Grief and Gratitude.

If I said that I lost my dad sixteen years ago today, it might conjure an image of him wandering around a bookstore, hidden in the history section. Or, perhaps, in the Brown County art gallery he loved so much. He used to take an excruciatingly long amount of time staring at each oil portrait and landscape, so it would have been easy to lose track of him in our quest to find the fudge shop.

If his spirit has any agency over its free time, he’s probably there now poring over a Marie Goth, and I hope she’s standing alongside him answering questions about her technique. But on this day in 2001, we knew exactly where he was. It was the rest of us who felt lost.

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My cousins had lost their mom to cancer three years earlier – this was to be our family’s tragedy. To the extent that any grief can be, it sounded a warning as it approached: a macabre whistle trumpeting the train’s approach. When our grandpa died 20 months later (cancer for him as well), it was a dark display of cosmic timing. Another Christmas arrived, yet again with a smaller and more subdued group soldiering on in silence as Midwesterners do.

And then came our November, swift and silent. He left to pick up my brother from tennis, and in less than the length of a highway on-ramp, he had died.

It felt unearned and almost shameful, that grief. I was almost surprised to see my cousins and uncle at the funeral, as if they might be angry that we had taken their mantle of grief. The whole thing felt gaudy and loud and attention-seeking, and while I had spent hours practicing an Oscars acceptance speech in the bathroom mirror, I wanted no part of this sudden infamy.

I wanted my normal life, which now felt like a party that had ended suddenly while I was in the ladies’ room. I had turned away for a moment, only to return to soured punch and deflated balloons in an empty room that would never feel full again.

I tried very hard to push through, thinking I would find familiar normalcy on the far side of a year. I bore down, desperately holding onto my last finger’s grip on a cheerful explanation of how it had been hard, but I was fine. Surely this experience had deepened my faith or made me a stronger person. It had to have, because what if it hadn’t? What if it had just been a horrible thing that had knocked the legs out from under our little family, filling me with a desperate fear, sadness, and unease that I didn’t know how to sit with, which made people uncomfortable when they felt it leaking out of me?

Of course, I had to let myself fall apart and then slowly walk alongside my mom and brother in creating a new collection of traditions and ways of moving through the world, which I haven’t always done with willingness or grace. From a distance of almost half my life, it feels more like a bad dream – the kind that leave you uncertain of what’s real during your waking moments – than a fresh and urgent grief.

It feels a bit strange to live through this day and its bitter memories while also being grateful for the new family we’ve found as a result of this loss. Today, I’ll resist the urge to share tidy life lessons and morals of our story and simply say that I loved my dad and love him still. I will try to be forgiving and kind to myself for stumbling through sadness and proud of us for always moving, always trying.

I am grateful to have a loving family, and I’m lucky to be where I am: still moving, still trying.

 

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Dirty Thirty(-three)

Today is my birthday, a day that we imbue with more power than it has perhaps earned. It’s just another day, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on progress, shed bad habits, or be grateful to have seen another one.

This birthday, I got to FaceTime with my mom while opening a present she sent to me. My siblings and step-dad sent sweet cards and messages. I got to talk with my grandmother – a woman who just celebrated her own 94th birthday a few days ago. Church bells sounded faintly in the distance as I stepped outside for lunch, and I knew my angel relatives were with me.

The last year, like every other year, has had its share of deep sadness and thrilling hope; remembering forgotten passions and discovering new desires. Instead of going out this evening, I knew I wanted an night of solo reflection. I went to a nearby yoga studio (a place I’d never been) for a Yoga Nidra session (a practice I’d never tried). There were only two of us students in the room. The ceiling was decorated with strings of flags, and plants stretched themselves towards the sun from their windowsill perch. A deep purple geode claimed a corner, and intricate statues of goddesses seemed to bless us where we sat.

Once we were each laying comfortably on our mat, tucked under a blanket and a lavender-scented eye pillow, the teacher helped us settle into our bodies and relax. She asked us to focus on the center of our chests and greet our heart like an old friend.

“Ask your heart what it needs,” she told us. This “waiting to hear your inner voice” concept usually scares me. I hear about people following their intuition or meditating and praying to receive an answer, and it makes my palms sweaty. I’m afraid that if I stop and listen, I’ll only hear silence.

But tonight, I asked my heart what it needed from me. The first couple of answers clearly came from my A-student brain, which wanted to make sure there was a voice to fill the silence, but the words didn’t feel right. I let them drift away and kept listening. After a few minutes, I heard a voice that sounded like me, just a little calmer and wiser.

“Trust,” the voice said. “I need your trust.”

By the end of the guided meditation, my body was merely a focal point of warm, vibrating energy. I felt peaceful and grateful and out of my head, which is rare. We woke up slowly and sat up gently, blinking as we looked at each other – the only three people in the building.

I’m not sure what blessings and challenges the year ahead will hold, but I will try to remember my intention from class: I invite trust. I trust my heart to be strong enough and to speak to me with honesty and clarity. I trust myself to learn to listen.

An Ode to Debi.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and my mom, brother and I were able to celebrate together for the first time in over a decade.  It was wonderful to be together (also: my brother had his hooding ceremony for his master’s degree, which was amazing, and proud doesn’t cover it)!

Michael graduates

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of meeting my mom can tell you that she is the coolest.  We’d run into her old school friends at the grocery store or in the church parking lot, and invariably they’d pull me aside, mischief in their eyes.  “Your mom,” they’d say with a wicked grin, “she sure knew how to have fun!”  In middle and high school, my friends would lean against the kitchen island and talk to her, smitten.

During my freshman year at college – my first time at a fraternity – a senior from my hometown said, “Wait – you’re Mrs. Dixon’s daughter?  She was the hottest teacher at my school!”  Her natural, contagious joy has inspired her to dance atop a picnic table or two.

Debi

Somehow, this beautiful, effervescent woman had a daughter who was shy and anxious and had to be grounded from reading and told to go play outside.  She tried her best to teach me to wear make-up and encouraged me to stay out a little later if I wanted to.  Despite our differences, this woman has always been home to me.  She looked at this nervous little person she birthed into this world and loved me immediately and without reservation.

When she lost her husband and was left with two gutted teenagers, she grabbed us each by the hand and marched forward.  She not only kicked cancer’s butt, she learned to sit with herself in the quiet and listen, and how to start trusting the wisdom that bubbled up.

She went on a summer study abroad in Athens, Greece – the only participant (besides the professor) over 50.  And then she decided to retire from teaching to write a book.

But what I treasure most is that she has been courageous enough to share her broken places, too.  Feelings of inadequacy.  The fearful, desperate moments.  Times she felt like she had to ignore the unique beat of her heart to go along, to be loved.  Her willingness to share her truth, rather than a sanitized, cheery version of events, is a powerful gift for her children.  We are learning that we can be broken, too, and we can also be okay.  We can be afraid and also brave.

And through it all, we can dance on picnic tables.

 

 

 

Leaning Into Life.

Happy Sunday, friends!  I hope you’ve all had a wonderful weekend – mine was lovely.  Yesterday, we had our annual alumni ski day at Arapahoe Basin.  We reserve a spot on the “beach,” where people tailgate all day, dancing in neon snowsuits and petting dogs that wander by in search of a hot dog forgotten in the snow.

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The road to A Basin

Over the past few months, I’ve been slipping into a familiar pattern: dreaming of escape.  Some things were frustrating me at work.  My yard is a mess.  I miss my family.  So I planned a bunch of vacations and fantasized about selling my house and ditching my responsibilities by moving to a lake in Tennessee or loading myself and my dog into a Volkswagen van and driving cross-country.

It’s easy, when you’re frustrated and sad and lonely, to think you can solve all your problems with a fresh start.  To tie all your negative emotions to your geographical location; your job; your messy yard.

Each morning, I read a page in A Year of Miracles and the email newsletter from Abraham-Hicks.  Both teach that the way to happiness lies not by seeking a new job, relationship, or possessions, but by finding the beauty in your current life.  It can feel scary and counter-intuitive to relax into someplace (literally or metaphorically) where you don’t want to stay, but rather than continue resenting everything around me, I decided to try.

I bought a fancy new camera that takes gorgeous pictures; I signed up for banjo lessons, just to do something creative for its own sake; I hiked with a friend.  And I began to notice tiny miracles!  Those frustrations at work?  I had much more agency and ability to make positive changes than I thought.  My messy yard?  I can pay someone to clean it up.

I remembered how fortunate I am to have a home where I can see the beautiful Colorado sunsets, and to be able pay someone to fix the yard.  These are easy problems, the ones I have.  How silly it seems to lose sight of this.

So this weekend, I didn’t head to the mountains with a desperate hope that a fun weekend would save me by providing an escape.  I drove out to A Basin happy to have a reliable car, grateful for good weather, and excited to see my friends.  We played all day in the Rocky Mountains, with the warm sun shining on our faces and burgers cooking on the grill.  We sat in a hot tub with fat snowflakes landing on our faces, laughing, laughing.  I drank more wine than was good for me, but there was strong coffee in the morning and an easy drive back to town.  To my little house, which feels like a haven, where my sweet dog is being teased by the squirrels and there’s chicken chili in the crock pot.

(Oh, and rather than waste any energy feeling spoiled and self-centered after this realization, I donated money to Meals on Wheels.)

This week, I hope your beautiful life filled with sunshine, laughter, and compassion.

 

 

Share the Love.

Happy Sunday, Friends!  Hope you’re having a great weekend!

Earlier this month, I walked into the grocery store and was greeted by a familiar display: the seasonal aisle in February, overflowing with oversized teddy bears and garish pink balloons.

Most people have a complicated relationship with Valentine’s Day.  Mine began in elementary school when a male classmate gave me a Michael Jordan valentine card that read “You turn me on,” next to which he had written, “NOT.”  Setting aside the incredibly inappropriate words on a child’s valentine and the fact that neither of us knew what it meant, I got the message.

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Presumably our teachers required us to give these cards to everyone in our class so that we would learn to love others equally, and so everyone could take home a literal bag full of love.  Unfortunately, we all got hand cramps signing our name to 30 romantic references that we barely understood enough to know we didn’t mean them.

It’s easy to take issue with the holiday’s commercialism and how it supports the societal pressure that says you’re only whole if you’re in a romantic relationship.  As an adult, I’ve been single during many Valentine’s Days and have had dates for a few, but my favorite February 14 thus far was the year I received a care package from my mom during study abroad in Scotland.  I clutched that envelope of cards and candy while I walked the cobblestone streets of campus, feeling so loved and grateful.

So this year, when we feel surrounded by fear and division, I thought Valentine’s Day would be the perfect time to do something loving.  Yesterday, some like-minded friends and I went to Target to pick up items to donate to Clothes To Kids.  For the same amount of money as a dozen roses and a box of chocolates, we dropped off a few items that will hopefully help some kids in our community feel better prepared to greet the day.

If you, too, roll your eyes at the giant teddy bears and balloons (the chocolate can stay, though), please join me in searching for a new way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Whether you’re attached or single, it’s a safe bet that someone out there could really use your love.

 

Friday Miracle.

Hi friends!  It’s been a wonderful weekend of good friends and good wine, and looking at mummies and dinosaur fossils.  I hope yours was equally magical!

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This week, I was given a tiny miracle.  Years ago, my mom gave me the Elsa Peretti “J” necklace from Tiffany & Co. for Christmas.  It was special and beautiful and helped me feel like I fit in at college, and I wore it every day, including on my first trip to Africa.  We arrived in Botswana during a summer heatwave, and shortly after, the pendant tarnished.  Not understanding you could polish it, I was angry with myself for being so irresponsible.  I mentioned it to one of the professors leading the trip (an incredible woman filled with curiosity and kindness), and she said, “but isn’t that the point of silver?  It tarnishes, and then it un-tarnishes.”

This necklace has traveled with me to Scotland and Europe, Costa Rica, East Africa, southern Africa, India, New York, and Denver.  In moments of stress, or when I need to feel grounded in familiarity, I touch it like a talisman that hangs against my chest.  Then, several months ago, I lost it.

When you gradually become a stranger to yourself, your soul begins to send up smoke signals.  I had been ignoring some underlying unhappiness for so long that I began to forget things – unusual for me and frightening.  I would remember having something in my hand and then have to wander the house in search of it.  Most times I left the grocery store, I’d stop at the blacktop edge of the parking lot, searching for my car while feeling like a lost child at a theme park.

So when I took the necklace off, I was careful to note that I was zipping it into a pocket in my ski coat. I waited a couple of days to search for it, and when I did, it was gone. I spread the coat out on the floor, where I sat and searched each pocket twice, once again feeling the sting of failing to take care of something so important to me.  This was a consequence, I thought, of allowing myself to become such a mess.

Over the past couple weeks, with help, I’ve been working towards a fresh start.  Hoping to live in gratitude and connection; be a brighter light and find ways to help others; embrace change and possibility.

Friday, I wore my ski coat to work.  In the middle of a meeting, I stood up and started searching the pockets.  “I keep thinking I’m going to have a Carrie Bradshaw moment,” I said, “even though I’ve searched so many times.”  I pointed to a pocket with a button hole.  “I’m afraid I put it into this pocket, since it has a hole.”  I reached a fingertip into the bottom corner of the pocket, just like I’d done ten times before, and felt the cold links of a fine silver chain.

I was gleeful as I untangled a knot in the chain so I could return the necklace to its rightful place.  As I worked, the pendant, which bears the first letter of my name, seemed to whisper, “you’re on the right track.  You’re on your way.”

Isn’t that the point of this life?  Sometimes we tarnish, but with hope, love, and a brave heart, we can become new again.

New Year/New Tune.

Happy New Year, friends!  During this first week of this new year, I’m adjusting my typical New Year routine.  Most years, I sit down with a pad of paper and a fresh pen to write my New Year goals.  (In our family, we like to have goals to which we aspire as opposed to resolutions we break.)

These goals are generally variations on a theme:

  • Work out three times a week, minimum.
  • Eat (and cook) healthy foods.
  • Volunteer.
  • Publish a writing piece.
  • Etc.

As for everyone, these lists boil down to, “THIS YEAR, I’m gonna do it.  I’m gonna be perfect.”  Then, naturally, I decide I’ll cut back on wine after I finish this one bottle (it’s  open, after all), pack a gym bag that ends up on the floor of my closet, donate $50 to help kids in Africa and call it a day.

The next January 1, I rummage around for a notebook, and the previous year’s goals rear up like last night’s garlic.  My failure is both pungent and stale.

Thankfully, this year, I was saved: pulled off the demented merry-go-round by my Christmas and New Year’s visitors!  My mom and step-dad arrived December 23 and stayed with me until January 1, and it was a special and meaningful visit.  We attended a candlelight Christmas Eve service at the church around the block, cooked filet mignon for Christmas dinner, and watched the whole first season of The Crown.  We took Bella girl on walks around the neighborhood and a hike near Red Rocks.  They led the charge as we worked together to transform my house into a home: a place I’m proud to live.

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We turned these old basement windows into cool frames for photos from my travels!

Most importantly, we talked for hours over home-cooked meals and re-heated tea about our histories, our fears, and our dreams.

One transformational tidbit they shared was that before they write their New Year’s goals, they write a reflection of the previous year.  This might sound self-explanatory.  Perhaps everyone does this and I missed the memo!  But this year, after writing for over an hour about all the things that wounded or cheered me, all the personal triumphs and dark, lonely moments, and the many memories created with family and friends, my New Year’s goals are different.

Here are a few of my goals/thoughts/mantras for 2017:

  • Think outside the box!
  • I forgive myself; I forgive others; others forgive me.
  • Spend time being creative, in whatever form it takes.
  • More tea.
  • Better wine.
  • Give myself the gift of taking Bella to the groomer for a real bath more often.
  • Remember I can always move things to another shelf.
  • Daydream.
  • Deep breaths.
  • Sit with my own feelings.
  • Practice feeling my truth and trusting it – so I can speak it.
  • Focus on moments of peace, beauty, happiness, and joy.
  • I love myself; I love others; others love me.
  • Find ways to be a bright spot and have a positive impact.
  • Gratitude.
  • More deep breaths.

I’ll still donate money, and I’ll probably pack the occasional forgotten gym bag, but this time around I intend to do it with a grateful heart.  I am healthy, relatively wealthy, and very loved.  I’m starting this race with the medal already around my neck.  Now I just get to run.

Happy New Year.  Happy new tune.

Blessings to you all.