Discomfort and Medals

When I was 31 years old in the hospital in labor with Aliana, I decided I wanted an epidural. I remember calling in the anesthesiologist, and as he was preparing to insert this long needle into me that I opted not to look at, he mentioned that he was surprised I had waited so long to get the epidural.

“Did you know you wanted to get one?” he asked me.

“Yes, I did,” I realized.

“But you waited a long time to get it,” he said, processing out loud. Even though I couldn’t see his face as he was speaking these words, I pictured him looking up at the ceiling, deep in thought, as he said them.

“Were you hoping for a medal?” he then asked, jokingly.

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When I was 8 years old, my mom used to take me shopping with her to the Amish store out in the country. When I was there, I came across a Bible Study lesson for kids. As I read through it, I noticed there was a study plan that came with it. You had to do a series of 12 lessons, and mail each one of them in. By the time you completed the final lesson, you would receive an ambiguous “prize.”

I did all those lessons. I couldn’t wait for my prize. In my mind, I was picturing some kind of gold trophy or medal. I did those lessons quickly and checked the mail every day, eagerly awaiting to receive the next lesson to arrive in our mailbox.

It took several months, but the day finally came when I mailed in my last lesson, and was awaiting my shiny, gold trophy.

I was aghast at what I saw when I opened the final envelope. It simply had a phone number on it that I was instructed to call.

My eight year old brain thought this was either going to be another exciting scavenger hunt, or a severe disappointment.

An elderly lady answered the phone. I felt like I was in a movie and she was going to give me a riddle to find an ancient treasure. But instead she asked me,

“Do you believe Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you want your name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life?” she asked me.

Was this some kind of bizarre joke, I wondered?? Was THIS phone call my prize? My Sunday School teacher was just as informative and way less creepy than this lady. I would have rather spoken with her.

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In April 2006, I was 29 years old, living in Madison, Wisconsin. I woke up in a haze, similar to what one might feel after drinking large quantities of alcohol, only this was not the case for me. I had cried so much the night before, that I was drunk on my own tears. My swollen eyes could barely open. I had slept, but it wasn’t a normal sleep. I finally got up, moving like I was twice my age, and saw I had a missed call from Alma.

I didn’t really know Alma, but she was trying to be my friend. When I called her back, she told me that she and her boyfriend, Alex, were coming over to my house to cook for me, and to get me to eat.

Alma was twenty years older than me. She had been married twice before and had finally found love with Alex. Even though, in my opinion, they seemed to bicker a lot, and Alma was often openly frustrated with Alex’s communication skills. But on this day, they reached out to me, without really knowing me, because they knew I had no one. (This was by choice. I let almost no one in.) They knew if they didn’t come to sit with me, I would be by myself in my own thoughts, going deeper into a black hole.

I stood next to Alma as she cooked homemade chorizo sausage on the stovetop in my kitchen.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get through this. Why would God allow this to happen to me? I can’t handle this. I’ve done so much. I’ve given my entire life to this marriage and supported him to reach his dreams, and–”

Alma cut me off. “M’ijja. You aren’t the first or the last woman to go through this. Women all over the world are waking up, just like you. Their husbands were unfaithful and they just keep going–without their husbands. You’ve got you. And that’s enough. There’s no prize for being good. You are good simply because you are good. And that’s enough. ”

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Now I am 43. Two days ago, I had an interesting conversation with another adult, who ended up telling me a story about a very difficult experience she had with Southwest Airlines. It involved her having to endure numerous travel delays, losing her luggage, and having to ultimately change airlines in order to get home. Most of this was due to the technology at Southwest being down.

This experience had happened several months ago, and yet as she was retelling it, I would have thought it was moments ago, because she was reliving it with such intensity and anger about how that airline had wronged her.

“But it was a technical glitch, right?” I clarified. “Like something they had no control over?”

“Yeah, but you would have thought they would have done more for me! It wasn’t my fault! Like at least give me some additional free flights or bonus miles or something,” she said, with flashes of anger in her eyes.

“Yes,” I said, still trying to understand why she was so angry about something that had happened months ago.

“It would be nice if we got medals and prizes when we showed up and did what we are supposed to do, right?” I said, quickly wishing I could retract it, when I saw the puzzled look on her face.

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Unless we are an Olympian or high school/college athlete, there is no medal or prize for physical pain. And in most cases of humanity, there is no tangible prize for being a good human, wife, mother, etc. And more importantly, doing good in this world doesn’t guarantee that good will come to you.

But what if there are prizes that aren’t tangible?

What if physical discomfort leads to strength?

What if suffering leads us to wisdom?

What if loving someone changes us, even if we don’t get loved back?

What if hard work produces resilience and knowledge, even if we didn’t achieve what we wanted to?

It really struck me how, even as we are adults in this world, we may still struggle with putting forth action, knowing that there may or may not be a reward.

Most of the time, there is no tangible award for enduring emotional discomfort. It doesn’t guarantee that people will be nice to you or encourage you. Nor is there an award for being kind and encouraging.

But I do believe those awards come from WITHIN. If I’m being nice and kind and working hard for something just to get an award, that doesn’t mean I’m nice or kind or an industrious person. All that means is that I was good so that I could receive something. Sometimes being kind has a ripple effect, so to speak. When one person is kind, it causes those around them to want to be kind as well. But sometimes it DOESN’T. Sometimes you are nice, and someone takes advantage of your kindness. Sometimes you work hard, and you fail.

But here’s the thing: you showed up. You did it. And you built resilience within yourself for doing it. We can do hard things. Even when there’s no medal.

What it really means to honor someone

Something to think about:

Lately I have, for whatever reason, overheard people with injuries in conversations joking about being a victim of domestic violence. Examples of what I’m referring to include something similar to the following statements:

•Woman who broke her tooth playing softball: “I’ve been telling my husband he better behave or I’ll start telling people that he’s the one who knocked my tooth out!”

•Man who busted lip falling down the stairs: “I busted my lip falling down the stairs but since that’s an embarrassing story I’m just gonna start telling people my wife did it!”

•Woman who has bruise on her leg from a slipping on the wet kitchen floor. “I’m telling everybody that Tom (husband) did it, just because it’s so much funnier.”

Most of these statements, when made, are followed by laughter. Which is to be expected, because THEY ARE JOKES. They are intended 100% to be funny. It is funny, after all, to joke about your spouse doing something he or she would never do in real life.

The only problem with this is that it’s actually the extreme opposite of funny for those who have experienced this in real life.

Make no mistake. Domestic violence is one of the worst forms of trauma any individual can go through. Trauma is trauma in all forms, and I’ve never been a fan of making judgments around which traumas are “worse” than others. However, we know, through research, that trauma experienced from domestic violence is awful and insidious in its long term effects on entire family units.

This particular kind of trauma is one that I feel I need to try and speak about because, as some of you who read this blog may know, I was in a relationship where I experienced domestic violence for ten years.

So, as you can imagine, when I overhear these conversations in real life, or when I see jokes on social media about this, I want to say something BADLY to confront the person making a joke. I want them to know that when you joke about domestic violence, it does two things:

  • It normalizes it.
  • It continues to perpetuate the cycle of victims not speaking up. If it’s a joke, why speak up? Maybe it’s not that bad, etc.

And let me tell you, there are people RIGHT NOW in your life who are going through this and you have no idea. People who experience this often become experts at hiding their shame.

But back to the moment when I want to SAY these things. I want to speak up, to use my voice, to be an advocate. But without fail, the same thing happens: I freeze. I want to speak the words or type the words in a message in a way that lovingly confronts, without inflicting too much judgment on the person whose intentions are typically benign, but I FREEZE. The words do not come, I feel a pit in my stomach, and I withdraw.

And then I start to think something along the lines of, “I can’t be that person that shares something, because everyone will think I’m overly sensitive since I’m the one who went through it. Maybe they won’t even believe me?”

(There is not a worse feeling for those who have experienced trauma than feeling like others don’t believe you. Experiencing that feeling is almost as bad as actually remembering the trauma.)

But back to me freezing up: perhaps this feeling that I’m scared to speak up is similar to or a small percentage of what people of color or women feel when they are in a situation where they are witnessing or experiencing racism or sexism and they don’t want to speak up because they feel that people will label them as “overly sensitive” or “making a big deal” when they, in fact, are EXPERTS on racism or sexism because of what they have experienced and so all the other people who have not experienced it need to simply sit down, close their mouths, and listen to them share their knowledge and experiences.

When you are victim of something, you naturally begin to study that very thing that has hurt you. You recognize it, you internalize it, and you SEE it and feel it and take it seriously. Because you know the ill, systemic effects of this awful thing becoming NORMALIZED and not taken seriously or even dehumanized.

That thing that we went through that broke our hearts–THAT THING is something we become an expert on. And it is not okay for anyone to take our expertise away from us.

Everyone has “a thing.” Some of us are blessed with more than one. But if a subject comes up that’s not “your thing,” your job is simple: close your mouth and listen to the people who went through “the thing” if they feel comfortable sharing. Because those people are COURAGEOUS and your only job is to listen. Don’t start talking about someone you know who went through “the same thing.” Nope. Don’t do it. Not your moment. The only job you have in that pivotal moment is to listen.

And then, once you know a little bit more, you can become an ally to people who went through that thing, and start speaking up to honor their pain. Because you didn’t have to go through the pain, trauma, and suffering of that thing–somebody else did. Your job, after you have listened, is to confront traumatic experiences being joked about, not taken seriously, and dehumanized. Confront it-speak up. Have courage. Remember, you didn’t have to go through that thing–it may be easier for you to speak up than someone who did.

So why is it that our culture doesn’t understand this? I don’t know. I truly don’t understand. Racism, domestic violence, sexism, and other kinds of trauma are not funny at all. And if a joke is being made, the only people who truly have a right to joke about it if they so feel inclined is THE PERSON WHO WENT THROUGH THAT THING.

When I think back to some of the experiences I had when I was in my ten year relationship where I experienced abuse–both emotional and physical–one of the themes I see in those experiences is that I felt ashamed. I felt broken. I felt confused. I felt completely discombobulated. No one enters an abusive relationship thinking they are going to be abused. And yet, here they are. And it’s a living death. I had arrived at a point where I was emotionally dead, disassociated from those around me. By the grace of God, the birth of my child, somehow slapped me into taking a step into walking away.

However others are not so lucky. Some people have died from the abuse. Some have simply never left. Others are still in denial and won’t speak about it to anyone. It is for those people, and not for me, that I ask that you say something when you hear someone joke about trauma. Think of it as honoring those who cannot speak–either because it’s too painful or they physically are not even alive anymore to speak about it. This goes for all kinds of trauma–racism, sexism, bullying, neglect, refugee trauma, etc. Honor those who cannot speak. Because you can.

And here’s a photo below of the aforementioned slap that woke me up and gave me courage to take a step. I will never forget how lucky I am for doing a thing I didn’t think I could ever do. For I am no better nor more smarter than anyone else. There are many things I will draw a line on in the sand, but this is not one of them: some people leave abuse and others don’t. No one is better or smarter than anyone else. I do not know why I have been given this gift of a second chance. It’s like similar to being the person who walks away from a car crash, still alive, while others are seriously injured, or worse, deceased.

May the thing that broke you open give you an awareness and love and empathy for others. May it give you strength to do hard things. May you feel heard when you want to speak up.

There is no easy walk to freedom

At this very moment eleven years ago, at the age of 31, I was in a hospital bed, waiting to be born.

I, a 31 year old woman, was waiting to be born.

People around me were waiting for a baby girl to be born. They didn’t know that she was not the only one entering the world, though. They didn’t know what my insides looked like, because I didn’t tell them. I guess I didn’t really know that I was dead inside either. I only knew that I was a vapid, insipid human being–a person who knew nothing and felt very little. Feelings were painful and scary, and so disassociation had become my normal state of being. I was going through motions just enough to keep the peace, but not enough to actually show up in this world as fully human.

Until I saw her.

They pulled her out of me at 7:50 am on June 15, 2008. She tilted her head to one side, as the nurse held her up to my face. For the first time in such a long time, I felt something. Something about those mocha eyes staring at me caused me to almost want to stand up, even though I had literally just been cut open a few minutes ago in a Caesarean section surgery.

I took her and held her. This was an inexplicably important moment. It wasn’t just the birth of my child. It was the birth of me. Somehow I knew that. I just didn’t know how it would quite play out. I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew disassociation was no longer an option. I had to start showing up in my own life.

Every day of the first two years of Aliana’s life, I knew that I would need to leave my marriage in order to become me again. This truth grew into a massively strong tree that continued to grow inside of my soul as it was revealed to me, day in and day out. This tree of truth became so mighty and strong that I felt shame for not watering it. I felt shame for noticing it, but not taking care of it. While I didn’t act upon it, I felt this ominous feeling inside that I needed to do something or that tree would actually pop out of me and I would be exposed for being a fraud.

I somehow made baby steps of action. I found Bible verses that spoke to me and read them every day. Every morning I read the magnet on my fridge that said, “Be strong and courageous and do the work.” -1 Chronicles 28:20. As I read that verse over and over again, I hoped the words would eventually cause my feet to act on what was growing inside of me. I wrote down a quote in my journal by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Our lives begin the end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I knew this was the truth. That until I spoke up about what was happening in my life, and acted on that truth–that I would continue to choose a life that was rooted in darkness instead of in light.

Silence creates shame. Ironically, the more we don’t act on changing things that we know need to be changed, the more the shame seems to grow.

I knew the work I needed to do was to leave my marriage. The more I knew it, the angrier my spouse seemed to become. The abusive episodes escalated until a moment in February 18, 2010, where my daughter witnessed something that no child should ever see. I felt my heart jump out of my chest as I called the Julian Center the next day, “I need help,” I told them.

I began to call attorneys. I began to interview attorneys in secret. I began to go to the Julian Center for a women’s support group.

And then I told my family. I started with Uncle Roy. Uncle Roy was patient and kind and truthful. He helped me to begin to not be ashamed of my experiences but to actually own them. I began to understand why “responsibility” is the fourth stage in the cycle of violence: for it is when we take responsibility for stopping the cycle, that it can finally end. Ownership of truth leads to responsibility.

Abusive relationships are addictive. People become addicted to each other during the cycle of trauma. There’s something called trauma bonding that happens-which is why the average woman tries to leave an abusive relationship multiple times before she actually does it with finality.

People ask me all the time: what causes some people to finally leave abusive relationships, and others to never leave? And I used to say all the time, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know I somehow did it but I’m not even sure how I got there.”

And while I still don’t completely know, what I do know is this–there is a connection between humility and courage.

My parents always acted on the extreme side of teaching me humility. Sometimes I felt that they aimed so hard to teach me that vanity and pride were a load of crap, that I actually almost had none.

But this trait they worked so hard to instill in me–a sense of humility–was ultimately what caused me to change my life.

Humility is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “freedom from pride or arrogance.” When you are humble by nature and are facing difficult challenges, you can start to say things like, “Hey, I don’t know how to do this. Let me get some help from someone. Let me listen instead of speak. Let me admit that I’m jacked up right now. Let me sit with this and know that God will lead me out of this if I listen hard and surrender to the fact that I cannot control my situation, but I can take responsibility for it.”

There is something to be said to listening to your inner compass. But when your inner compass is not working, there is wisdom in listening to and following the advice of others who love you and who are professionals. When you are blindsided with fear and anxiety, your inner compass doesn’t even work. It’s like a compass on steroids, spinning and spinning and freezing up.

So that is when you find the following two people:

-a very wise, professional well researched individual who is an expert on what you are going through (like a psychologist or doctor)

-a wise friend or family member who always wants what’s best for you and loves you more than you love you

And then you sit down and listen. Filter out what sits better with you than what doesn’t. But trust that they know things you don’t.

We don’t know it all. We can be experts and read books until we are dead, but when we are experiencing something keeps us stuck in a shame cycle, anxiety spin, or is just painful as hell, we will need help.

We will need help. We will need each other. We will need truth, that is borne from love.

For me, my rebirth was the road to freedom. I still have pain and difficulties in my life, but I have ME. I know how to be me and it’s safe to be me. I am free from abuse, and just like an addict who becomes sober, I will never go back “there.” I will not become entangled with someone who abuses me, uses me, and confuses me.

But I wouldn’t have gotten to that point without learning to listen, and without a humble heart. The challenge with raising a child is aiming for humility AND self love. It’s hard-it means you must do a lot of talking, modeling, and building understanding of healthy relationships.

I feel so much gratitude today. Gratitude for my 11 year old baby, gratitude for humility, and gratitude for freedom. The other day, I saw this quote from Nelson Mandela, posted at a school I was in:

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again, before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

May we remember this: that no one, not even God, has promised us an easy life. But we have the ability to be quiet, be still, and listen. And within that stillness, we just might find a new path or new way of being. I am so thankful to this child, whose birth was a reminder that it’s never too late to change your life. And it’s never too late to become free.

The Difference between Happiness and Joy

I sit on the wooden porch swing, kicking my legs up and down as I swing in the air.  The baby monitor is on the patio table. I hear the white noise machine running and I know I will hear her voice soon.  She wakes up frequently these days.

I look at at the pond as I’m swinging.  It’s April.  I hear the bullfrogs.  Swinging in the evenings on this screened in porch calms me.  I think about how just six months before this, I did not want to buy this porch swing because it was too expensive.  My husband had insisted it was a necessary purchase.

“When we have company, people will love sitting in this swing and looking out at the lake,” he said. “We entertain all the time. We need this swing.”

“It’s not a lake. It’s a pond,” I whispered under my breath.

And now, I know this purchase was actually a wise one, but not for company…for me.  I don’t analyze why, but simply accept that I have become a person who needs to sit outside and swing every night before I can go to sleep.  I look down at my legs as I swing.  They are tiny, almost birdlike.  I miss my thickness in some odd way because these birdlegs are not truly me.  They were borne from the womb of a deep anxiety in which food feels like poison.  I swallow even the most delicious food that I once enjoyed, and it feels like I’m ingesting a needle, as it painfully moves down my throat.  This is what happens to me when I grieve: I do not want to eat.

I have been sitting here 30 minutes when I hear her cry on the monitor.  She is 22 months old, and used to sleep through the night like a champ.  Now I cannot remember what that feels like.  I am now accustomed to getting up all the time to rub her back or rock her or put her back in her crib or in bed with me to sleep.  I make my way upstairs to her room.  I pick her up and we rock, rock, rock, and I sing to her.  I sing everything from hymns to the Beatles to church camp songs.  I do not even like the Beatles and I don’t know who I have become.  But this is now me.  I am a boring, bird leg girl who sings Beatles songs and spends her nights swinging on the porch.

When she is asleep, I return to the swing.  It is now starting to get dark.  I do the other thing I do which calms my spirit: I call my Uncle Roy.

My uncle is one of two or three people who knows the truth–who knows that I am now this girl (actually a 32 year old woman) who swings on the porch swing at night and does not know how to sleep or eat.  Everyone else I see everyday believes I am calm and maybe even pretty and have this cute baby and friendly husband and that I have my life together.  I do not want to be a person who fools others, but I don’ t know how to be me in this world.  And so every time someone says anything nice to me, I actually feel worse, because how can any compliment even be true if the person they are complimenting isn’t even me?

And so as I am swinging on the swing, talking to Uncle Roy, I begin to tell him all of this. He listens to my anxious heart.  And I begin to ask him crazy questions, because I’m a ball of nerves. I tell him a story of how earlier that evening, I confronted my husband to ask him where he’s been going every night after he eats dinner. I feel like his pattern is changing. I wonder if he is with another woman, but I don’t really want to think about that. I just want him to give me an answer that appeases my spirit and that I can somehow make sense of.

Because none of my life makes sense to me right now. None of it.

My husband proceeded to tell me he is leaving every night to meet with different people because he is “networking.” I ask for more clarification, and he proceeds to tell me that he is a leader in the community, and he must network. I become quiet, as I can tell my questioning is irking him, but he doesn’t stop talking. He tells me that I would never understand what he’s doing because I’m not a leader. In fact, he tells me: you’re a loser.

My husband called me a loser. I am anxious because I have a husband who calls me a loser.

How effed up is my life right now? Like, how do I even tell people who ask me how I’m doing that things are kinda not the best right now because my husband calls me a loser?

And then my uncle makes a joke.  He asks me if I made the L sign with my hand and put it up to my forehead since I’m such a big loser to show my husband what a giant loser I am.  And I just start to laugh and giggle at this thought.  It feels so hilarious to me and I realize that something awful can also be funny at the same time.

I find comfort in this dichotomy. The dichotomy makes sense.

That night, when my daughter wakes up again, I sing to her. This time I sing a song I used to sing at vacation Bible school: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart! I’ve got the peace that passes understanding down in my heart! Where? Down in my heart today.”

She stops crying. I stop rocking. I feel joy. I know it’s joy because it’s laughter and kinda like peace even when everything in life really is kind of jacked up.

I understand that joy is a friend to hope and faith. And it cannot be accessed unless you believe in laughter and tears at the same time. You must believe that something can both be awful and depressing and yet freeing and funny.

Joy is knowing that a dichotomy of hope and pain coexist. And that joy and happiness have nothing to do with each other. Happiness is a moment in time. Joy simply exists WITHIN you.

I do not tell you these things to tell you that you should settle for an awful life. I do not tell you these things because I believe you should accept disrespectful treatment from others.

Instead I tell you these things so that you know that joy is at the foundation of faith. And it is accessible to you even in the darkest of hours. It is not a feeling dependent on other people. It is a KNOWING in your spirit that life is still going. That God is still there. That feelings are temporary.

It is a reminder that tough times will not last, but tough people do. Do not stand still, but be still and know that you will know what to do. But you must first believe in joy.

This photo was taken that summer I couldn’t stop swinging.

Pain is Pain

What I know to be true: discovering your partner is unfaithful is a painful experience. In addition, living in an abusive relationship can be like hell on earth. I have written on this blog rather openly about discovering my ex-husband’s infidelity, as well as experiencing domestic violence, in posts like The Cave or Weak is the New Strong.

But in the last year, I have mentioned my former marriage more peripherally as opposed to writing about the experience of it. I will explain why in a moment, but first, I want to explain why I wrote about it to begin with.

I started this blog in 2014. Writing about my past experiences I had worked hard to heal from, seemed to help me to find my voice. It also helped me to process the past, look back on what I had learned, and more importantly, to maybe even help someone who was going through difficulties similar to mine.

I feel so thankful, to this day, for the painful experiences that have been a part of my life. Those experiences shaped me into a woman with an empathetic heart, and a spirit that seeks peace. I have a different view of the world, and a deeper understanding of human behavior, due to experiencing darkness. I learned that the pain was only pain–that it wouldn’t kill me, and in fact, pain is just a reminder that we are alive. Pain is our most powerful teacher, if we have the courage to sit with it and let us teach us what we need to know.

As a result of sitting with that pain, one of the universal truths I now know is this: humans are neither completely evil nor completely good. We are complex people with layers to us. We hurt people when we’ve been hurt, unless we dig deeper to understand what’s behind our feelings.

And no one has life figured out. I don’t care if you’re the smartest person in the room–you still don’t. Life has this very interesting way of breaking us in two when we cling to things or people not meant for us. And then we have to learn all this crap, all over again.

And now, here I am, eight years post leaving my marriage, processing these universal truths, and remembering some things I’ve never said before.

Amy Schumer, when speaking publicly about her own experiences in an abusive relationship, said, “You don’t choose to fall in love with someone that hurts you.”

And yet we do. Why do we do that? I don’t know, because each one of us has our own particular true reasons, but what I do know is this: most abusers are not always abusive. Sometimes they are the kindest, most loving people you will ever meet. And yet, the next moment, they are not. And that is sometimes what hooks us–grappling with the confusion of it all.

In 2010, my therapist I saw right after my divorce, invited me to attend a women’s therapy group. We listened to each other talk about experiences from the past. The therapist would look at people’s faces around the room and stop and ask us things like, “Jane, what emotions does this bring up for you when Teresa talks about relapsing on alcohol?” And even though Jane had no experience with alcohol addiction, she could somehow make a connection to her experience because PAIN IS PAIN. All of us had very different stories, but this never seemed to matter, because we could somehow make the most insightful connections by listening to each other.

One day, a woman named Anna (whose name I changed of course) was speaking about her father, who was dying.

She told us all about how confused she was by the fact that her father, who was extremely physically and emotionally abusive to her and her entire family throughout her life, had sort of “mellowed out” once he figured out that his death was eminent. And what was even more confusing to her, was how her heart had softened towards him.

“I guess there were always parts of me that loved him no matter how abusive he was at times,” she said, somewhat perplexed. “How jacked up is that?”

The therapist saw me tearing up.

“Emily… you seem to be having a reaction to that. Is there anything you would like to share?”

I took in a deep breath. I had learned that deep breathing helped to keep my voice from being shaky when I was tearful.

“Yes,” I finally said. “I don’t think it’s jacked up, Anna. Because nobody is entirely good nor entirely evil. We are humans. We are complex.”

It was hard for me to admit this. And yet, I knew it was true. I felt it in the depths of my spirit. Even today, I still feel it when someone who has hurt me deeply does something that is kind, such as genuinely apologizing for past behavior.

Please do not mistake the words I’m writing to be in alignment with the belief that allowing people to abuse you or even keeping people in your life who are abusive is in any way, shape, or form OKAY.

I value my peace, so that I can do important work in this world, which has lead me to have boundaries that may be firmer than most people’s at times. I block people from my life and put up a metaphorical drawbridge when needed to protect my heart, my spirit, and my energy.

But I don’t choose to live in the thought that I am any better than anyone else.

Instead, I choose to live in the thought that each of us is responsible for our own life. And what that means by default is that I am in charge of my peace and joy, and living my best life. What that further means is that I must have boundaries with people who engage in toxic behaviors with me or behaviors that steal my joy.

Humans are complex. And I refuse to engage in the belief that I am a better person or more righteously evolved than another. It is that very belief that fuels indifference to other’s pain. We cannot be indifferent, but what we can and should be is AWARE of how others’ choices affect us, and undoubtedly act on this, to protect our dignity and wholeness.

I love knowing in the depths of my spirit that I can do hard things. I can break in a million pieces, feel deep pain, and still will rise. I believe this for you, too. But the only way to arrive at this is to be aware and act on taking responsibility of this awareness through a combination of honesty and action.

When we feel continually hurt and devastated by the actions of another human, it’s time to put up the drawbridge. Like don’t overthink it–put that drawbridge up! Because it is only then, when we are in our separate castles and at peace, that we can begin to forgive and to start to see, when the time is right, with clarity, that the person who is hurting us, is simply a person–someone who is showing up in their pain and hurt, maybe even doing the best he or she can.

Random photo, circa 2013:

The Broken Window

When I got home from vacation a few days ago, I noticed that something was wrong with my car window–the one on the driver’s side.

When I was arriving at the gym, I pushed the switch to roll the window down, and the window started acting cuckoo. It was suddenly off the track and leaning to one side and although I could still move it up and down, it wouldn’t close because it wasn’t lining up correctly on its track.

So naturally, I felt like this was a big deal, you know? I mean, I just returned from Florida, where it was warm, but it’s FREEZING in Indiana, and I thought to myself, “It’s too cold to drive around with a window that won’t close.”

With a feeling of urgency, I started to push the button more and more. “Forget the gym,” I said to myself, “this window must be fixed now.” I pushed the button up and down and began to try and physically pull the window off the track in an effort to slot it back in.

Now here’s the thing: I KNOW NOTHING ABOUT CARS. So I had no business thinking that I knew what I was doing. I just knew I didn’t want to drive the dang car with an open window in 40 degree temps.

Not surprisingly, my efforts were to no avail, and I ended up calling a mechanic. Upon examining the window, the first thing the mechanic told me was that it looked as if the window had simply slid off the track, which would have been an easy fix for him, but in my efforts to fix the window myself, I had actually broken the window regulator part in the process, and that would now have to be replaced.

The part was ordered, and he then put the window back on the track in its rightful position, but left me with a strict directive:

“Do not push the button up and down. The window will stay in its correct place as long as you do not press it.”

“Ok,” I said, somehow knowing this would be hard for me. 🙄 I seem to be someone who is good at doing hard things, but not easy things.

He must have read the stressed look on my face, because he then continued,

“And if you forget and press it, please do not attempt to fix it again. Just let it be until the part comes in.” 

Ok,” I said. 😳

On the drive on the way home, I said to Aliana, “Maybe I should put duct tape over the switch, so I don’t forget to not use it.”

Aliana, who is 10, reassured me that this was not necessary.

“Just remember not to touch it,” she said. I did a little internal psyching myself up. I said outloud, “Don’t roll down the window, Emily. You can remember. Don’t do it!”

I then enjoyed a very luxurious 24 hours of driving around in my warm car. I was determined to not touch the window, as I was thoroughly appreciating the warmth, dryness, and privacy of my vehicle. However, that feeling of gratefulness began to wane, (as gratefulness often does, if we don’t hold it close to our hearts) and was replaced with a sense of complacency within a few hours.

And then, as I was entering a parking facility the next night, I realized I needed to grab a ticket. Without thinking, you guessed it…I rolled down the window.

The window immediately went off the track , of course, and one side of the glass was now poking up in the air.

“Ugh,” I said to myself. I was simultaneously surprised I had forgotten while also fully expecting that this would happen.

I spent the next day driving around with the window open in rain all day. Everywhere I went, I was cold, rainy, and wet. I contemplated getting a towel to dry off the car and cold, wet steering wheel. Somehow, part of my ego argued against it.

“It’s all your fault. You forgot what you were supposed to do, and now you must pay the price,” the voice in my head said.

The next morning my mechanic texted me to tell me there was a delay in the arrival of the part. I was going to face an additional 24 hours driving around in the cold.

I began to once again think about how my annoyance with the window situation was all my fault, and it was happening as a result of two mistakes I made in my thinking: I tried to fix something I knew nothing about by myself, instead of being still and waiting. And then, after knowing I needed to practice a simple, new way of thinking, I had once again slipped back to my old ways of thinking, thereby breaking it again.

I knew that pressing the switch would result in a very unfavorable outcome. And yet, I forgot what I knew and did it anyways.

This got me thinking: how many times do we do this? How many times do we have a new, very important goal at hand, and we get complacent about it and then slip back into old habits and mindsets?

And the equally important flip side of that question is this:

How many times do we spend beating ourselves up for our mistake, instead of having compassion for ourselves and just deciding to do better and move forward?

Did I help myself when I decided I deserved to be cold and wet and rainy the next day? I was essentially deciding that I deserved to be miserable. I could have gotten a towel to dry off and put on some gloves and made myself more comfortable.

But instead, I wanted to grumble and punish myself.

Side note: I think I may be the only weirdo on the face of the earth that contemplates life like this when a window breaks.

But if I am that weirdo, I might as well share these musings.

To recap:

  • When something goes wrong, and we are not sure what to do, many times it’s in our best interest to stop DOING and just get still. In the stillness, we have the ability to think rationally, instead of simply reacting and breaking windows and crap.
  • When we are trying to think in a new way–whether it’s embracing a new lifestyle, new way of thinking, or new reality–we should realize that we may have moments where we revert to old patterns of thinking, especially in times of urgency or complacency.
  • When we make an error out of complacency or urgency, or addictive patterns, we must acknowledge the error, while having compassion with ourselves, so that we can move forward. Other people may not have compassion for us, which is why it is so important that we give that gift to ourselves.

We are all worthy of compassion and self forgiveness. And we are all worthy of having new opportunities and new results. So as we go about our day, let’s also remember this additional truth:

It is only in our brokenness, that we can actually see more beauty in the world. So maybe broken windows aren’t that bad after all.

The Softness that is Forgiveness

If anyone again asks me what it means to forgive someone, I will tell him or her this story.

It started when I was 32, in the summer of 2009. My husband, at the time, was from the Dominican Republic. We decided to make a trip there so his family could meet our daughter right when she was turning one year old.

We arrived in the hot month of June. The Dominican Republic is near the Equator, and from the moment we stepped off the airplane, I could feel the heat of the sun percolating on my pores. I had lost all my baby weight, but now was almost too thin due to not eating. My marriage was falling apart at the seams and I was unraveling too. The only thing holding me together was my focus on my child and her wellbeing.

“I’m so glad you finally lost weight,” my mother-in-law said to me in Spanish, with a widely genuine smile when I greeted her at the airport. While I knew that a person’s weight is not as taboo of a subject in the Dominican Republic as it is in the United States, her words etched a streak on my already decrepit spirit.

My mother-in-law never seemed to like me, but I could not ever seem to deduce why. Sometimes I thought it was due to the fact I was a foreigner. Other times I thought maybe I was unknowingly breaking some cultural rules or wasn’t submissive enough, in her mind, to be a good wife.

But ultimately the reasons behind her perceived dislike for me weren’t really worth spending time analyzing. I just had to deal with it.

During this trip, I tried to keep my daughter on a nap schedule. My mother-in-law told me this was ridiculous and that no child needed such a thing. I didn’t want to argue with her because I felt that would be a sign of disrespect, but I continued to put her down for a nap everyday at the same time, even though she would blast merengue music in objection to my decision.

I loved the Dominican Republic for so many reasons: I adored the welcoming nature of its people, the love I felt from my host family when I studied abroad there, the hospitality of strangers in the community, and the kindness and resilient spirit I witnessed in its people.

But I did not love my mother in law. I could not love my mother in law, no matter how hard I tried.

I looked at her and I saw pain. The pain of being an abused wife. The shame of being left by her husband. The guilt and oppression she suffered from so many losses.

And yet, I couldn’t find it in my heart to accept her in her brokenness.

The entire time we were in her home, I was belittled and criticized for being overly focused on my daughter. I was confused by the criticism that seemed to be contradictory at the time: one moment I was being told my schedule was ridiculous, but the next moment, I was called disorganized for not getting my daughter’s bottle ready quickly enough.

It was gaslighting behavior, except for it was my in-laws doing it, instead of my then husband.

As for my then husband, he remained silent most of the time, choosing not to intervene. When he would intervene, it was to side with his family as they were telling me what I was doing wrong in my mothering.

The last night we were there, I felt relief that we were finally going home. As I was rocking my daughter to sleep that night, my mother in law called for me to come talk to her. When I was done putting her to bed, I went to find my mother-in-law in the kitchen.

“I need to tell you something,” she said to me in Spanish, “something I should have told you before.”

I had a moment where my heart softened. She’s going to apologize, I thought. She feels badly for criticizing me.

But before my heart could soften any further, her words quickly transformed into daggers that were aimed at my heart, my self worth, and my ability to love.

“You are an awful mother and wife,” she said.

I gulped down air, feeling like I needed to run away, but instead froze.

“Do you want to know why?” she asked.

I didn’t answer, standing there without moving. Apparently I was now an ice cube, stuck in my tray, unable to transform back to fluidity.

“You have paid more attention to that child than your own marriage. So if my son cheats on you… if he has other women he wants to sleep with–that’s no one’s fault other than your own,” she said.

“You deserve however he treats you,” she stated, and finally stepped aside so I could walk away if I chose to do so.

I suddenly felt my legs melting. I bowed my head and exited the kitchen. I went upstairs and wanted to cry, but couldn’t. I didn’t have tears. I felt as if whatever bubble of dignity was still present in my spirit had been popped by a sharp needle and had oozed away.

Despite this terrible emptiness, I somehow realized a small push of determination to fight for myself was still present within me. I imagined myself putting on armor, lying down in it to rest, knowing that this was temporary. I just needed to remember that the armor was there to protect me.

The next morning we left the Dominican Republic. One year after that, I left my husband.

And then nine years after that, I walked into my ex-husband’s house to pick up my daughter, and I saw her face. When they told me she would be there, I was scared. Scared I would not know what to say. Scared she would take her anger at me out on my daughter. Scared that she would take me back to that day nine years ago in her kitchen when I last saw her.

But when I saw her face, I instead felt the strangest thing. I felt something weird, as she walked over to me and cupped my face in her hands and side kissed my cheeks, as is the custom in the Dominican Republic.

I felt a tenderness. I felt empathy. I felt respect. I felt seen.

I don’t know how that happened. I have no FREAKING idea. But I know that’s what forgiveness is. It’s a softening. A turning towards. It is not reconciliation. It is simply understanding. It is letting go. It is loving from a distance. It’s gratitude from learning the lessons the pain taught you.

Time creates space. Space creates room to see the truth. I know that without the gift of time and space, it’s hard to learn to recognize the truth. And the truth is that you never need closure for anything. Things fall apart and the only thing you need to remember or try to do is put yourself back together. And once you do that, you may see that in your brokenness, you are strong. In your pain and bitterness, you have lessons. And one of those lessons might be that you may one day, after time and space, find yourself looking back on everything, with a very different softness about you.

And that softness is forgiveness.

What it’s Really Like to be a Single Parent

The other day I went to my doctor’s office for an appointment and was making small talk with the nurse. I told her about an upcoming solo vacation I was going on for a weekend, and the nurse asked me if I was taking my daughter. I told her no, she was with her dad that weekend.

“Oh,” she said. “So you can like get away and do things by yourself when she’s gone. Man, I wish I were divorced so I could get a break from my kids!”

🙆🏻‍♀️🤔😐

I thought of a couple sarcastic, semi humorous possible responses in my head, but chose not to verbally respond to her statement, knowing that it was probably more of a commentary of her sentiments about her own marriage and responsibilities, and less of a statement about divorce.

Because no one who has ever been divorced says stuff like that.

And what the nurse didn’t realize is what it’s REALLY like to be a single parent.

Preface: This is my perspective, based on a few different factors pertaining to my individual situation listed below.

    I am divorced and have my daughter alone about 75% of the time.
    For various reasons, I do not co-parent with her father. We have more of a “business relationship.”
    I do not have a partner in my home. It’s just me and my kid.

So in essence, I’m about to give you my take on single parenting from someone who is truly single parenting 75 % of the time to one child.

Here goes:

Single parenting is like living inside a computer that never turns off. There are many different tabs and programs open and only you can close them because you’re the one with the username and password and operating instructions. Oh, and the operating instructions are ones you have developed yourself based on your own experiences as a child except for you have to keep tweaking them as you realize your childhood and even your child is quite different than you. People may try to help you and sometimes you’re like oh my goodness, thank you for your help, YES, because your computer is so warmed up from running all the time, and you have all these different tabs open, like a tab for meals, clothing, homework, cleaning, extra curricular activities, one for trying to figure out tweens or toddlers, and not even mentioning the tabs for your own life.

In contrast, many homes with two involved parents have a computer they share. They exchange operating instructional notes. They both know how the computer works. And they can divide up the endless tabs and responsibilities. And sometimes one of them can say to the other, “I’m losing my patience with this kid we are trying to figure out. I need to walk away from the computer, so can you keep tabs on it while I go to the grocery store and get a mental break?”

But the single parent has to keep all the tabs open even when she or he wants a break. Any breaks taken from the computer are never, ever spontaneous. No one just randomly shows up at her door at the exact moment she needs a break. That doesn’t mean she or he never receives technical support to keep their computer up and running smoothly. But it does mean she is the only one responsible for running that computer. It is she who must make decisions and decide how to fix it most of the time.

It is the times when my child is most emotional that I feel the greatest responsibility of single parenting and running that computer. When she is devastated about a loss, or extremely excited or nervous about an upcoming event, or angry with me because she didn’t get her way, I feel her feelings and I hold space for her and I realize that THIS IS IT. I’m her emotional support and I have to be present. I have to help her process.

It is in those times that I sometimes literally fall to my knees and say, “Lord, lead me, because it’s just me and my heart leading this kid, and I don’t know what in the heck I’m doing. Give me wisdom and strength to bear this great responsibility.”

Here’s the thing, though: I cannot bear witness to the challenges of single parenting without bearing witnesses to the beauty in it.

I am no more proud of anything than I am of the work I do as a single parent. I am not doing it perfectly, but I am doing it. I know that there are times she wishes, as many children of divorced parents do, that her parents were not divorced. What she doesn’t know, and may never know, is that I fought very hard to save my marriage to the point that I had lost myself completely in another person.

However, I found myself as a mother when I had the freedom to be me. I found myself when my daughter was two years old, woke up vomiting in the middle of the night, and cried for me. I found myself when she was three years old and fell running at the pool and got a concussion, and I scooped her up off the ground and rushed her to the doctor. I found myself when I took her to a child psychologist at the age of four because I was so worried I had no idea what I was doing raising this strong willed, vibrant little girl. I found myself when she received straight As all year long and won an award, and I was the sole person there to support her. I found myself when she got in big trouble in first grade for throwing her shoe over the fence during recess and she went the rest of the school day wearing one shoe.

In a million and one ways, I FOUND myself due to parenting my daughter alone.

And while I do not wish the challenges that come with divorce or single parenting on anyone, I am grateful for the million and one ways that the experience of single parenting has forced me to find myself.

With great responsibility, also comes a great reward, if you are simply willing to find yourself in the midst of the hard stuff.

Pablo’s Story

I made this two weeks ago, but couldn’t figure out how to upload it. Yes, I know I have uploaded videos before, but I couldn’t remember how I did it. Sigh. Technology is hard. And one more thing: when I say tests are dumb, what I meant is–STANDARDIZED tests not designed with English Language Learners in mind–are dumb. Just wanted to clarify.

Click below for VLOG number two:

www.youtube.com/watch