Not a Bad Year

Mark and I squeezed in a bit of Christmas shopping last night ahead of our nightly visit to his dad in hospice. As we drove, I was feeling a bit reluctant. We had been to see Bob the night before and his breathing sounded so labored. He’d startled from his sleep a couple of times, waking with a fearful look on his face and grasping at the air before settling back against his pillows again. A nurse had come in the room to observe and listen, and her concern was evident. I was downright scared, having a hard time staying put in the room, afraid I was going to watch my father-in-law die in front of me and not knowing if I was strong enough to deal with it. When I mentioned this to Mark last night, saying I wasn’t sure I could go back, he insisted his dad was only snoring. But I know that to some degree, Mark (understandably) only sees and believes what he wants to where his dad is concerned these days.

Mark looked over from the driver’s seat as we headed to the hospice facility. He asked if I was going to be okay, and I said yes. I said I’d just walk out to the hospice’s great room if I didn’t think I could handle watching and hearing Bob struggle for breath again.

We were almost there, driving under the lights lining the dark highway, the bright lights of oncoming cars shining in our eyes. We were quiet for a moment and a series of thoughts flashed through my mind. We’ve both been doing some heavy thinking lately.

“It’s been a bad year,” I said to Mark, thinking not only of his dying father, but about my parents and their struggles with age and health. I was also thinking about our kids. Both Brad and Kacey experienced broken hearts this year, as each saw the end of a long-term relationship.

I’m grateful that Kacey appears to be moving on so remarkably well, but worries about Brad have been heavy on my mind, even though almost six months have passed since he broke the news to us. He didn’t suffer a mere break-up. His engagement ended. They’d been living together for several years and shared a dog. And when she moved out of the apartment, she left a lot behind. Their joint lease didn’t end until the end of last month, but she had yet to come claim her belongings and still had a key to the apartment. She would be graduating from her program this month and most likely moving to wherever it is she finds a job.

Brad expected her to come clean out her belongings by the end of the year. When I asked what he wanted for Christmas, he told me, “Tupperware. Pots and pans. Kitchen utensils.” He joked that we might buy him furniture. He was certain that he would soon be left without the necessities of daily living, because so much of what fills the apartment was hers. My biggest fear was that she would take the dog. Although Brad had made it clear he didn’t intend to give up the dog, she was just as insistent she would not either. Custody of Dacotah has been a big question all these months. Dacotah has been Brad’s constant companion and comfort as he’s begun to rebuild his life. I’ve worried endlessly that he would suffer even more heartbreak if he lost her too.

Mark and I have each tried to talk to Brad a few times in an attempt to help him protect himself as best as possible, not only with Dacotah, but in the division of their “stuff.” But he didn’t want to talk about it with us. His time with his family, he said, was a time to forget about all the hurt and pain. He’s an adult, and we knew it wasn’t really our business if he didn’t want to talk with us. Still, I wanted to protect my “boy” and make sure he could keep his dog. I could help him regain new belongings, but I knew I could never replace Dacotah if he lost her.

This week finally saw the day we’d all been so worried about, and all I can say is I am grateful to his ex. Brad called Mark yesterday and told him it was done. She took only her bare necessities and left the rest for Brad. She left her key on the counter and sent him a message saying everything else was his. Most importantly, she left Dacotah. I know she loved that dog every bit as much as Brad does, so I know it wasn’t easy in the least for her to walk away one last time. As much hurt as has come from this break-up, I can’t tell you how grateful I am to her for that last act of generosity.

All of those thoughts went through my head in the span of a few seconds as Mark and I made the short trip to see Bob. And I corrected myself out loud to Mark. “It hasn’t been a bad year. It’s just been a challenging year.”

“It’s been a good year,” he agreed. “With a lot of challenges.” He was right. If I count all of the blessings of the year, they would far outnumber the bad things.

A lot has been proven to us this year, to me especially. I’ve experienced a transformation of self within the last six months that brought with it an explosion of faith, hope and belief like I’ve never known before. This came almost out of nowhere, and I’m not entirely sure why it happened when it did and to the extreme degree that it did.

Actually, I do know why. I’ve been looking for it for years and my eyes and heart are finally open. It doesn’t matter why or how. All of those years of struggling to find what it is I really believe – even whether I believe – are behind me. And now I know. I had to get past the idea that I had to believe and practice faith only in the way and in the places I’d been brought up to believe were the only options. And once I’d cleared that tremendous hurdle, it was all so clear.

Almost overnight, my sense of skepticism disappeared. The lack of self-confidence that I’ve carried around all of my life to some degree has almost melted away. The tightness of constant worry I’ve always felt in my chest? Gone. (Most days!) We’ve had some pretty tough experiences this year, but I feel like we’ve climbed to the top of a mountain. I no longer hope that my family is strong enough to handle adversity. I know it. My sense of doubt is quickly disintegrating. My ability to believe in other people comes so much more easily. Amazing how different people look when you believe in them instead of doubting them. I’m astounded too at how easy it now is to know that if I want something in my life, I only need to believe it’s possible. And I’m impressed every day, how often like-minded people cross my path.

Before we walked into Bob’s room last night, I said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t be afraid. And when we walked in, his breathing still sounded very labored. But he was sleeping, and somehow seemed more calm than the night before. We didn’t stay too long before we left to take Mark’s mom home and head back home ourselves. It’s always hard walking out of Bob’s room. I never know if he’ll be there for us to visit another day. He’s going to leave us soon, but I know he’s going to a better place. I know it! Bob told Mark the other day that he’d visited with his best friend Howie. Howie passed on a couple of years ago and I now know he’s let Bob know that he’ll be there to greet Bob and walk with him when Bob is ready to let go of this world. This whole experience is helping me to know that people in our lives will come and go, and we’ll be just fine.

Meanwhile, I am ever so much more grateful for the simple good things in life.

 

Happier

These past few weeks, something has changed in me.

I’m happier.

Maybe happier isn’t entirely the right word for it. Happier, yes. But moreso, significantly less anxious. About everything. There’s a level of calm I don’t remember ever experiencing. Which in turn translates to happier. 

It would be hard for anyone else to appreciate the enormity of this change unless you had any idea how uptight I tend to feel at any given time. Uptight is just a part of me and I’m used to it. I don’t know exactly when I started to feel as if I just worried enough, that I could have some control over any problem. It was probably always there to some extent. I see it within my extended family in varying degrees. But I have a feeling it seriously escalated when I became a mother. And even though I never had a chance of knowing or controlling the future, over the years, I’d developed a habit of holding on too tightly. Such unrealistic expectations inevitably lead either to relief that things turned out the way I’d hoped – or to disappointment and bitterness.  Really, I didn’t even understand how much I normally allow things to brew inside of me and how often I think and worry and rethink any situation. Until something changed for the better.

And the irony of it all, is that this ability to start letting go came when normally, I would have been least able to cope. Without getting into too much detail, this shift happened just after I learned that some of my loved ones are going through a really rough patch. (No one is sick or dying, and in the grand scheme of things, it is the kind of thing that happens, and life goes on, one way or another. But it’s hitting close to home right now and it’s really hard.) I spent a few days crying here and there. There were days when every hour brought an aching over the fact that there was not a single thing I could do to steer things in the direction I want them to go. It took me a few days to realize that with or without my painful emotions, the situation is going to play itself out as it will.

I mentioned recently that I’d been reading a particular book that had stirred a significantly positive shift in ideas that had been cemented in my mind for years. My goal in wanting to read this book was to ease my guilt over my church-going habits, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

I’d started reading Jesus>Religion with only a mild curiosity about what the author had to say. After all, in comparison to me, the guy’s just a kid. What could he know? But he’d made an impression on the friend who loaned me the book. I wanted to see what she was all fired up about. And the impact on me? Ended up being profound!

I’d had a somewhat strict religious upbringing and in all my years of practicing the faith, I’d always felt out of sync. I just didn’t get it and never felt like I quite fit the mold. I couldn’t find the peace and connection I thought I was supposed to feel as a Christian. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong and why it was so easy for others, but always seemingly just out of my grasp. My struggle as an adult was that I’d quit practicing my faith, but wanted to find the place where I belonged, either with a church or just within myself. But going to a church of a different faith, or getting comfortable with not belonging to one at all meant going against the teachings of my upbringing, which incurred tremendous guilt. Even though I’m a well-seasoned adult, I know how disappointing it would be for me to acknowledge any of this to my dad. So I tried for a while to get myself right without finding my place, and now I’ve done almost nothing for years, always with the thought that I’ll figure it out eventually or get comfortable with going back to where I started. How? I didn’t know. Not surprisingly, I spent a long time going nowhere and doing nothing where my faith was concerned.

The book fell into my lap. The ideas in it filled in so many gaps in my mind. I was flooded with a sense of relief so big that I wanted to share it with others. But I didn’t know how to describe what exactly had happened. I’d read a book. So what? But something was different. I couldn’t quite put it in words just yet. The book felt like a launch pad in my life to something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

So I was in the midst of this book, and very pleasantly surprised at the fact that I was absorbing something that felt good and important when I came to know that certain someones I love were really struggling. I couldn’t fix it and I found myself frequently distracted from my daily routine. Tears were coming often while I reminded myself that this situation might play out happily in the long run, or it might not. And nothing I could do or say could fix it. And normally, something like this would make me angry and sullen inside at the unfairness of life. Not that anyone outside of my immediate family might know this. I can put on a pretty good face for the world when I have to. But I knew what to expect in the face of a tough situation like this and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

The thing is, those dark feelings with which I’m pretty familiar didn’t continue to overshadow every minute of every day as I’d expected. Something was different, and ironically, in the midst of a situation I was certain would continue to pull me down until it righted itself. Some people are naturally glass-half-full kind of people. I’m just not. I recognize this and have worked hard to deal with it for years, and I guess I’d let myself get comfortable with this aspect of my personality. Acknowledging it seemed the best way to combat it, so why not?

But I’d read that book. And while doing so and since finishing it, I’ve noticed a huge shift. I was thinking differently than I used to and recognizing that my thoughts have power. I always knew they had more power than I wished they did when it came to negativity. Suddenly, the idea began to sink in that they might have power in a good way. I know there are others who have always firmly believed in the power of positive thoughts. I did too, as long as my mood was right. If it wasn’t, well then it was all just a nice idea but not very realistic. This world is an ugly place sometimes.

Now though, something’s different. I don’t feel like I’m enduring this alone and I don’t feel like I have to fix it. I’m still sad about not being able to fix it. And although I wish I could pray and obsess over it enough to influence the outcome so that everyone is happy, I know that’s impossible. I now see that it might work out as I hope and it might not. If it does, maybe it was a learning experience meant to make those involved stronger. If it doesn’t, maybe it was meant to be a gateway to a new road for all involved. And I no longer feel so impossibly tightly wound over the fact that I am not in control. This is such an unfamiliar feeling for me. For the first time, I recognize that crap can be going on all around me, but that I don’t have to dissolve inside into a total emotional puddle because of it.

Ultimately, I am a person who wants God in my life, but I’d had these preconceived notions of how I was supposed to know him. And since doing it that way didn’t seem to work for me, and doing it some other way was “wrong,” I was stuck. Suddenly, something began to click and I realized I was free to seek God wherever and however I could find him. The trickle-down effect was that I didn’t have to try to know what tomorrow will bring. I don’t have to tie myself in knots until everything works out as it’s going to. And if I’m not finding God in the place where I’m “supposed” to find him, then maybe I should just be open to him wherever he finds me. And everything is just a little bit … actually a lot easier.

My 21 year-old daughter seems to have a much stronger handle on all of this than I ever did. I was telling her yesterday how as a mom… even as a mom of adult kids, I always want to protect them from hurting. I wish so much sometimes that they never had to feel sad.

She sort of laughed at me (in a gentle way.) “Mom,” she said. “I get that as a mom, you wish you could control this stuff. But sadness is a part of life and we have to deal with it sometimes. We can handle it.”

I wanted to hug her, but I was driving.

I feel like this is the tip of the iceberg, that it took something that really shook me up to make me recognize that there’s a better way to face and embrace life. (Also? Feeling a little silly that it took me this long to get here.) I realize that the old me used to think the only way to empathize with someone was to really embrace the sadness and hurt until I was aching inside myself. And how much this all held me back from really embracing everything else the world has to offer! How did I not see this?

Weirdly, I wake up each morning lately with a new ambition. Not because I’ve distanced myself from difficulties and not because I think everything is going to be all sunshine and roses now that I’ve learned a new way of handling problems. It’s because I’m anxious to keep strengthening this new attitude. I want to test it out (but hopefully just a little bit at a time!) and see how the new me deals with challenges. There are some that I know will continue to challenge me. That’s okay. If not, how else will I learn what I’m supposed to learn from it all?

It feels a little bit strange to share something so personal as this and I’ve been debating it for days.  I got this email a few days back – one from a daily subscription to which I’ve begun to pay closer attention. I kept going back and rereading this particular message which said:

What if, Terri, happiness didn’t have anything to do with what you had, where you’ve been, or who you were, and arose entirely from what you chose to think about, yet nobody knew this?

And what if changing your thoughts, so that you could feel happier more often, would entirely change what you had, who you were, and where you’re headed, yet nobody knew this either?

Do you think if we told them they’d choose to think differently?

The part of me that said “its weird” to share this thing lost out to the part of me that believes that message was right and I was supposed to do something with all of this.

So there you have it.

 

God’s not in the mailbox

As it often does, the lunch time conversation turned to religion. We each talked about the different ways we were raised in our faiths, our pitfalls along the way, the different beliefs we’ve held over the years. I mentioned my disappointment over the fact that I couldn’t recall having one of those big faith moments that so many people have experienced. You know the ones – those moments when someone clearly hears God speaking, or sees Him in the everyday surroundings, or simply has a defining moment when His presence is undeniably felt. I said that maybe it’s a failure on my own part that I haven’t had one of those moments. Either way, it contributes to my struggle with religion.

I wanted to lighten the mood, so I relayed an experience I had just last night. I was reading. Mark was watching t.v. and opening mail. I hadn’t been minding my husband, but he caught my attention when I heard him say, “Oh that was freaky! This is freaking me out! Look at this!”

I looked up to find him holding a sheet of paper in front of me that looked like this:

“Just stare into His eyes,” Mark told me. “Stare at them for a few minutes and you’ll see them open!”

So I stared.

And I stared.

And I stared some more.

I could literally feel my heart sink. His eyes didn’t open for me. I was sure it was a sign of my failure to be strong in my faith.

“His eyes aren’t opening for me,” I sort of whined to Mark.

“Just keep looking. They’ll open.”

I stared more. I knew what this was. I’ve seen plenty of optical illusions in my time. I couldn’t make this one work.

“I can’t see it,” I said to Mark, feeling defeated. And then I Googled the image to see what my failure said about me.

I explained to my coworkers that I was relieved to see that according to Google, this illusion was unanimously seen as a scam. The picture comes to you by mail. When you see the eyes of Jesus open, you are amazed and filled with awe. And this will make you want to follow the enclosed instructions and send your prayer requests (and some moolah!) to the designated church, which only exists as a P.O. box. Some “pastor” is getting rich off this scam. But he’s getting nada from me because the miracle failed to materialize for me.

My coworkers wanted to see the image that had me so bothered, so after lunch, I passed on a link. Thus ensued the following instant message conversation:

I’d like to think God has a sense of humor. I sure hope so because this had me laughing harder today than I’ve laughed in … I don’t know … a long time! And I’ve really been feeling like I could use a laugh lately. My coworkers sensed my feelings of worry over a silly mailing and took it upon themselves to make me see the lighter side of it. And anyone who has coworkers like mine would surely feel blessed!

Have I learned anything from this experience? Yes. I can find God wherever I think I might find him. It doesn’t have to be where others tell me he should be found.