Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Eve 2017

I made it. You made it. I know I'm not the only one who found 2017 challenging in all kinds of ways, but here we are. Still standing, even if we're a bit wobbly.

Take a moment to feel that. You are still here. It may be bittersweet, but there it is.

With that in mind, the truth that we are still here, I want to look to 2018. I sent out a newsletter recently with some thoughts about stories and gratitude as the year comes to an end; here I'd like to dream forward. I'm not trying to be a pollyanna - 2017 was really hard in so many ways - but if all I focus on is the anger and frustration I will not create the possibility of improvement.

I'm not and never really have been a resolution kind of person. I know myself well enough to admit that sure, I might make a New Year's resolution, but the likelihood of my keeping it because I declared it a resolution is no greater than any other new start I might undertake at any other time of the year. I try to live my daily life with clarity, integrity and forthright hope. That intention makes resolutions feel a little flat, a little false.

I'd like to look at what I am already doing well and will carry forward. By focusing on my successes I give my self-doubts less fuel. The voices that tell me I'm an imposter have a little less authority. I invite you to do this with me - what are your achievements this year? How have you continued to grow and move closer to being the person you want to be? Please let me know. The more we remember and build our strengths, the harder it becomes to shut us down, to make us doubt ourselves and our motives, to tell use we are less than. You are not less than. Neither am I.

So here it is, a few things I have done well and hope to carry into the new year. What does your list look like?

  1. Self-care. If the last few years have taught me nothing else, it's that there is no way I can create change in the world if I don't take a little care for myself now and then. For example:
    A few years ago I decided I would take real vacations (as a self-employed person my home is my workplace so I'm not good at staycations). I take two vacations a year now, even though it makes me a little crazy to lose the work time. The rest and the break both help me be better at my work and my life.
    I'm better at saying no.
    I have been deliberate in creating supportive networks for myself.
    Sure, there are places where I'm not good at self-care, but remembering the places where I have succeeded helps me think I might do better in other realms.
    I will continue to care for myself so I can care for the world.
  2. Compassion and kindness. These may be my guiding values. If I model compassion and kindness maybe others will be a little more able to do the same. If I treat those I don't understand with compassion maybe the walls will crumble a bit. I've done a good job at this, in 2017 especially.
    I will continue to offer compassion and kindness as a reflex and first option; this is not weakness.
  3. Better work and writing habits, facing the voice of the saboteur. I spend a lot of time telling myself I don't work effectively, that I'm not good at what I do, that I'm faking it all the time. The voice of the saboteur is loud and persistent. This year I have taken concrete steps to build better work and writing habits, and have tried to embrace my own competence. Yes, imposter syndrome still kicks my ass, but at least I recognize it when it visits. This feels like a victory.
    I will continue to do the best I can and will try not to believe the liars in my head.
  4. Using my voice, being less afraid. 2017 was not a year to be quiet, but I couldn't bear to only yell. I've tried very hard to post real information, to have reasoned discussions, and to help others keep going with my #barkagainstthedark and #storyseeds. Plus I have my representatives on speed dial. Additionally, I have found that my best response to fear is to step into it. I am certainly afraid of looking like a fool, being hurt, being wrong, etc, but if I dwell in fear I do nothing.
    I will not be silenced, I will not let fear win.
  5. Loving. I wrote recently that love is the easiest thing and I stand by that. I am good at loving the world, people (even those who frustrate me), and believe that love is not weakness, nor does it mean I get to control that which I love. It is a gift to me as well as to the world.
    I will not stop loving in the face of anger and fear.

So that's my list. What's yours? What shall we celebrate as we gird ourselves for 2018?
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Looking forward, looking back. An open letter to Kevin on Christmas Eve

Dear Kevin,

I am missing you terribly right now. Four years ago today we were trying to do all the things we usually did on Christmas Eve: We mulled wine, you put on Christmas music, we stayed in pajamas for as long as we could, we wrapped presents. We admired the Christmas tree and decided against any last minute shopping. We were trying to pretend it was normal, but it wasn't. This was the first Christmas Eve when we wouldn't be seeing the kids the next day, so the present pile was pretty small. We were also both so careful with you. You were so sick. We didn't know yet that this was our last Christmas together.

In some ways I am grateful for that ignorance. Had we known earlier, had you been diagnosed a month or two before, that Christmas would have been consumed by treatment and celebration around the edges. It is so unlikely it would have saved your life; at best it would only have prolonged it by a few months.

That's the story I tell myself, anyway. The guilt is sometimes still pretty intense, that I didn't insist on a CT scan earlier, that I didn't scream at you to go to the ER sooner. I can see you grimacing at me, reminding me that I did the best I could. Some days I know that. Some days I think I would do anything for those extra few months.

Today, four years later, I am in my new home in Minnesota. My new love C is driving his mother across several states so she can spend Christmas with us. I am not going to Boston because my mom needs me here. In Minnesota. (I can see you looking horrified that I moved north, into the cold.) Dad died a year and a half ago. Is he with you? Will you see Christmas in together, watching over all of us from Boston to Minnesota to California? I hope so.

Not long before you died, you asked me to promise you that I would be okay. I promised, knowing it was a lie. Now I know it was and was not. I am okay. And I am not. I feel as though I have become the embodiment of Whitman's, Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

I think that's part of the essential nature of loss. If we let ourselves love deeply then we will, at some point, experience grief. We will never be the same. If we are lucky then we have a chance to build something new, but the broken parts never go away. I have become the city of Troy, built and buried then built again upon the shards.

I know you are still extant in some way but not the way I yearn for, even as I know if you were I would not have the wonders in my life now. It is an odd tension to hold. Very well, then I contradict myself. I want both.

Tonight C and I will have dinner with our mothers. We will go to our home, full of things you would find familiar and new, and wrap presents. I will admire the shimmering lights and the soft blur from tears. I will look for you in the lights. We will drink hot cider and celebrate life in this broken world. I will love you both, and find myself living two lives simultaneously. What else is there to do but live, love, and be grateful?

I love you and always will,
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Monday, December 11, 2017

Relentless cheer? I'll be in my pillow fort.

Sure, the songs say it's the most wonderful time of the year, but I often find the holiday season to be challenging and stressful. This isn't just because I find it very triggering for grief, it's because I have to deal with so many people all of the time and they are telling me I should be happy because it's Christmas. It's harder to find the quiet time I need to function well and I'm more likely to feel guilty about claiming it as needed. I'm not sure why, all I really need to do is go home and make a pillow fort, but something about the relentlessness of it all makes it seem as if I'm being a spoilsport by taking the time I need for my own mental health. This year in particular is difficult because it feels as though I am walking on cultural glass all the time; we have become so ready to demonize one another.

I love giving gifts. I love celebrating with the people I love. I love the foods and some of the music and even the lights. I just don't want to feel as if there is a mandate to consume and smile on demand.

None of this is to say I want to be a Scrooge. Most of the time I'm reasonably cheerful and relish the joy of others. If you love Christmas, that's great! I just don't always want to love it with you or at least not in technicolor-90-decibels-comply-comply-comply.

Maybe this is because I miss Kevin fiercely this time of year. Maybe it's because, as a non-Christian, I feel a bit excluded from the festivities. Maybe it's because I worry that if I actually wish someone a Happy Hanukah I'll both be at risk and will make someone else feel embarrassed. Maybe it's just because I'm tired of the constant messages that we should be HAPPY!

I don't always want to be merry and bright. Sometimes I just want to curl up with a cup of tea and read. Other times I find I can savor a bad mood for a while and want to be quietly grumpy. Sometimes in the privacy of my own home, I might even let my lower lip stick out a little and stomp while I walk. And sometimes I just want to marvel at the stars in the winter sky and be grateful for the world without having to ascribe a particular meaning to it.

Do we really need a holiday to be nice to one another? Must we wait for one time of the year to spend time with those we love? Is it required that we schedule cheer by the calendar? I hope not. I'd like to think I am kind to people most of the year. I try to spend time with those I love. My calendar is full of all kinds of reminders of joy. So, for the moment, you can find me over here, wrapped in a blanket, idly reading a book and maybe nibbling on just a little bit of peppermint bark while I ponder just how many latkes I will make on tonight.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Oh hey grief! So nice of you to visit.

I haven't written about grief in awhile. Don't misunderstand, I still feel grief, but I've not had much to say that seemed original, interesting, or necessary. The loss exists inside of me now as one of many emotional notes, not the driving one, most of the time anyway. In general when I feel that deep longing and loss I take a few deep breaths and remind myself to be grateful for the pain. It will pass soon enough. I might take a walk, talk to Kevin in the aether, and keep myself moving along.

Then my birthday rolled around, followed quickly by Thanksgiving and BAM! here I am, back in the land of the lost. Hi grief, how nice to see you. Pardon me while I wail for a bit.

I've written before about surviving the holidays, and that this time of year can be very difficult for those of us struggling with loss. There are such strong cultural and personal associations with Thanksgiving and Christmas (regardless of religion) that this season can be quite triggering. I'm finding it that way now, even as I approach my fourth Christmas without Kevin, even as I am living with my new love and building new traditions with him, even as I have learned to breath into the void.

Sometimes when grief visits, it helps to remember the sweetness and not just the sorrow, even though it makes me sad.

Kevin and I celebrated our first Christmas together with home baked bread and an open house for our entire community. The next year we did the same thing, only to lose power in the midst of celebrations because of a significant snowfall. We lit candles and the house was warm and bright with love and companionship. I remember how incredibly happy we were. We had a new tradition and one that we knew we would do for the rest of our lives.

And so we did, for the rest of his life anyway. I haven't had a Christmas open house since he died and I doubt that I will again. New traditions are rising up, but it's not the same. It can't be.

I miss him. I miss his excitement over Christmas (both the celebration and the religious aspect); I miss strategizing with him about gifts; I miss his dense, heavy bread; I miss how everyone would glow in the light he reflected. With Kevin I was almost able to believe in Santa Claus again.

Some people seem to think that because I have a new love I don't still miss Kevin, that one has replaced the other. That's nonsense. Our hearts are capable of enormous amounts of love, so having a new love doesn't mean the old one is forgotten or dissipates. It doesn't mean I won't miss him, won't hunger for what was even as I feast on what is.

I don't yet know what the holidays with C will bring this year, but I know they will include love and laughter and their own kind of light. They will also include tears because missing Kevin, feeling grief, is just part of who I am now.

It doesn't matter how new or old the loss is. When we love we run the risk of loss; grief is a part of what it means to be alive. The grief remains and visits at the most inconvenient times (I sometimes think of it as my own personal vacuum cleaner salesman knocking on the door. "Hey, let me just dump this dirt in the middle of your life.") but the love endures. Sometimes the visitation from grief just makes that love more robust and vibrant in the moment. Sometimes it just hurts. And neither the grief nor the love will be any less than a part of who I am.

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License
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