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.

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.

Robert Earl Whitehead

Yesterday, my dad turned 77 years old. Like I said in my last blog about my mother, who just turned 79, it’s so hard to believe that my parents are almost in their 80s. In my mind, they are still like 62 or something. But as I discovered the other day, my parents are older than some of my friends’ grandparents. They are aging, and that is a reality which has somehow never been easy for me to grasp.

But, back to my dad. My dad has always been an unusual character. Out of my two parents, he’s the most like me, in personality. He’s extraverted, works better with children than adults (he still teaches Sunday School to preschoolers), enjoys adventure, and tells the most interesting stories of ANYONE I’ve ever known.

When I was a child, I remember one of my cousins describing a man in an airport she had observed that reminded her of my father.

“Did he look like my dad? Like bald and kinda short?” I asked.

“No, she said. “Not at all. But it wasn’t the way he looked that reminded me of your dad… it was the way he moved around.”

“Moved around?”

“Yeah, like he stood there with his hands on his hips, turning his head in every direction, frenetically observing everything happening around him. And his face had a look on him like this 🤨.”

Yep, that sounds about right, I thought to myself.

My dad has never known a stranger. He has always spoken to everyone about anything and everything. If my dad were a cat instead of a human, curiosity would have killed all of his nine lives before he had even made it to adulthood.

My father’s stories have always intrigued my friends and I. His stories include some of the following: the time the nuns made up a lie about him in order to kick him out of the choir in Catholic school, the time he almost drowned in the ocean when he kicked off in an inner tube from the north shore of Oahu, the time when he got fired in the college cafeteria, the time he dropped a mercury thermometer and infected large quantities of tomatoes at the canned tomato factory, the time he failed sex education class IN COLLEGE, and the time he was thrown in jail in Florida on spring break.

Despite his animated storytelling and unique way of carrying himself, he always struck me as someone who perhaps has been misunderstood. People have mistaken his kindness for weakness, his ADHD nature for being unobservant, and his sense of adventure for fearlessness.

When I was in high school, a mentor of mine told me that every nuclear family tends to have a scapegoat–the person who gets blamed for everything or is picked on more than others. Upon hearing this statement, I immediately thought of my father, and realized that he was our family’s scapegoat. Something missing? Dad surely misplaced it. Forgot the one item on the grocery list we needed? Dad’s fault. People are laughing at us? Dad must be doing something ridiculous. Happy birthday rendition sounds like nails on the chalkboard? Dad tried to sing.

Everything wrong? Dad must have done something.

And here’s the thing about scapegoats–they often play along in their role. And my dad did just that. He had no problems being the brunt of jokes or being blamed for crap for the most part. He just went with the flow.

But here’s the other thing about scapegoats–they are often misunderstood.

I want to tell you a story about my father that only I can tell so that maybe I can show a side of him that not everyone knows. When I was about eight years old, we were walking out to the car together to go to the grocery store and I said, “Oh my God!” about something, and my dad froze in his tracks. I looked up at him in that moment, and the outrage I saw in his eyes made me truly afraid of him for the first, and possibly only, time. You see, my dad would get mad here and there, but I never took it too seriously because I knew he was just pouty and a little emotional. But this time, I had apparently hit a nerve. He was angry, but he didn’t scream. He got down on his knees, eye level, and told me, “Don’t you ever take the Lord’s name in vain again. You know I don’t spank, but I will spank you for that.”

And I don’t think I ever said, “Oh my God,” until I was like 33 years old after that. My dad wasn’t strict with me (that was my mom’s job in our home,) but he was apparently strict about invoking the name of the Lord.

A couple of years ago, I gave my dad a book that had questions in it that I wanted him to write the answers to. The questions were mostly about his life, and the experiences he has had. When he was done, he gave the book back to me to have as a keepsake. I am a sentimental person when it comes to my aging parents, so I didn’t open the book up until yesterday because I was afraid it would make me cry.

But it didn’t make me cry. Instead, it made me laugh a little. Mostly, it made me feel profound gratitude for having had my dad as MY DAD.

Here are a couple thoughts he wrote in the book:

“I would like everyone to remember me as a person that loved his family and tried to do everything I could to create a happy family.

I also want people to know I tried to live a life that I felt as a human could follow the love of Christ. I also tried to make life better to others that I related to. I truly wanted to not hurt others and tried to create a life that Jesus wanted me to live.”

What stood out to me is that he said he wanted to follow the LOVE of Christ. Because an awful lot of people these days are talking about Jesus as if he were some conservative dude who supported the wealthy and those in power. I am not an expert on Jesus, but one thing I learned from my dad is that Jesus showed love to those who were OUTCASTS. To those who were poor. To those who were underprivileged and not accepted by mainstream society. To those that were the antithesis of popular and respected.

And that’s the Jesus my dad modeled his life after.

So Dad, even if you are the scapegoat of the family, one thing you can be sure of is this: you will be remembered as you want to be, because that is WHO YOU ARE: someone who loved his family, always quick to forgive and the first to apologize, and someone who loved the outcasts of this world: the homeless, the refugees, children in poverty, the drug addicts, and I could go on and on.

I learned how to love others from you. And I learned what love IS from you.

Thank you for your unconditional love, Dad.

Maybe Love Isn’t What I Thought

I bow my head in preparation for Namaste, as I hear my yoga teacher say, “As you go about your day, open your hearts to love.” I cringe. Yuck. I can’t. I don’t want to. When you love, you hurt.

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I am four years old. I am sitting on the countertop of my parents’ kitchen in Kokomo. My mom picked me up and sat me there because she is about to give me a spoonful of cough syrup. I ask my mom, “What is love?” She looks at me strangely, and cocks her head to the side as she ponders a response.

“Love is…caring for someone. Like, me giving you medicine now. That’s love.”

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I am 25. I sit in the women’s Bible study at the Baptist Church. I look up at the pastor leading the study. I like her because she tells me what to do and I have been searching all my life for someone to just tell me what to do.

“Love is a choice,” she says. “Pray for your husband. Show him love in your actions. You will not always feel like loving him. But you can make the choice to be loving.”

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I am 27. I am lying in bed in my apartment in Lexington, Kentucky. It is 1:00 am. My husband is not responding to my texts. I wonder if he is coming home. I feel crushed because I know in my soul that he simply doesn’t give a damn about how his actions affect me. The words from the Bible study echo through me, “Love is a choice. Make the choice to be loving.”

And so I do. Again and again. If this is love, I hate loving.

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I am 34. I look into my boyfriend’s eyes. He tells me, “I more than like you. I think I’m falling in love with you.” I repeat this back to him and believe it, because I feel it. I know it is a feeling, though, and feelings can be fleeting.

When we break up 9 months later, I channel my inner Whitney Houston and tell him, “I will always love you.”

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I am 35. I do not speak to my ex boyfriend anymore and barely remember loving him. He is a memory.

**********

I am 33. I see my daughter running at the pool at the YMCA. She slips, falls hard to the ground and has a concussion. I cradle her in my arms and carry her out of the building. I drive her to the doctor. She vomits and then falls asleep as I am driving. When I arrive at the doctor, I run in and tell the office staff through tears, “She has to be seen! Right now!!”

I know she is going to be fine, but I am afraid. I love this baby. She’s all I have. It doesn’t matter what she does. Love isn’t in the doing when it comes to her. It just is.

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I am 39. I tell a man I love him. He is not my boyfriend. It is…complicated. I tell him not to say it back because I am afraid he doesn’t love me back. But then I realize I don’t care. I realize I can love without receiving love in return. This is both a good thing and a bad thing.

It is good, because it causes me to love without expectations. It is bad, because I forget that I am worthy of being loved in the same way.

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I sit in hot yoga class. I am 40. My teacher repeats the same mantra at the closing of class. “Open your hearts to love.” I realize that I am not cringing this time though. Maybe that’s progress.

Perhaps love is not simple. Maybe it is layered. Maybe it is light and it is dark; sadness and laughter. Maybe it’s supposed to be scary because it requires courage. I am still terrified to love; but I begin to think that love is a lot like faith. When you have faith, it does not mean things will go as planned; it simply means you show up and are open to what may flow out of you and to receiving what comes back.

*********

Today, a week before my 41st birthday, I lie at home in bed, and take out a book I have been trying to read for some time, Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love.  “As we demonstrate love towards others, we learn that we are lovable and we learn how to love more deeply…We will always learn what we have chosen to teach.”

These words are words I can now understand, but they are still hard to swallow. I want to love but not stop loving myself. Perhaps that is the whole point: what you put out will come back to you. In some way. In some form. No love is wasted.