On holidays and assumptions…

The holiday season is barreling down on us. In a few days here in the States, families will gather together to gorge on a dry bird doused in fattening gravy with a plethora of sides and a healthy dose of football games and conversations. Never mind that the roots of Thanksgiving should give us all a healthy case of heartburn; no matter what, it is accepted as a cultural norm that from now until the end of the year, we will come together, eat too much and hopefully have a groovy time.

Except that for millions of people, the holidays are anything but that idealized dream that is served up as a societal norm, so much so that we feel perfectly comfortable asking people we barely know about their holiday plans.

Until 2001, every Thanksgiving in my life was spent with my family of origin. Some years it sucked, some years  it was great but until 2001, that was my norm. Then I moved to Maine and the first year in Maine, traveling home to Chicago for the holidays simply wasn’t practical and then in my second year in Maine, my mother was ill and we put a hold on turkey day so that my mom could recover, never realizing that in a few short months, she would be gone…forever. In fact it was on Christmas Day 2003 that we would learn that her cancer had metastasized to her brain.

Thanksgiving 2004, my dad and brother made the trek to Maine and I attempted to keep the family traditions going but the truth is that for our family, the winter holidays would never be a joyful affair. The loss of our leader combined with the fact that her last holiday season on earth had been our personal hell just took the joy out of the season.

I would later attempt to create my own traditions as is often suggested especially after my daughter’s arrival. But being a tiny family in a place with no family and not really any close friends either often meant the holidays for us didn’t feel much like any other day except that I was worn out  by a day of cooking and cranky as hell, so much so that we all agreed that my cooking the holiday feast was a bad idea. Thus the tradition of gussing ourselves up and going out to eat on Thanksgiving was born. The first year it felt strange but with each subsequent year especially after the eldest child went off to college and couldn’t always make it home, thus reducing us to a trio, it made sense. For Christmas we decided to opt for Chinese for dinner with me preparing a reasonable brunch with homemade cinnamon rolls during the day.

Yet in choosing to find a way to get through the season of joy while not entertaining  the ghosts of a life long gone, it is has been interesting to see the reactions of others. Yet I am interested in why we assume that everyone approaches the holidays from the same paradigm. Considering that families are getting smaller and more spread out, why does this notion of a picturesque holiday season loom so large in our collective thoughts? Why, in our attempt to connect and make conversation, do we feel it appropriate to ask people we barely know about their holiday plans? I suppose one could say that I may be thinking too much on the subject but after finding myself engaged in one too many conversations about my own upcoming holiday plans, I was reminded of conversations with a dear friend who is almost 50 and single by choice. He has no kids and isn’t particularly close to his family of origin. Some years ago, I admit to being baffled by his comfort at what seemed at that time “odd” to me only now to realize that perhaps it was odd of me to bring my baggage to his door on holidays.

The truth is that growing numbers of us are living lives that fall outside of the Ward and June Cleaver dream. We live in an era where family relationships are destroyed or altered over Facebook postings yet we cling to this idea that we will get together, break bread and it will be joyful. But at the same time, it makes us uncomfortable with other people’s comfort at accepting the hand that they have been dealt when it comes to family.

Early in my career, I worked at a homeless shelter and homeless shelters don’t exactly close for the holidays…hey homeless person, go back out on the streets today so that we get  the day off…nope, it doesn’t work like that. Being the low lady on the organizational totem pole, it meant that I had to work holidays, which meant a few years of truncated visits with my own family on the holiday. My mom, bless her heart, was pissed but she understood. Yet seeing people in the world who truly were alone and reliant on the kindness of strangers in many ways has served me well as I navigate a life that falls outside of the norm. I am comfortably uncomfortable with the remains of family that I have; after all, what are my options?

While I may be comfortably uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean that I want the pity of others just as my old friend didn’t want my pity. Instead we ought to do a better job of holding space and accepting that we all walk different paths. For me, it’s the pitying tones that just set me off because it’s in those moments that I feel like “other.” Gee, I am a Black, middle-aged woman in Maine, newly separated and I have virtually no family aside from one sibling and an aging father…can you say: Stands out like a sore thumb? I can’t raise all the family members lost to early death up from the dead. I cannot manufacture a life that does not exist. Instead I wish that we would make room for everyone’s realities and experiences. In fact I am convinced that if we did this in all areas of life, perhaps we would all be a little better off on this dusty rock. So enjoy the start of the holiday season if you are in a place that celebrates Thanksgiving Day and if you are alone or in a space where you aren’t celebrating the holiday, may you find a moment that feels right to you.
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On islands and change…a personal update of sorts

Growing up in Chicago working class in a good year and downright poor in a bad year, it never dawned on me that regular people lived on islands. Typically, when one thinks of an island, images of warm, tropical spaces and fruity drinks come to mind. Then I moved to Maine, where I would learn there were hundreds of barrier islands, many uninhabitable (or at least uninhabited) but more than a few that were places where real people lived.

Early in my Maine journey, I would meet a woman who actually lived on one of Maine’s barrier islands and throughout my graduate school journey, I would take just enough rides on the ferry to meet with this woman (who became my grad school adviser) to become completely smitten with the idea of living on an island. Of course, I would settle down in a sleepy, near-coastal hamlet in a house about five miles away from the ocean, yet that burning desire to live on an island and be enmeshed with the sea would never fully go away.

Which is why many months ago, when it was clear that the marriage dance was winding down, I reached out to an island-living friend asking her to keep an eye out for a reasonable rental. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would secure a year-round island rental on one of the more popular (with tourists and residents) islands, nor that it would be at a price that I could afford on my salary. Yet sometimes our dreams do come true, even in the midst of the most uncomfortable of times.

In recent weeks, I have fielded many inquiries around my decision to move to an island from people who keep worrying I’ll feel too isolated (ironic, considering how socially isolated I’ve been for 12 years in a mainland town) to my poor family back in Chicago, whom I don’t think quite know what to make of my move…but I suspect they will make peace with it soon enough.

As for me, the closer I am to the sea, the more at peace I am. The older I get, nature feeds my soul but water specifically is what nourishes and recharges me, perhaps it is my Aquarian nature.

Life transitions are never easy, not even when they have been well-planned, and yet it’s a time for a course correction. To tweak one’s life, to search for the life that feels right and not merely like a pair of ill-fitting hand-me-downs that are worn when there are no other choices.

I can’t lie: With an office in downtown Boston and a kid who splits her time between the island and the sleepy hamlet where her dad lives, some days I don’t know whether I am coming or going. My life is coordinated on four different calendars so that my staff, my co-parent and I know where I am supposed to be on any given day. Yet the joy of being in my tiny little space is worth it, and my travel schedule most certainly keeps away any of the isolation that can be part of island living. I think the larger issue for me in managing what increasingly feels like rebuilding my life is accepting the loss of connections…the friends who suddenly treat the marital break as if it were a contagious disease. The empty promises of support made on Facebook that never materialize when you reach out. The questions that border on “none of your fucking business” or the assumptions that are made. The snide comments about me made to my co-parent, which people assume I will never know of because of their assumptions that we couldn’t possibly still be amicable (and, indeed, very close friends still). The wondering if it’s even possible anymore to connect on a deeper level with people in the era of social media connections.

However, through it all, there is the sigh of relief that the tensions that were part of our family’s daily life for so long are dissolving. The muscle pain that I have lived with is lessening as it dawns on me that the many healthcare professional I have seen in the past year may have actually been telling the truth about stress causing my muscles to essentially lock up. The relief at being our real selves and yet still being a family.

In the meantime, I am settling in and allowing myself to go with the flow as I start over and rebuild. The longer I live, it’s clear that sometimes we will have to hit the restart button more than once.
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How we offer support in moments of change…a personal post or vent of sorts

“I’ve spent too many years at war with myself. The doctor has told me it’s no good for my health. To search for perfection, is all over well. But to look for heaven, is to live here in hell.”  —Sting, “Consider Me Gone”
Change: The only constant in our short time on this dusty rock in these temporary cloaks we call bodies, yet the one thing that we fight against with every fiber of our being. Change is uncomfortable and can even be disruptive, but it is often necessary to our very being. We ought to change; our 20-year-old self should not be like our five-year-old self, our fortysomething self should probably be a little different than our twentysomething self and I suspect that the changes continue as we grow older. Though we retain the essence of ourselves as we grow older, the journey of life will continue to mold us until we take our final exhale.

The greatest gift that my mother bequeathed to me in her “early” departure from this life was the understanding that time is finite. Despite the comforting words that we take as the gospel, an eternal life in this realm filled with  non-stop joy and goodness is the fabrication of a mind that struggles with impermanence and change. Life isn’t a non-stop party; it’s ever changing and fluid, and we live on the sea of of life. A place where one minute the waves are calm and seducing and then at another moment, just when you are enjoying the ride, the waves get choppy and scare the hell out of you.

I am in the midst of change, great and small.  Yet I have no desire to flee from the storm. Instead, I welcome the waves and let them rush over me knowing that when I reach the next shore, the respite will come and once again the cycle will repeat until I am released from this realm.  That said, in choosing to navigate the sea of life as openly and honestly as I can,I admit it’s my fellow travelers in this journey sometimes that frankly are rocking my boat uncomfortably.

A few days ago, I lost a reader who felt that I was being a bit of an ingrate because I expressed my own annoyance via social media that some well-meaning family and friends are kind of annoying me with constant questions of “Are you OK” when I’ve been pretty clear that I’m OK and many of them should know that if I wasn’t OK, I’d let them know. The problem isn’t that I dislike people showing concern for me; rather, it is the tone in their frequent queries that insists somehow that I couldn’t possibly be okay with a marital split after almost 20 years. It feels like they want me to play the “approved” role of a person grieving my situation and dreading the future. People often do mean well but they also bring their baggage and lens to other people’s situations and project their feelings onto others. We all do it at times and I most certainly have been guilty of it at times.

No one wants to see the end of a marriage. It goes against the very notion of a lifetime partner. We stand before our family and friends and pledge ourselves forever but forever is a very long time and well…shit happens. The reality is the half of all marriages are going to end, we know this yet we play mental and emotional reindeer games and feign surprise that these things happen. Why?

People change and life happens. Sometimes a couple can move with the flow of life and change together and make it a lifetime affair and sometimes it’s time limited. Personally I choose to be proud of the almost 20 years in my second marriage. Considering that I am just a few months shy of 43, I have literally done the heavy lifting of growing into my adult self while serving as a wife and mother. But I am no longer that 22-year-old young woman and he isn’t that 27-year-old young man. However, we still abide, much like The Dude (if that confuses you, watch “The Big Lebowski”). Though our family isn’t quite what we thought it would be, it is still a family albeit not in the same space. The bonds of family run deeper than a romantic relationship and we need to honor that in our culture. Yet so many of us still fail at it.

Loss can be painful especially when we are not prepared for that loss. It’s been 11 years since my mother’s untimely death and I still have my moments. Yet I admit that I find it hard to grieve an organic process that I had a hand in bringing to its natural conclusion. To be left when you have loved or to be harmed and abused by the person who pledged forever love is painful, and that does require time to move on from. That’s not my situation, though. When you have seen the ship of change on the horizon for years, it’s different. The grieving occurred during the process of valiant efforts to keep the boat from sinking and by the time the lifeboat of change arrives, it’s relief. It’s a deep breath. It’s joy at realizing that you are still alive and intact.

I have spent a good chunk of my adult life trying to live according to the predesigned script of society that says what should and should not make me happy. Growing up working class, I wanted to flee from where I came from; I wanted more. I racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt obtaining a couple degrees which, at this point, I would gladly give back if Sallie Mae/Navient would zero out my balance. I have done meaningful work  and I have done work that made me feel like a whore. Currently, I am blessed to head up an organization that I love and to have a great staff and supportive board which makes my “extreme” commute more than tolerable because I take great joy in what I do even in the challenging moments. Despite the naysayers who marvel at how “awful” my commute is, I wouldn’t want to return to the days of the five-minute commute doing work that constantly left me questioning myself and being unsupported by a group that eventually threw me and a community of kids under the bus because it was no longer comfortable for them.

 Years ago, I wanted the “perfect” home and despite even my own real estate agent telling me I should hold off and think about it longer (knowing I had just recently buried my mother), I picked a home that will forever be called the money pit. A beautiful on the outside, challenged on the inside old home that as the years have gone on has sucked the marrow from my bones at times. Instead, I now call a tiny 400-square-foot place home, and despite the logistics of living on an urban island, already I feel more at home there than I have felt in the place that had been home since 2004.

Change isn’t all bad. It’s often needed, and sometimes the best way we can support those in the midst of change is to examine our own biases and make sure we aren’t dumping our own emotional leftovers and perceptions on others. Sometimes the best way to support someone in the seas of change is to truly be present with them and follow their lead. I cherish and appreciate all who offer concern and care, but please don’t put strings, conditions and assumptions on that support. I have lived long enough to know that conditional support is just a one-way ticket to stress. No, thanks. I have had enough of that and have the consistently tense muscles to prove it.
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