I made a video to explain my answers to the most-asked questions.
Why I Left the LDS Church from Leah Peterson on Vimeo.
I made a video to explain my answers to the most-asked questions.
Why I Left the LDS Church from Leah Peterson on Vimeo.
Update: I’ve moved my campaign to GoFundMe! Welcome.
You’ve probably heard of the campaign I’m running over on Kickstarter for my new book, Unconventional Gratitude. It’s a collection of letters to important women in my life and a reminder to look for ways to overcome getting caught in the downward swirl of depression in these trying times. So, if you’re sitting unshowered in your jimmy-jams on the couch unable to make sense of the world outside, but you did get to eat a donut sometime earlier, so at least you have that going for you – this book is for you.
I’m the last person to take your hard-earned money for granted. 2017 will be a lot of things, but it probably won’t be the year we all have dolla-dolla-bills to throw away. You should know what you’re getting for your money. So, to that end, please accept my example below.
I’ve considered long and hard what letter to share with you before the book at large is finished, and it’s been tough because I love so many. I’ve decided I want to share the one I wrote to my mother-in-law, Phyllis, who is no longer with us on this earth, but who remains one of the very best humans I’ve ever known.
A bird pooped on my head the day I met you.
I probably should have had major anxiety meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time for so many reasons. I was divorced and had kids that didn’t live with me. I had been in mental hospitals. I knew you thought I was an ex-member of a cult because you didn’t understand Mormonism. And I chose to wear a two-piece swimsuit to the beach despite my tattoos. But I had this sense of optimism about that day for really no good reason. I was in love with your son and he was happy and I supposed that would be enough. I didn’t know then that you and Joe weren’t as close as you hoped and that he didn’t share things with you like I did with my own family. I didn’t realize you didn’t know very much about who I was or how he felt about me.
We met at Coronado Beach. You and Jim had flown out from Virginia and we thought we’d meet out at the beach for lunch. It was a lovely day. The air was warm but not too hot. The water was beautiful. And I remember smiling a lot.
When a seagull flew overhead and pooped on me, I was taken by surprise. I’d been to the beach plenty of times and that had never happened. You laughed and said it was good luck while you helped me clean it out of my hair and off my shoulder. You were sure you’d read somewhere that it meant good things ahead. I thought you were making that up to just to make me feel better, but I found out later it was true.
Joe and I eloped for our wedding. I know that hurt your feelings and I’m sorry. After several dates were thrown out that not everyone could make, Joe and I decided to just take the kids to Vegas and get married without anyone else there. I think partly I just wanted to get it over with after the difficulties we had getting that far in our relationship.
Five years later we planned on having a big party so that anyone who wanted to come celebrate with us would have that chance, but when that date got closer, Joe and I were living through the shakiest part of our relationship and we didn’t really feel like partying so we canceled it. Long story short, we never got to celebrate our marriage with you and I always felt sad about that.
I know this won’t make up for everything, but I’d like to tell you about how it all happened, how Joe and I got engaged and then married. This is the stuff I would have shared with you if I would have known how back then.
The first time Joe asked me to marry him, we were in Krispy Creme. I’d never seen the way the donuts were made and he wanted to show me. He mentioned that maybe in the future he would ask me to marry him dozens of times instead of just once. I asked him how I would know when the real one was, but he didn’t have a good answer.
“I don’t have a ring yet,” he had whispered.
“I guess I’ll know the real one because you’ll have one,” I replied.
Joe pulled the ring off his Alta Dena milk lid and wrapped it around my finger a couple of times. “Will you marry me?” I nodded yes and then we left and drove home.
The second time Joe asked me it was 10:42 on an ordinary Sunday evening. Earlier that day, we had gone to see the film Garden State using passes someone gave us for Christmas. After the movie, we went to the bookstore to get the soundtrack, but they didn’t have it.
We sat down in the little coffee shop adjacent to the bookstore and wrote out the groceries we needed on the back of a brown paper napkin along with what we guessed they would cost. In the end, we ended up spending $8.72 less than we thought we would, even after we picked up the cat food for Basilone, which we had forgotten to put on the list.
When we got home, we baked fish in beer and lime juice and had left over potatoes. Joe sliced a tomato so we’d have a vegetable plus a splash of color. (I think he gets that from you.)
After dinner, Joe ran to the corner store to grab a chocolate bar for dessert. He broke off a piece of the Hershey’s with Almonds, handed it to me, and then tore off a piece of the inner foil wrapper. He made it long and thin and rolled it a few times. He grabbed my hand and wrapped the foil twice around my finger. He looked into my eyes.
“Will you marry me?”
I almost missed the third time when he asked me a few weeks later. We were cooking together and he slipped a slice of tomato on my finger. I laughed so hard I didn’t hear him say the words and he had to repeat them. I said yes.
The fourth time he asked, we really asked each other. First, we fought. He was frustrated that I was moving to be closer to my kids several hours away. He didn’t want me to move and he realized he was mostly asking me to marry him so I would stay or let him come with me. After we talked long into the night, we decided getting married made more sense than breaking up. After all, we did love each other.
Two days later we went to the swap meet and got a buy-one, get-one deal on two silver rings. We made plans to move together up north and he started looking at jobs. As you probably guessed, the reason we had such a hard time our first five years was partly because of how we started– a little rushed and trying to stay ahead of the uncomfortable wave we felt coming.
And then, one day a couple of weeks later, we were driving to Las Vegas in two vehicles, with four kids split between us, with our hopes and dreams crammed into the backs of my car and his truck, along with our fancy clothes bought special, and the blue cooler containing a plastic bread bag filled with egg salad sandwiches.
By the time we got to Vegas it was evening and we looked around for a chapel that looked right (and open). Nothing stood out, so we went to the hotel where we found the Stained Glass Wedding Chapel pamphlet in the foyer and booked a time slot later that night for 9pm.
The chapel sent a limo to pick us up, which might have been the only fun part for the boys. I had let Alexandra pick the wedding colors for us, so the boys had on pink ties and/or shirts. Everyone was being a good sport.
I don’t know if I can adequately convey the surprise I felt when we entered the chapel and a tiny woman, about four feet tall, wearing a ton of stage makeup, platform shoes, and a platinum silver wig greeted us and then walked behind the pulpit, stepped up on a footstool so she could clear the top, and proceeded to marry us. I don’t remember one word of what she said and we laughed pretty hard about it later while eating steaks after midnight at a casino buffet, ties loosened, pantyhose removed, and the pressure finally off.
People often say they don’t have regrets because the things they’ve gone through have made them what they are today, and they wouldn’t want to change that. But, for me, this is a regret. If I could go back, I would change it. I would be more patient and wait until all our family could be there to celebrate with us. I wouldn’t be in such a hurry, worrying about Joe maybe deciding not to marry me after all. I would wait. And see. And hope.
By the time we came and lived with you and Jim in Virginia six years later, Joe and I were separated but not wanting to get divorced. I’m sure it was uncomfortable for you, but you asked me if I wanted to sleep in a different room than him, which I appreciated. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and kindness.
Phyllis, that year we lived with you was, well, I’m trying to find the right words. It was amazing and hard and worthwhile and I’m so glad we did it. Relationships of all kinds healed while we were there. You thanked me so many times for, as you put it, bringing your son back to you. It didn’t matter how many times I insisted it had nothing to do with me.
You were such an amazing example to me. You were exquisitely beautiful at living and then graceful at dying.
I was your companion during the last part of your life on this earth, a role I was happy to have then and still feel lucky to have had to this day.
I offered to do chores and help around the house, cook meals, that sort of thing. You took me up on fixing dinners a couple of times a week, but you wouldn’t let me clean, even when the chemo was putting you through the ringer.
One time I came upstairs and you were rolling around in the kitchen on a chair with wheels, pushing yourself around with the mop from place to place, your ankles crossed and legs pulled up out of the way. You tipped your head back and laughed when I saw you. Your feet were in such severe pain from chemo that you could hardly walk and sometimes you would crawl on your hands and knees to get from room to room. I begged you to let me mop for you and you got serious and told me no, because you loved taking care of your home and your family. It was your great joy to serve and do things for them. It filled you up, you said.
On good days, we went shopping together or walked in the mall in the mornings. A Frank Sinatra or Michael Bublé song would come on while we were in the car and you’d start to snap your fingers and bop your head, humming along, a huge smile on your face.
No matter where we went, people knew you. Roanoke’s population is about 98,000 (I know because I just looked it up.) so the likelihood of someone knowing you every time we left the house seems slim, and yet it happened. And they didn’t just know you, they loved you and would tell me a story about how you had helped them in some way or how you’d done something for them. You always brushed it off as no big thing, just a small thing, but I tell you, you did “just small things” for a lot of people and it’s a big thing to all of them.
Watching you watch your morning television shows was possibly the best part of the day. You got such a kick out of Regis and Kelly followed by Kathie Lee and Hoda. “Kathie Lee used to be on the Regis show, but now she’s with Hoda,” you’d tell me, which I knew, but I liked it when you reminded me. We watched every type of award show together until you started falling asleep if it went on very late. You loved the fancy dresses and hairdos.
You were a devout Christian. Once, before Joe and I were married, when you stayed with us in our little house in Golden Hill, you walked in the door about the time I was getting up. I asked how the outside world was and you told me it was fabulous. You’d already gone on a walk, picked up some things around the house, and attended mass around the corner. You got up early pretty much every morning I ever spent with you, even on your hard days in the middle of your treatments.
Your devotion to God was an important example for me. We both married men who don’t believe in structured religion, let alone a specific Higher Power, but you never let that stop you from your fierce defense of your beliefs. You made no excuses. You didn’t argue. You just believed. Several years later, I would try and do impressions of what I thought you might be like when I went back to church. It was hard to go by myself, but I remembered how you never let that stop you. You went because you wanted to be there, not because of who was going with you. Thank you for showing me how to do that.
Your positivity was challenging for me for many years. You just always, no matter what, looked for the bright side. There I was, a depressed person by my chemical makeup, and you would not let me wallow. You would send me cards in the mail with messages of love and hope along with pictures of Joe when he was little. You’d send me an email after I would write a particularly downer of a blog post and especially if it had to do with suicidal thoughts, you’d tell me how loved I was. Once I sent you a thank you note for your kindness in reaching out and you then sent me a thank you note for my thank you note.
You used lots of exclamation points in your emails but it didn’t seem gratuitous because that’s actually how energetic and positive you were in real life. Seven to fifteen exclamation’s worth of positivity. You were so full of gratitude for every new day and that gratitude spilled out into everything else. Life’s too short, you’d tell me, so live every day to the fullest.
One time in your living room, I was sitting on the couch and you were in that chair by the window that you loved, covered with a super-soft blanket. This was just a couple of weeks before you slipped into the coma you’d never come back from. We were talking about life and more specifically your life, and you told me that you truly loved everyone, even Hitler. I laughed at that declaration because you said it almost like it surprised you, and I actually think it might have.
You told me that everyone was doing the best they could, even someone like Hitler and you really believed that God loved all of us because we were his children even when we did bad things. You said you weren’t afraid to die. You said your children were everything to you and that your husband was the love of your life. You said you used to have regrets but not anymore because you’d let them all go. And you said you hoped all of us would be happy. I didn’t know what to say so I just got up and gave you a hug, which was a little awkward because I’m an awkward hugger, but you pretended not to notice.
I think the bird pooping on my head the first time I met you was lucky, Phyllis, because I later had a year of my life that I got to spend with you. Thank you for your example of believing it’s a privilege to take care of your family. Thank you for showing me how to live and die with so much courage and love and beauty. Thank you for all the laughter. So much laughter.
I love you.
This past year or so I’ve been trying to find the gifts in whatever life hands me. When I’m stuck in traffic, maybe it’s that I got to hear something really great on NPR before I reached my destination. If I dropped and shattered a favorite heirloom glass serving bowl, maybe it’s that when I swept the floor I found the missing earring I’ve been looking for under the fridge. You get the idea. The game is thus: can I find the gift no matter how deeply it’s hidden, because I really and truly have to believe in a God that cares about me so much, He would only give me a trauma wherein a gift is hidden just for me. Otherwise, I don’t think I could do this Life.
When I meditate in the mornings, I frequently have an old trauma come forward in my consciousness. It will be something from when I was young and vulnerable. Abuse of all kinds. Situations where I’ve been holding on to guilt and shame and anger. Most of them I felt like I’d already dealt with and let go, but I stopped being surprised to see them months ago. And what I’m learning is that I can’t really fully release them until I find the gift, even if I’ve dealt with the trauma. And with some of the stuff? It’s hard. HARD. Finding a gift when someone has sexually assaulted you is a tall order, my friend. But so far, in my own experience, it can be done. It may not be fast. It is definitely not easy. And who knows, I may run into one in the future that takes the rest of my life, but it won’t stop me from trying because the pay off is worth it. And just in case it’s not clear, this gift is NOT in any way from the person who perpetrated the crime. That person did not do me any favors in harming me. No. It’s just that my God is so powerful, He can turn anything for good on my behalf.
Which brings me to this election cycle and this past few months in particular. In case you don’t know who I am, I’ll sketch it for you.
I’m the most white woman possible coming in at 100% European octane, who has been in relationships previously with women and believes in marriage equality and safe living for all, and who fell in love with a half-Mexican man. I was abused and assaulted by those I knew and some I didn’t starting before age four. I went through most of my life challenged with mental health issues like bipolar and DID [ I was a consultant for the Showtime series, United States of Tara ] and I am a passionate mental health advocate. I have physical issues like Lupus. I’m a mother to four children and have two grandchildren. I was raised in an LDS family, left the church for about twenty years, and then came back to it about two years ago. I live in California in a warm seat of liberals with a local economy that does alright and even though I was raised by an ultra-conservative father who sent me to John Birch camp one summer, I lean more left than center in most things. My husband has a full-time job with benefits which makes it possible for me to work from home on a part-time basis mentoring and doing energy work for others who have compound physical and mental challenges. I also write, shoot photos, make jewelry, paint, and do pretty much any craft that exists.
Between my husband and myself, we have a lot of family, including many minority and gay family members and friends who live all across the country. We mostly live paycheck to paycheck but have modest 401Ks. We have three month’s food storage smack dab in my bedroom requiring me to get in bed by crawling over canned goods because we live in a tiny condo and there’s no other place to put it. We will not have a gun in our home. Neither of us has a Bachelor’s degree but two of our kids do and one will soon and the other one doesn’t seem to need one because he’s already making more per year than we do by a very large margin. We don’t care about material things and are usually late adopters. The largest TV we’ve ever owned is so small you can’t read the questions on the screen when you watch The Chase.
I volunteer for my church on a weekly basis and can’t imagine my life now without it, although I’m also deeply conflicted about multiple beliefs that are held by most members. I hate crowds and having conversations that mean nothing. I’d prefer an afternoon on my couch reading, snuggled up to Joe instead of heading to a fancy party. I’ve been known to be awkward in public settings because I have a hard time regulating my language if someone says or does something that rubs up against what I consider imperative like protecting the underdog or exhibiting blatant racism, misogyny, xenophobia, or anything that implies that person thinks they are better than any other person on the planet. I’m getting better at picking it up when it’s not so blatant.
That means that this past year I’ve been repeatedly hit by Donald Trump and his words and promises. I’ve been in fear. I’ve been angry. I’ve been confused. I’ve been worried about my friends and family that aren’t white and straight. I’ve been worried about the future and what it means for someone like me with preexisting health issues and how protected I need to be walking down the street alone because my body is now not my own and is open season for leering men who want to grab me and assault me (which is how minority people have felt for, oh, ever.). And I’ve been wondering how to just forget all the things Trump said he’d do now that he’s going to be the president like so many people suggest because of course HE’S NOT REALLY GOING TO DO any of those things (but I don’t believe that) and I’ve been wondering how it’s possible to expect all the people who are now committing violence in his name to just stop because he says to, IF he says to.
These are not hypothetical worries I have. They are very real. And I’m that 100% creamy mayo white lady living in the lap of liberal territory. I can’t imagine how my Muslim immigrant friends feel or my Mexican and Black family and friends in red states feel or my LGBTQ and Latinx friends feel who married someone of the same gender or simply hope to use a bathroom in a public place without getting beaten up. And what keeps me up at night are the thoughts about how this is trickling down into our youth. The stories of what the kids are doing to the other kids at school. I mean, you remember school, right? It’s a nightmare even when you’re popular and the going is good. Imagine how those kids are feeling. (And then donate to Kelly‘s Being Black at School because they are doing the work.)
Circling back to the beginning of my post –> where is the gift? That’s what I go to sleep asking my God. Where is the gift in this? And He didn’t answer. For months I’ve been asking and frustrated and angry because it felt like He wasn’t playing by the rules.
Wait on the Lord, I’d hear. Wait.
Election night, as Joe and our son, Tony, and I watched the election results come in, it was about the time Florida kept going back and forth that I realized, I mean, it HIT me, Trump could win this. The only hope I’d had for months was that Trump was about to get his hat handed to him with a thorough trouncing and then things would go back to normal. I needed that so bad.
Normal is not coming. It’s not happening. Normal doesn’t exist anymore and I don’t think it ever did but I didn’t know that in my bubble. All my worst fears came true. Trump won and reports of violence started pouring in. It was like someone took the cap off the slow leak of terrible things that had been happening and everything burst out. Conservatives pretty much across the board had one of three things to say: 1. Stop complaining. 2. Things are not that bad. 3. Voting for Trump doesn’t make me racist. Minority liberals had one thing to say: 1. I’m terrified.
Over the past three days I’ve been in a crash course of learning what I didn’t know. Normal for me looked like living in a bubble of information that I already knew. It meant not having important conversations with the conservative members of my family to see how they felt. It meant not looking deeply into why so many people in the middle states were hurting. It meant discounting the importance of listening to my minority friends who had been worried for MONTHS that this was going to turn out bad. It meant looking at everything through a simplistic telescope. It meant being slightly smug that I was smarter or “got it” and those in the red states didn’t. It meant being able to lie to myself that I knew everything would turn out how I wanted it to. Needed it to.
And then, that is not how it went down.
Joe and I wept that night and off and on the next day and the next day and even today. We listen to someone elses story, witness their pain and grief, and feel that connection that only comes from surviving trauma. Make no mistake about it, this has been a PTSD experience for thousands. This is severe trauma that taps into survival fears. The Flight/Fight response. People are fighting for their lives.
But there’s been a gradation of grief that has begun to dissipate from time to time and every now and again something extraordinary happens. I find a gift. I realized today that I had a few I could list and as I started listing, more and more came. It was as if my God was saying, “Hey there. Here’s your gifts. You thought you would just get one or two? Sillyhead.”
That’s often how it goes. He gives me way more than I was expecting.
None of these things changes the situation at large. Nothing I’ve learned makes it easier for anyone else. It only changes what’s happening inside me, but with those changes I can come from a place of peace and that might be helpful to others while they navigate this tricky and deeply upsetting terrain.
I believe real conversations are the only ones worth having, and I intend to make as many of them go as deep as I possibly can. It’s going to take a long time to release all the trauma that’s happened, not just for me but for so many this past year, especially because it’s ongoing. I have hope I can do my part now because of receiving so many gifts with which to process it all. I’ll keep waiting on the Lord, but I’m also going to do everything within my power to help those around me. It’s a sacred responsibility.
The sister of Empathy is called Holding Space. They hold hands a lot and hang out together watching old episodes of M.A.S.H., sharing a bag of BBQ potato chips, and wiping their red-tipped fingers on their jeans.
Empathy, as we’ve discussed, is when you can feel what another person is feeling by making them human to you because you can identify their experience with something that’s happened in your own life.
Holding Space is when you give that other person all the room they need to process their emotions without judgment, shame, or irritation, and you don’t try to fix the problem.
Think about when you’ve gone through something challenging in your life. Was there someone who wanted you to hurry up and just get over it already? Probably a parent, sibling, or spouse depending on your age. Did someone tell you that you were dumb for being hurt in the first place? Did they shove it in your face that it was your own dang fault, whatever it was that happened? Did they refuse to take any responsibility if it was partly (or solely) their fault? Did they gas-light you and make you feel like you were going crazy for caring? Did they compare their own lives and hard things to yours to try and diminish your feelings? These are all things that are NOT holding space.
Here, you can watch it in action. Van Jones is trying to express his feelings of sadness and explain to Corey Lewandowski that people need a little time to heal and feel and Mr. Corey Lewandowski is having none of it.
Here’s the truth: we are all one, big family on this earth and if some of us are hurting, we’re doing it wrong. We need for everyone to be getting their needs met. The more selfish and ignorant people there are who refuse to acknowledge the pain of others, the more hurt, strife, war, hardships, sadness, grief, and pain the world has to hold. And when there is a spike like there is right now in our political climate, it’s too much for us, as a group, to hold and it spills over into violence and hate speech as a way to protect us from things we don’t understand. Small skirmishes everywhere. People hurting other people intentionally. There will probably always be people who have every intention of hurting others and they do it very well, so as many people as I can persuade who are doing it UNintentionally and would like to change, the better.
When you hold space for someone, you are in essence saying, “Here. Let me create safety around you to process and go through all the stages you need to. No really, go ahead. Be mad, sad, angry, yell about it, cry about it, laugh about it, say salty words if you want. Tell me how utterly alone you feel and how gut-wrenchingly unfair it is. I’ll just sit here and love you.” Sometimes that’s enough. Don’t underestimate how huge it is for someone to fully feel heard. Other times, when they are done sharing, ask how you can help support them. Many people won’t want you to try and fix it for them, but they will welcome your support in creating change.
We ALL go through several stages when we work through any big feelings. We’ve got the stages of grief, sure, but your body cycles through lots of feelings, one after the other, when lots of different kinds of things happen. It’s how we’re built and it can lead to overwhelm. Sometimes we have these little tea kettle bursts of anger that help reset our equilibrium. We “take it out” on whomever is closest because something they say or do or just ARE triggers something in us. (Here’s some more constructive ways to let off steam.)
We also have a lot of knee-jerk emotions that pop to the surface before we’ve even had a chance to think logically about anything. Our lizard brains are always turned on for Flight/Fight response and if our adult, mature self isn’t in control, we’re going to say things we feel intensely in that moment when we feel threatened, but they are things that we don’t want to invite to live with us forever. We need the freedom to feel those things, free of judgement, own them, look at them, and then let them go as we move on to the next thing until we can CHOOSE on PURPOSE where we want to land. And that takes time!
Right now, in this moment, as a country, we need people who can hold space for each other like I haven’t felt in years. This is huge, what’s happening. People are in SO MUCH PAIN. Other Highly Sensitive People and empaths like me can feel it like a churning thrum under the surface of everything. My head felt like it was encased in silly putty all day yesterday and my stomach was in knots. I spent a lot of time trying to help others process their emotions by holding space. It was the only way I survived.
You might not be an empath or an HSP and that’s great. You might have the normal range of emotions and if you’re not affected that much by the thought of a Trump presidency, and you don’t get what the big deal is, now is your time to learn how to hold space. Find someone in your circle who is hurting. It shouldn’t be too hard, because they are everywhere. Watch how your internal dialogue is speaking to them. Are you saying things in your head like, “Geez. Drama much?” or “This isn’t that big of a deal.” or “Why do they want to play the victim?” as they are crying or showing signs of being upset, scared, or worried? Are you comparing the situation to something hard you went through and thinking, “This is nothing like when (insert hard thing) happened to me!” Are you just super uncomfortable with people having so many feelings all over the place? Take a beat and breathe. Instead of judging them for how YOU would be handling the situation or feeling, just allow them to have their feelings. Don’t get offended. Don’t take it on. Just listen and be a safe person. They will thank you.
If you are an HSP or empath, you will already be familiar with what I’m talking about, and your challenge is the opposite. DON’T take on their feelings, instead be a flowing stream. DON’T internalize what they’re saying and own it and make it yours and let it take root because it will make you ill. You can’t help them if you are, yourself, deep in the feels. You need to remember what is yours and what is theirs. It’s a kindness to them if you can keep your gentle strength while you let them unpack all their stuff. Take breaks throughout the day for your health. Do your grounding exercise. Clear your chakras. Meditate. Check how your energy is running. And then dive back in for more, because there is an immense amount of pain to be felt and gone through.
And no matter who you are, hold space for yourself first, because you being balanced means you’ve already run through your big emotional overwhelm and come out of the other side OR you’re able to set your own work aside and help someone else do theirs. It’s ok to say, “I need a short break,” if you’re holding space for someone else and you get triggered. You know you’re triggered if you start saying things that aren’t supportive and you feel defensive and/or you feel your emotions rise.
Things to watch out for:
This takes work to learn! But I believe everyone can do it with practice. Please try. We need you. <3
Hi. If you read that long epistle I wrote and got really irritated and bugged and kept rolling your eyes or thought things like, “it’s not that bad,” or “she’s exaggerating and it’s disgusting,” or “we’re not like that at all,” then rest assured it was not for you! Congratulations! You are not the Other in your family. Your knee-jerk reactions of anger, frustration, disgust, and fear are totally normal.
It’s ok to feel threatened. It’s tribal. Let me just assure you that I’m not trying to make you do anything. I know how deep your feelings of protecting your tribe go.
If you find as you read this piece that you kept thinking of someone in particular or maybe one of your tribe members sent it to you personally, you may want to consider how that person feels like the Other whether or not you think they should.
As you read above, this is a deep and authentic tribal behavior we do as mammals. Owning that you may be a part of this dysfunctional dynamic in your own tribe does not make you a bad person. It makes you an unaware person. And now that you’re becoming aware, what will you do?
As you engage in the habitual thinking you’re accustomed to, where “they” are doing things that drive you crazy and why don’t “they” just stop and/or grow up, try switching just that one word to “we.” Why don’t we just stop and/or grow up? Why don’t we try harder? Why do we keep getting stuck in these bad habits? What are we afraid of? What’s the payoff for me believing that Brian is being such a screw-up? How am I benefiting from this broken dynamic?
Here’s the big secret (that’s not a secret): There are no Others. We’re all just us. You’re all just You. Your tribe is all one tribe and what’s happening to the lowest and poorest and lowliest member of your tribe is happening to You. Own it. And then make strides to change it to something healthier.
I know you can change this part of yourself if you want to because of The Benjamin Franklin Affect. Now, it should be noted that BF was a real jerk and many people despised him, but that’s what makes this so interesting. You can read all about it here, but the cliff notes version is thus: serve those you don’t like because your behavior changes your attitude. (“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Kurt Vonnegut) And when we find ourselves in situations where we feel or do or say things that we aren’t proud of, we turn it around on the Other person and make it their fault by justifying our behavior. “Well, I never would have said that if she hadn’t said what she said first. And anyway, it’s probably for her own good. Someone needs to tell her the truth.” Stop trying to make “your view of the world fit with how you feel or what you’ve done.”
Now, think about the Other in your family. How have you created them to be an Other? What stories do you tell yourself and the other members of your family about them? How are you keeping yourselves safe? What would it take to be brave enough to bring them back inside the fold? It can start with just you. You can do it. You can make the change. Serve them and love them with no reservations of Other. See them like you see yourself – imperfect but basically good and doing the best you can. And even when you don’t believe it, act as if you do and visualize why you’re right to act that way, and then the feelings of real love and acceptance will come.
But wait, Leah, you want to yell. You don’t know what my particular Other has done, you want to explain. And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t matter. Most differences between us are entirely arbitrary and meaningless.
We’re all fighting to be included. No one wants to be the outsider. It fills us with dread and keeps us up at night starting around age three and can continue until we die because being included means survival and safety. What an extreme waste of time, resources, and energy. If you’re on the inside and you’ve felt like an outsider from time to time in your life, how much more fear, dread, shame, and sadness does your family’s Other feel?
Fill this need by rooting for your favorite baseball team, not standing against an individual, especially if they’re in your own family. Just think what we could change in the world if we could figure this out in our own families, then friend circles, then neighborhoods and workplaces etc. We could literally change the world to be kinder and more inclusive.
If you keep trying, you’ll both get better at this. The minute you start to think about how you can change the other person, you know you’ve wandered down the wrong path. Eyes on your own paper, please.
(Are you a Person of Color? You will see the * periodically throughout this piece. Please know as you read I am talking about family dynamics and not systemic racism, which is a completely different kettle of fish.)
I’ve been thinking about you. And about me because I am you. And about how all of us fit together in this Earth Experience, this thing called, (as Prince said), Life.
I don’t love labels so I try to avoid them, but sometimes they are helpful when you’re trying to get down to the nitty-gritty and see what’s what. There are other words we could use like “crazy” and “lazy” and “selfish” or “difficult” and “stubborn” and “insensitive” or “damaged” and “outcast.” “Other” tends to cover it all.
Chances are you live differently than the rest of your family. Like, they’re all really religious and you can’t stand church because you feel like they’re all a bunch of hypocrites. Or they’re all into outdoor sports and being competitive and you’d rather stay in and watch movies. Or they all love getting together for holidays and weekend meals and you dread it with the fire of a thousand suns because you know the conversation will eventually turn to you and how you’re failing at oh, well, just about everything. This topic, the one where you don’t perform how they want, is one of the most conversed subjects and they don’t ever seem to get tired of talking about it. Plus, bonus points for how many times someone asks why you don’t even care how much you’re hurting your parents/grandparents. You’re the cautionary tale. You’ve probably used drugs or alcohol to cope. You might have been abused as a child, which no one wants to discuss and everyone wants to pretend didn’t happen and they wish you would “just get over it already.” If you’d only try harder. (SIGH)
You probably have one sibling or aunt or cousin that you can talk to. This person is the only person in your family that kind of “gets you.” They act as a go-between when conversations about future plans or other necessities need to take place. They walk the tight-rope and do a lot of explaining on behalf of everyone else and translate what you say back to the family and vice versa. And yet, rarely do they stick up for you in the moment you need them to in a group setting. They shrug their shoulders as if to say, heck I would if I could but these people, you know?
Here’s some truth: You are not the cause of the problems in your family. You are the result. Your family is dysfunctional and they have chosen you to be the receptacle for their garbage. The good news is that you are not alone. In fact, almost all families have a You in them. I know that might not make you feel any better, but it might at least help you feel like you belong somewhere. Congratulations!
There have always been outcasts because we as humans have always been in tribes. In order for tribes to feel strong and cohesive and SURVIVE, there had to be an US versus THEM mentality. Not many of us actually need this dynamic anymore, given that we live in homes and have food on the table and our actual physical survival isn’t brokered by creating bonding rituals. And yet, these old patterns persist.
In the 50s, you would have been called the “Identified Patient.” You’re the reason your family doesn’t have to deal with any of their real issues. You’re a convenient scapegoat and as long as everyone can point their fingers at you and talk about you and feel bad about you, the dysfunction continues and it gets to be all your fault. It’s not like they all got together without you and said ok look, now we’re all going to decide together that Ralph is the bad one in this family and no matter what he does or how he tries to improve we’re going to see him as different than us and basically a loser. No. For the most part it’s completely subconscious. And for all your family’s tears and lectures and begging you to change, they’d have no idea what to do if you were actually different than how they see you, which is why you can’t BE different. No matter how you try, you slip right back into that rut of the screw-up. Because why try if they’re never going to see you as different? This is called hamster wheel thinking.
Families are just like any other group or tribe of people in that you usually have a leader, some followers, and often, the punching bag for morale. Degrading the out-group person has a positive impact for the core group. Having that person to compare the rest of the group to brings everyone else closer. This isn’t really a surprise. We as humans like to make comparisons. That’s basically how our entire world is run.
Have you seen The Office? That person is Dwight. Did you watch Family Matters? It was Steve Urkel. Or maybe you’ve watched Parks & Rec. That person is Larry/Gary/Terry/Barry/Jerry, whom everyone delights in shaming and calling names. And L/G/T/B/Jerry just takes it all in stride, sometimes playing along with whatever the running gag is. He doesn’t seem to get offended, but instead understands the psychology of group behavior and rarely takes it personally, despite the fact that he’s actually very talented in many ways, quite smart, has a beautiful family, and is economically stable. You see, this is a primal thing we do. It’s been bred into us for so many years that unless we’re willing to really step back and take a fearless accounting of how we contribute to the dynamic, it’s almost impossible to be different.
It’s biological. When we lived in actual tribes, these behaviors were helpful. The closer-knit your tribe was, the higher chance your survival rate was. It was crucial to know who was US and who was THEM and to always be assured that you were on the winning aka surviving team. This is hard-wired into our brains. It feels like relief to be surrounded by people that are LIKE you. And if someone threatens that safety? You create the Other and every time you reinforce that perception of Other, your brain rewards you with endorphins that feel like safety. So, if you have to sacrifice one tribal member but that means that the rest of you are safe, well, I guess that was worth it.
We still like to make someone the Other, mainly because that means we aren’t that person. Othering is when we distance ourselves from someone or a group of people who we don’t want to see any similarities with and think of them as distinctly different than us. We make them less than us, and in our minds, that means less than human, which helps us justify our actions and beliefs.
It doesn’t always look like a major thing. No one in my family came right out and said, Leah, we just don’t think you’re one of us. But I felt that way. You notice the eye rolling and crying in frustration and sarcastic comments more than anything else. Most of the time, the comments and gestures “of love” that were heavily laden with religion and hard-wired with strings were the hardest for me to stomach.
Let me give you an example of how this tribal dynamic works. One day I was reading a final draft of the first book I wrote, Not Otherwise Specified, to some of my siblings as we drove for several hours to a family gathering in another state. The passage I was reading was about sexual abuse to me done by a stranger when I was very little. One of my sisters interrupted me and asked, “Why didn’t you stop him?” Another sister asked, “Why didn’t you just run away?”
Let’s explore what happened. I’m a member of a family. They are my tribe. They are listening to a younger member of their tribe talk about something horrific that happened to her and it’s deeply upsetting and brings up fear, anger, and probably other gut emotions that are unclear. In the heat of those uncomfortable feelings, they say certain things but really, they mean something else entirely. Sister 1 is really asking, “How can it be that a member of my tribe had something so horrible happen to her and why did that happen and why didn’t I stop it from happening and could it have happened to me and is it my fault?” and sister 2 is really asking, “How can these things happen in my tribe and if it had been me would I have been able to run away because if she didn’t, maybe I couldn’t have, but that’s too scary to think about so it must be her fault.” Neither one of them said, “It was your fault.” And yet, the feeling they projected to me, out of fear, was that it was my fault. To think otherwise would put the tribe in danger.
Let me give you another example. When I was a teen, my father came to a meeting with my therapist who proceeded to tell him about a rape that had happened to me a couple of years earlier. The first thing my father asked was, “What what she wearing?” Here my father was clearly suggesting the rape was, at least partially, my fault. Putting aside the religious upbringing my father had and the generational beliefs about men, their urges, and women and their responsibility for those urges, my father was also saying, “How could this have happened to a member of my tribe and what does this say about me as the leader and am I responsible and if so, that’s terrifying and I’m not as good of a protector as I thought I was so it must be her fault.” Coming from that point of view, he remained a successful leader of the tribe and no one else was in danger. It should be noted that later in that same conversation my dad pointed out to the therapist that none of his other seven children had any of the problems I had, so therefore, it must be my fault I was the way I was. Classic!
I’ll give you one last example. In my first marriage, my ex-husband’s family exhibited classic tribe behavior. You were either “One of Us” or you were not, and to be “Not” meant being at the sharp end of all the “No, we’re just kidding, we didn’t really mean it that way, you’re too sensitive” jokes. I watched family members scramble to get In after being kicked Out over and over. I had the unique perspective of never really fitting In in the first place, so while I was tolerated for several years, I didn’t ever feel that need or urge to jump through hoops to get or stay In. Plus, I had an entire childhood of being the Other under my belt, so I had a lot of practice when I got married at 17 at being the outcast. My ex-husband, however, had been unconsciously playing this game his entire life, so being married to me could have been quite a liability, but instead it was a bonus. He got to play the “married to the crazy lady” card pretty much always, which worked to his benefit. He always looked like the good guy, the long-suffering guy, the aw-shucks I’m just doing my best guy. And his tribe enfolded him in their tribal love where he was safe and supported.
So, now that we’re all clear on what’s really happening, the logical question is would you like anything to change? You can’t change them, so don’t even try. But, you can change you.
It can feel deeply satisfying to continue being angry and frustrated at your tribe’s lack of empathy and demonstrate that outwardly with your choices and behavior. No one can take that sense of justice from you if you want to keep it and I’m certainly not judging that choice.
But, I am all about holding my own power and Acting on Purpose, not Reacting, whenever possible, so if you do want things to change, here’s how I did it and it might work for you, too.
It can be super tricky to separate what’s actually happening in the physical world from what’s happening just under the surface where all the feelings and energy and things-with-no-words are taking place. That’s the crazy-making part. That’s why your tribe can tell you that you’re making it up and all they want is for you to be happy and then you start to second guess yourself and think man, maybe I AM crazy!
Until you figure out how to see with both sets of eyes, it’s going to be confusing and you’re going to be moving through your life mostly just on instinct.
Here’s what your family is Feeling: fear, anger, frustration, disgust, pride.
Here’s what your family is Projecting to you: Guilt, blame, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, anger.
Here’s what is Real: They feel fear, anger, and are stuck in a pattern they aren’t even aware of and will not confront so there’s no way to fix it.
Here’s what you can Do: See them with compassion, empathy, maybe forgiveness, set good boundaries, cut ties when necessary, focus on yourself, and get free of your old patterns.
When I was young, I wouldn’t clean my room or do any of my chores in a timely manner. It was like it was just beyond me. This wasn’t because I couldn’t clean my room. I knew how and I was really good at organizing, actually. My mom would have to remind, remind, remind, and ultimately beg me to do my chores. Meanwhile, my other siblings had finished ages ago and were off playing outside or with friends. And there I’d be, downstairs in my room, sprawled on the floor atop mountains of toys and clothes and unable to move a muscle. Sometimes crying, sometimes spacing out, always in my own little world.
As an adult I’ve had time to process this behavior and I realize that the core feeling of being “bad” was just too strong for me to do anything “good.” Doing my chores the first time my mom asked would have implied to my tribe that I was “good.” I felt NOT good. I felt very, very bad and in some weird sense of authenticity, I chose to stick with how I really felt and acted bad. I didn’t want to lie with my actions and be good. Which meant, in the long run, I was reinforcing the belief I was bad over and over again which made them see me as the Other.
Understanding this as an adult helps me deal with the gut-instinct that will surface occasionally that is completely contrary to how I’d truly like to be. I can see it as my Little Self trying to be authentic and I can instead choose to be authentic in a different and more constructive way.
The message from your family is that you are a screw-up. Being the screw-up can be a comfortable shell because it’s so familiar and no one expects much. If you want to see yourself differently, you’ll need to do it without needing to make them see you a new way, because if you’re waiting on them, it won’t happen. That’s a beautiful self-sabotaging setup to get caught in and it means things will never be different. You wait – they withhold – you wait – etc.
It can also feel good to be different than the tribe that shuns you. This can make you go to extremes in behavior to distinguish yourself. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be a polar opposite to those in your tribe to be yourself. You probably have things in common with them that you’ve been stuffing down. It’s ok to be like them in some ways if you’re comfortable with those ways.
You’ll need to let go of the need to be “special” in this way. Being the Other means you get to sit back and look at the group and say, I’m not like them. They’re all hypocrites/lemmings/monsters and I’m nothing like them. This creates the feeling of being special and it can be hard to let it go because if you eventually fit in with all of them, what would be so great about you?
Seeing yourself differently means seeing things as they really are: you have some good points and some strong points and a lot of things you could work on. Also, no one is better than anyone else, which means your tribe is all equally as good or bad as you in their own ways. Chances are you’ve been so busy and working so hard at being different than your family, you don’t even know who you truly are deep down anymore. As much as your tribe has been caught in this primal game, you have been, too. It can be scary, but take some time to figure out what’s working for you in your life and let the rest go. You get to choose who you are. People can always, always, always change.
Man, this one is hard. There’s no blame here. It’s a continuous journey to stop playing this part but you can do it. You will never have the life you want if your life is always happening TO you. You can only have the life you want if you are the protagonist in your story. Be the lead. Be the main character. Make the choices. Make decisions on how you want to act and represent yourself. When things go terribly wrong, make level-headed choices, don’t simply react with primal emotions (fear, anger, frustration, disgust, pride).
There are absolutely horrific things that happen to people in this world. The playing field is NOT level. Things are not now fair nor have they ever been so. Sometimes you are stuck in a situation that affords you no relief from abuses. You will not have your needs met. People will fail you.
Take the time to process the feelings that come along with these things if they are or did happen to you. Stuffing them will not help you long-term. And once you feel those feelings, get them out because they will make you ill. They will fester. And if they keep happening, keep processing.
Stop telling yourself the stories about yourself that don’t help and are only partially true, like “everything bad happens to me.” Be fearless in making these changes. Make your life what you want it to be by setting boundaries with those that hurt you and holding others accountable for their actions, all while finding that center inside yourself where you can build peace to sustain your life of intention.*
Were you abused as a child? I was, and this can be particularly challenging for you, but it can be done. You were, in fact, a victim and that can stick to your inner self despite your best efforts. It sets off chain reactions of “life being unfair” and life complies by being unfair. When you’re ready, you have to look around you and decide that whatever happens from this point forward is on you. You need to see your future as your own, no matter what happened in your past. You have to change the way you talk to yourself so that you own everything. From this moment on, so-and-so didn’t do something to you.* So-and-so didn’t ruin your day.* They didn’t make you do anything.* YOU chose to do whatever it was you did.* YOU chose to have a day that was ruined.* No one can make you feel or do anything.*
There is so much freedom and happiness in claiming your life. Your life up until this point may have been the worst and most unfair life in all the unfair lives ever to have been lived, and STILL you can have a wonderful and happy life starting now, even if terrible things happen to you again.
Notice when your tribe isn’t sure what to do with this change and do it anyway. If you manage this change, it is going to send some of them for a loop. You may see them reaching to find someone else in your tribe to make the Other. But, you’ll call them out on it, right?
Find your people. I know you might be used to spending lots of time alone and isolating to limit the amount of horrible days in your life, but it’s time for some fresh air. Somewhere near you are others like you. They are quiet or smart or interesting or outgoing or writers or photographers or into horses or producing music or fermenting food or outdoor sports or whatever it is you’re into. They exist. There might only be one or two or who knows, dozens, in your area but you have to make an effort to find them.
If you don’t feel good about yourself when you’re with someone, then they aren’t your people. Your people should be lifting you up and making you feel like yes, I can do this. Keep exploring until you find the tribe of people that matches your intentions and your heart. They encourage you to improve and want to see you succeed. They’re happy when you’re happy for yourself. They don’t make jokes that belittle you. They don’t tell you you’re always overreacting. They don’t try to make you second-guess yourself and they don’t find it entertaining to keep you on your toes by making you feel uncomfortable.
You’ve been taught to doubt your own judgement. You’ve been reminded of your mistakes over and over again. You’ve been told you’re bad or no good and that you’ll never change. None of that is really you. It’s your tribe’s perception of you.
Who you are is perfectly flawed. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. The difference is in what you do next and how you choose to NOT make that same mistake again. Having an awareness of why something happened is a way to arrange things so the same thing won’t happen again.*
What are you good at? What are your strengths? What do you want to spend you life doing? How are the habits you engage in daily affecting where you want to go in life? Do you dare care?
Who and how you are is a gift to your family dynamic. They might not see that, but that’s ok. You bring something new to the table when you sit in your own strength and stop reacting to their unconscious barbs.
How will you learn your strengths? By spending time with yourself and feeling and thinking and tossing the junk. It’s hard work, no lie. But the reward of owning your life is immeasurable. I try and do a daily self-care activity so I can keep up on any unresolved stuff coming up. Walking, painting, writing, yoga, or pretty much anything you love that feeds your soul or strengthens your body, allowing you time to release, feel, and work through those feelings will work.
Don’t stop bringing up things in real time when you see an old behavior happening. Your brother makes a snide/sarcastic comment or someone tries to box you in with a Never or Always statement and you react like your old self, saying something harsh – take a beat, breathe, decide how you want to Act on Purpose and speak the truth. “I just said something I don’t really mean and I’m sorry. I’m learning how to change that about myself and it’s taking some time. Thank you for being patient while I learn a new skill.” And then get up and leave the room if you need to.
Don’t worry about what they think about you. You can’t change them or how they think or feel. You can only change yourself. One of my favorite quotes is by Martha Graham: “What people in the world think of you is really none of your business.” Stay on task – that task is you. You’re the only one you’re responsible for.
The more clear you are, the better chance you have of them understanding you. Don’t bring them into it by adding anything along the lines of, “you made me so mad” or “because you said.” You’re only talking about you and the changes you want to make for yourself.
So, this is a new one for you probably. If you’re anything like me, I hadn’t denied myself anything in years. I had just gone here and there and everywhere, following every unnamed feeling I had that I was or wasn’t aware of because it didn’t really matter what I did or didn’t do anyway. I was always the bad guy. There’s not a lot of motivation in that scenario to make me care to change anything.
But that meant I wasn’t doing anything On Purpose. I was just doing and doing and digging myself into bigger holes everywhere I went and wondering why nothing ever worked out for me. I drank often and a lot. I used drugs, sometimes compulsively, to numb. I started things and then didn’t finish them like college and jobs and projects. I kept erratic sleeping habits and somehow felt it was an accomplishment when I would stay up all night not realizing I was upsetting my body rhythm and it would take weeks for me to set it right again. And guess what I was doing in those weeks? Yes, I was drinking and using and trying to not feel anything at all. I was avoiding my tribe and seeking out superficial relationships that brought me no happiness and sometimes put me in a lot of danger. I was spending too much money if I had any money at all. I was blaming others for everything that went wrong in my life. I was depressed and unhappy and felt abandoned by everyone including myself.
What I finally had to do was have a long talk with myself. I told myself that for a long, long time I had been trying to cover up all the crappy feelings inside my core by using substances and not sleeping and basically treating myself like a real piece of garbage. And I asked myself if I wanted things to change. I told myself that I was going to try and do better and I made my very first set of lists of “Stuff I Like” and “Stuff I Want To Do” and “Stuff I’m Going To Change.” And then I told myself that because I was trying to learn to love myself I was going to try and be present in my own body and stop running away. I was going to parent myself with love and set good boundaries for myself, things I’d never allowed my own parents to do and had never done for myself up until that point. Things like eating better food and going to bed before midnight and getting outside more and saying nice things to myself and learning something new and maybe, more importantly, things like not hanging out with people that made me feel bad about myself including some members of my family and avoiding opportunities to get trashed and maybe getting a haircut.
And I tried to stop seeing my tribe as Other and to find our similarities. The magic of energy is that if one side changes, the other side has no choice but to change with it. If I become more positive, they have a choice to become more positive as well or more negative. But, either way, I’m more positive and that brings me more happiness. No one else in this life is in charge of your happiness and no one else in this life is in charge of your success.*
This is a lot of hard work and you have to really want it. It takes practice and you will fail a lot. But if you keep getting back up, you will succeed because that in itself is success. Of course, if you’ve cut ties with your family permanently for good reasons like physical/sexual/verbal abuse, you’ll need to learn this stuff on your own. CoDA would be a great place to start.
Also, I love you.
Also, also, here’s a post for your family. xo
You wake up and everyone is outside picking peas in the garden. It’s the morning at your parent’s home before the morning you’re going to leave and go home. This visit was too short and you won’t see them for a few months. Again. Maybe six or seven. Maybe eight on the outside.
Mom’s the fastest pea-picker. She’s got the most experience. Joe tries to keep up, but her fingers are defter and have years of practice.
Dad is pulling up weeds, then pea plants. Occasionally he looks over, evaluates what Mom is doing and then, copying her, manages to pick a pea pod and put it in his bowl. He’s unsure about what they’re doing out there, but wanting to be a part of things, he carries on.
You snap a few photos because that’s what you do and there is a safety, a distance, at watching your father fade away slowly through the lens of a camera. You can hardly make yourself look straight at him this trip. It takes a herculean effort to stare straight at the sun, eyes never wavering, and accept and love and hold him in your heart because it doesn’t even feel like him anymore. He’s almost not there at all but what is there still looks like him and smiles like him and smells like him, mostly. There’s a new scent about him now on top of the other more familiar ones. You can’t place it but wonder if it’s just the smell of getting older. It’s still him, just not quite him.
The cousins do a puzzle in two hours flat and when you interrupt in the middle to corral them outside so you can take photos, they roll their eyes dramatically like you’ve just asked them to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro in clown suits.
But, they oblige with some good-natured, dramatic protesting, then ham it up for the camera.
Your sisters are some of the most beautiful people you know and they let you snap their photo.
And so do your brothers and your husband because recording every dang moment together feels important right now. Ever more important.
Most of the garden beds are flowers this year. What once held tomatoes and lettuce and carrots and other things that needed constant tending now hold wild flowers because there isn’t anyone with enough time and energy to tend them anymore. It’s beautiful and truthful and hard and sad. Dad can’t tell the difference between weeds and vegetable plants and Mom spends her days and nights watching over Dad.
She helps him with everything. Everything. You hear her in the other room reminding him to do the smallest things that you know he’s done millions of times in his lifetime, but now they are just beyond him. She gets him his snacks. Helps him take a nap. Reminds him who all the people are in the house that he doesn’t know. And a few seconds later he’ll ask again where the pretty flowers on the table came from and Mom will explain, again, that they are from the pretty bush he loves and planted in the front yard. You’ll smile, again, and tell him they smell lovely. Dad will nod. And then ask again in a few minutes. With every rotation of the conversation you can feel your heart hurting and it’s also just the way it is, so you deal with it and feel glad he’s still there to ask about the flowers at all.
Dad reads the paper. *You watch him turn it this way and that way, folding and unfolding, staring and looking and reading the same articles over and over. You look away because you remember what an avid reader he once was. You remember him reciting from memory poem after poem while you sat in mortified silence because you were embarrassed that your dad was such an old, stodgy nerd that would read those old, fogie poems and take the time to memorize them and then make you sit there for minutes on end, nay, all of eternity, while the phrases of Rudyard Kipling’s If rang out of his mouth, loud and clear, commanding the room at every family function.
What you’d give now to hear him be able to recite anything. Or even remember who you are. And you have pains in your soul in a way you can’t even describe. Too bad you didn’t pay attention to any of that poetry. That’s probably where the words are that escape you and you’re angry at your teen self for being so short-sighted and wasting valuable time being so…so…teen. Even with the confusion of all the hard things that were between you, you love him deeply and wish you could have a conversation about something, anything, even if it was hard.
You ask Mom if she’s lonely. You want to make sure she’s ok, that she doesn’t feel isolated or left too much alone, without support. She says she loves Dad as much as she ever did and considers this the next part of their partnership. She says she’s fine, that she takes care of herself along with Dad and not to worry. You worry anyway and you love her fiercely in a way that you didn’t know possible and the grief rises a little and you wash a few more dishes and wonder what you can do to be more supportive from hundreds of miles away.
You take out your camera for the annual photos for next December’s Christmas card. You snap shots, this way and that way, looking at your parents through the lens and wondering how things can be like they are. The frustration at how unfair it feels fades away as you do what comes second-nature. You check the light, check your f-stop, check for dust on the lens and realize there’s nothing on the lens that keeps making things look blurry, that’s just you. You stare with the safety of the lens into the eyes of your dad and try to find him in there.
Then, your husband grabs the camera and takes a shot of the three of you and you see you, with them, and maybe some of who the man your dad still might be deep inside himself looking back at you. At least you want to think so when he gives you a hug and says, “Thanks. Come again sometime soon. We like it when our friends come to visit.”
You wave goodbye to Mom who is standing by herself outside where they both used to stand when you left, blowing kisses and waving. And then you cry. And promise to come back soon before he fades too much further away. You hope. *And wouldn’t it be nice to believe that someday, maybe in heaven, Dad will be like he used to be or even better and you reconsider your non-belief of religion.
You get melancholy and your almost-twenty-year-old youngest son makes you laugh by buying a tshirt with a cow on it because it’s kinda funny and takes photos of it in bathroom mirrors where, as he says, all tall guys have problems seeing their heads.
You make friendship bracelets with him on the long drive home and think about how you don’t want to waste any moments and you realize he’s probably just humoring you, making knots and spending time creating “manly jewelry,” but you don’t care and you eat it up like it’s the best food you’ve ever eaten.
And you smile because he’s there and you’re with him and what else are you going to do, anyway, if not try to enjoy every moment possible before they fade away.
(*This was slightly edited after publishing.)
When my kids were young, when we first came back from Germany, when my marriage to the other guy was being held together with tape and googly eyes, when I couldn’t breathe, when I couldn’t think, when I wasn’t on meds and needed them badly, when I was dissociating, I took the kids to the beach.
My feet, which had walked way too far and way too long to get there, were suddenly surrounded by rushing water and the Space of Nothing I needed. The water was cold and fast and then pulled at my soul before it receded, taking my fears, confusion, disappointments and grief with it on its way back out to sea.
This was “Our Beach” and the kids knew how far they could walk and still yell into the surf and find me. There were huge boulders and small crabs and hot sand for miles. There was my daughter wearing her suit with the rainbow, ruffled rumba-butt, worried what might be lurking in the water that she couldn’t see. And my oldest refusing to have fun because he was just-that-much-too-cool and pulling a towel over his body, taking a nap nestled in the grains of sand while the sun kissed a slice over his leg when the make-due-blanket slid down.
And there were my other two boys, unashamed to have hard, wild and loud fun, running into the waves, grabbing boogie boards and refusing to let me swipe sunscreen on them because they just can’t stop running right now, Mommy. Can’t stop right now, but soon.
I sat. I watched. I stood at the edge of the world where the packed, wet sand meets eternity, with my feet sinking lower and lower with every pull of water and wondered who I was, where I went, and how I could find me.
In the summer more people came. More and more each year. Parking got harder. Walking was further. The jugs of water, towels, sunbathers and canopies that dotted the sand got closer and closer together. The water began to burst with more and more surfers and swimmers but we didn’t stop going to Our Beach because, well, it was ours. No matter what else it was, it was ours.
The world ended one spring, just as we had started going back to Our Beach that year, and I had a vacation in a mental hospital with strangers that knew me better than anyone else. Within minutes the kids had moved with their dad to what might as well have been another country and I had no passport. The gates closed on Our Beach and we never went back.
I spent the next ten years or forever driving past Our Beach every other weekend and sometimes in the middle of the week on a Thursday to see them play sports or be in a play, using any excuse to get to watch their faces talk about everything, anything, please talk about something, to me.
I looked out the window at that water and wondered what it did with all my secrets. But I never went back to Our Beach because it wasn’t ours anymore. It was just a regular beach now, like a hundred other beaches, one that belonged to everyone else in the world more than me or us.
I’m finding new beaches now with my guy, the guy that stands by me when the tide is high or low. I don’t claim these wild beaches or try to make them my own. I understand better that the magic when the water races to the shore and dances around your feet, pulling out the grief and sadness, belongs to everyone. You can’t own a wild thing, anyway. It’s just pretending to think you can and I don’t need to pretend anymore.
I sit. I breathe. I stand in the surf on the edge of the world and watch my guy swim out into the magic and feel so much joy it hurts in a delicious and comforting way, now that I’m healing, now that I’m happy in my soul where it’s quiet, now that I can breathe, now that I can think, now that I’ve found myself.
Heal Something Good is available for Pre-Order here.
I flew to Seattle over the weekend. It was frosty and cold but the sun was shining and I didn’t take my sunglasses because I didn’t think I’d need them. It was Seattle. But there was the sun waiting for me when I got off the plane, saying hello, welcome, hope you have a good weekend.
In the morning, the leaves and grass were tipped in ice and crunched underfoot. My sister was busy scraping ice off the windshield with her credit card and I bent low to take photos of the groundcover. Not helpful in the grand scheme of things, or even in helping us get to the conference on time, but look what we would have missed.
I went for work, but I spent that time with my sister because we work together and so it didn’t seem worky at all. We talked about energy work and healing and Spirit Guides and how many times we’ve already died in our lives up til now. It turns out we’ve both already died quite a few times but that’s great because we’ve had at least one more new life than death so far. That’s how it works.
I hurtled home in the stratosphere, hanging by a thread in the Universe, and pondered quantum physics. My niece and I had discussed the night before how nothing really exists when you get right down to it because of the space between atoms which makes you and I and everything basically air. Or not air, actually, a vacuum. I held that thought and wondered if it was scary or unnatural feeling and realized no, it wasn’t.
We came closer to earth and finally I saw the rooftops and then the cars moving along streets that snaked across the earth creating grids of order which made my brain happy and contented just to watch. The engines roared and the pressure in the cabin changed and some babies started to cry and I thought, as I popped my ears, I remember when mine were babies and dreading that moment in every flight and how the other people on the plane would start to judge you and wish you didn’t exist and that you were in a vacuum, so I smiled at the mom and sent her a hug in my mind.
The green rushed up to meet us and I knew what I was made of was love, in those in between spots where the atoms weren’t. Even when we forget for awhile, if we just look at the frosty grass and hug our family and smile at a stranger, maybe we can feel it again and stronger and longer next time.
Turning 43 has just helped reinforce what I felt when I turned 42 – I’m so happy in my 40s. I love it here! My brain works well, my physical body has never been healthier and I no longer worry so much about what other people think about me. That has been a long time coming.
For my birthday this year, my daughter, her fiance, my son and my husband all put on a game night in my building’s rec center. Some of my friends and extended family showed up and we hung out and played games. It was completely low-key and perfect. I may have made about 10-gallons of Mac-and-Cheese for everyone.
Alex picked these blue orchids for some of the table decorations. I can’t stop staring at them. There is something very silky and sultry and full of passion about them.
They are totally and uniquely themselves. They embrace their variations of vibrant color and show it off with pride. And in the recesses, way in the centers, you can see the deep, still wisdom that lies there.
I suppose that’s what I’m going to be aspiring to this year.