Resolution for the Rest of Us

My new year started out with a familiar deluge of upbeat, life-is-your-oyster, choose-to-be-your-best-self, God-has-good-plans-for-you messages. All across social media, on the radio and even on TV I’m confronted with peppy advice and positive perspectives; hints for finding success and happiness in our first world lives.

There’s nothing wrong with them. Some are inane and trivial. Some are actually quite brilliant.

But they hurt.

They sting, because most of the time they don’t apply to me. Not this life. Not this year, especially.

2016 is not going to be ‘The Best Year Ever.’ I’m not going to accomplish daring goals. I’m not even going to set daring goals. I’m just going to try and get through the day.

Cue wallowing.

That parenting article that makes me feel so small. The inspirational TED Talk which I’d love to implement, but can barely find time and energy to watch. That mocking meme that hits a little too close to home.

It’s not so much that I’m feeling sorry for myself, but I’m frustrated with a culture that assumes we all have the same choices. Cutting diatribes cast people as winners or losers, right or wrong. Simplistic solutions are peddled without compassion. Complexity is whitewashed away. We act like everyone is on the same page.

I suppose it’s inevitable that humans take our own power for granted. No doubt a terrified Syrian refugee would read my blog and wonder why I’m so whiny. Yes, our family must wrestle with cancer, special needs, mental illness and sleep disorders, but we have a comfortable home, modern healthcare, a supportive school system and more options than most people in the world can dream of. My normal is one person’s dream. And another person’s nightmare.

We live in an airbrushed world. We worship the polished finished product and disdain the messy process. We desperately deal in miracle cures and magical thinking. We cut this out of our diets and add that. We lay blame. We turn up our nose at those ignorant schmucks on the other side of the latest debate. We put our faith in believing the right thing and eating the right thing and doing the right thing.

Anything to avoid the niggling sense that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t in control. That shit happens. And sometimes it happens to me.

I’m the same. My life may be extraordinary compared to most, but I’m not. It feels like failure to admit my limitations, even to myself. Like something to be ashamed of.

Each year I pick a word. One word as a focus and a mantra; my year long prayer. It’s supposed to be inspirational.

This year my word is:

crawl

Which seems like a sad joke. After all, my last blog post was about arthritis and my newfound limp. I’ve realized that success looks different for each of us. It looks a little different each day. Maybe each moment. We take what we’re given and do the best we can.

Some days I’ll rise up on wings like the eagles; others, it’ll be all I can do to keep moving. That momentum is the difference between anger and bitterness, between taking a break and giving up, between living and existing.

There’s a unique beauty in the shuffling gait of the overwhelmed, the imperfect. It’s not smooth or pretty and it’s not going to win any ribbons. But it’s authentic and human and real.

crawl

So here’s me, still moving. And that’s resolution enough these days.

 


Limping Through Life

I’m not training for a marathon. I never have. I probably never would have. Apparently it involves a lot of pain and work and people all around and the possibility of peeing your pants (or worse). Even if I were in tip-top shape, that’s not my idea of a good time.

But I liked that I had the option… that I didn’t do marathons, simply because I didn’t want to. Alongside thousands of other opportunities I never knew I valued. Not the doing, but the choosing. The happy delusion that one day (if I wanted to) I would climb every mountain, ford every stream and follow every single damn rainbow.

I realize now that I’ve been downplaying it for years. “Just bad knees.” After injuries and surgeries and therapies I’d gotten used to the snaps, crackles and pops. The sounds really gross my kids out, which is always fun. Even the doctors made light of it – “might have a little arthritis, not much you can do…”

I’m knock-kneed and flat-footed and at 19 the orthopaedic surgeon told me the structure of my knee was “weird.” I knew I could anticipate arthritis eventually.

Frankly, arthritis seems like the kind of eventually that happens to old people. Maybe I’d get it at 60 instead of 80. But I honestly didn’t anticipate hobbling around on my 40th birthday.

I went to the doctor this week expecting surgery, perhaps more drastic than before, but still – the man’s a surgeon, isn’t that what they do? Snip, snip… take it easy… back on your feet in no time.

I did not anticipate him telling me that the injury I’d gotten last month was the least of my worries. Driving home the point was the sound of bone grinding on bone as he noted the complete destruction of all the cartilage under my knee cap. There’s a few treatments: physiotherapy, lose weight, Tylenol, shots… but it’s all symptom management. Eventually, when it is too painful to walk, they’ll replace my knee with an artificial one.

In the meantime, I fell back into old habits. Downplaying. “This is so annoying! I don’t have time for this…” I said (as if it’s merely inconvenient). I declared myself grateful not to be a hard core athlete (glossing over the activities I actually do enjoy, like: hiking, kick-boxing, skiing, dancing in the kitchen with my kids and walking up the stairs one foot at a time). I told everyone that this is the least of our problems (how dare I cry over this when there’s cancer in our home, when others are dealing with so much worse). There’ll be good days, when everything works and feels better (don’t think about the bad days, don’t think about the bad days…). I tried to act like it didn’t bother me. I tried to feel that way too.

But it’s not working.

I just turned 40 and I’ve got degenerative arthritis. I have to wear a knee brace to walk and it hurts like hell and it might never get better. No matter how I play it, to myself or others, I’m actually freaking out. Frustrated, worried, disappointed, and sad – with undertones of embarrassed and guilty (not sure what that’s all about).

I was working on a blog post titled “Lessons from the Vortex” the past few weeks. It’s the kind of writing I find easiest to publish. ‘Look at me, all wise and heroic, finding order in chaos.’ Isn’t that nice?

Woman-in-process material is a lot less inspiring to others, less flattering to me. I’m not feeling particularly eloquent on the matter. The only words buzzing around my head these days are: can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t…

It sucks. I hate it.

I’m not ready to mine it for lessons. Or pretend that ‘God never gives us more than we can handle.’ That’s not a real thing, by the way. I’m sure the woman in my online cancer mom support group can attest to this – while one daughter is in hospital with a cancer related illness, she’s at another hospital giving birth to a stillborn baby.

There are so many stories like this, far worse than mine, far more overwhelming. Life is full of horrible shit, layers and layers of hurt and loss. Those of us trying to swim to the surface can’t bluff our way out. Though some try, and take longer than ever to surface, the truth is… we’re drowning.

Eventually we lose our grip on ‘nice’ theology, a first world philosophy of life where the only people who fail are the ones who just didn’t try hard enough or believe the right things. What’s left in its wake is sturdier and more compassionate anyway: knowing that we all get more than we can handle at some point. That’s the human condition.

My whole life is a marathon these days. Apparently it involves a lot of pain and work and people all around (some of whom are peeing their pants regularly). I’m hobbling and barely keeping pace, but I’m still moving.

Maybe I’ll see the lesson in that tomorrow.


So This Is Forty

I’m waiting. Cursor blinking. Bated breath.

For the epiphany.

The flash of insight that will make this birthday somehow mean more, and less, than I expected.

We’re none of us really grown up on the inside. Being comfortable in your own skin is the best gift of all. These aren’t wrinkles around my eyes, they’re laugh lines, and that makes all the difference. Age is only a meaningless number (also insert ‘weight‘ and ‘income‘ as needed).

Yada, yada, yada… heard it before. Said it before. Sometimes I even mean it.

I’ve always approached birthdays, milestones especially, with intention. That same personality quirk that compels me to contemplate my life and think deep thoughts and talk about it ad naseum to all the world (INFJ). Shouldn’t forty be the same?

I wanted revelation, existential understanding, spiritual discovery… instead I’m slogging through the mire. Literally. The raccoons got in the garbage again last night. B has a viral infection, so there has been plenty of vomit and now the other… I’ve just started yet another load of laundry. After a day and night in hospital the backlog of grimy dishes seems overwhelming. The floor is sticky where I spilled a syringe of morning meds. What clean clothes we have are impressively wrinkled after a week in various baskets.

If that’s not enough to make me cry, our weekend plans, for Glen and I t0 spend two glorious days and a night at Harrison Hot Springs – without kids, are postponed indefinitely. B is home from the hospital on a pass, but we’re expected back this afternoon. She’s too sick to leave right now.

Except.

Except, I don’t feel any need to cry. I really thought I would. My life is somewhat of a shit show these days. I’m tired and feel older than my years. I’m in the worst shape of my life and beyond sleep deprived. None of my plans are working out. None. My life is not my own.

They take pieces of me, these ones that I love. Carving away my time and energy… slice after needy slice. Sometimes I feel like there’s nothing left. Fifteen years of non-stop diapers and accidents and cleaning up someone else’s crap. The worry and the hassles and driving, driving, driving.

*break. I had her tucked up into my bed while I washed the sheets from her own. Now I have yet another load of laundry to do. She’s cleaned up again, but broken hearted that Team Umizoomi is gone from Netflix. She just doesn’t understand. How could you do this to us Netflix? Why? WHY?

Back to my Reason-I’m-Not-Crying-Today. It’s not because I’m some kind of saint. Or ‘so strong’ as some people suggest, which is always embarrassing because I feel like I should explain how ridiculous it is so as not to feel like a phony. Marriage and parenting has made my ability to be petty and selfish and extremely, extremely whiny abundantly clear (see above for proof). Frankly, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with crying when life is hard. It’s a healthy and necessary reaction. And there will be crying at some point. I have no doubt of that.

But right now. Right now, I’m happy. This is a happy birthday.

It has nothing to do with being forty and wise. Or having reached my goals. Or having any thing at all.

My life is not my own. But those I share it with, share their lives with me too.

This morning they tried to let me sleep in. Twice the boy snuck away and tried to climb into bed with me. “I missed you so much Mommy” he’d yell (the inside voice/outside voice lesson isn’t really sticking). When it was time, he snuggled up beside me, then on top of me, then kissed what parts of my face he could reach. His gift: that I am his favourite person in the world and I will never run out of hugs and kisses.

B made a unique and sparkly necklace at school. She likes to point out every single colour of every single bead over and over again. She’s absolutely tickled that I wore it today. Every once in awhile today she gasps and says “happy birthday Mama!” – each time as if she’s realizing for the first time and is blown away by the magic of it. I know from experience that this will carry on for several months. Her gift: that I am celebrated with genuine enthusiasm, that everything I do matters and I will never, never go out of style.

My teens made me beautiful gifts also. The kind of art that I appreciate for its own sake, as they have grown in creativity. From L, a painting that represents each family member, symbols we’ve talked about before. From C, a beautiful and insightful sketch of her sister – putting her fight with cancer, her imagination and her dreams of the future all into one image. From both, a ‘flower’ arrangement made out of my favourite candy. Their gift: that I am heard, that I am a small part of the people they’re becoming and the ways in which they’ll make the world better.

My husband gave me a gift that was a true surprise. It’ll cost him more in worry and stress than in funds. He remembered my futile (I thought) longing to try para-gliding and has put the plan into motion. His gift: that I am known and understood, that there are always adventures ahead and someone who’ll hold my purse for me.

What’s more, I have birthday wishes from amazing family/friends and virtual strangers and everyone in between.

As I sat down to write this, a friend texted me a picture – she had her baby. Today! A sweet, tiny little human, with her whole life ahead of her.

Baby girl – you can count your age in hours, while I have forty whole years under my belt, but we have a lot in common. All the stuff that really matters.

It’s terribly hard work being born. And sometimes, it’s terribly hard work living life. But we are surrounded by people who love us fiercely. We have a world of opportunities ahead of us. There are so many things to learn and experience; mistakes to be made, for sure, but masterpieces to create and friendships to build as well.

Old people like me make it all so horribly complicated. It doesn’t need to be… Love. Be loved. Enjoy a nap when you can.

There’s a chill in the air, the first taste of winter, and it’s raining outside. It’s a good day to be alive. It’s a good day because we’re alive.

Happy birthday!

 


Day 31: Peace In My Time

The challenge was: blog every day for 31 days in October. I’m actually laughing thinking about it.

I knew it was a stretch. I knew my husband had not one, but two trips away this month. I knew I had a number of hospital days and appointments. I knew that I was barely making it through the days as it was, only to add another layer of complication. And all this sounds more and more like a recipe for disaster; one more overachieving pipe dream to add to my “Reasons-I’m-a-Giant-Failure” diatribe whenever emotion overwhelms reason.

But it actually helped.

All 16 out of 31 days that I actually succeeded, and even the other six posts I started but never finished.

I told my stories. I put thoughts and hopes and confessions into black and white and sent them out into the world. Somehow those parts of my life make a little more sense to me after that. I suspect it’s the magic behind talk therapy, sympathetic pastors and bar tenders, and the best in-case-of-a-rainy-day friendships.

It’s important to feel the feelings, even the ugly ones… especially the ugly ones. To parse our own words, finding some amount of meaning and purpose in every experience. To be heard and see the reflection of our thinking in another.

A commentor raised some good questions about the nature of anger a couple weeks ago. My friend made the point that anger itself is healthy and possibly necessary. The counselor I saw yesterday poked the same spot.

Could it be that the emotions and the experiences I label as ugly are simply human? Unpleasant, maybe. Difficult, for sure. But not the enemy. Why do I default to a binary interpretation of the world? As if I must filter everything I feel, everything I am, into good or bad.

Maybe life isn’t full of monsters after all. Not even the messy, scary, hard things… Maybe this is just life. God knows I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying, trying, trying. I’m no more or less: loved, and acceptable, and the person I should be, for it. The verse keeps coming to mind: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…” (Gal 5:1). Freedom. A free life.

It’s time for me to stop battling every little thing and just live. That’s what I’ve learned this past month. Battling life’s monsters has become living freely.

Finding the beauty. Pressing into pain. Giving myself permission to struggle, and fail, and try again. Giving other people permission too. Hoping for the best. Forgiving. Deepening faith. Letting go.

The monsters aren’t so scary after all.

Except for cancer. Cancer can still kiss my ass.


Day 22: Catharsis, the Cheap Alternative to Complete Meltdown

I punched cancer in the face yesterday.

For real. My hardest right hook. Which would have been a lot more impressive if I wasn’t crying and blubbering at the time.

In days past I belonged to a kickboxing gym and I’ve recently joined again. It’s not quite as bad-ass as it sounds. A cardio circuit for women only called 30 Minute Hit; more like Curves than training with Van Damme. But I feel pretty tough when I’m there.

I feel guilty saying it, since I’m actually a pacifist, but it feels really good to hit things.

I’m not a fan of exercise as a genre, but this is something I enjoy. Glen said it’s because I have a lot of repressed rage. At the time I disagreed. Repression isn’t usually my thing.

Yesterday was my first time back in years and, as the ache in every single muscle of my body can attest to, I’m in the worst shape of my life. I probably should’ve eased my way in gently. That was the plan.

punch cancerBut then there was the t-shirt… on the rubber man at the final station with the word “cancer” on it. And I had to give it the beat-down cancer so richly deserves. While crying like a baby.

I then poured my life story out on the trainer. Who was also a bit teary at this point. I got hugs from both the staff on my way out the door. If they didn’t remember me before this, I bet they will now.

Phew. Felt good. Slightly embarrassing, but mostly good.

Catharsis (from Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) is the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.

That’s what this blog often does for me: cleansing of emotion through art. Apparently punching works as well.

We’ve been in survival mode for so long I haven’t even begun to feel all the feelings. After the first week of diagnosis I hardly cried; barely a tear during six of the worst months of my life. And that was a good thing: adaptable, practical, neccesary. But the feelings won’t be put off forever. The good, the bad and the ugly, the many, many, many feelings cooking away in here. It’s time to clean house. If I can get myself back into shape along the way, all the better.


Day 21: Hide and Hope to be Found

‘Hide and seek’ is a favourite game in our house.

It goes like this: out of nowhere a squeaky little voice demands I count to ten. Then yells “Close you eyes!!!” as feet scamper away. But not very far away. There are three spots in heavy rotation these days – behind a bedroom door, the corner of the couch with a blanket over the head (and only the head) or wedged between the tall cupboard door and shelves in the kitchen.

Not only are these ‘hiding’ spots predictable, they conceal very little… which is the point. As soon as I call out “TEN!” the giggling and rustling begins. After a mere five seconds my little playmates run out of patience and begin to sing “I’m over heeeeere! Look! Look! Look!” If I still look past them (and I often do, because I’m just that kind of seeker) they will start manically waving and jumping up and down. “It’s me! I’m here! Come find me!”

When I finally clue in it’s all laughs and hugs, because being found is the best part. My kids have very little desire to hide. They’re not even interested in winning. But they SO badly want someone to seek them out.

Don’t we all?

I wondered if this is a developmental stage or special needs thing. I wondered if it is an adoption or attachment thing. I’ve decided it’s a human thing.

Why else would I wade through awkward small talk and inane status updates? Why linger after school drop off? Why ask people out to coffee – which I don’t drink and can’t even stand to smell?

I want to know that my face isn’t another blur in the crowd. I’m drawn to people with empathy and insight. I cherish friends who know me well enough to see beyond “fine.” I want to be noticed, understood, appreciated… we all do. We don’t just crave connection, we need it.

I’m not always good at it. It’s exhausting. And scary. I’m more comfortable behind a flickering screen, hiding in my house, snug within my routine. I’m an introvert. I don’t have much time or energy to spare.

Still, there’s a part of me that’s crying out “It’s me! I’m here! Come find me!”

If I try hiding less and seeking more maybe I’ll find someone else who needs it too. Not just in the big wide world, but here in my own home. Not just the building of life long friendships, but in small ways, in passing interactions with strangers.

It’s a basic human reality – we’re all hoping to be found.


Day 17: Four Hugs a Day

“…that’s the minimum. Just four hugs a day, not the maximum.”

If you know it, the song is now stuck in your head on endless loop for the rest of the day (you’re welcome). Silly song. Annoying ear-worm. Surprisingly on point.

I don’t come from a family of huggers. Do-ers, Give-ers, Make-ers of Casseroles, but not particularly touch-y folks. Which means it was no surprise that my eldest child turned out to be a non-hugger. From the very first days she disliked long snuggles, refused to be swaddled, and would not sleep until she’d been laid down in her own space, to sprawl out undisturbed.

As a teenager this distaste for hugs has intensified. She tolerates them for our sake. Her feelings on the matter are transparently clear.

This past year she’s had to navigate through bouts of anxiety and depression. She’s found her way, learning strategies that work for her and becoming patient with the process. I’ll never forget the time she came to me, exhausted and overwhelmed, with a bewildered look on her face: “I think I… need… a hug.”

And it is a need, for all humans, even the non-touchy ones. We know that infants will not thrive without adequate touch. Scientific studies show that hugging for 20 seconds or longer releases the hormone oxytocin which reduces stress and creates feelings of contentment.

Maybe four isn’t the number for all of us. I’m pretty sure my youngest child is on the other extreme of the spectrum than my eldest. He craves near constant physical affection and has very little sense of personal boundaries. Right now our “Kisses are for Family Only” campaign is in full swing at school. We already had a little book on it, since B had the same issue at his age.

There are a lot of snuggles in our house. And I’m pretty sure it’s saving my sanity these days. If I’m honest I think I need it more than anyone else.

Hugs are good medicine.

Which is why there will always be hugs for teenagers, even if they count down the 20 seconds each time. Also why, we are happy for the littles sit in our laps and climb all over us and hold onto a hand/finger/leg as needed. Why, as a couple, we need to do better at hugs hello and goodbye kisses, even though it doesn’t come naturally in the midst of busy life.


Day 15: Honouring Our Losses

Today at 7:00 pm parents around the world will light a candle in memory of the babies they’ve lost. It’s called the International Wave of Light. I’ll be lighting 2 candles for our sons Noah and Simon.

pregnancy lossPregnancy and Infant Loss Day may seem like yet another awareness campaign in an endless round of causes and crusades. Unless you’ve held a tiny little piece of your heart in your hands, or in your body, as you say good bye. It’s a devastating loss made all the worse by the worlds eagerness to sweep past it as quickly as possible. To us, a day like this is validation, comfort, permission to grieve years later and never, ever, get over it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating eternal wallowing and pain. But healing comes when we absorb our losses and walk alongside grief in all its seasons. The death of a child is not something that you get over.

The death of a child before or shortly after they’re born is often seen as different on the scale of sorrow. Their lives and our grief somehow meaning less. In my experience time is no measure of parental love and attachment; the impact is different for every person regardless of gestational age. I’ve seen extremely early miscarriages which are gut wrenching and late term still births handled with aplomb.

I’ve stopped trying to measure what grief anyone is entitled to. A loss is a loss. Only you will ever plumb the depths of your own losses. Grief is by its very nature a lonely journey.

Yet, this is a common experience. One that 1 in 4 experience. A few weeks ago the waitress at Denny’s let it slip that one of the three children she mentioned had died, and looked embarrassed, bracing herself for a socially awkward moment… I teared up, touched that she would keep her in the count. Yesterday I learned a friend had lost another baby, and I honestly searched for something meaningful to say, left only with a simple ‘I’m sorry.’ Scarcely a month goes by when I’m not aware of another loss and left grasping for some sort of help to give.

Maybe it is enough that we are not alone. Neither in our grief, nor in our desire to honour our children. They are precious. They are missed. They are always in our hearts.

So please, light a candle tonight at 7 pm.


Day 14: The Blame Game

The first thing I thought when I watched this video was that it didn’t apply to me. Finally, Brene Brown talks about something that has nothing to do with me. It’s about time.

The second thought followed closely after that – now how can I get everyone else in my family to watch this? Because, you know, obviously they’ve got problems. And quite frankly I’m tired of all the anger that gets thrown around here.

Chalk it up to teenage hormones, sleep deprivation, critical illness, survival mode… or maybe just life; we’re brittle these days. It doesn’t take much to spark a fight. The words “I’m so sick of this” have been heard a lot. Usually in my voice.

This morning as we piled into the van, a few sparks already smouldering, alarmingly late and terribly stressed, I realized the gas tank was on empty. Empty. And I wasn’t the one who drove it last. Just what I needed. Thanks a lot Fellow Driver.

I was spitting mad. Far more than an innocent mistake should elicit.

Then I remembered this video.

Turns out I own a big slice of our family’s anger issues. Me. I’m a blamer. And I should probably do something about that.

Damn you Brene Brown.


Day 11: Making It Enough

gratitudeWhen life is hard Thanksgiving, both the act and the holiday, become more taxing and somehow more meaningful than ever.

In fact, I think the diminutive “Turkey Day” fits better for those whose world is shiny and carefree. Let them focus on setting a festive table and keeping family traditions happy and undemanding. It’s so obvious and easy.
Which is fine. Nothing wrong with it. Easy sounds nice.

Yet… I don’t envy the tame gratitude of the undamaged. There is something precious about hard won contentment. Not the phony kind that represses and retreats, but the shards of hope than shine brightly in broken places.

Our hardest Thanksgivings have been our most beautiful. This year more than ever.

I feel a deep, desperate, primal gratitude that my children are alive today. Thankful that my husband is close – when it would be so easy and so predictable to give up on us. Thankful that we have been carried and cared for by so many loved ones for so long. Thankful for words to write and music to dance to and bodies that are (mostly) strong enough to do it. Thankful for laughter and frustration and even tears – because it means we are human and we are family and we are here.

I’m not prepared to say I’m thankful for cancer or genetic syndromes or anxiety disorders or complications of adoption or the dozens of other enemies we face. But I am so very thankful for what I’ve learned and who we are all becoming as a result. I’m so proud of my people: family and friends, and strangers even, who face the same struggles with such resilience, honesty and courage. The world is full of amazing people, more than I knew before.

It’s not been an easy year, but it’s enough.

Have a more-than-merely-happy Thanksgiving!

Note for confused American readers: It is Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend.


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