An Early Lesson In Loss

I find myself struck, once again, by the profundity with which small children can handle the serious things of life. The most recent example of this in our home was both heart breaking and faith restoring in the same moment.

Little people can form big attachments. Whether it is the lovey they’ve slept with since they were too small to remember, or the footy pj’s they’ve only been wearing since the weather turned chilly, they throw their whole being, without reserve, into loving someone or something because they have no reason to not trust. They are open and vulnerable. Incredibly strong but weak enough to need protection. Their naiveté is both an asset and a liability that can lead to hurt. And each time the end result is hurt, they inch a little closer to adulthood. These early lessons that teach them that love and loss sometimes go hand in hand are key building blocks that determine whether their adulthood will be clouded with cynicism or embraced by hope. What a powerful witness we bear to these extraordinary little lives! What a grave responsibility to guide them well.

My eldest son, Aiden, got his little black cat, Charlie, when he had just turned one. He is four and a half now and doesn’t remember a time when Charlie was not a special part of his life. They grew up together, really, and Charlie would let Aiden drag him around like a rag doll in a way that he wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. When Aiden was diagnosed with allergies and asthma, Charlie went to live outside (or in the garage on particularly cold nights). But if Aiden was outside, you can be sure that Charlie was not too far away. They were buddies.

When the family went to dinner two days before Christmas, that all changed in the blink of an eye. Charlie had been hiding on top of the open garage door and became entangled on the outside when the door came down. We were called by our neighbor who was working with Animal Control to take care of the situation before we came home to discover it. I cried through most of the dinner but I did my best to hide it until we could decide how and when to tell Aiden. The timing couldn’t be worse, but we decided to trust him with the truth and let the happiness of Christmas follow this sad news rather than the other way around. After putting Owen to bed, we sat down with Aiden and told him that his little friend wasn’t going to be with us any more. That he had died.

He did not lose control or freak out. He was clearly shaken, but he stayed calm and asked lots of questions. “But, where did he go?” The animal control people took his body, but no one knows exactly what happens to the life inside the body when it stops living. “Will he ever come back?” No, baby, he won’t come back. But the time he spent with you will always be part of your life. “What if we got another black cat and named him Charlie?” Another cat would be a new relationship, a new adventure, but it would not be Charlie again even if we gave him the same name. “What did the animal people do with his body?” They will bury it in the ground and, even though his life ended, it will help other things grow. “Do we have a picture of him?” We found a picture and he slept with it and carried it around for days. The next morning he tried to explain the whole thing to his one year old little brother while shoving the picture in his face. “Charlie DIED, Owen! He’s gone, gone. He can’t come back.” Owen ran around squealing, as always, with no idea what his brother was talking about. Aiden desperately wanted him to take the news as seriously as he, himself, felt it. He came back to me and said, “Mama, Owen won’t listen. He doesn’t care.” He didn’t love Charlie the same way you did, baby. You had a special relationship with him, so it’s OK that you care more. And Owen is a too little to really understand.

Now, we can talk about Charlie together without it being sad. We remember the good stuff – like how he was the only cat I’d ever known that would go for walks with his family; or how he liked to stalk and eat cicadas in the summer, no matter how hard Aiden tried to rescue them. Aiden always smiles when we talk about him. He is a brave boy with enough love to withstand even this early lesson in loss. I am so proud of him. I may not be able to shield him from the hurt, but I can help guide him as he weathers it. And he can help me learn to weather it better.

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Happily Ever After – Learning to Love the One You’ve Found

This is a blog about finding making your own happiness and learning to appreciate all the little things while they’re happening instead of waiting till they’re gone to fully grasp their worth. So, in the interest of full disclosure, I thought that I would share something I’ve been pondering lately. Brace yourself, you may not like it. When it comes to relationships, or anything really, there is no such thing “Happily Ever After”. I know this is not a new idea. Most of us outgrow our concept of ‘happily ever after’ very shortly after we think we’ve found it. We believe that we’re mature and self-aware and recognize that relationships take work. But deep down, after so much inundation through fairy-tales and films, self-help books and motivational seminars, billboards and commercials and ads, oh my, we cling to these ideals that breed doubt and plant seeds of resentment. They consistently whisper in our ears, “if this takes so much work, it must not be right.” Or perhaps they cause us to whisper in the ears of our friends who are struggling, in a genuine attempt to encourage or help them, “you just haven’t found the right person yet,” implying that once they do find the love of their life they’ll find happiness… forever after. These latent ideas, stuck deep in our subconscious, lead us to believe that struggle is bad – having to “work at it” is a sign of a problem, rather than a part of the solution. They insinuate that happiness is easy and, by definition, cannot co-exist with pain or struggle. This is poison. And, if it takes root in your thought life, it will lead to bitterness, which, if left to grow unchecked, will turn your relationship doubts into self-fulfilling prophesies. I am convinced that the divorce epidemic in our culture is as least partly due to the fact that people don’t expect happiness to be hard sometimes. Trust me, it is. But just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s gone. It usually means is growing.

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Too often we expect to find… hope to find… believe we have found (or begin to doubt whether we’ve really found) the “love of our life”, and we hope this discovery leads to remarkable, life-changing feelings of happiness that never take a sabbatical for growth and development. But, more and more, I am discovering that, in all different kinds of relationships, be they significant-others, spouses, or BFFs, it’s not about finding the love of your life. It’s about learning to love the one you’ve found. It’s always easy in the beginning. When everything is new and exciting and every time you turn around you learn something new about this person you’ve come to admire. But what about when everything is old news, surprises are hard to come by, and you know this person so well you can finish their sentences. Or life grows ever-increasingly intense with the addition of kids, a promotion (or job loss) requiring travel or ungodly hours, or the loss of someone close to you? What does love look like then? At this stage of the game, love doesn’t always come easily to you. Sometimes you have to give it for a while before you get it back. You have to study, not what is the most natural way for you to show love, but what is the most natural way for the person you are trying to give it to to receive it. What speaks most strongly to them? As our circumstances change and our lives and beliefs and inner-selves change, we have to re-learn how to love the person we easily loved in the beginning. Yes, we have to be mindful of our own needs and communicate them effectively, but we cannot allow them to be the primary focus of our attention. Self-focus breeds discontent. Other-focus breeds fulfillment. And loving someone who is constantly growing and changing, as healthy people should, requires that the love itself also grow and change to adapt to the person it’s bestowed upon. This is tricky business. And doesn’t always feel happy. But it always builds it.

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And what is the return on all this investment? Why put forth the effort to continually re-learn how to love? Why not just move on when love gets hard or the relationship requires too much work? It will be easy again at the beginning of the next one. I think the answer to that question lies in the immeasurable value of having someone who bears witness to the entirety of the artwork that is your life and having the privilege of being that witness for someone else. Loyalty and commitment afford the unique benefit of having someone who understands YOU not just through the lens of your current life circumstance, but with a broader understanding of who you have been in your weakest moments and how those moments have produced times of shining strength. They see all the layers upon layers of your glorious painting that many who just entered the picture can only see the surface of. They appreciate the light because it’s balanced by the shadow – that they walked through with you. Darkness is where light is born and it’s contrast makes it so much more radiant. I don’t know about you, but for this reward, I am willing to put in the work.

Success Through the Eyes of an (Almost) 30 Year-Old… and Ralph Waldo Emerson!

Sometimes, when faced with major milestones in our lives, as I am about to be in two days when I turn 30, we can’t help but look at where we are now and compare it to where we thought we might be. For some this comparison may be wonderful because they have accomplished so much more than what they thought was possible. For others (and I’d venture to guess this is the majority), it is a tough comparison to make. It is tough because life is rarely as grand as we imagine it will be when we are younger and because, as I so often stress in this blog, it is entirely too easy to weigh life by its grand moments, which are few and far between, rather than by the little beauties that ought to overwhelm us every day. I am trying to train my thoughts to mark worth and value by a much finer measure and take better notice of all of the little things that are the building blocks of the bigger ones. But even with my constant and vigilant efforts, I still find myself subdued, even saddened at times by all that I have not accomplished: financial stability, debt eradication, literary success (or at least notice), non-familial long-term relationships, a better handle on my own character flaws, a career. But as I begin to sink into these thoughts of “what if” or “if only” my wonderful husband often sits beside me and reminds me of all the important things I have accomplished: marrying an incredible person who I have the privilege of co-piloting life with, creating and training from scratch another human being (and a half), working to help provide for my family while being its primary care giver, producing almost a year’s worth of consistent (and, dare I say, occasionally profound) writing that has developed a growing following and influenced more people than I know, playing a distinct and important role in many people’s lives even if they are not still an active part of mine, starting a book club and voraciously consuming literature, completing a degree in two fields and opening many doors as a result, becoming an excellent cook, and constantly changing and growing and developing as each year passes. What more could I ask for? As I was contemplating these faithful encouragements from my dear hubby, I came across this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that was so pertinent to my meditations and so poignant in its profound and elegant beauty, that it made me cry as I read it. I hope it moves you as it did me.

Meet in the Middle

I’m just going to be honest… it’s been a rough day. Feeling sick all day, worrying about the baby’s wellness, stressing at work, hosting a baby shower while feeling rather un-plussed about babies at the moment, and demonstrating a patience level with my son that would give the worst of moms a run for their money. It is sometimes hard to sit down and write what you hope is positive inspiration for others when what you really want is for someone to spontaneously appear and inspire you. As I was expressing these thoughts to Jonathan and telling him that I didn’t know if I had it in me to write tonight, he suggested I post a poem that I loved. He hoped it might benefit me as much as my readers and at least keep up my regular posting schedule. I highly doubt this is what he had in mind but it has been running through my head for the past couple of days and, despite all my better judgements and taste in music, I love this song and its message of tolerance and forgiveness:

“…I’ll start walking your way
You start walking mine
We’ll meet in the middle
‘Neath that old Georgia pine
We’ll gain a lot of ground
If we both give a little
Cause there ain’t no road too long
When we meet in the middle…”

So often, particularly when we have days like I had today, we expect people to just come to us and cater to our needs, forgetting that there are two people involved in any relationship. And we may be struggling, but they may be too. We all have hidden cares and burdens that we carry around and it is not fair to expect the other person to come all way. But if we both make an effort to meet each other where we are, it is so much easier to get there.

If you hate this song and now have it stuck in your head for days, I do apologize.  If it is one of your guilty pleasures, as it is mine, then enjoy and try to remember as you belt it out in the shower tomorrow that as much as we want someone to meet us where we are, that someone most likely wants the same thing.  So lets all just  . . . meeee-eeeet in the middle!

Legacy

In the face of the loss of someone so great as Steve Jobs – someone who, with little formal education, completely changed the entire world, not just in terms of technology, but in terms of ideas and inspiration – I cannot help but think about legacy.  What does it mean to leave a legacy?  What will ours be?  Obviously we can’t all have the incredible impact of people like Steve Jobs, but the important question is, will we have AN impact?  Will we leave the world better than we found it?  Have we loved with such inspiring sincerity that the objects of that love are forever changed, and moved, in turn, to love as they were loved?  Does what we write inspire those who read it to lead better, more positive lives?  Will our children rise up and call us blessed?  Will the art that we leave behind us embody our souls for future generations?  All of these are the legacy I hope to leave.  Today I am inspired to keep at it.