Recently, my long-time friend and colleague, Eily Marlow and I developed a day-long workshop called Being Real: Practicing Humility, Courage, and Authenticity in Everyday Life. The stories and the challenges that Eily and I shared as we were preparing for the workshop have stayed with me and continued to evolve over time. So have the lessons and stories of those who participated in the workshop. In this series of blog posts, I am sharing some of those lessons and reflections in the hopes that a wider circle of people will benefit from what we have learned. This is part 3 of 4. Click here for part 1, part 2, or part 4 (as they are released).
Being Real (Part 3):
Earned Wisdom for My Five-Years-Ago-Self
It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
~ Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
The past five years have been the most painful, challenging, change-filled years of my life. In that span, my mother died suddenly, I nearly died from a heart attack, and my spouse (Tim) and I assumed many care-giving duties for my in-laws as they have both struggled with dementia. Tim and I both changed jobs, we moved into a new home, and we moved Tim’s parents three times. And, after many years of infertility, I gave birth to two children.
Even as I write this litany of life changes, I recognize that no single paragraph can do justice to five years in anyone’s life. My purpose is not to convey all the particulars. That might be interesting, but it is not what is most important or useful. Instead, I want to offer a window into some of the concrete practices that have helped me get in touch with both my vulnerability and my strength as I integrate these experiences into my life.
After living through several difficult years, I feel like the Velveteen Rabbit. My eyes are ready to drop out, my joints are loose, and my whole being feels pretty shabby. I am exhausted by grief, by the side effects of my heart medication, and by relentless care-giving duties. I miss the mother-in-law I knew, and I miss my mother mightily. It’s not that I wasn’t “real” before, but these intense happenings have reshaped my sense of who I am and what I can count on. Facing death has stripped me down, focused my energy and made me hungry for more authentic relationships and ways of being.
As a way to capture some of the insights I have gained through these experiences, I am writing a love letter of sorts to my five-years-ago self. Part of my becoming more real is also choosing to share what I have learned with others. I respect that there may be many healthy ways forward through difficulty, and I do not pretend to have all of the answers, but I want to offer a beginning and to invite you to adapt anything that is useful to your situation, however you encounter your own forms of grief and disorientation.
Dear 2014 Kiely,
I am writing to you from five years down the road. There is really no way to explain the heavy changes coming your way. I will not romanticize these experiences or offer you simple solutions. Nor can I accurately describe the unexpected grace that will come your way. You will have to live into these complexities in real time, in the best way you can muster at any particular moment. While I cannot prepare you for what is coming, I offer you my love and my reflections to guide you along the way.
Don’t Pretend Things Are Better Than They Are
You are breastfeeding child #1 and trying to work (and get some sleep) while planning your mother’s funeral, cleaning out her house in Montana, and sorting her finances. Then, you are potty training child #1 and breastfeeding child #2 until your heart attack. Now you aren’t supposed to work or drive or lift your children for six weeks. Don’t’ even pretend to clean the house. If you can manage it, brush your teeth. You don’t need to shower. It’s okay to look how you feel.
Cry Whenever You Need To
After Mom dies, you will cry all the time. At songs on the radio, while cooking certain foods, and how your daughter looks just like her. You will cry in meetings at work and at the kindness of the woman at the YMCA refunding Mom’s membership fee for the month she died, even though she died on the 24th. Of course you will cry when you read the stories you wrote about Mom in your writing class four years after she dies. Do not be embarrassed about crying. Just keep right on talking through the tears.
When people offer to help, put aside your pride and say yes. Let them bring you food, do errands, or take your children for an afternoon so you can sleep. Different people will offer humor, poetry, practical information, and foot massages. When you feel strong enough, reach out to people you know have wisdom to share from their difficult experiences, even if they aren’t your closest friends. Ask them to share their story with you. And offer them your story, even if comes out between sobs. This reaching out will create and solidify some of your deepest friendships.
Meet with a Spiritual Director and/or a Counselor
It is a sacred gift when someone really listens to you. Friends and family offer their perspective, but it is a beautiful thing to have someone who is not personally invested in your life ask you questions and offer observations. I am sorry that your long-time counselor retired and your spiritual director moved right before your mom died. I know it seems like a lot of energy to interview prospective spiritual directors, but trust me, it will be worth the effort to find someone who can witness your life in the way you need right now.
Try Support Groups
I know, I know, support groups aren’t your thing. Five years from now, they still won’t be your thing. But, it will help to hear the stories of other people who have been through similar experiences. You will learn from their challenges and survival strategies. It will feel safe to laugh and cry with people who really understand. You won’t love all the facilitators, but there will be a few people you connect with as individuals. And remember: if it is a horrible experience, it will make a good story later.
Err on the Side of Oversharing Rather Than Under-sharing
Sometimes you will share your story in the wrong setting or with the wrong person. You will blurt something out and immediately regret it. This will feel uncomfortable. You will need some practice to discover when and how to talk about it. But, don’t let these stumbles keep you from sharing your experience. It is better to share than to keep the feelings locked inside of you. Your openness will almost always be met with empathy. When you are brave about speaking, it will often mean the world to someone who is struggling—and you never learn this if you keep quiet.
Write to Bear Witness to Your Own Story
Even before you can articulate your story well to anyone else, you can practice articulating it yourself. Write your ugly feelings and disjointed thoughts. Write simply to get part of the story outside yourself. Just write. Trust me on this one. Sometimes you don’t know what you think or how you feel until you write it down. Getting the story onto the paper helps lighten the emotional load, even if no one (no even you) ever reads it again.
Read. Let Yourself Discover Beauty and Truth in Other People’s Stories
Sometimes it is just too much to talk to people or even to write your own story. Reading can also help you feel less alone. Caution: there are a lot of bad books about grief in the world. Many grief books will just leave you frustrated by their formulas and false reassurances. Fiction, poetry, and memoir will be more helpful. And read the Psalms. Let yourself be comforted by how many different ways people experience God: lament, anger, grief, joy, gratitude. This range of emotional experience will bring you solace.
Let Go of All Self-Consciousness About Prayer
Now isn’t the time to fret about your prayer life. Now is the time to just show up. Sit in silence. Say thank you for the kindnesses you receive. Offer sad, angry words that you would not want a soul to witness. Your Creator is Love Incarnate and ready to receive you as you are. I know you don’t want to be desperate and needy and inconsolably sad. But you ARE desperate and needy and inconsolably sad. Learn to name that reality with God, even if you can’t fully name it with others. You aren’t trying to impress anyone. Practicing prayer means showing up authentically and honoring the vast mystery. Sometimes this involves words; sometimes it does not.
Skip the Christmas Letter for a While
I know you always write Christmas letters. Many of your relatives are expecting one. But, it’s okay to take a few years off. You don’t have the energy to figure out how to summarize your life this year. And you won’t next year either. Big, painful things just keep happening to you. They don’t fit well in a letter. When you finally write, don’t apologize and don’t share all the details. Tell them succinctly what happened, and try to articulate how you understand joy a little differently now.
Find Concrete Ways to Memorialize it All
Discover and develop rituals and blessings that will help you mark both the ordinary moments and the special days. Set a place at the table for Mom on holidays. Make those disgusting carrots with horseradish that she loved even if no one eats them. Donate to organizations in her memory. Let your daughters build forts with her old fabric. Read a poem to your exhausted sisters-in-law when they return from a long day moving their mother into memory care. When you feel up to it, throw a heart-themed party on the anniversary of your heart attack.
Earned Wisdom, Not Advice
I do not share these bits of earned wisdom from my experience as a prescription or a formula. Whatever your particular struggle, I will not tell you it was meant to be this way or that these things happened so you could learn some lessons. You were probably doing a decent job learning lessons in your regular life.
I will tell you that “becoming (more) real,” through grief and loss is partly about getting in touch with your vulnerability –facing the places where you are shabby or might need to soften some sharp edges. Acknowledging and engaging those places will lead to some of your best growth.
While I wouldn’t wish grief and loss for anyone, I can tell you that you that one of the most liberating things you will likely experience is caring a lot less about unimportant things. You will be better able to put your life energy where it really matters--this will be your new superpower. You will also learn how to be present for other people in ways you weren’t able to be before.
But what I most want to offer you is a blessing. As Jan Richardson describes them in her book Circle of Grace, “the most profound blessings we will ever know are those that meet us in the place of our deepest loss and inspire us to live again.” Whatever your life circumstances, I offer my words and my story to you as a heartfelt blessing as you make your way toward (more) shabby/messy/beautiful.
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