Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Coming and Going

It was still dark when you asked me what my days were like, “before,” you said, “in your other life.” And when I didn’t answer, you wondered why. “I meant, how did you spend your weekends,” you added, as though I hadn’t understood the question. I wanted to tell you, but the answer wouldn’t come.  “I don’t know,” I whispered, hoping the memories would appear if I spoke quietly enough. But they never did, and I thought about where all the Saturdays and Sundays had gone. I began counting them, fifty-two weekends a year, fif… I stopped. I didn’t want to know. Pressure formed behind my eyes, my throat felt tight, and I was glad you couldn’t see the details of my face. Those days, those years, all felt so far away, like I had never lived them. I could hear you talking, but I focused only on myself and the missing years. There was too much sadness, so I did what I had done for over a decade. I disappeared.

Cuded Art & Design
You knew I had left, run away for the briefest of minutes as the sun began to rise. So you touched my face and pulled me back. You could tell that I didn’t want to be gone anymore. I wanted to be there, with you. I stood up and opened the balcony door to allow those first few beams of dawn to become a part of our memory. In the presence of the hazy morning light, you fell asleep, and I climbed into bed next to you. You smelled like lavender. When I kissed you, you squeezed my hand and I could tell you were dreaming. So I closed my eyes and chased after you, hoping to find you in the distant place your dream had taken you. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Split between I and Me: A Step towards Enlightenment through a Grammar Lesson

For almost 10 years, in front of thousands of college students, I taught English. While English Instructor is not an especially enigmatic title, there are some pretty common misconceptions about what goes on in those classrooms. When I would tell people what I did, most would quietly respond with an embarrassed, “Oh, I’m terrible at grammar.” I heard it so often that I had a rehearsed, “Well, I can barely add,” reply that I’d clumsily toss into the conversation. What most people don’t realize is that those of us who hold advanced English degrees didn’t go to school to learn grammar. We studied literature, rhetoric, and critical thinking. We looked at the nuances of language and how those slight variations have decided our fate through the creation of laws and institutional oppression. We examined cultural movements, historical inaccuracies, and the human condition. And we wrote – we wrote a lot. Ask any college English instructor what he or she does, and the response will overwhelming include some of those words. Rarely will anyone say, “I teach pronoun case.”

Most of us weren’t confident in our own grammar usage when we first started teaching. As a novice instructor, I would write “Awkward Construction” and “Revise for Clarity” on the majority of student papers. Those phrases helped with the revision process and kept me from having to figure out what seemingly arbitrary grammatical law had been broken. Sometime around my third year, though, I taught my first developmental writing course. These non-credit courses are for students who, for whatever reason, are unable to be placed in composition courses. In general, they are designed around reading comprehension and, as expected, grammar.

Like anything, to be able to teach grammar, I had to learn grammar. Textbook after textbook, quiz after quiz, I learned the rules. To my surprise, they weren’t arbitrary at all. They had long histories, complicated changes, and systematic patterns. I found them fascinating. I spent days researching the shifts from Old English to Middle English and Middle English to Modern English. Within a few months, I was confident and ready to answer any question a student might grumpily toss my way. Because I loved it, my students began to love it. Although my background was in post-modern literature and theory, I volunteered to teach every ENC 0001 course that showed up on the schedule. In a field like writing, we live the in the gray area, that place where good and bad are subjective terms that teeter back and forth depending on the situation. When I taught grammar, I was able to give definitive right and wrong answers, and that was often comforting… even if it did mean a certain level of consistency that sometimes became monotonous.

One of my favorite grammar lessons to teach was pronoun case. I would always tell the students that pronouns, as simple as they are, are some of the most commonly misused words in all of English. We’d talk about who and whom, and she and her, and all those other pronouns that sound weird to people when they are used correctly. I must have drawn the Subject/Object chart on the whiteboard 100 times. I’d tell them, “Don’t go by what sounds right. All you have to do to know whether to use I or me is to answer the question, 'Am I the subject – am I doing something; or, am I the object – is something being done to me?'” Funny how understanding subjects and objects can change the way we see our own

About a year ago, there were the first talks of moving me into administration. And since this is a blog about subjects and objects, notice that I am not the subject of that sentence. These conversations had been going on for months behind closed doors. Finally, after several other things had fallen into place, I became aware of them. My initial response was quick, without hesitation, “No, thank you.” Then, I thought more and more about it. I called my mentor and asked for his advice; I talked to my most trusted colleague and friend, whose knowledge of educational administration is rivaled only by her devotion to seeing me happy; and I spent time asking myself if I was really ready to come out of the classroom. Although I loved teaching (and will probably one day return to it), I was ready for something different, something that would get me back to that gray, chaotic area I so adore.

My final interview – there were four in total – for this position was in Ft. Lauderdale with the person who is, essentially, over all of academics. During my interview, he told me that he was excited to have someone with a liberal arts background in this role. He said that he wanted someone who was able to think critically about situations and understand that, at the end of the day, we deal with philosophical questions that don’t always have right and wrong answers. “We could train anyone to be a manager,” he said, “but we want thinkers, people who are able to accept the complexities of leading human beings who all have their own motivations.” I realized (and exclaimed), at that exact moment, that my entire academic life had been preparing me for this. He shook my hand and welcomed me to the position.

After that interview, as I drove back to Orlando, I thought about how I responded. The interview lasted several hours, but all I could think about was how I had phrased that one key sentence. Grammatically, the sentence was perfectly acceptable. Logically, however, the statement sounded trite and weak. As someone who had studied the subtleties of language, why would I have said that my academic life had prepared me? Why was I the object of that sentence?  Why had I allowed myself to be acted upon? My academic life wasn’t even a living thing – how could it have been what prepared me? I was trying to show prowess and confidence; I should have been the subject.

The next week I started in my new position and the error in rhetorical logic that had plagued the four-hour drive home had all but left my mind. Like any nagging thought, though, nearly five months later, it reappeared. It was in a different form, but the meaning was the same. I was reading Tolle’s The Power of Now for the second time when I came across his chapter titled "Enlightened Relationships." In that chapter he presents the argument that in order to find fulfillment in our relationships – platonic, familial, sexual, spiritual – we must first realize that we often split ourselves into two: I and me – the subject and the object. He suggests that this duality is the root cause of unnecessary complications and conflicts. Instantly, I realized that this profound statement about enlightenment was, at its heart, a grammar lesson. How we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we experience pain, happiness, loss, even excitement, all revolve around whether or not we use I or me. Are we subjects, or are we objects?

Even when we find ourselves as objects, we still have a choice. There are situations that will always put us in the object case, but how we react, how we respond, and how we feel all return us to the positions of power – we have the choice to become the more powerful subjects. What an empowering realiziation. Then, without any form of mental warning, the clarity dissipated and I felt the twinges of focused confusion.

Once more I returned to my professional life. I thought back to the drive from Ft. Lauderdale to Orlando, when I felt such irritations with myself because I thought I could have responded to an interview question better – even though I got the job. I thought about the way I’d tell my Professional Writing students to use passive voice when they didn’t want to accept responsibility. “If your company does something questionable, focus on the action, not the ones who did it,” I’d say. I even thought about the “Revise for Clarity” statements that I left when I was unsure of the error. Becoming that all-powerful I also means accepting responsibility for the decisions you have made.

With practice, through mediation and awareness, almost every spiritual guide suggests that this split between I and me can be mended. I like the way Tolle says it: “In the state of enlightenment, you are yourself. […] The split caused by the self-reflective consciousness is healed.” Perhaps that’s what self-love and self-awareness are all about. Perhaps all those grammar lessons were so appealing to me because they were ways to examine our existence through simple rules… but like any good writer will tell you, you learn the rules so that you know when to break them. (I've broken about three in this blog alone because I want the tone to be contemplative.) Even in my new position, there are times when we break policies because we know the good outweighs the consequences.

Since I can remember, I’ve examined dualities: good/evil, dark/light, male/female, and now, as I’m realizing, I/me. Tolle posits that when we achieve enlightenment, those dualities cease to exist, or as he says, the “curse [will be] removed.” Are good and bad completely subjective? Do gender roles exist solely because we want them to? Questions like this are so perfectly complicated. I could spend years thinking about them. In terms of achieving enlightenment, I still have a lot of work to do. I struggle, especially with self-love, but I think I am closer to self-awareness than I have ever been before. I’m slowly getting better at remedying the conflict between I and me. And as much as I’d like to thank the spiritual texts and the years of meditation, I think most of the credit really belongs to “Chapter 4: Pronouns.”  


Although I see some inherent flaws in his logic, I'm presenting Tolle's section here:

But do you need to have a relationship with yourself at all? Why can’t you just be yourself? When you have a relationship with yourself, you have split yourself into two: “I” and “myself,” subject and object. That mind-created duality is the root cause of all unnecessary complexity, of all problems and conflict in your life.  In the state of enlightenment, you are yourself – “you” and “yourself” merge into one. You do not judge yourself, you do not feel sorry for yourself, you are not proud of yourself, you do not love yourself, you do not hate yourself, and so on. The split caused by self-reflective consciousness is healed, its curse removed. There is no “self” that you need to protect, defend, or feed anymore. When you are enlightened, there is one relationship that you no longer have: the relationship with yourself. Once you have given that up, all your other relationships will be love relationships.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In Getting Myself Here

I am sitting in an office in the back of the library with four people I have known for just over two weeks. We are having late-afternoon coffee and the muffins that one of my officemates made for us. This is my second coffee of the day; earlier, a coworker brought me a cup as I was releasing my students to go on break. We are laughing at how hot it is in this tiny room. On one wall, an award hangs that reads, “Civil Rights Activist of the Year.” On another, a post-it with the handwritten message, “The plural of anecdote is not data!”  Jimi Hendrix is playing from muffled computer speakers, and between laughs, there is talk of grading, enrolling students, and the next faculty meeting.

My work phone rings for the first time, and I’m confused by the low-pitched sound it makes. It is our Dean, who is also a recent transplant. Although I’m new to this campus, I have worked with him for years. He was the one who hired me and recommended me for the coordinator position I held at our other campus; now, he continues to be one of my most trusted mentors and greatest supporters. I smile when I see the familiar name appear on the screen. We talk briefly about scheduling. It’s a conversation I am glad to be having with him.

As I hang up the phone, someone opens our office door, which is just inches away from my desk. It’s our Regional Director. She is in town for the day and makes it a point to stop by and see me. “So what do you think of your new campus? How was your move?” Before I answer, I lean in and give her a hug. I speak openly about how nice everyone has been and how excited I am to be here. I’ve always been so fond of her, and I feel especially affectionate towards her for coming to check on me. I never realized how much I liked being checked on until this move. We talk for a few minutes and then I walk her down the hall.

I head back to our comfortably cramped office and pass by the Library Director. She and I became instant friends my first day, and it feels as though we have know each other for much longer than a few weeks. I glance down at the Alice in Wonderland quote, “We’re All Mad Here,” tattooed on the inside of her right arm. The sleeve of my suit jacket covers the Lord of the Rings tattoo on my left arm, but she knows it’s there. Here, amongst my colleagues, I find myself surrounded by some unfamiliar faces, with very familiar souls. 

This move marks the 15th time in my life that I have packed up my belongings and filled out a change-of-address form. The city I called home the longest was Tampa. For 12 years, my zip codes fell snuggly within the borders of Hillsborough County. I moved to Tampa from Tallahassee without a lot of thought or planning. I had been finished with my degree for a few years and knew that, as much as I loved Tally, it was time. I had two requirements: 1) A city near a university with a good English graduate program, and 2) A city on the water. That was it. I knew that if I had those two things, I could make it work. I was 22 – I could make anything work. And I did.

Tampa offered me more than I could have ever hoped for. The time I spent there was filled with love and excitement and confusion and sadness. We change a lot between 22 and 35, and Tampa allowed me the opportunities to explore all my options, to search and get lost, and to search and get lost some more. I worked in restaurants and met some of my very best friends, who have since become family. I finished another degree and found my place in universities where my passion for teaching was nurtured and allowed to run wild, and I found even more love in the friendships that sustained me through my professional and personal growth. The bonds we share are unbreakable, and I thank the Universe every day for them. You see, life in Tampa was good. It had become consistent, simple, and comfortable. And that’s exactly why I had to move.

If you’ve read my other blogs, you know that this decision wasn’t made overnight. Months ago I had no idea that I would be where I am, but I could feel something coming. Maybe it was intuition, instinct, divine providence… it didn’t matter what I called it – all that mattered was I knew it was time to make a change. People spend their whole lives seeking comfort and consistency, and I am envious of those who crave it. But I’m not one of those people. All of the searching I did led me here. It led me to the self-realization that I never, ever want to just be “ok.” I want to be nothing short of delirious. I want to wake up and feel those raw human emotions that we constantly suppress.

I sometimes feel as though I have two different lives, and throughout these past few months, I’ve learned what I desire in both. In my professional life, I need growth and opportunities and support. In my personal life, I need passion and openness and that life-giving, heart-aching feeling of vulnerability. My last few months in Tampa were filled with toxic behaviors, and I realized that none of those would change until I found the fulfillment I was so deeply in need of. The stars aligned, an opportunity presented itself, and I knew that if I didn’t make this move, I’d forever wonder about what could have been. So, with little more than a hope of finding what I most desired, I took the 
position and moved across the state. Just like that.

The sadness I felt was palpable. The thought of leaving a place where I was surrounded by love, and friends, and comfort, and consistency seemed illogical and reactive. In some ways, perhaps it was. I was filled with so many emotions, especially fear, but I also felt powerful and strong. For most people, opportunities like this are rare, so I seized it, and quiet honestly, closed my eyes and hoped it wouldn’t be the most devastating decision I’d ever made.

I have just finished my third run of week. I walk into my apartment and see the blue and gray wall my mother helped me paint when she was here a few weeks ago. Three glittering Buddha statues greet me as I walk in the door with my headphones still on. Chris Lake’s remix of “Hold My Hand,” is playing at a volume that blocks out everything else. I take my shoes off and open the back door to throw them on the patio. The setting sun is breaking through the heavy clouds that have been smothering most of the state for days. The raindrops, still clinging to the blades of grass, appear to be twinkling as the sun’s rays dance through the tree-line in my backyard. I sit on the patio, sweating and breathing heavily, and begin to laugh and cry at the same time. A sense of wonder and relief pours over me. It’s just so good to finally see the sun. I wipe my eyes and stare into the woods. I don’t know exactly what I am looking for out there, but I know whatever it is, it’s much closer now than it was before.  

“I realized that what I’d started when I’d spoken those words [had led] to this: to me sitting alone beneath the magnificent sky. I didn't feel sad or happy. I didn't feel proud or ashamed. I only felt that in spite of all the things I'd done wrong, in getting myself here, I'd done right.” From Cheryl Strayed's Wild

Monday, May 18, 2015

If They Cannot Find It

Last week, my tiny French Bulldog, Sofia Tallulah, killed a lizard. It was raining, so instead of taking all the pups out the front door for their morning walk, I led them in a confused frenzy to the back patio. The backyard provides a good deal more coverage, and my dogs would rather hold their pee in agony than get rained on. I thought I was doing the right thing. But a small, velvety black lizard, who was surely seeking dry land as well, quickly found himself cornered by my goofy little beast. Between the rain, three overly excited canines, and the fog of my morning drowsiness, I couldn't pull her harness in time. She captured the poor creature, and before she even realized what happened, bit him into two parts. I yelled at her and blamed myself for the reptilian tragedy. 

The Goofy Little Beast 
This wasn't Sofie's first encounter with a dismembered lizard; she chases them all the time. When we first got her, we found this behavior so bizarre, and we tried everything to get her to stop. We did a lot of research and found out that Frenchies were originally bred to keep mice and other scurrying pests out of the Parisian lace factories. For hundreds years, these big-eared pups have been taught to chase unwelcome visitors out of their spaces. To Sofie, she was just doing something all her furry ancestors had done before her.  Darting after rodents is in her nature, and no matter what we do, we'll probably never get her to stop.

Later that day, after coffee and a proper lizard burial, I began thinking about our nature, human nature. Do any of us ever change? Sure, we change our behaviors to adapt to situations differently, but do we ever actually change what makes us, us? My entire life I've wanted to believe that we could, but in the last six months, I've started to realize that, perhaps, we can't. The person I am today is a better person than I was ten years ago, but my dreams, my desires, my loves, my annoyances, they are all essentially the same. 

I have come to a better understanding of myself, and my nature, through my friends. I have a close group of friends who are the world to me, and any time there are concerns (and if you've read my other blogs, you know these past few months have been fueled with concerns), we talk. We talk a lot. We work through every detail of the situation. As I've reflected on the conversations and decisions we've discussed, I've realized that they knew and accepted my nature long before I did. Within a two-day period, four different friends said almost the exact same thing to me. What caused this to hit me so hard was that they were talking about not only my present, but also my past and what is quickly becoming my future. Through their observations I was better able to accept myself. 

Just like we've tried to train Sofie not to chase lizards, people have tried to train me. Some have been more successful than others, and for the most part, I'm a functioning grown-up -- definite stress on "for the most part." However, what I have come to realize is that I will never be satisfied with being content. This is an incredibly difficult thing for me to admit. I've spent years trying to tell myself that being content was as close to Enlightenment as any of us could ever hope to be in this realm. Years of meditation and practice had me believing that happiness could only be found on the subtle breaths of tranquility. 

But I had it all wrong. Maybe there are different types of Enlightenment.

For some people being content is exactly what they need. For better or worse, though, I need more. I need passion. I need Kerouac's people who are consumed with madness, "mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” (Really, isn't that one of the most brilliant lines in all of literature?) 

I don't want it to sound like I am never happy; it's quite the opposite, actually. In almost every situation and with almost every person, I can see the fire burning and I thrive on it. But what has become so vivid over these past few months is that I must also always have that fire in me. I've never wanted normal; my imagination is far too powerful, or maybe too restless, to accept it. 

A few months back I blogged about making a decision using logic rather than simply following my instincts. It was the first major decision I'd made where my head and my heart were in disagreement. While I am proud of the logical decision I made, it has, ironically enough, led me right back in the direction of  where my instincts already knew I should be. This will all come out in time, but what I've learned is that just like Sofie's DNA tells her to chase lizards, mine tells me to chase dreams.  And from now on, that's exactly what I'll do. 

Charlotte Brontë
From Jane Eyre 

I could not help it; the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes. Then my sole relief was to walk along the corridor of the third story, backwards and forwards, safe in the silence and solitude of the spot, and allow my mind’s eye to dwell on whatever bright visions rose before it—and, certainly, they were many and glowing; to let my heart be heaved by the exultant movement . . . and, best of all, to open my inward ear to a tale that was never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously; quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that I desired and had not in my actual existence. It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Not From the Stars

As teenagers, we’d finish our chemistry homework and then stay up all hours of the night staring at adhesive glow-in-the-dark stars and reading our horoscopes. When I was in college, after a night bartending for then-Governor Jeb Bush and a room full of politicians, I drove to Panama City to get my first tattoo: a Libra symbol with a crescent moon.  Then, as adjunct professors crammed in a tiny office at a major university, my desk mate and I would write our astrological forecasts on the whiteboard that covered the back wall of our cinderblock room. I’m a rational, well-educated person, but in my heart, I have always loved the thought of the heavens being a magical place. The Universe is infinitely vast and cosmically powerful; to me, the science makes it all the more mystical. It only stands to reason that I’m drawn to the practice of astrology, even if it is in an I-also-like-believing-in-elves (see tattoo #2) kind of way.

Yet, in spite of all my rationalization and education, and with my understanding of selective bias, I still believe there is something to one of the tenets of astrological philosophy. As Libras, we are the only zodiac sign that is non-living. We are the scales, the balancers of all other signs. And while that is
"Libra" by Josephine Wall
normally the part that I like to brag about, it is also the part that causes the most trouble. Because Libras balance everyone else, they are notorious for being completely petrified when it comes to making decisions for themselves. I am no exception to this rule. I have a hard time deciding which parking spot to pull the car into in the morning, so when it comes to major life decisions, the entire process is, well, challenging.

Over these past two months, I have faced more life-changing decisions than I have in many, many years. What made this so difficult was that I couldn't say anything. Only a few people have any idea what I’m even talking about. Normally, when I’m forced to make a major decision, I talk to everyone I know. I look for insights I hadn’t considered, reasons I’d ignored. In the end, I have always been lucky enough to realize that my heart and my mind were in sync. Even though I didn’t like making the decision, deep down, I already knew what the answer was going to be.

But this time was different. I had to explore on my own, talk in generalities, and close the door when I got the calls. When I was asked about my decision last week, I knew I needed more time. So I spent the weekend listening to my instincts, my emotions, and my desires first; then I reflected, planned, and considered the long term. Both options had incredible potential, but one option was exciting and risky; the other was smart and safe. For the first time, in all of my years of labored Libra decision-making, my head and my heart didn't seem to agree. And since they didn't agree, I struggled. I kept looking for signs, some guidance from the stars that would serve as the final line on my list of possibilities. But for every sign my heart found, my brain simultaneously added another point. 

Eventually, though, I made a decision, and it's a good decision.  It protects my family, our future… and me.  It makes sense. It does more than make sense – it's perfectly designed. My brain is jumping up and down with happiness, but there’s a tiny part of my heart that wonders where that free-spirited, foolish girl went. I keep telling my heart that, in a few months, we'll all agree that this was the best decision. But hearts are tricky. After all, they still believe in the magic of stars.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 14

Not from the stars do I my judgment pluck;
And yet methinks I have astronomy, 
But not to tell of good or evil luck, 
Of plagues, of dearths, or seasons' quality; 
Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell, 
Pointing to each his thunder, rain and wind, 
Or say with princes if it shall go well, 
By oft predict that I in heaven find: 
But from thine eyes my knowledge I derive, 
And, constant stars, in them I read such art 
As truth and beauty shall together thrive, 
If from thyself to store thou wouldst convert; 

     Or else of thee this I prognosticate: 
     Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date.


Monday, September 15, 2014

The Grace of Stumbling

I have something to admit. I fall in love. A lot. Like almost daily. Chances are, if you're reading this, I have been madly in love with you at some point, and I've tried my hardest to make you fall in love with me. While the thought of falling love is theoretically beautiful, the action of being in love with so many people is, quite simply, impractical. Hear me out on this one: It is exhausting. Those nascent phases of being in love are tough. There's all the planning, the extra attention to details, the wildly alert conversations. When I first fall in love with someone, it is all-consuming. Trust me. I'm just coming down from a falling-in-love high, and the hangover has been nasty.

I've often wondered what changes. I don't fall out of love (I still very much love all of you), but what happens when I stop having those proverbial butterflies? This weekend, though a melange of related events, it hit me. Everything became strikingly clear, and I wondered why I'd never realized this. The love changes. It grows into something deeper, more meaningful, and less butterfly-laden.

The revelation, of course, is that we are all human. We all come with flaws, we all have pasts that sometimes keep us up at night, and we all are constantly searching for someone who understand us.

When we fall in love, it's because there is still some spark of intrigue, some bit of mystery. But once we learn some of those flaws, we see that we don't need to be in love. We just need to love. It's not always about the butterflies. Sometimes it's about the tears, the drunken confessions, and the overflowing emotions that we all carry around with us. We are constantly told to keep so many of our fears and worries hidden away that when the opportunity comes to show who we really are, it becomes nearly impossible to not yell them from the tops of our lungs. "I cheated on my first wife!" "I am miserable in my job!" "I embezzled millions of dollars!" (Clearly, these are all fictitious scenarios. No one actually said any of these things this weekend, at least to my knowledge.)  We just want to let it all out to someone who may also be feeling those butterflies for us. It's not that we're in love. It's that we have found some reflection of ourselves in someone else. Perhaps it's actually our flaws that connect us.

Somewhere in the events of this weekend, I came to the same conclusion about nearly every single person I've fallen in love with. I've fallen in love with all of them because I could see something in them that I knew was also in me. The ones who have stuck are all still there because we showed each other our flaws and loved each other all the more for it. So, I suppose this is my wish for all of you and the reason why I found it necessary to write this so quickly and without my normal weeks of editing. We might fall in love with people for their strengths, but we grow to love them for their flaws.

Now that I think about it, maybe that's what the butterflies are… maybe they are secrets excitedly fluttering around just waiting to get out. It's hard carrying the weight of your regrets, your fears, your doubts, so why do it alone?  Carry each other's skeletons.

Notice the next time you fall in love with someone for what you don't know -- then embrace the messy, crazy, whole love that comes from knowing.

"Dear Human: You’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t come here to master unconditional love. That is where you came from and where you’ll return. You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling. Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often. You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. And then to rise again into remembering. But unconditional love? Stop telling that story. Love, in truth, doesn’t need ANY other adjectives. It doesn’t require modifiers. It doesn’t require the condition of perfection. It only asks that you show up. And do your best. That you stay present and feel fully. That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU. It’s enough. It’s Plenty." ~Courtney Walsh
A special thanks to my work wife for showing me this quote at the exact moment I needed to see it.

Friday, July 4, 2014

But Thy Eternal Summer Shall Not Fade

For Zienia, Our Summer's Day

We were at a Thai restaurant on an unseasonably warm winter night when she told me she had breast cancer. Neither of us cried because we were both still so unsure of what exactly that meant. At that point, we didn’t know it was Stage IV, we didn’t know how many rounds of chemotherapy she would go through, and we didn’t realize just how limited her time was. It wasn’t long after that night, though, that all of those things became devastatingly clear. But life continued. She and her husband built a house together, she vacationed with her family in places like New York and New Orleans, and she watched her children grow, all the while knowing that the cancer was spreading. As I look back, these past few years seem to have gone by like the summers we spent together as teenagers – brilliantly vivid, overly emotional, and tragically fleeting.

About three and a half years after we shared a bowl of soup that night at the Thai restaurant, as I was getting ready for work, I heard my phone. The tears came before I was even able to make across the room. Zienia died in her sleep on a Tuesday morning.

Her health had been declining rapidly for a few weeks, and we all took some solace in knowing that the pain she had felt no longer existed. We also found some peace in knowing that her family and her best friend were able to see her and bring her great comfort in those last few moments. In the days after her death, there was an incredible outpouring of sympathy and remembrance. Silly pictures and heartwarming stories were shared by friends and family from across the globe, as flight and hotel arrangements were made for those near and far who planned to attend her Celebration of Life – she never wanted us to call it a funeral. It seemed as though everyone who knew Zin (and even some who didn’t) rallied together to preserve her memory and comfort her family.

We gathered at a Catholic church on a Saturday, just days before what would have been her 35th birthday, to say our farewells. The church filled with family, her dragon boat team members, and her friends from all the different stages of her life. The service opened with Air Force soldiers presenting Zin’s family with an American flag. Even for those who are relatively stoic, there are moments in life when emotions are uncontrollable. Hearing Taps play at the funeral of a loved one is one of those moments.

After the service, we all gathered in one of the fellowship halls and shared stories about not only Zienia’s life, but also our own lives. Some of us hadn’t seen each other since high school, and our lives had taken us in all different directions. We sipped on sweet tea and listened to soulful music, while we stayed focused on upbeat stories about college, and children, and jobs. Every once in a while, there would be a break in the conversation, and we’d be silently reminded of why we were all together.

For a few minutes, I excused myself from my friends and began looking at the photos on the entryway table that were so carefully chosen to represent Zienia’s life. In every picture, she took my breath away. There were photos of her with her family and her children, photos of her with me on my wedding day, and photos of her surrounded by the love of her best friend over their decades-long friendship. I found myself smiling at the pictures, recalling the smiles we’d shared over the years. As I stared at a photo of her in uniform, I wanted to ask her a question about a friend of ours. And for the first time, I realized I couldn’t. 

I had worked tirelessly over the past few years to remain present, something Zin and I had talked about on those nights when she was feeling especially defeated. We’d repeat mantras like, “The future does not exist. All that exists is here and now.” And we would remind each other that tomorrow is never guaranteed, so we must be present and embrace the moment. Most of the time, those ideas are reassuring and filled with hope.  But on that day, I was made painfully aware of the overwhelming feelings of sadness I felt in that very moment.

A few weeks have passed since that Saturday, and so many people have talked about the lessons Zin taught them. And I, too, am tempted to reflect on her death and be grateful for the lessons she taught us. I wish I could say that her death reminded people to love freely, to never give up, and to always live with enthusiasm. But, for some reason, I can’t, even though I know all those things are true. On some strange level, I feel like that would be cheating her memory. I don’t believe that she was trying to show us all how to be noble and brave; I believe that’s just who she was.

The qualities we loved about her as she battled cancer were no different than the qualities she had all along. She was always a fighter, a lover, and a bit of a firecracker. Perhaps what was so powerful about Zienia was that she lived in the face of death, just as she had in the spring of life. The passion and fire in her soul burned so brightly, even in her last days, that when she passed, we were all left in the dark. And for now, it’s okay for us to stumble a little. We don’t need to find a purpose; we just need to remember how lucky we were to have been touched by such a brilliant light.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
                         So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
                         So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


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