Grandpa Whitehead

During the last couple of weeks that I’ve been moving, I’ve found all kinds of random stuff including the following:

A cassette tape of assorted music from college,

Notes from my child’s teacher from when she was in preschool (#unwilling to compromise),

A book I wrote about a snake when I was in 5th grade,

notes I took in dad’s appointments with his neurologist,

AND

Post it notes with prayers written from 13-14 years ago that are nothing like the words I use to pray today.

Life is full of change. All of the time. And I believe God is good all the time.

But so many things happen in this life that are terrible and lovely and in between. And so many of these things are things we cannot control.

When I was a little girl, I used to sit on my mom’s lap and ask her, “Why does God allow bad stuff to happen to us? Why does God let people hurt each other?” And she said, “Because we have free will.”

I sat and thought on these words: FREE WILL. How beautiful freedom is. And yet, how ugly free will can be when we hurt others by our choices.

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Not too long ago my uncle shared some letters with our family that he had received from a distant relative which provided details about my Grandpa Whitehead’s life (my dad’s father). These details were startling to me. The letters demonstrated that even though I knew him so well and loved him so much and was LOVED so well by him, I did not know what he had experienced in his life.

I didn’t know that first he was one person and then another and another, and I imagine he had to do a lot of redefining and reimagining throughout the seventy-some years he was alive.

My Grandpa was a big part of my life up until his death when I was 9 years old. When we went to his house, he held me in his rocking chair, doted on me, cooked for me, showed me all his plants, took me to his work shop in his shed, and let me climb up the cherry tree in the back yard. I watched him smoke cigarettes and tap them gently into delicate ash trays from Hawaii, and when I gave him hugs and kisses I was comforted by this smell of cigarette smoke in his beard.

When I would tell stories, he listened intently. When he paid attention to my brother, I hid under a table and pouted until he picked me up and carried me around while giving us both attention.

When my parents disciplined me, he would take my hand and comfort me. My mom and dad said he spoiled me, but all I remember is his unconditional love.

And so it surprised me to learn that this same man had so much pain and tragedy in his life. Unlike my other grandfather who loved to tell me stories about his childhood, Grandpa Whitehead said nothing. I kind of remember asking things and only receiving vague answers.

And then I read the letters my uncle showed us.

I had been told that Grandpa had been an orphan, but found out that wasn’t exactly true. His mother tried to drown him when he was a baby. She may have had post partum depression, but back in 1912, people didn’t know what that was. So they locked up Cordelia Whitehead (I think that was her name) into a mental institution, while baby Grandpa survived.

Grandpa had two older siblings. Those siblings stayed with the father. But grandpa, since he was a baby and his dad felt overwhelmed at the prospect of parenting him, was sent away to live with different random people. Sometimes family members. Sometimes friends of the family. He was a baby that was “farmed out.” No real home. Just random people raised him. The letter tried to make it sound like these people loved him and stuff. But if they loved him, why did they keep giving him away and passing him around, I wondered. And it made it sound like Grandpa was the most helpful person in the world, always ready to do chores, despite all the tragedy in his young life.

When he was first sent away as a baby, his father sent him with a little treasure chest of sorts that had all of his precious items–a baby blanket, photos of his parents and siblings, trinkets and small toys. The chest was his identity of sorts–it showed where he came from. That he was once loved and cared for. Every time he was sent to live with a new family, the chest followed him. And then one day there was a flood in the home he was staying in. Seems like Grandpa may have been between the ages of 3-5 at this time, and his treasure chest and items in it became flooded with water and were ruined. Grandpa ran to the chest, clinging to it, devastated. Everything he had-his whole identity-was in that chest. And now it was gone.

At some point, Grandpa’s father, who was a coal miner, died in an explosion in the mine. So Grandpa was then reunited with his older siblings and they were sent away to live together with another family member. This went on and on, and Grandpa started to see that love from others could be earned by becoming a hard worker. So he stopped going to school after 7th grade and just worked.

Grandpa met my grandmother in Hawaii. He moved there to work for the army on a base. He met this lovely, outgoing, independent and strong woman and they got married. I think they worked well as a couple because they respected each other’s way of being. I don’t ever remember them arguing, but when Grandma started nagging him, he would begin to whistle. Whistling was his way of dealing with conflict.

My dad says Grandpa was a strict but loving father who had high expectations for good behavior. I never saw this side of my grandpa. I only saw the unconditional love he showed for his family. He loved all his grandchildren in ways that I can’t even articulate but only to say he was so soft with all of us, and present in every moment we shared with him.

And so as I sit here tonight, surrounded by these different random snapshots of my life that I found while moving, I think about my grandpa. And how he weirdly did something that he had no model for. He had no traditional family. Consistency was a stranger to him. Fathering and mothering were foreign experiences to him.

He never had a real father and yet became one.

He never knew his mom and yet knew what it meant to be a family.

He never received consistency and yet knew how to provide it.

He experienced the trauma of separation and near drowning as an infant and yet knew how to love babies so well.

This is the miracle that we can count on. That we can become and become again. That we can change and own experiences without letting them own us.

I think about how while I love the person I used to be, I am thankful that I am no longer her. I also found my wedding photo album when I was moving. I wanted to trash it, because it no longer represents who I am. But then I paused and decided to give it to Aliana.

I appeared in the doorway of her new bedroom with it in my hand.

“I want you to have this,” I said. “I want you to know that this is who we once were–your father and I. And that although you don’t remember, you were made in love.”

She looked at me like this:

but then took the album.

This marriage that also caused me deep pain also had love. How true. And yet how strange.

I want to hear more of these stories. I want to know about those among us who became a new person, again and again. People who chose to be better instead of bitter. People who were bitter and then better. People who were lost and then found. These are the stories that connect us to each other during times of tragedy.

These are the stories that help us know that there are tragedies and miracles and that YES there is FREE WILL but what that also means is that we have the choice to change despite what has happened to us or what choices we made in our past.

I wrote all of these words today because my heart was heavy. So share your stories with me, too. I need them.

Grace Elaine Sommers Whitehead

This past week my mom turned 79. It’s kind of jolting, because I don’t think of her as being someone who is close to entering her octogenarian years. She’s just my mom. However, she’s MY MOM. And being that I’m a mom, this has caused me to reflect on what it must be like to be my mom.

Sometimes I look at old pictures of myself from when I was a kid, and try to remember what my personality was like. I’m guessing my mom would say I was a happy and talkative child, and I was, for the most part. I liked to play outdoors in the dirt, ride my tricycle, talk to the neighbors, and play in the sandbox. I also liked to pretend I had imaginary friends and even children. One day I told my mom that I had two daughters–one named Ruthie (after my grandma who I was obsessed with) and Crouton (after my favorite salad bar topping-BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LOVE SEASONED BREAD?!). I was creative and liked to color and draw and watch the birds at the bird feeder.

My mom would sit at the foot of my bed every night until I fell asleep. We said bedtime prayers, and she helped me to learn how to pray. She cooked healthy food for us, and we always ate at the table.

(God, I should stop reminiscing because this is actually making me think about all the ways I’ve failed as a parent.)

But before I stop, I must mention one more thing.

I remember lying in bed in my childhood bedroom. Only I wasn’t a child anymore. I was 30 years old. My mom had pulled the curtains up, in hopes that I would feel the sunshine. It was springtime and it was beautiful weather. And yet, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew my parents were concerned, but every time they tried to speak to me, I either cried or shut down. And all I remember thinking was, why can’t I just enjoy the sunshine? There are actual people who are getting up with the sun and going outside and living their lives and going to the grocery store and shit. And getting up to go pee was overwhelming to me. Eating was overwhelming to me. Showering was overwhelming to me.

I felt like I was getting evicted from my own life. This was during my second separation from my husband. Things were crumbling and I did not want to surrender. What I didn’t yet understand was that, as Glennon always says, nobody gets evicted from his or her life unless she is being called to a truer, deeper life. Rock bottom is always an invitation to something else- something even more authentic and beautiful.

My mother came into my bedroom. She sat down on my bed. She told me she had baked some homemade bread and had fresh strawberry jam, made with strawberries from our garden. While my mother is an incredible cook, it was very out of character for her to make homemade bread. I looked at her, perplexed. But then I knew: she’s trying to get me to eat AND baking may be her way of coping with the fact that her child is feeling hopeless and not eating or sleeping.

She convinced me to eat a piece of bread. She brought it upstairs to me and sat on my bed. I put the bread in my mouth and could tell it was nearly a perfect tasting piece of bread, so I began to chew it, even though I wasn’t enjoying the process of eating. Every time I swallowed food, it went into the pit of my stomach and I thought would vomit. But I didn’t vomit. So I continued to slowly and thoroughly chew the bread in my mouth so that I could nourish my body at least.

“I’ve been thinking,” my mother suddenly said, “about you.”

I sat up in bed. She had my attention.

“I have this vision of you in my mind. You are an exquisite, beautiful flower. And yet, you’ve been buried for so long under the dirt. The ground above you is hard and cracked, and the soil is not good. However, you continue to grow and you will soon sprout above this ground that is holding you back–this ground that has held you down for so many years, and you will begin to bloom. And you’re just the most beautiful flower. You’re becoming yourself and you’re stunning. You are going to bloom and break free.”

I looked at her in awe, because she was envisioning things for me that I simply couldn’t see. But what she said–her words–were so intricate and fascinating, that it drew me in.

Everyone has always loved my mother. At times I resented this, because I didn’t like sharing her. I would get jealous and hide for attention or act out (when I was a child, to clarify-not last week 😜). But now I know why people are so drawn to her-it’s because she showed up for them, and never fell apart. It’s because she’s a vault when it comes to trust. My mother has exhibited grace under pressure, time and time again. When others are stressed, she remains serious. When people are crying and crushed, she responds with compassion. That’s why people love her.

So that is my mother. She is a believer in things that dwell in truth and possibility. Happy birthday, Mom.

Happy Re-Birth Day to Me


9 years ago today, after laboring for 30+ hours, my daughter, Aliana, was born via Caesarian section at 7:50 am. After experiencing what my OB-GYN proclaimed to be a freakishly challenging pregnancy, that included sciatica, kidney stones, preterm labor, and gestational diabetes, it was mind-blowing to me that a human this extraordinarily healthy had actually been percolating inside of me for nine months.

On this day, June 15, 2008, I was 32 years old, yet I was just a shell of a person.  I had no personality, no likes or dislikes, and no idea how I had gotten myself into the mess of an abusive marriage.

And now I had this tiny, gorgeous human with a full head of curly black hair, that was staring at me with the deepest coffee colored eyes I had ever seen.  And somehow, those eyes were the only thing that ever could break me of my numbness.  You see, I could no longer disassociate from my life, because that would mean I was disassociating from MY OWN CHILD. 

In the intensity of her gaze, I imagined she was saying to me, “I am here.  I am LIGHT.”

Her existence broke me into a million pieces so that I would be somehow be forced to make a plan to put myself together again, because her eyes–HER LIGHT–showed me that she needed a mama who was whole, and that mama had to be me.

One day, I was giving her a bottle when her father entered the room.   I don’t remember what I had said that upset him so much, but he spat on me.  His spit ran down my face and dripped onto my shirt.  I didn’t react, as I knew that would make it worse, but Aliana did. She screamed at the top of her lungs and she no longer wanted the bottle.  Her screams and her terror reminded me of my own terror–reminded me that I needed to finally be terrified in order to be her mother. My heart of darkness slowly began to crack, and I allowed her light to seep into me.

Her birth was my rebirth, so in many ways, this day, June 15, is sacred to me and forever will be. It is a day that I was also born, as this baby was the one who brought me back to life.

Sometimes people say to me, it’s unfortunate that you and your ex husband conceived a child together, because that means you have to still communicate and can’t be completely unattached. What people who make these comments don’t understand is that if I hadn’t had my daughter, I might still be living in that marriage. Aliana’s existence propelled me into a completely new level of life, because I finally loved a person so much that I didn’t want her to live the way I had been living.  The love I couldn’t feel for myself, I could feel for her. 

Something deep inside of me knew that I could never be the mother she needed unless I could fully be myself, and the journey to self discovery started with her birth. 

Changing lives is serious business, and this girl wasn’t even planning on getting into that business; the universe simply deemed it so.

And for that I will always be thankful. Happy birthday, Aliana. 

Nobody Just Walks Out of Yoga

I tried to do yoga once a couple of years ago, but I left the class feeling like a loser.

“Try yoga,” people said to me. “It will make you less anxious,” they said. 

But it was, in fact, having the opposite effect. I couldn’t quiet my mind because I was so busy worrying about how dumb I looked as well as how frustrating these ridiculous contortions were that everyone else around me seemed to enjoy.  

I looked at the clock every five minutes.

Class started at 5:00. 

Me, to myself, in my head at 5:05, when I’m already feeling weird: “You’ve got this. If you literally hate this, you can leave. No one is holding a gun to your head.”

But here’s the thing: NOBODY JUST WALKS OUT OF YOGA. It’s, like, one of those unspoken rules. You don’t want to disrupt the energy in the room and whatnot. I don’t know why. I don’t speak yoga language. 

But yoga made me anxious, and I swore it off–completely off. “I am not going back there to deal with those weirdos,” I told anyone who would listen. I carried on like this, reciting the ridiculousness of yoga for TWO WHOLE YEARS. 

And then, something happened. 

Last December I was having some health issues. I went to see my doctor. She recommended that I destress and consider starting–you guessed it–the dreaded yoga.

Despite my negative memories of downward dogging and trying to contort myself into a crow pose, my doctor somehow convinced me (she must have hypnotized me without me knowing it), that it would be a good idea to try again. 

Yoga take two: Once again, I sucked at the  movements. But this time, GLORY BE-it was a new teacher. This teacher acted differently towards me. She watched me like a hawk and kept helping me. She was like, a real teacher. If something was challenging for me, she immediately showed me a modification or told me to just be still.

She also incorporated meditation into the practice and asked us to “set our intention” for the day. As we cycled through movements, she reminded us to keep our chest forward with an open heart. She also spoke about gratefulness and self compassion and spreading peace. When we were exhaling, she reminded us to exhale those “feelings which no longer serve you.”

Within a few minutes, I FINALLY realized WHY in the heck I was there. It wasn’t about learning these movements. It was about quieting the mind to be still in the present. Somehow, I had checked my ego at the door, and I was no longer trying to be perfect. I was just trying TO BE. 

Over the last few months of practicing yoga, I have begun to marvel at how my body can actually be a POWERFUL thing. I can spread love and light through movement and physical energy. There are times I feel warmth and peacefulness spreading through my body during the practice. I also have felt stronger and more balanced.

Now before you start telling me I sound like a new age dingbat, I need you to understand something. 

I need you to understand that yoga has, in many ways, SAVED me. It has saved me from poor decisions. It has saved me from acting impulsively upon painful emotions. It has saved me from giving energy to unhealthy relationships or urges. It has saved me from anxiety. It has saved me from using angry words. It has saved me from avoidance. It has saved me in so many ways that my eyes are welling up in tears just thinking about it.

In today’s yoga class, as I cycled through the flow of movements and heard my teacher say, “Breathe in love and breathe out light,” I thought of those who really need light in the world, and tears streamed from my cheeks. As she reminded us that we all “have cracks so that we can let the light in,” I thought about my own cracks and scars and how those, too, are beautiful things where light resides. And once again, I felt the tears.

When I can learn to be still–to feel, to pray, to meditate, and to use my body to spread love and light–THAT is where I have found the answers I need. As yoga teacher Eric Paskel says, “Yoga is not about tightening your ass. It’s about getting your head out of it.”

And so my mantra is this, guys: Be still. I am not perfect at it, but I’m getting better. It’s my intent, which is why I even bought a bracelet from MyIntent.org which looks like this: 

It’s my constant reminder when my mind is racing, that the only way through the fire is to walk in stillness right through it, even though the heat is scorching. 

Namaste, y’all. The light in me honors the light in you. 🙏🏽