take an intervention please!). But I have promised myself that I will do it, because I know that the results of others’ wisdom in our lives can be powerful, and I am excited by the potential of happy unstuckedness.

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Wired to Fight

We always want to protect those we love, don’t we? Grief generally feels like it’s about us – our pain; our void; our not knowing how to get by – but many parts of it stem from the fierce instinct to protect our loved one. I had no idea this was true until recently.

It was almost the third anniversary of losing her; I was outside pushing a lawnmower, earbuds in, enjoying some time with my thoughts. I don’t want to say I heard a voice… it was more that some words interrupted my daydreaming. There were only two of them: I’m okay. The phrase wasn’t audible, but it certainly felt outside of my own thought process. It brought to mind a picture of my mom – peaceful and calm, looking at me with a smile, repeating, I’m okay.

It wasn’t as mystical of an experience as it may sound, but the words carried a lot of power. They offered me a reassurance that I didn’t know I needed. It hit me that for three years I’d been unable to let go of the fear I’d felt for her. It wasn’t conscious, but I’d been fervently trying to protect her since she closed her eyes that day, clenching on to things that would have affected her here on earth, carrying them as my own battles. It would pain her to miss this, she would be hurt by those words, it would break her heart for us to move on in that way… Is she at peace? Can she see us? Is she okay with what we’re doing?

Jennelle, I’m okay.

I believed it.

We are wired to fight for our own, it is perhaps one of the most beautiful human qualities. But, with loved ones lost and loved ones still around us, there is also a time at which we need to let go; to know that we are not the hero – we are not in control. No matter how hard it is to believe, we must know that things outside of our power are sometimes more powerful than us – sometimes the brave thing is to let go of the fight.

Releasing these things has allowed me the space to confront my own battle (a very scary, messy lot of fears). Instead of fighting for two of us, I am able to accept the idea of her walking along side of me, helping me to navigate the course. I am free to keep living; to keep moving forward, and even to enjoy it.

Mom & I