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Posts Tagged ‘emotions’

Today is the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death.

20 years feels like a long time. This also marks the point at which I’ve been alive longer without my mom than I was with her.

I’ve been thinking, as I am wont to do, about grief, and about our society’s difficulty accepting and supporting grief. I’ve been thinking of the ways in which I have not been well served in being taught about grief or shamed into pretending not to have it. I’ve been thinking a lot about the past.

On Tuesday night I was very sad about all of this. I was sitting finishing up some reading, and I found myself crying. I’m not afraid of grief anymore. It’s a flavor of discomfort I don’t mind sitting with, so I did. I sat, and I felt sad.

I did need to write a personal email to a friend of mine, and I knew it would also end up being sad. I considering not writing it, putting it off. After twenty years, it is wearying, dealing with people’s unhelpful reactions to grief, to sadness, to any emotion that isn’t happy or quiet or easy.

But I did write it. Not out of some desperate hope either. I included a boundary, just in case, but I knew it would be fine. I knew this person would show up for me, just as I was, sadness and all. And they did.

So I can think about the past. I can think of all the pain and disappointment. I can think of the times all those years ago when I was really struggling and people didn’t show up, or I gave a cry for help and was instead pushed further down. Those things will always have happened. They cannot be changed. They are irrevocable.

But then I return to the present, and the present is a very different story. It’s not that it erases the past, but it removes some of its sting. And it makes the progress I’ve made and my relationships with the people who show up for me now even more meaningful. I know what it is not to be here, and so I know exactly how precious the love and solicitude and presence I receive now are.

To be allowed the space for grief is a transformative thing.

My grief is difficult and uncomfortable and messy, and it always has been. My mom was a remarkable person, warm and loving and she gave the best hugs I’ve ever received. And she was also a parent who regularly went off the rails, with all the stress and confusion and trauma such a statement implies. The grief of losing such a person is never going to be simple. For so long I felt so much outside pressure for it to be clean, for it to be your standard tragedy narrative, but that’s not what it is, and it never was.

It broke my heart when she died. And that’s okay. My heart breaks all the time. Sometimes it heals quickly and cleanly, and other times it takes a really long time and leaves an ugly scar behind. Sometimes I don’t want anyone else to see those really ugly scars, and sometimes all I want in the world is for someone to see them and recognize the beauty in their ugliness. Those scars, they show vulnerability and the courage that goes with it, and the persistence to continue on with both of those things in spite of the fact it would be easier not to. And they are also evidence of naiveté and a certain slowness to learn, which are endearing in their own imperfect ways.

I told myself, all those years ago, whatever else you do, Amy, you need to fight to keep an open heart. Because I’d rather suffer and make lots of dumb mistakes and wonder how on earth to keep going with an open heart than shut down and go through the motions with a closed one.

Whatever else you do, Amy. It’s twenty years later. My heart is still open.

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Change hurts.

Sometimes change hurts a lot.

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I find that change hurts a lot when it cuts close to the bone, when it touches on something deep from the past, when it challenges some long-held belief or defense mechanism that you desperately do not want to let go of, because to hold onto it equates to survival in your own mind. Even if that is no longer the case. You might be reliving a reality that is long gone.

Change hurts.

You may be sitting there, and you notice that you’re breathing. You take a breath in, and then you take a breath out. And you’re surprised, not even surprised, shocked. Not because you were trying to hold your breath, but because it seems inconceivable that you are still breathing at all. It seems unbelievable that the entire world hasn’t frozen in place.

You may be afraid to move because there is a knife lodged somewhere deep inside of you, and any movement could shift it, and any shift could drive it deeper still, or cause it to cut some critical artery that means you bleed out. You are afraid to move physically, you are afraid to move emotionally. The pain is balanced so precariously, and your main focus is keeping it there instead of letting it slip.

Change hurts, and sometimes the pain makes it feel like the change might not be the right thing to do. Because if this change was so good, why would it hurt so much?

This is a lie. Sometimes positive change hurts a hell of a lot. It hurts for a reason. It hurts because it is hard for you to do something different. Or maybe it hurts because you are afraid. Or maybe it hurts because you just jammed a surgical instrument into an old wound and ripped it back open again so it could finally heal cleanly.

That is not to say it’s a good idea to seek pain simply for pain’s sake. It’s okay for things to be easy sometimes. It’s okay for things to be good. It’s okay to let yourself be happy.

The truth is, the pain is just the pain. It doesn’t tell you what to do. It simply tells you something is going on, and whatever it is, you might need to pay some attention to it. You might want to think about how you are going to respond to it. Maybe there is something active you want to do, or maybe you just want to sit there with the pain for a while. Maybe both.

Nowadays, when I have the time and space, I try not to hide from the pain. I don’t confront it either. I exist with it. I let it be with me. I bring my mind back from all of its distraction techniques and circular games. I want so badly to castigate myself, because this distracts me more effectively than almost anything else, but every time I start, I simply stop and redirect. No, I’m going to be kind. No, I’m going to be kind. Over and over, for however long it takes until it settles.

And then there is the pain I was trying so desperately to avoid. And it is terrible. It is the knife in my gut, it is the air in my lungs, it is naked and wretched and it is a part of me.

Change hurts.

And then it dissipates, and it is sad but also clean, and it is hard but also okay. Sometimes another wave of grief comes later, and another, and another, but once you’ve allowed one to wash through you, the worst of the terror is gone. It simply hurts. And then it hurts less. And then it hurts more. And then it hurts less again.

Change hurts. And then you come out on the other side.

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On Emotion

“Feel, feel, I say — feel for all you’re worth, and even if it half kills you, for that is the only way to live.”  – Henry James

Last weekend I was at the Disney museum, and there was an exhibit of random stuff Walt Disney collected during his lifetime. In one of the cases was a few rooms of miniatures: small to-scale furniture and household items and dishes and all that kind of stuff.

And suddenly I was swept away by grief.

My mom collected miniatures. It was something the two of us did together during the hard years. It was something good, something to look forward to.

Anyway, my first reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me. Why? Why do I have to be feeling this grief right now? It’s been SEVENTEEN years.

Actually, that was also my second reaction, and possibly my third.

The next day I tearfully discussed it with a friend, and he gently pointed out how much stress I’ve been under lately. So that at least partially answers the why question. My toe hurts. I miss dancing. I’m stressed out by a few writing projects right now. I’m upset that Jimmy died, and I miss some of my friends. I am taking risks that make me uncomfortable. I am trying to do self care, but I’m having trouble keeping up.

And grief doesn’t play by normal schedules.

So, this is what I’ve got for you today, this Henry James quotation. I really admire Henry James. He was an incredibly skilled writer and astute observer of human nature. Washington Square is possibly on my list of favorite novels of all time.

I think this is a good reminder. Feel for all you’re worth. Even if it’s grief for someone lost long ago. Even if it’s discouragement over setbacks. Even if it’s fear of what the future might bring.

These feelings, they mean we’re fully engaged in our lives. And that, all by itself, means a hell of a lot.

Nala is adorable

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I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and loss and inspiration and kindness.

How are you going to tie all of those ideas together in an essay, Amy? Yeah, I’m not really sure either. But I am going to try.

When I first checked my phone on Tuesday morning, I learned that fantasy writer Graham Joyce had died. I felt sad. Sad because many of my friends are grieving the loss of someone important to them. Sad because the one time I met Graham, he had been kind and generous to me.

Sad because then I thought about Jay, and I miss him. I don’t talk about it much. I’m not sure there’s very much to say. The sadness is here, inside of me. That’s all.

We try so hard to distract ourselves, and others, from the reality of this sadness. We want so badly to fix, to take away pain, whether it’s our own pain or somebody else’s. Distraction, cheering up, intellectual discussions about philosophical implications.

But at some point we have to stop all of that and just sit. Sit with sadness. Sit with whatever emotions there are. Turn off the fixer, because there is no fixing death. There is no fixing loss. There is no fixing of so many things.

Sometimes there is someone who is willing to sit with us so we will not be alone. But we are not always so lucky. And sometimes being alone makes it easier. Either way, at some point, the sitting must occur.

Graham Joyce’s final blog post is being widely quoted because it is brilliant. This is my favorite part:

“Actually I know what the dragonfly said.  It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.

And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?”

Cherish. There is so much that is beautiful and good in the world, and it deserves the attention. It is so easy to miss seeing it; it’s so easy for it to be drowned out by the ugly and the ignorant and the damaging. But the good still matters; it keeps us going.

Inspire. We all need a hand up from time to time, or a new idea, or a fresh way of seeing. We help each other to be creative and kind and informed and engaged. We help each other to be better than we could be on our own.

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eden-Lys via Compfight cc

I’m reminded of another quote I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s from E. Lockhart’s novel We Were Liars: “Be a little kinder than you have to.”

That’s it. Be a little kinder. I hear these words in my head several times a week. They help me get out of my head when I’m about to stand up for myself or deliver bad news. They help me get past the empathy response that encourages me NOT to stand up for myself, because they give me a guide for how to behave that honors that empathy while also taking care of myself. They remind me that I can be clear and firm and honest without being unnecessarily cruel.

And they encourage me to a little kinder to myself as well.

Cherish, inspire, and be a little kinder when you can. Yes. That is what I’d like to spend my life doing.

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I normally don’t write a post for Thanksgiving Day because I figure a lot of you will be too busy inducing food comas and hanging out with people to read any blogs. But some of you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and others of you might want a well-deserved five-minute break from all activities Thanksgiving, so this year, here I am.

And guess what. I’m not even going to be talking about gratitude. Revolutionary, I know.

Although I will post a vanity pic of my first ever homemade cranberry sauce.

Instead, I want to talk about emotions. Our culture often puts certain value judgements on emotions. We have the “We must always be happy” myth. We also have the “tears are for wimps” myth. And we have the “Emotions are bad and must be suppressed–yay detachment!” idea.

I’m the first to agree that the ability to reframe and see the positive side of life is a great gift. Those of you who are regular readers have seen me write about that several times. Positivity helps with emotional resilience, and I think it tends to make people generally happier. All of which is fabulous.

But it’s fine when we have emotions besides happiness. It’s fine to sit there and admit to yourself that something really sucks. It’s fine to be frightened, or angry, or sad, or confused. It’s fine to be completely and utterly miserable. It’s fine to have a bad day. It’s fine if you don’t like Thanksgiving, or if your family is stressing you out, or if you’re worried that the mashed potatoes aren’t going to turn out. It’s fine if you feel shy because look and see all of these people you don’t know.

You don’t need my permission to feel however it is that you feel right now. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Go ahead and feel it. You don’t have to do anything about it, after all. A feeling doesn’t have to propel you into action. It can simply be.

We can repress and get down on ourselves when we aren’t feeling exactly what we’re “supposed” to feel. Or we can celebrate the fact that we’re alive right now and we get to feel the full spectrum of emotions. Some of them are tougher, for sure. Some of them we wish we weren’t feeling. But most of them happen to most of us at one point or another.

The idea that we must be constantly happy at all times is not particularly helpful. In fact, I find it downright exhausting. My favorite people are the ones that are okay with me however I happen to be feeling right then, even if I’m feeling cranky, or stressed, or really sad. The ones that need me to be happy all the time are not privy to the entireness of Amy, and I think that’s too bad. But regardless, I get to experience the entireness of Amy, just as all of you get to experience the entireness of who you are and how you feel. This is a beautiful thing. And it is part of being human.

Maybe there’s some irony in me being positive about not being positive and having emotions like sadness and fear and anger. But I don’t think we hear this message enough. It’s okay to feel how we feel. It’s okay if we don’t exist in an ecstatic cloud of happiness all the time.

It’s okay to accept the humanity of emotion.

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The weekend before last, I was having a writerly conversation with a group of writerly friends.  One of them was expressing heartfelt admiration of a mutual friend of ours, who, he said, had totally mastered the problem of emotion getting in the way of writing.

Even if you’re not a writer, you probably know about this little problem.  It’s when you have a to-do list a mile long, or angelic plans to clean out your closet today, or work projects to complete, or writing to accomplish.  And then something happens.  It doesn’t matter exactly what something is (a particularly disappointing rejection letter, bad personal news, someone wrote something nasty about your favorite hat on Facebook, or what have you); the salient feature of the something is that it’s completely upsetting and derails any work you had plans to accomplish that day (or that week, that month….)

Back to my writerly conversation.  I thought to myself, “Well, that’s great, but it’s not so difficult really.  After all, when I’m writing a first draft of a novel, I’m pretty reliable about cranking out my daily word count in spite of everything else going on.”

Be careful what you think to yourselves, my friends, because four days later, life took a swing at my head with an oversized and ridiculously colored hammer (I think it was fuchsia, but it took me so much by surprise I wasn’t at my observational best).  And before I knew it, I was eating my words.  Imagine me staring at the blank page that was supposed to be my blog post the next day.  Not so difficult, huh?  How could I possibly write an entertaining and interesting blog post with a pounding head (the hammer struck pretty hard, apparently) and emotional turmoil swirling in my brain?

Well, obviously I managed, since I published a blog post last Thursday.  And equally obviously, I’m managing again with this post.  But now this pesky problem has earned my interest.  Life is, in my experience, going to knock me down every so often; how do I keep my productivity in the face of these challenges?  Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1.  Manage expectations. So maybe I won’t get everything done on the to-do list today after all.  But if I can prioritize the tasks that are really critical, or pick a couple tasks that I feel more confident I can manage (this may be errands, or reading the next chapter in my current nonfiction book, or cooking dinner), then I won’t completely lose momentum and will be better set up to deal with tomorrow.

2.  Take a break. Anything I need to accomplish will seem extra overwhelming while I’m in the heat of strong emotions.  If I can take a short break and do something soothing (play the piano, take a walk, read something fun, play mindless computer games), I’ll be in better shape to tackle what I need to do.

3.  Vent. I’ve recently read that venting actually makes a person more angry instead of less, but even if that’s the case, I find it helpful.  Just knowing someone is on my side comforts me to the point where I have a clearer head.

4.  Channel your emotions into your work. Maybe that anger can give you the extra burst you need to put all those packets together.  Or maybe your disappointment will encourage you to send out that story again.  Or maybe you can use what has happened as inspiration for your blog post (hmm, now you see what I’m up to, don’tcha?)

5.  Compartmentalize. If you can get this down, it can be golden (as long as you don’t take it to extremes, of course).  As I’m writing this blog post, I’m still upset.  If I stop to think about it, I can feel the headache, the neck tension, the tightness in my stomach, and I can dwell upon exactly why I’m feeling the way I do.  Or I can not stop to think about it right now and write this blog post instead.  It’s not that I’m not upset, it’s that I can push the upset off to the side while I complete this task, or even several tasks.  At some point, I’ll have to stop and deal, but it doesn’t always have to be right now.  Believe me, if what you’re upset about is important, it’ll be there waiting for you when you finish.

6.  Find the silver lining. Yeah, I know I just wrote about this, but it too belongs on the list.  Finding a good point, any good point, can be crucial for managing your mood, especially once you’re over the initial shock of whatever is going on.  And if you can manage your mood, then writing (or project planning, or programming, or making phone calls) won’t seem quite so hard after all.

Anyone else have any ideas on how to keep on task in the face of emotional difficulty?  Anything you find particularly effective?  I eagerly await hearing about your experiences.

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