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.

Bowing Down to Loss

This is the job of the living–to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you. Let your willingness be the only big thing about you.” -Elizabeth Gilbert

Preface

Elizabeth Gilbert just wrote the most brilliant Facebook piece yesterday about the grieving process, acceptance, and allowing yourself to feel the emotions of loss. This piece moved me so much, that it prompted me to think about my own reactions to loss.

Loss

When people we love are taken from us, it’s the worst, isn’t it? It’s like we have forgotten that these people we love were never ours to begin with.

No one belongs to us. And yet, when we love someone, we begin to subconsciously feel like God will never allow that person to leave our lives in any capacity. Or we would like to think that if they have to leave, that we would have some say so, or control, over how they leave us.

Sometimes those we love die.

Other times they decide to leave us.

And sometimes they may not physically leave us, but they become so different that we feel as if they have left us, because we can no longer relate to who they are.

When any of the aforementioned happens, my natural (although not productive) reaction is to try to change the situation in my mind, instead of accepting it. However, trying to change the situation only prolongs the process of grieving the loss.

Whereas acceptance, or allowing myself to feel the pain, actually causes me to move through the process.

When I was 16, my Grandma Sommers, who was a big part of my life and helped to raise me, died. She and my grandfather lived in the house behind us. I went to their house and visited them nearly everyday, up until she died.

And then I stopped.

My grandfather asked me to come over to visit as I always had. I mean, he wasn’t asking me to do anything difficult, right? All I had to do was to simply WALK ACROSS MY BACKYARD and open the back door (which he often left open) and to walk in and sit in a rocking chair next to him and listen to him tell stories. But I wouldn’t go. The thought of sitting in grandma’s rocking chair meant that I would crumble and I thought I couldn’t handle that. I didn’t want to sit in her empty chair and feel the loss.

Until one day, I missed my grandpa. And I knew he was lonely. So, I decided to visit.

It was the shortest visit in the history of visits. I maybe was there two minutes, tops. He had the opportunity to tell me about how he learned to heat up a sweet potato from the garden in his microwave, and I hadn’t even sat down, but I LOOKED at her chair, and the tears started to well up, and I told him I needed to go.

Grandpa walked me to the back door, as he always did, because he wanted to watch me walk home to see if I made it safely, without anyone snatching me up or something. He gave me a hug, and said, “We love you,” and then the tears I had been trying to hold in during those two minutes came out in a gasp–just because of his PRONOUN USAGE–instead of saying “I love you,” he said, “We love you,” which reminded me that there was no longer A WE.

Loud crying and gasping started as I ran–not walked–to my home, and closed the door behind me. I ran upstairs to my bedroom, closed the door, lied down on my bed, put my face on my pillow, and CRIED. I was feeling the loss. Finally. I was willing to feel the pain.

Each time I went to visit Grandpa Sommers, my visits lasted a little longer. I had a little more capacity each time, to accept that Grandma was gone. I was learning to tolerate the voice of grief in my head that said, “She’s never coming back. Never.” I listened to the voice. I cried. And I was willing to accept the truth.

The truth is never easy, but the sooner we bow down to it, the sooner we can have a chance to move forward.

There are so many times in my life, where grief pulled the rug out from underneath me, and instead of allowing myself to cry on the floor from the pain of the fall or loss, I jumped up and tried to grab the rug instead. Grabbing the rug leads to thinking that you know better than God. It leads to thinking you can change other people or their situations if you just work harder.

And please don’t think I’m knocking doing the work. There is a time and place for doing the work. But the process of grieving is no more work than showing up. It’s being willing to walk across the backyard and hold your grandfather’s hand for just a moment. It’s being willing to cry in your pillow every night, instead of stuffing and pretending everything is okay. You know what stuffing and pretending is? That’s depression (Liz Gilbert taught me that)– it’s not grief.

I know that grief comes and goes. And that some losses are ones that we can never completely recover from. There are losses that are simply incomprehensible to us. We wonder, “Why was this person taken away from this world?”

And yet, we somehow accept. And cry. And grieve. We do this on our knees, or sometimes alone, and sometimes in the presence of others. Some days truly suck and then you may feel better, and you have another sucky day. But you let yourself feel it all–and know that you are still here. And you are willing to feel it and walk through, to see what’s on the other side.

My grandma Sommers. (Stole this photo from Cindy Huss’ FB page).

Top Five Lessons Learned in Yoga

I am a yoga novice. I’ve been practicing for a year, and while there are many poses that are still highly difficult for me, I keep going back. Why, you may ask? Because not only has it improved my balance, strength, and flexibility, but it has also improved my outlook on life. Here are my top five life lessons I’ve learned from yoga.

1) Stay on your mat. Stop looking over at that person in class doing a headstand, while you are just trying to get used to balancing on one leg–much less your freaking head. The headstand is in her practice–not yours. Let her be her and you be you. Just do you. The more you are focused on what others are doing, the more you lose focus and the capacity to grow in your own development. Stay on your mat and take care of you.

2) Be present. All you have is this moment-this breath in your body right now. Your life is happening right now. In yoga, I am forced to pay attention to how my body feels when I’m holding different poses. My attention will wander, but it inevitably comes back to my body and breath. In the moments of stillness, I have to come back to my body and breath, no matter how hard that may be. In a culture such as ours where we are constantly future-tripping or past-tripping, we naturally do not live in the present.  It is a skill that must be learned.  And once you begin to practice that skill, I promise you, it can change your life.

3) When you fall or topple over, that just means you’ve found your edge.  Life is so hard. Sometimes when we fall, we feel like a failure, but in reality it just means we fell at a difficult moment. In yoga, you stand back up and try again because that is just what you do. In life, it’s pretty much the same-we fall down, but that is not a signal to stop. It’s not a signal to make up some story in our heads and analyze why we fell. We just need to accept the reality of the fall, live in the present, and get back up and try again.

4) The pose doesn’t really even begin until you want to leave it. That’s the exact moment to stay present and hold that damn pose you hate and feel the uncomfortableness. Can you imagine how our lives would be if we did that every time we felt uncomfortable? I have learned the hard way that if I can sit in the pain or uncomfortable feelings without trying to numb them or react immediately, then THAT is where the true journey begins.

“So even if the hot loneliness is there, and for 1.6 seconds we sit with that restlessness when yesterday we couldn’t sit for even one, that’s the journey of the warrior.”- Pema Chodron

Feel the uncomfortableness. Feel the feelings, but don’t start making up some story in your head about how you got there.  The feelings we feel are important–but the thoughts and stories we tell ourselves may need to be quieted.

5) You must learn to let go. This is the one I hate the most. I lived so much of my life believing in the importance of holding on tightly to things and people I loved. What happened when I did this was that I never allowed them to grow. In the same way, when I come to my mat in yoga, I must let go of my ideas and feelings about the past and future, and set a specific intention for the practice.  I have to let go of my “smaller self,” so to speak, so that I can surrender to what is happening in that moment. It took me years to learn that letting go of something you are fighting for isn’t necessarily “settling” or giving up.  Rather, its about the courage to move forward, free of a specific attachment.  It is an act of surrendering in faith, so that you may experience the present moment.

My yoga teacher read the following poem the other night, at the beginning of class.  I asked her if could share it with you, so here it is:


 “Not everything you ever lose, is bound to be a loss.” ❤

And here’s my little yogi and I in her favorite pose: Malasana.