I give you an emptiness,
I give you a plentitude,
unwrap them carefully.
– one’s as fragile as the other –
(Norman MacCaig, Presents)
Patterns of death weave their tapestries through my life. Sometimes the connections are uncanny, tightly knotted:
12 years ago, grandpa died.
Part of me died, too.
Nine years later … so did my marriage.
Same day. Different year.
My grandfather was one of the most important people in my life. As a young girl, I’d interview him, pretending to be a journalist.
Stories of our heritage, including our Irish ancestors, fascinated me from an early age. He’d spend hours telling me where we came from. These were moments we’d spend alone, looking at old photographs, soaking up genealogy.
Through this, I felt connected to my lineage … so much so that during my teenage years, when alone (I’ve never told anyone this before!), I’d play “Oh, Danny Boy” on the piano and cry, dreading grandpa’s inevitable death, intensely feeling it within my bones; it was almost like a practice run … a way to prepare for when he did die, so it wouldn’t hurt quite as much.
Even though he wouldn’t die for many more years, the raw thought of being without the person who loved and accepted me unconditionally, unraveled the few places in my heart where I felt worthy, important, and valued, leaving me with an impending sense of self-doubt and vacancy.
As an adult, when he was dying from Parkinson’s, the ritual of interview was repeated so I could collect our history, his history. Sometimes he’d raise an eyebrow, whisper, smile coyly, and ask if grandma was out in the garden so he could speak freely…
Then he’d tell secrets.
On St. Patrick’s Day, he died.
…And the knot tightened.
I was living in Ethiopia at the time and had just attended the expat community’s annual formal – yet riotous – St. Patty’s Day Ball at a swanky hotel. One of my most beloved memories was sitting amongst Irish friends, early into the morning, as they sang harmonious folk songs. Bittersweet melancholic tunes echoed through the somber rooms, saturating us with the timbre of another life, another home. Perhaps grandpa was there, too, watching on the sidelines, being sung out … I think he would’ve liked that.
Grandpa loved my husband – an Englishman who spent a few years with the British Army in Northern Ireland.
…And the knot tightened.
And it was on St. Patrick’s Day, three years ago while we were living in Myanmar – and I was remembering grandpa, feeling the loss of him – that my husband said he wanted a divorce, that he wasn’t happy, that he could not give me what I needed, that he needed complete freedom, and was not living the truth of who he was.
It was too easy not to slip into feeling incredibly betrayed, like a victim. Especially on that day.
…And the knot tightened again.
I felt emptiness, a lack of worth … to the point that I willingly – greedily – grasped for crumbs: Just tell me you love me, sometimes. That’s enough, I exclaimed. Ask me how my day went. Occasionally tell me l’m beautiful. Hold me. That’s all I ask, that’s all I need – and I can stay!
Writing that now hurts my heart. My belly aches. My throat tightens. Tears well up for that girl, that woman who prided herself on how “low-maintenance” she was.
I flew that flag like it was a positive trait, a winning factor, something so rare that he’d be stupid to discard it. This is how I puffed myself up, compared myself to other women: Who else could be as accommodating and non-demanding? No one! Who else would be so independent and non-needy.
Within my heart, I knew this was all a lie, some elaborate story I sold myself so that I wouldn’t get hurt. If my emotional needs were low, then I wouldn’t be disappointed. Or rejected. Or reminded of the dark crevices where I pocket feelings of inadequacy, of not being enough, of not being lovable.
Play it safe, don’t have needs, and then I can be invulnerable to feeling these parts of myself that need a bit of love. The parts my grandpa filled up. These parts – in truth – that I still ache for someone else to fill up. These parts that I don’t fill up … or fill up in ways that do not lovingly sustain me.
Of course, this didn’t work. Of course, I actually have needs. (Gasp.)
And so, after X amount of time of them not being met – because I didn’t ask for it, because I said I didn’t need it, because I created and attracted relationships with others that were unavailable to give – then I’d take a deep breath and do the unthinkable for me: cry out for what I need and withdraw my love, close down my heart when it was not given … even though I set it up like that.
…And the knot tightened. Another little death. Another excuse to not stay radically open-hearted.
But here’s the thing. Challenges in our lives can bring us back to life. Resuscitate us. Jolt us to face the sword of truth staring straight at us. Force us to look at the lies we tell ourselves and how we create victim-y type situations without even realizing it, playing out old tales that we’ve tightly woven for years.
I still do it. We all do. We’re human. And, yet, we have the ability to – even when facing death – feel the stillness of our hearts resonating truth, wide as a horizon. In those moments, it is as if a hand rests upon our cheeks and says, “Shhh. All is well. It’s time to start listening. It’s time to be who you are. Open to the possibilities.”
So, on this Irish feast day, I honor all the ways we experience death in our lives: the death of loved ones, marriages, careers, friendships, romantic relationships, ideologies.
It is through these endings that the foundations for new intersections and weaving knots of stories can take form. Through death, we begin … again and again and again.
Through the stillness of death, all things are possible.
And this I hear:
Surrender to my desire.
You are here to listen.
You are here to write a new story.
You are here to be my reed:
Hollow, tender, attuned.
May you surrender to all that needs to be let go of at this time in your life. May you face each loss, death, and challenge as a gift so that you make space to create that which you truly desire.
…Do you know what that is?
In a month, the reign of my marriage will take its final bow. All will be legally dissolved, despite having been divorced
in every other way for well over two years.
I’ve written a lot about it.
And you’d think that any emotions or wounds connected to ending a 12+ year relationship would’ve been mended by now.
But divorce makes you see patterns in your life, the interweaving of similar choices made in slightly different ways, in somewhat different relationships; but pretty much the same story. Just a new version each time.
I’ve been given the opportunity in this process to come face-to-face with the roles I’ve repeatedly played over the years: the effusive caregiver; the lenient, understanding lover; the tolerant, forgiving wife; the “nice girl”; the empathetic friend.
There’s nothing wrong with these … except when used to avoid painful emotions, a violation of some sort … a sting to your heart.
Since childhood, these roles have been my golden shield, protecting me, ricocheting the penetration of betrayal, manipulation, judgment, and not feeling entirely loved, accepted, or cared for.
They’ve kept me safe from truly experiencing the full range of my feelings. It has been a way to numb out in some respects … without even noticing.
When a hint of anger would enter my throat, I’d swallow it down, place that nice girl shield in front of me and absorb my tears, letting them swim quietly inside.
Lovers have seemed confused by the calm veneer when they might’ve been a bit shady and exclaimed, “It’s OK to be upset! Aren’t you upset? You’re not mad at me?” Friends have nearly yelled, “Why aren’t you ANGRY!?”
The shield has been so intricately integrated inside of my veins, in my marrow, that I didn’t even think I was covering rage. I truly had no clue. And I’m only now beginning to see this truth.
That’s because the shield is not effective; it just allows me to not take the full hit of hurt.
Part of this comes from an intertwined and rooted inner story that demands perfection.
This story says: If I stay true to these roles, maybe then I’ll be accepted. Good enough to be loved on the raw days when dullness comes over me, when my bones are tired and an inner-ache softly cries, yearning to be gently held, then told – genuinely – that I’m beautiful.
Maybe then, all my flaws – my size, this body – will be overlooked and I won’t hear that old diatribe that slithers through self-love and hisses: “See … there’s a reason you weren’t chosen. You won’t ever be enough. Look at you! You were warned about this your whole life. Maybe this time, if you lose the weight you’ve gained it will be better. Someone might see past your size. What makes you think being exactly who you are right NOW is enough?”
This gets triggered when a scab, nearly healed, gets picked … an event that loops you back, reminding you of the web of patterns you’ve created and played a role in.
As challenging as it is to write this (even embarrassing), I know I am not alone.
So many of us feel similarly from time to time.
Most of us, probably.
Our culture, society, familial structures, churches, and even school systems teach us to compare ourselves to others, to measure our worth against something or someone outside of ourselves.
Rarely are we taught that our imperfections are just as sacred and holy as the magnificent light within us. Rarely are we taught that it’s OK or safe to fully own and express all of our feelings, like a musical scale, singing each note – whether sharp or flat – accepting the range of them in any moment as a way to honor and nurture ourselves while recognizing that we are truly beautiful – scabs, tired bones, and all.
These patterns and roles that I’ve clung to throughout my life are reaching their hands out, asking to be dissolved along with the marriage.
And that’s hard. Scary. Change would be required.
It means truly feeling and acknowledging painful emotions. It means creating firmer boundaries.
It means ripping off the masks of being nice all the time: because I am not always nice, forgiving, lenient, understanding, free of judgment, or compassionate! I absolutely can be selfish, self-centered, and wrapped up in my teensy little world.
… But most of all, it means letting go and trusting that I AM really enough. Just as I am right now.
I have choices to make.
Will I allow myself to be imperfect, to feel rage along with ecstasy, and be true to myself, knowing my real worth?
Will I release, with love, relationships that no longer nourish?
Because this is life, right?
We are imperfect.
There will always be scabby little scars.
And that is OK. In fact, that’s more than OK. It’s the place where we can pour our love the most.
So as I begin to dissolve these patterns and roles and very slowly lay down my golden shield – and as you join me to do the same – it feels that there will be a place of inner warmth and embrace, holding us, loving us, and cherishing us.
There, we will hear the whisper: “You are enough.”
What do you want?
What do you want?
That’s one of the most frightening – yet empowering – questions there is. It can make you choke. Cause your throat to close up, your breath to catch.
What’s so hard about claiming what we desire?
Fear of not receiving it or being worth it.
Fear of the consequences. The fall out.
Fear of actually receiving what you want … and not knowing what to do next.
Saying what you want means telling the truth.
And the truth has a way of shaking us like a tree in a wild storm. It makes us drop our vulnerabilities to the ground, crush them, succumb to them. It strips us bare and asks us to do what feels impossible: Stand tall, naked, and say what needs to be said. No matter what.
Even if you don’t get what you want.
It asks you – no, requires you – to trust in something larger than yourself.
It requires you to have faith in the process, to believe deep in your marrow, that the truth trumps all. And that regardless of what happens, you will be OK … because a pathway to greater truth will open for you. It might not show up the way you expected and it will most likely involve change and discomfort; but … the path will present itself.
How can you believe that when fear is clutching your throat?
Try it. Test it out. See what happens.
Answer the question: What do you want?
Say what you need to say.
Spit it out.
Dance it out.
Let it move you, in you, through you, and out of you.
Then let go…
Let go of expectations.
Let go of the need for reciprocity.
Let go of the idea that you’re undeserving.
Pull your bravery out of your gut. Stand in it. Anchor yourself in love … in your love of integrity and honesty. In your love of the brazen, audacious truth.
I know how hard it can be. When presented with opportunities to tell my raw truth, to say what I really want, right that moment, I often swallow it back. I’m afraid of not being special enough, important enough, beautiful enough, to get it. I’m afraid of making a fool out of myself. I’m afraid of getting hurt. Of rejection. Of being left. So I tell most of the truth. Not all. Just most. I leave some out for self-preservation.
But that only keeps me stuck, at a distance from myself and from my true desires. That doesn’t feel good.
It takes the sway of vulnerability to stand firmly in the middle of your truth and speak it.
And I’m going to speak it.
What is it that YOU want? What truth is tugging at you? I’d love to hear below in the comments.
When our eyes met, she shifted and suddenly, her body was pressed tightly against mine. With one hand pulling her closer and the other holding a pen to sign her out of the afterschool program, I prepared myself.
“There was an incident,” the teacher said quietly.
Interrupting, my daughter wailed, “That boy over there called you FAT! And I was SO sad that I went into the other room and cried.” For added proof, she shoved the picture into my hands she had drawn of herself crying.
Words have power and deep meaning; they should be used with care. I’m probably pickier about words than the average person. In our home, fat is one of the prohibited words because, well, why use it when you can say “big” or “round” to describe someone’s size without completely insulting them.
My daughter has known this for years. Armed with that knowledge, she explained that the thought of my feelings being hurt, hurt her. (It was both heartwarming and alarming that she felt I needed defending or protecting.)
A year ago, there was similar incident. When I heard that a first grader in my daughter’s class called me fat, I worried my size might be an embarrassment to her. Neither of these kids had teased HER (or me, really … they simply described me as fat), but … you know, there are a gazillion articles in Weight Watchers magazine about the mothers who became motivated to lose weight because they were afraid of embarrassing their child.
My daughter was adamant (then AND now) she wasn’t embarrassed; I wasn’t entirely convinced.
Most of my life I’ve been large and many times I’ve felt embarrassed about that. Despite my conscious efforts to project a positive body image (even when I had to fake it), it only made sense my daughter, too, might be embarrassed by my size. I had no evidence of that, though.
So a year ago, I decided to speak to her teacher about the incident, with my daughter present, realizing it was a perfect opportunity to set an example for her and show her that I was a confidant woman, regardless of my size.
But the truth was, that whole scenario stung a little.
It took courage to even mention the situation and request that the class discuss how people come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. The teacher was supportive and encouraging. And though I stood tall with an easy, wide smile that would’ve fooled anyone into believing I was the Queen of Confidence, I felt that very confidence shrink. Even if just by a few inches.
I listened to the teacher say I was special, wore cute clothes, and was always shiny and sparkly. I was suspicious. Was she trying to validate me? I wondered if somehow those qualities – in her eyes – made up for my ample size. You know, the whole: “She might be fat, but she’s a shiny, happy fat person!” (Negative self-talk anyone?)
…But last week, as I listened to my daughter blurt out the similar story, I noticed something was missing.
There was no slight sting.
There was no shrinking of confidence.
Most profoundly, there was no shame.
Instead, there was a sense of centered calm and lightheartedness from being unaffected in a negative or self-deprecating way, unlike many times before. In that moment, all fear, hesitation, and embarrassment about my body was gone. Simply gone.
I felt free.
Bemused, I hugged my daughter, genuinely smiled, and let out a belly laugh. “Honey, I AM big. It’s OK. It’s an accurate description. But it doesn’t change anything. I’m still awesome.” My daughter loosened her grip and smiled.
“That’s what I told her! I told her how great your hair is,” the teacher excitedly chimed in, twisting her fingers…
It seemed ridiculous and humorous that a dramatic production around the word “fat” took place. (Which, clearly I inspired because of my hate of the word.)
The fact is: I’m fat!
But so what?
Being fat, in-between, or thin says nothing about who I am.
My value is not determined by numbers on a scale, a graph, or a tape measure.
I’m a rather spectacular and unique woman regardless of my size.
And so are YOU.
Do I want to feel physically stronger and more agile? Absolutely.
Am I my ideal size (for myself)? Nope.
Am I going to hold off recognizing my worth and meanwhile live timidly, quietly, as though I don’t deserve to be happy – and shiny! – until I AM stronger and more agile and weigh less? Uh, hell, no!
I’m not a spring chicken anymore. Life is short, full of wonder, and I want to enjoy it. Despite how big my thighs, ass, and tummy are.
Thin does not own joy.
Our daughters need to see us fully embrace our inner and outer beauty. They deserve to get messages that stick their tongues out at society’s that tell us we’re unworthy, unattractive, unimportant, and unlovable if we don’t look a certain way.
It’s OK to accept and love ourselves. Exactly the way we are. Right now.
So what caused this change?
I’m not exactly sure.
But I do have more clarity about who I am, what my gifts are, and what my purpose is. Those truths don’t fluctuate with my weight. They remain constant under all circumstances.
And I know this: We are all important, invaluable, rare, and beautiful.
I kissed my daughter on her cheek and proudly – truly proudly – announced, “No matter what size I am, I’m super amazing.”
She, with a glistening smile added, “And magic, too, mom!”
Something big, fat, juicy, voluptuous, Rubenesque, curvy, and sumptuous has happened.
And I like it.