I've been making notes for this topic for quite some time. For several weeks now I've come across objects that meant a lot to me. At least, they used to mean a lot to me. I began to wonder why I was hanging on so tightly--even to broken mementos. My original concept was "letting go" which implies the release of non-essential holding/then relief. Last week I recognized a twist which alters the exercise and affects the results. The first scenario seems slightly negative. Why not a creative approach? How about making room or creating space to achieve a fruitful outcome?
The end of school is an easy time for a test. Changes are built into our schedules in the form of fewer obligations and longer, warmer days. Last year at this time I first considered ending my youth orchestra. Consuming much of my time for the past six years, the group was straining my resources. Membership and funding were down significantly last season. I asked myself a lot of serious questions but the crucial one was, "what would my life look like without it?" After deciding to suspend operations until January, another opportunity came out of the blue. It didn't take long to realize that working for someone else teaching elementary orchestra was more rewarding. I closed one door; another one opened.
There are physical ways to create space. Spring cleaning is a time-honored method for freshening a stagnant home. The change from winter to summer means it's time to put away the bulky boots and sweaters and haul out lightweight shorts and sandals. A new hairstyle or color might also make you feel lighter than air. There are also emotional ways to create space. The main one is….
Rest. Slowing down is a great method--if, you can do it. That's a big "if" for me. Orchestras, classes, commitments and students had wrapped. I had an opportunity to fine tune next season's workload and consider changes. This was my time to take a closer look at my choices. I should have had the time--instead I filled my schedule with exercise, errands, ...stuff. I realized I was spinning my wheels just as fast but with different tasks. In other words, I'd been running away from my breathing room and wasting precious time.
Too bad I had to figure this out the hard way. Instead of simply resting my body took over. Colds, back pain, foot pain--all literally knock you off your feet making sure you slow down. Apparently I really needed space because last week I injured my foot on a run. After the initial frustration and considerable pain I wondered if this was just what I needed. Fight it or accept? Continue to clutter my head or be alone with my thoughts? Now off my feet for a week and a half and counting there's time to soak in Epsom Salts and journal and think. I created space and now I have the space to create.
Grief's pain is emptiness. Memories fill the hole. What I first experienced as a jumbled overload of images quieted, the new calm bringing perceptible sensations to my memories. Sparked by a sound, a taste, or perhaps a rustling of fabric, memories send me time-traveling. In the minutiae of a typical day two wires touch and I am "unstuck in time." And I enjoy the journey.
Sometimes I feel her. Not spectral yet just as startling. Not a dream yet just as intangible. It's more like her essence. Palpable. It happened the other night. Up late to read a book, I turned a page and there she was. I gasped, "oh, Mom, you're here!" What word, what thought triggered such a feeling? I'll never know. Just as quickly, she vanished.
I incorporate her. After I lifetime of hearing I favor my father what a surprise to find I resemble my mother. After she died the face I saw looking at me in the mirror was hers. Reaching for my morning coffee with two hands I noted, "that's just the way Mom held her cup." Now even my language duplicates her as I integrate her old sayings into my speech. It's a comfort to celebrate our similarities.
I honor her with family rituals. Today, Memorial Day, is the day we pick mums from the front yard, put them in coffee cans and drive across town to the cemetery. For as long as I can remember we cared for the family plot by trimming overgrown grass and leaving cut flowers at each grave. I still see a vivid picture of my grandmother in her flowered dress and sun hat, kneeling in the grass, tidying headstones with a pair of scissors. Years later, I took my sons along and cried with mother while we tended Grandmother's grave. And today we care for Mom's place.
I see her in the margins. Two Mother's Days, a birthday, the better part of two Memorial Days and an ocean of tears have passed. Instead of fighting an aching loss I've welcomed her back. Instead of grasping at distant memories I see her right here, every day. In a hand-written envelope addressed to her grandchild. In a Post-It Note with her trademark greeting: "Hey Babe, I Love You!" And in my favorite, a worn collection of cookbooks and recipe cards, Mom's notes penned in the margins. My connection to the past that brings a smile to the present.
A number of years ago when I was newly separated, I had no idea how to be alone. After countless miserable nights and days I finally made a list. My list was a poster written in crayon entitled:
What Makes Me Feel Happy."
On it were things like "listening to music," "expressing gratitude," "dogs" and more. It hung over my desk for years as a daily reminder. Secure in my contentment the list now hangs in the studio closet where I rarely see it.
This morning I encountered two triggers (an email and a Facebook post) which suggested "Happiness" is a goal. A target. "If only….then I'd be happy." That really got me thinking. I wondered if this hit a little too close to home. I realized if I'm not happy until I've reached the destination then I had better switch paths. Maybe it's time for me to redefine my happiness. A personal mission statement if you will.
I came up with a draft--at the very least it's a new start. My happiness: provide sufficient self care that I will have the reserves to give to others when they are in need.
A few weeks ago a colleague and I were in the green room preparing for a concert. "I don't think I could ever wear skinny, white jeans" she said, "they would show every bit of cellulite." This woman is tall and reed thin and makes clothes look fantastic. I managed to mumble an agreement all the while thinking she would look stunning in skinny, white jeans. My mind was racing, "I wear skinny, white jeans and I don't look anything like her. Maybe I don't have any business wearing them."
Oh dear. It was a meeting of inner critics disguised as girl talk. Actually, I think we have similar image issues. We obsess over the imperfect details--our own details
--and trust that's all anyone
sees. To have a positive impact on your body image I believe in a two-step process--accepting yourself and dressing the body you currently have.
In January when I noticed my extra pounds I took another look at myself and my routines. My fashion attitude had taken a turn towards comfy sweats. It may sound trite but I had let things go. During the holiday break I wore roomy sweaters and baggy jeans. I skipped hairstyling and makeup. It was time for a pick-me-up. The internal shift towards acceptance is gradual--but it gets a boost from taking care of your outward appearance.
Feet hide from view in winter boots and cozy socks. Why not do something just for me? My first step-- a pedicure. Even if I'm the only one who will see my pretty toes. When Valentine's Day rolled around I wondered how to do something sweet for myself. I made an afternoon date at the Nordstrom cosmetics department where I had a Bobbi Brown
makeover and tried a new perfume--Grapefruit by Jo Malone
. In a few hours I looked and felt delicious and it didn't cost me a dime!
Next, the clothes. For me, clothes are creative expression. They reflect my mood, my sensibility, my whimsy. Putting them together is a little art, a little technique and a little more disguise. I'm a huge fan of makeover shows like "What Not to Wear
" and I have been for years. I love to see the positive and empowering transformations. Their advice "dress the body you have," is repeated on every episode. My current favorite resource to dress the body you have is the blog and so much more, YouLookFab
. On this excellent website you'll find body type guidelines, style advice and a welcoming, supportive forum. Using YLF tools
I went back through my closet to find the clothes that worked together and followed rules for my body type while making me feel my absolute best.
Newly accepting and freshly adorned I'm back to myself again, inside and out. And feeling confident allows me to support my gal pals too. Next time I see my friend I'm going to tell her to go shopping--because she would rock a pair of white, skinny jeans!
I stood up and walked across the room. "I sure do like to look at you," said my husband with a smile on his face. Did I say thank you? No. I made a face. "I look terrible," I protested. No make-up. No shower. Still wearing filthy clothes for walking the dogs and working in the yard. Not only did I reject the compliment, I felt irritated. "Well, I still like to look at you." Does he see something I don't?
My weight had been creeping up since January and I felt self-conscious. I started the year off on the wrong foot as far as forgiveness goes. Proud of a minimal holiday weight gain, I had resolved to start right in on a diet and exercise plan January 2nd. Well, my normally foolproof system didn't work this time around. After a couple of weeks I was holding tight to a couple of pounds. But I had let go of my resolve.
I decided to let my weight be for a while and redirect my focus. Since my unsuccessful diet attempt I had spent a few weeks in a serious funk. I wanted to make a change--what about accepting myself the way I was? Accepting that winter might add a few pounds. Accepting that I may have to explore another way to shed weight. Accepting that the timing wasn't right. And so I turned to my morning pages
. I started every day by writing the words--accept yourself
. My mantra. A persistent reminder to be gentle.
Well, that's easier said than done when your jeans are cutting into your waist. March's gorgeous weather finally had me running again. On the other hand, March's celebrations had me eating birthday cupcakes and an insidious deep fried Twinkie. Two pounds grew to 6. I stuck with my mantra through the sweets and the celebrations, the sweat and the pavement. And by the time April rolled around I was absorbing the change. Buoyed by physical exercise and positive reinforcement I finally felt ready to shed the weight.
A month later exercise is working. A healthy diet is working. Accepting myself? I'm working on it. Accepting compliments
in spite of my perceived appearance could be a new mantra. Yet...this is still a challenge for me. I wonder how much more accepting I would feel if I saw myself through my husband's eyes?
A very special Christmas gift. I can't even guess the year. Less than twenty years ago, and more than 15. A holiday celebration in my parents' home. In spite of forgetting the year I remember every detail of the exchange. The smile on my mom's face as I opened the package. My wail when I saw the contents, "but these are yours!" And then...we cried together. Over sterling and crystal vanity jars. They sat on Mom's dressing table for 20 years. On her mother's for a lifetime before that.
I didn't want the gift because I knew what it meant. I wanted my mother; not her jars. Quite persistently throughout Christmas day, she shared their history. Grudgingly, I took them home and placed them on a shelf. The shift was gradual. One day I opened a lid and dropped in a lock of hair….then a cub scout patch. The vanity jars became guardians for those little bits of childhood--a baseball card, a dairy queen whistle
, baby teeth and more--that made me smile. Precious vessels for the memories of my precious children.
As my children left the nest the jars held less of theirs...and more of mine. I realized one would be perfect for my makeup brushes. Another could hold delicate necklaces and the small one would be good for earrings. They were lovely to look at. And now I looked at them and used them every day.
The fourth was the most unusual--the jar with a hair receiver lid. "After brushing her hair before bed, a women cleaned the brush and placed the collected hair in her receiver jar." Now I smile to remember Mom's story. Recently needing a safety pin, I emptied that jar. Instead of the fastener came a sudden rush of memories. I wailed, just like that far away Christmas. With tears in my eyes I realized the jar held much more than safety pins, buttons and cotton balls. At the very bottom…a baby tooth. Who knew that could be so potent!
At last grateful for her gift, I can put this in perspective. My mother brought the vanity jars home after her mother was already gone. Mom saw a chance to do something different. By sharing her history in person I have far more than a collection of antique jars. It doesn't really matter but I wish I could remember what Mom kept in them. Memories, I guess.
How does love feel? On a recent walk my thoughts wandered to far away friends. They moved several years ago and it was wrenching. They were my support system and I felt hurt, grief and even anger when they left. Although on this particular day I felt no loss. In fact, it was just the opposite. My heart literally swelled as fond remembrance washed over me. That's what love feels like! The feeling was so powerful it startled me. How long had it been since I felt this kind of love?
I ran through a somber checklist. The losses were numerous. When I had counted ten years of heartache, pain and loss I stopped. My grief was a habit. When did charming memories of my precious babies transform to a thousand tearful goodbyes? When did copious meals shared with laughing friends become a bitter taste in my mouth?
I had refused to let go. Of the hurt. I told myself I had moved on. I told myself I was over it. The truth was an ugly claw had grasped my heart. And held on so tightly that all I could feel was the poignant moment of loss. No before and no after. I was perfectly balanced on the point of pain.
Since that day my intention is to practice love. Last year I read a profound article in Prevention Magazine. I hoped to credit the author but my copy has gone missing. She described an exercise practiced in meditation. Hold an image in your cupped hands or your heart and imagine happiness. Imagine your mate at his happiest. Imagine yourself happy. Do this daily and after a time you will feel a change in your own heart. Love. You will feel the love of forgiveness and acceptance.
The words finally came to me on a run. I've been struggling for days, even weeks anticipating the day. The one year anniversary. How could I write about it? Yet, how could I not? I very much wanted to put my feelings into words. I wanted to continue what I had begun. I've started this article half a dozen times. Words weren't coming; my thoughts were conflicted. After all, this was the most significant loss of my life to date.
I wondered what the day would bring. Since my heart remembered the date each month even when my conscious brain did not, I braced for the worst. Armoring myself was a way of life for the past 365 days. What was one more day of emotional hiding? All I could remember was last year's staggering pain. What else could I possibly expect?
Would the day be a beginning or an end? I'm not sure why I placed so much importance on the day. Maybe my ordered mind wanted to hop across the line between last year and this year and land safely on the other side. Mom's death was like a bolt out of the blue. A shock. A strike. And the blow sent me reeling. Months full of memories and tears. How do you consolidate fragmented memories mixed with grief, anger and acceptance into a single day? Then it occurred to me. My fear wasn't about the day; it was about the whole year. I didn't want to do it all over again.
And that's when I decided to change. I didn't hide. I didn't pretend. The day before the anniversary of Mom's death I asked for support. I reached out to my friends, shared my loss and my fears, and asked for a hug. What do you think happened? Hugs! Lots and lots of hugs. Instead of lonely fear I had support. The support I needed was always there--all I had to do was ask.
The schedule is tough this week. Late night rehearsals don't play well with early morning classes. Usually my gigs fit together like a puzzle. This week there's a missing piece--sleep. For years I've arranged my schedule around afternoon private lessons and nighttime rehearsals. That gave me the mornings for the usual--housework, errands, exercise, etc. And one other thing that really keeps me going--my journal.
Yep. I started the habit more than 10 years ago. Inspired by Julia Cameron's self-help book for creating, The Artist's Way
I began to journal. Instead of journaling she calls it "morning pages
" and it's a basic tool she recommends to help unlock your creativity. As soon as I wake up I grab my caffeine of choice and a spiral notebook and I write 3 pages worth of stream of consciousness scribbles. Like every habit it was hard to get started; yet once I got going I've never wanted to stop.
How do they work? Simply put, morning pages silence the Inner Critic. That nasty voice inside that judges. Holds us back. Stunts our growth. Morning pages allow the garbage to spill onto a page instead of festering in our thoughts. They've given me so much courage and strength that I almost forgot what they mean to me. This fall I learned how much I really need them.
When the before-school class started in August the alarm clock rattled my system. I gave up morning pages for racing through the shower and running out the door. Always exhausted and drained, I remember the fall semester like looking through a dense fog. So many changes--losing my mother, closing the doors on my six-year-old youth orchestra, gaining a completely new kind of job. I tried to fit in my journaling on the weekends or when I got back home from school but it didn't have the same cleansing effect.
Come January, I decided to get up 15 minutes earlier to journal before school. It wasn't that big of a change in my schedule but the change in my psyche has been phenomenal. Instead of hiding myself, I am reaching out. I may be short of sleep during a philharmonic week but writing shuttles the bad stuff out of my head. I am free to be.
The day I started this article I woke up tired, dragged myself downstairs and wrote my morning pages. I whined and complained on paper. And the more I whined the better I felt. The words got more positive and the positive words doubled the creative ideas. And like magic the fussy woman who rolled out of bed was transformed.
It's been a long time since I've written. I remember last writing in May, 2010, finishing up my school year tasks and then taking a very long break from the keyboard. Life is always busy. It's easy to get distracted by schedules and deadlines, routines and surprises. Dashing from this errand to that appointment. That's something we all share. Our ability to live on the surface.
Well, deep down we also share the tough stuff. When my mother died in March, I used this forum as a way to examine my feelings. I put my head down and marched through the days and kept writing. Sharing with anonymous listeners seemed to work for me. It was a comfort to express myself creatively. I was able to sit in front of my monitor and write and remember and cry.
After school wrapped I hit the road with my husband. We camped and hiked. Outdoors is such a good place to heal. You can't help but see renewal everywhere. But when opera season started in June and I reconnected with my colleagues I found myself back in the depths of grief. And I didn't like it. I didn't like talking about it; I didn't like publicly crying about it. I couldn't face the vulnerable feelings so I stopped sharing. Oh, it wasn't possible to ignore. I did my best to work through the process privately. I called on a very tiny support group and got myself to a place that felt somewhat sheltered from the pain.
That protection helped me through a fall that was bursting with new tasks. It helped me through a Thanksgiving that was fraught with potent family memories. And it helped me through a December that felt joyless and empty. After the holidays I withdrew from everything. And without realizing it, my shelter became a barrier instead of a safe haven.
Two weeks ago, something changed. Something caught my attention. Encouraging words, a surge of confidence, a dream--who knows? If I knew I'd capture the essence and save it for another time. Whatever it was, I stopped, I looked up, I realized I don't have to carry this inside any more. I can either hang on or let go--it feels like a choice. Now I can reach out.