holiday blues

My 7th Christmas was greeted by the death of the man I knew as my Dad. He had gone into to see the doctor for a flight physical, had a major heart attack and never came home. There was no goodbye, just an open casket and a mortician who forgot to sew Dad’s eyes into sleeping position. I saw his bright blue eyes and decided he wasn’t really gone. So long as I didn’t say goodbye, he would come home. As long as you don’t say goodbye, everything will be okay.

After that, each year, the holidays washed over me with a renewed sense of loss and sadness. I have lots of snapshot memories of moments during the holiday season, but no set memory until I was 19. I walked into my shop, joking around with my shipmates, carrying a letter from the woman I had begun to call my stepmom- my blood father, Ken’s, wife. As we laughed, I opened her letter and pulled out an obituary. My grandfather had died two weeks before and now I learned Ken was also dead. I was just getting to know him without my mother’s jealousy overshadowing our relationship. In fact, I had cancelled a visit, while I was home on leave to see my dying grandfather, because she was being overbearing. Ken had told me he understood- family is complicated- and we talked of plans to spend a week together during the next summer. He failed to mention his terminal diagnosis of throat cancer- thanks in no small part to a 2-pack a day habit.

I leaned against the lockers, everything was spinning as I slid to the floor in tears. The annual holiday blues had already hit that year and now another was gone without a goodbye. I was so far from anything that felt like me.

My boss said, “What the hell happened?,” and I handed him the envelope. He read it, handed it back, “Go clean yourself up. You can’t get home, so you best get to work.” I did as he said and the next hours were spent methodically ratcheting bolts off a tailpipe- there were 96 and I was small enough to do the job with the engine still in the plane. It was a job I hated, but a godsend because tears could silently stream down my face and no one would know.

Many years passed before the next holiday death. My marriage of  9 years ended on December 19, 2013 and three years later my grandmother would die on the morning of December 19, 2016. We weren’t close and were often at odds. I accepted I did not have a “grandmotherly” grandma. Stories from my mother and her siblings, made me grateful I never had to live under her roof. That being said, I sat with her that Saturday and spent a couple hours doing what I could to make her more comfortable. I rubbed her once strong legs that resembled the bark of a dying tree, and combed her hair because I knew she liked to be pampered. I dampened a cloth with her favorite root beer and placed it to her dry, cracked lips. I told her I knew we were never close, but she is why I was here. She birthed my mom and for that I would always appreciate her life. Both the passing of my marriage and my grandmother were truly more of a relief than deep sadness. Those losses were filled with a grief for the hope of the worlds they represented more than the the actual relationships.

For so many years, I used a big emotional shovel to push through each day of December and it didn’t get much easier. Over the last decade, my daughter’s uninhibited joy has helped, but the days can still drag. All that said, we are in another December and this year is finally a bit better. I am in a place that is the end of an incredibly purifying couple of years. The whole mythology of being burnt down so a phoenix can rise- yeah, that shit is painful. I can’t describe it in only a few words, but suffice it to say it might be an emotional grease burn that has been lanced, come close to healing, then reinfected, finally scarred over, and the scar is finally nearing a healed state. Yeah. That pretty much sums it up.

At the beginning of the month, my daughter caught me crying. She put her hand on my shoulder and asked, “Mama, why are the holidays so bad for grown-ups? Everything is so beautiful, but grown-ups are sad and mad.” I told her that lots of things happen in life and, at least or me, some really big, emotional things have all happened during the holidays so when the lights go up my heart gets heavy. She sighed, “But that all happened then. Now we have each other and the holidays are magic.” With that, I promised her I would find the magic again.

This month has been spectacular. The first Christmas I can recall being truly happy. We put up a big tree, I hosted a Solstice dinner, will go to Christmas Eve midnight mass with friends and spend Christmas with family I love. I’ve said a lot of prayers and a few final goodbyes. I opened my heart to greater forgiveness and the true possibility of new love. I have no idea what is in store for the next year, for we are only promised today. There may be more loss or there may be only good things, but I do know I’ve done the work and I have the support and tools to hold the course, whatever that course might be.

life in stacks

Your life is stacked around you, collections of the past, anchors of memory. All the things and collections- will any of it make of us stronger, better, kinder people? When it’s all stripped away, what is the space we keep? Who are we without the accouterments of the life we have so carefully, carelessly curated?

It’s all simple hubris, the making of the image we want to display to the world. The art on our walls, the books- read & unread- on bookshelves, the pictures of the best moments of our lives. Moments captured in smiles, but the fight five minutes before always floating around the captured moment. Half dozen teas stashed away- all expired a year ago because you are really a coffee drinker. Clothes found in the bottom of a closet that you don’t recall buying. CDs in a binder covered in dust that you listened to in high school. All of it is a shadow of the past. All of it tiny hooks that keep you from moving beyond what was and into a future of what could be.

Without the shackles of the stacks of yesterday, would your daily eye have fresh canvas to fill with ideas and actions not influenced by constant reminders of what was and what could have been? The term “starting fresh,” implies the blank slate, the freedom to create and grow, yet each time we move, we simply carry our past into the next phase. We hang the same art on the walls, the same memories smile back at us, the same comfortable cookbooks wait for our reference, and the same books we haven’t read, remain unread.

I am embarking on a new phase, the markers of the end of a decade and six years divorced, loaded the starting gun, but more so that I am nearing 45 and want the next 45 years to simple yet adventurous, creative, and mindful. We are moving into a house share that will allow me to save for more travel and create some emotional support by living with similarly minded people. With that, it’s time to shed. On this year’s winter solstice, as the capstone to weeks of letting go of all the excess, much will be symbolically released. I am letting go of chairs that sit unused, a couch that requires more space than we need, extra clothes, dressers, mirrors, boxes with forgotten mementos and piles of mortgage papers for a home bought when first married. Our art will come down and be stored, some books will be carefully stashed, and dozens of journals set aside for safekeeping. Otherwise, it will all be shed to make space for a new canvas.

Letting go of so much is a scary undertaking. There is no danger in letting go of unused, dried out art supplies or an excessive number of mugs, yet it feels hard to let them go. The fear resides in the elimination of the familiar.

In truth, our every moment of experience resides within us. We have it all- good and bad- stored within our skin, seen through the filters of our experience, beliefs and reflections. When we constantly live with what we know- in a cocoon of the past- we become comfortable in our apathy. Growth and new experiences are not always comfortable so systematically breaking down your surroundings to create change is painful, but it is a safe pain. No one will die in this shedding of stuff, but something new is sure to rise.

precious packages

I was going to Monday night breathing yoga, but a friend stopped by. She’s nearing three weeks tardy and said hello with all too familiar pain in the area of my silent womb. Thus far, the labor of releasing this cycle’s underutilized life force has only needed two precautionary Tylenol pain killers, but 30 minutes can take me from being at the gym to hardly able to drive, white knuckle pain and nausea.

I’ve dreaded this first day of my cycle since one morning during the summer of my 12th year. That day, I woke to bloodied legs under my nightgown, intense pain in my lower back followed by searing pain behind my pubic bone. From that cycle on, it was a pain I would endure nearly every month for decades. On rare occasion, the pain would be low enough to only take a couple pain pills, though I would be braced in fear that a greater pain was waiting to release in my body. But that was to be my future. On that first morning, thanks to my mother’s thorough explanation of puberty and sexuality, I poured a really hot bath and took some painkillers. Then I hid in my room, as is not unusual for a 12-year-old, and my absence went unnoticed by my widowed, single mom who left me and my sister mostly unattended. 

It was 1987 and, while my mother ran an industrial photography business out of our garage, we kept ourselves alive on canned ravioli, pb&j and sweet tea for most of the summer. I successfully hid my fresh source of hell called womanhood from her for the months of that summer and well into sixth grade. She was a woman with a huge heart, but near zero empathy, and even less sense of confidentiality. I labored through early cycles in silent pain rather than experience her announcing my period had arrived to the entire extended family over a Sunday meal at my grandparents. My fear of such a social humiliation pushed me to endure pain so deep I would hallucinate in the tiny upstairs bathroom I shared with my sister. Its pink tile becoming a giant womb that I was most certain I would die and be reborn within. In fact, I was being reborn during those first months. 

The months turned into years and somehow my one piece of ‘luck’ was that my cycles would begin at dawn on Saturdays so I managed to avoid the pain falling on school days. In the spring of sixth grade, on one of those ‘lucky’ Saturday afternoons, having washed down pain meds with a glass of wine, as I’d watched her do, my mother found me asleep on the bathroom floor. She woke me up and asked why the hell I was sleeping in my bathroom when I had a perfectly good bed. I told her I didn’t know and she said that wasn’t a good enough answer. Finally, I admitted I’d started my period, had taken a hot bath and pain meds- but omitted the fact of drinking wine- and fell asleep on the floor because I thought I might vomit. She asked why I hadn’t told her I’d started my cycle. I simply told her I figured I could manage it on my own. She told me I should take fewer pills and have some wine to help the pain, but otherwise seemed satisfied with my answer. She got me to Planned Parenthood as quickly as possible so I could get on birth control to help the pain. 

Within days I heard her on the phone with my grandmother telling her that I had started my cycle and was now on birth control to help with the pain. There was a long pause and then she replied, “Mother, she’s barely 13 and as far as I can tell she doesn’t even like boys yet. She’s not like we were. She likes airplanes. God help us with that one.” 

The next weekend we would go my grandparents’ ranch for Easter Sunday. When we arrived, my favorite uncle was getting out of his truck. As I ran to hug him he put his arms out and said, “Well look at you! I hear you are a young lady now and, look at that, you are even getting some sunflowers there.” It was as if I’d turned into a show animal and, at the time I wasn’t sure why, but I stopped dead in my tracks, crossed my arms over my developing chest and avoided him for the next thirty-five years- until he died. It was a devastating breech of trust for my mother to say anything to anyone, but for him to announce the changes in my body was a second violation of my young body and psyche by a man. I would speak to no one about either until I was well into my 30s. Even though I logically knew they were in the wrong, I felt my body had caused their actions so I was also at fault. 

Unlike avoiding my uncle, the pain of laboring through mensuration continued and couldn’t be avoided. I feared being off birth control would make it even worse. I wouldn’t figure out for more than a decade that BC did little for my cramps but increased my near constant low level- hidden with a cynical smile- depression. The fact that it was a major contributor to my depression wouldn’t really click until after I birthed my child. All told, through my pre-pregnancy, birthing, and nursing years I was off BC for almost three years. When I got back on it, I witnessed an immediate shift to my mood that made me recognize the connection between depression and BC in my body. 

For decades, menstruation was merely a function of my physiology meant to be managed and controlled. There was no celebration and I feared for the pain it brought to me every month. I saw menstruation as a responsibility to protect my body. I saw that puberty changed my body and created notice from men that I was not yet ready for, though I was told I should appreciate. I was not taught to deflect or develop healthy boundaries, but rather encouraged to take advantage men who my mother saw as useful, but foolish, tools. 

Now, at 44, I have gone through much therapy and recognize what I was denied in not being able to celebrate the onset of my womanhood, much less every other aspect of being woman and the healthy beauty that can contain with great abundance. Having experienced pregnancy and a first wave of peri-menopause I am learning that there are so many celebrations to womanhood and I will embrace every one that I have remaining in my body over the next untold years.

So tonight, rather than go to yoga and possibly get hit by a wave of pain, I went to the grocery store and bought a lovely brie cheese, crackers and a decent bottle of wine. I thanked my body for continuing to have strength and life force. I said goodbye to the egg that was not even able to drop into my womb, but reabsorbed by my body. I enjoyed my crackers and cheese with some apple and a glass of wine. I wrote and I prayed a small thanks that my pain has continued to be absent this cycle. Now, every cycle I have is simply my hormones moving through their schedule. My body’s fallopian tubes were removed, so my monthly seed releasing life-force is truly only for my own creative power. There is no chance of life begetting life, yet I feel more vital than I ever have. 

With each cycle, the change fever may return and my cycles will be become less often until they completely fade. There was a time I prayed that change would happen terrifically, aberrantly early in my life, but now I feel a slight melancholy for the end of the monthly shedding of life-force. Though its end will lead to a new and beautiful, different stage it is one that I’ve only just learned to appreciate and honor. 

I suppose the ancient beauty lies in that every woman holds this life-force and my future years can be used as a vehicle to teach the next generations to love themselves. To fully honor the creativity, power, and life-force each beautiful sister holds within her body. Whether or not they ever choose to carry life- by growing a human- within their body, each woman holds the seeds of life. In those seeds- those two beautiful packages of seeds we are each born with- there is a power and joy that will never go unfulfilled but hold the energy to fill your heart, soul, and body with a life-force that can be unstoppable if you simply open your heart to yourself.

sweet moments

Help giving“Help giving” by BournemouthBC is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


As we talked, I finished the coffee mom had poured for me. I could feel its warmth on my hands. The mug nestled close and becoming a memory of a beautiful day. It was Día de Muertos and we talked of the people who had passed. Her parents and brother, buried in the small family cemetery just across her pasture, I am certain were listening to us. I caught her up on my daughter’s week of school and we chatted about my sister who lives in another state. She told me about the book on tape she’s listening to- reading at night has become hard on her eyes. There was no strife, just love and simple conversation. In these days where she often mentions lapses of memory or joints hurting, it was lovely to simply have a time with no concerns. Those moments are always sacred, but I know will be more so as the next years pass us by.

Thank you feet

I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you feet, I just paint your nails and carry-on with you holding my weight through everything. I don’t give you much attention and by looking at you I’m rather a cruel mistress. There’s your half toenail that strongly grew new under a toenail that had been jammed so hard it fell off. You have cuts healing from poorly chosen shoes that were danced in all night. None of your nails are even- whites mangled to crooked beds. From day in and day out walking you have dry spots for the lack of attention I give you. There are shadowed scars from surgeries 23 years old and older scars from childhood tantrums that sliced you open. Veins pump blood into you and rise against my skin. Without them you wouldn’t be the strong base of my body. Your calluses and cracks once a month are taken for polish and paint. But I do little but ignore you. Other ladies know you, dear feet, better than I do. I know it’s time to take you in my hands to massage and rub you with lotion, trim your nails, buff out the rough spots and be more vigilant in my thanks. You silently, strongly hold me up through the miles that I walk, the hours that I dance, the nights you ache because I just couldn’t sit down. Bruised and battered feet so ugly to the world, but our beautiful soldiers. You allow me the strength as I press off of you to dive, you kick behind me and water moves. You let me push through this world, you let me swim and dance and run and climb. Sometimes you ache so bad it feels like a knife stabbing through my tendons. Other times it feels like you’re buried under a ton of gravel, but each time we emerge and we soak and we rise and we rest. In the new day, I place you on the ground and you flinch, giving me more aches than you used to. I stretch your toes, flex your arches and then we carry-on with little thanks. Yet each new day you keep me moving- one foot in front of the other.

unpartnered

“Even in high school, when all the girls were excited about their first boyfriends, I never had a serious relationship. I didn’t want that and it’s never changed. But don’t get me wrong, I love sex and affection and intellectual connection. I just love my autonomy more. Four men have asked me to marry them over the years, but I wasn’t born to be partnered,” said this woman, a wildland firefighter, standing nearly 6’ tall, long blonde hair escaping its bun and blue eyes filled with power and joy. She reminded me of myself at 19, except she was 45. She had never let go of herself, of her truths, and lived her life totally on her terms.

As a teenager, I dreamed of a solo life. After finishing a nursing degree, I would have a love child and raise her on my own. It would be us against the world and we would adventure across that world – learning and nursing. Likely, my mother would make up part of our home. We would move every couple of years and take on assignments in various communities across the world. I didn’t know specifics and I was too young to recognize the hurdles that would try to stop my dream. But I didn’t need those hurdles to stop me because in my early 20s, I turned on myself, let fears overpower me and partnered with the man who should have simply provided sperm for the child.

I slowly fell into a version of me that spiraled into self-doubt, insecurities, and depression. After 13 years of partnered life, I took my child and stepped away from that often incredibly sad and traditional life. I share custody with him, so can’t go too far into the world for too long, with her, but we have our adventures and she is learning her independence. She and I had a bond for years before she was conceived, but I am glad she knows her father. My child is why we came together. But nonetheless, she and I have not gotten the open road we dreamed of together, in those years before her soul found its home in the body I made for it.

Since leaving her father, I’ve tried to partner again and failed miserably. I’ve had a few madly gloriously frustrating love affairs. Now, I recognize the frustrations were in my effort to capture the moments of beauty with ill-founded notions of partnering. Partnering that I, in fact, had no desire to actually pursue. After five years of fumbling through the idea of partnering, I spent another two years nearly alone – unpartnered and wondering if that’s my road because, in my heart, it feels right, but doesn’t click with what I’ve been programmed to believe I “should be” looking for as a woman. Though I am incapable of defining exactly what I’m looking for in a partner. Then, I spend an evening, tearing around an art event, on a golf cart, talking about love and life with a powerful, safe, intelligent, sexy woman and in her description of her solo life, she reveals a simple truth of her soul:

I wasn’t born to be partnered.

In that moment, I feel free and I know I am not alone. The world is mine and my only obligation is to make a life that is unbelievable in beauty and independence, fierce love and simple joys. My life is my story and no one will tell me how to live it. I am reminded:

I wasn’t born to be partnered.

Change-fever

My face, neck, shoulders bare against the cool in the a/c of a hot spring day are suddenly on fire.

I have a fever. It runs down my torso and near to knees. I nearly veer into oncoming traffic for the sudden onset of heat. Nearly as quickly as it set in, it is gone.

I haven’t been sleeping well. Waking at 1am. 2:30am. Often again at 4am with these same spells of fever. My sheets are often damp when I wake, but the dampness creates a coolness so sleep returns more easily. The fevers make my days tiring – as if reliving the sleep deprivation of early motherhood.

These spells happened for about three months, six months ago. During the same time, my cycle stopped and I was grateful the daily fevers took place of debilitating menstrual cramps. Then cramps returned, as systematically strong as I’ve experienced since the age of thirteen. The fevers began again three weeks ago.

What I’m going through is a variation of normal perimenopause. I read it could last four to eight years, but my aunts reported theirs lasted close to 12. We are an above average crew on every level, which is useful when it comes to aging and employment, but for pushing pain thresholds and extending perimenopause I would really be pleased with a more average pace. I had always heard this process called hot flashes and couldn’t imagine it being a big deal, but “hot flash” is clearly a nomenclature given by a male doctor.

What I experience, is a heat that tears through my body – momentarily taking my breath or waking me from sleep. I’ve coined it “change-fever.” I can imagine my ovaries being flash cooked. The eggs – already trapped by sterilization – radiated by the crone who is rising within me like a phoenix to commandeer the 2nd half of my life.