Big Wheel Bridges

When I was seven years old, my family and I used to go to a restaurant called Big Wheel. I suppose the reason why it was called Big Wheel is because there was an actual large wheel in the middle of the restaurant. I always ordered spaghetti off the children’s menu which had a very distinctive taste. I think it was from a can or prepackaged mix because it didn’t taste like what my mom made; in fact it tasted very Chef Boyardeeish with some extra water and way too much oregano, but my seven year old self liked it simply because it was different.

Eating at Big Wheel took forever. Food took awhile to come out. And then after you ate it, you had to ask for the bill and wait on the waitress, etc. It was an actual process that took time.

I would attempt to use this time to literally hold my parents in captivity. I remember being kind of a stubborn kid when it came to seeking attention. I wanted to be heard at all times. Mostly, my mom dealt with this by either fake listening or listening for a good while to my ramblings and then explaining she had something important to do. But at Big Wheel, there was nowhere to go other than RIGHT AT THE TABLE with me. I was seven years old. They couldn’t leave me alone and walk away without paying the check. They also didn’t want to be the center of attention for punishing me in public. I knew this and took full advantage of this fact.

From the moment we sat down, I acted like I was in charge by dominating the conversation.

“Let me tell you about my day,” I would say.

“Hey do you remember that one time that I learned to ride a bike when I was four?

“I don’t like my teacher because she’s mean. Let me tell you why.”

“I learned today about this dinosaur who ate his own eggs. Around 1 billion years ago…”

And on. And on. And on.

I remember my dad saying, “Can’t you just give others a chance to talk?”

I acted very hurt by this statement and perhaps I was. In my seven year old mind, I could not fathom why they wouldn’t want to pay attention to ME. I mean… COME ON.

Who wouldn’t want to pay attention to this person?

Somehow, I always managed to get my way at Big Wheel. It was a VERY strange thing indeed, because my mom was somewhat of a disciplinarian at home and church. Things were just atypical at Big Wheel and I loved that place.

While I have many positive memories of my spaghetti filled dinners at Big Wheel, there is one memory that is the most indelible of all: the dinner in which I retold an entire Roald Dahl book to my family.

I had just finished reading Roald Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, and my mom told me we were probably going to Big Wheel for dinner. My mind instantly devised a plan to hold them captive at the table to retell the entire novel. I loved that book so much that I thought everyone needed to know about it—not just the general plot but EVERY. SINGLE.DETAIL. However, I couldn’t act too excited to go to Big Wheel or my parents might change their mind, suspecting that I would dominate the night. You see at this point, they were already on to me. They had begun associating Big Wheel with long, annoying dinners that were focused on having to fake listen to their child’s gibberish. I knew they were observing me carefully to see if I was chatty or disinterested in their attention.

I faked disinterest and they bought it. So just as we were seated at the table at Big Wheel, I put my generic four pack of crayons down on the paper placemat designed for coloring in front of me, and said to my mother, “Have you ever heard of Roald Dahl’s book, The Witches?”

I don’t remember if my mom said yes or no, but it was probably no. Just like that, I had trapped them again, and I began to retell the entire book to them from my somewhat photographic memory. At around the chapter 7 point, my dad, who had been giving my mom ARE YOU SERIOUS type looks, began to plead with me.

“Emily, can you see that there are other people at this table who want to talk about other things?”

I put my head down in sheer sadness. I wasn’t just sad. I was pissed. How dare my OWN FAMILY not give a crap about the book I read about fictional witches in England??!! Did they not understand my love for Roald Dahl?!!! My mom was a little shaken by how much delight I had from this book. She was a little worried about the characters being witches and was surprised I checked it out from my elementary school library. She had the slight inkling to hear more. She was worried I was thinking about things I shouldn’t be.

So she allowed me to continue.

I kept on talking and talking and even after the check came and we paid it, I still wasn’t done retelling the story. This was a big problem for me because I had to tell the ending. Surely they would want to hear if the the main character ever figured out how to go from being a rat to being human again, right?

I looked at my parents’ faces. They were no longer listening. They did not, in fact, care. They were in a transe like state. Allowing a child to talk without stopping for almost two hours without getting a word in edgewise was surely a PAINFUL experience for them. My mom didn’t care about the book anymore. She was staring at her purse. Christopher had his head down. No one gave a crap about my story.

I saw the pain on their faces AND YET I absolutely wanted to continue telling it anyways because I wanted to be heard. The thing is that I CARED about my story. Did I want control over them and did I enjoy holding them captive by listening to me? Absolutely. It felt powerful to my seven or eight year old self. Did I think they cared about my story? No. But they allowed me a chance to speak. They allowed me to be heard.

I started thinking of this story the other day when I was thinking about my own daughter. She loves to talk—like REALLY talk, but only to certain people. And on some level, I may not always give her my full heart and complete attention when she is talking, mostly because she has the propensity for dominating a conversation. And while I probably need to do better, there is something valuable about being a “good enough” listener. My child may not learn today that she should not dominate a conversation, because she is still a child after all. However, I can connect with her by showing her that I see her.

This is the process of bearing witness to each other. Bearing witness is simply a statement of “I SEE YOU.” It doesn’t even have to be “I agree with you,” or “I like what you’re saying.” Just simply, “I SEE YOU.” I’m realizing as I’m writing this that sometimes that is all a person needs. We may not need agreement. We may not even need genuine interest. We just need to be heard. I need to be allowed to speak. I need to communicate that I’ve got something to say. I need to believe that what I have to say is important to me and that’s ENOUGH.

Ever since Apple developed a feature on IPhones where you can send a voice message to other iPhone users, I have been using this feature religiously. What I have found happens when I do this is that I have the tendency to ramble. I have also found that my voice texts irritate some people because it forces them to listen to me talk for a few minutes instead of just getting to the point via a text. Moreover, I have discovered that my desire to use voice texts overrides my desire to not irritate others, because sometimes I need to ramble to get out what I want to say. Sometimes it is in the rambling that I discover my values, my truth, and even my core beliefs about whatever topic I’m rambling about.

My hope is that in this holiday season that we allow people we love and care about to ramble. Let them filibuster you with their stories. Especially the little people. No matter how annoying it is and how much disinterest you have, just let it be. And do the same to your loved ones—speak to them about what you love. If we stop speaking and rambling we will also stop listening. And if we stop listening, we lose our bridges to one another. And if we lose our bridges we become islands.

Be a bridge. Listen to the ramblings. They are important not because of their content but because of their existence.

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.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

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.

There is no easy walk to freedom

At this very moment eleven years ago, at the age of 31, I was in a hospital bed, waiting to be born.

I, a 31 year old woman, was waiting to be born.

People around me were waiting for a baby girl to be born. They didn’t know that she was not the only one entering the world, though. They didn’t know what my insides looked like, because I didn’t tell them. I guess I didn’t really know that I was dead inside either. I only knew that I was a vapid, insipid human being–a person who knew nothing and felt very little. Feelings were painful and scary, and so disassociation had become my normal state of being. I was going through motions just enough to keep the peace, but not enough to actually show up in this world as fully human.

Until I saw her.

They pulled her out of me at 7:50 am on June 15, 2008. She tilted her head to one side, as the nurse held her up to my face. For the first time in such a long time, I felt something. Something about those mocha eyes staring at me caused me to almost want to stand up, even though I had literally just been cut open a few minutes ago in a Caesarean section surgery.

I took her and held her. This was an inexplicably important moment. It wasn’t just the birth of my child. It was the birth of me. Somehow I knew that. I just didn’t know how it would quite play out. I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew disassociation was no longer an option. I had to start showing up in my own life.

Every day of the first two years of Aliana’s life, I knew that I would need to leave my marriage in order to become me again. This truth grew into a massively strong tree that continued to grow inside of my soul as it was revealed to me, day in and day out. This tree of truth became so mighty and strong that I felt shame for not watering it. I felt shame for noticing it, but not taking care of it. While I didn’t act upon it, I felt this ominous feeling inside that I needed to do something or that tree would actually pop out of me and I would be exposed for being a fraud.

I somehow made baby steps of action. I found Bible verses that spoke to me and read them every day. Every morning I read the magnet on my fridge that said, “Be strong and courageous and do the work.” -1 Chronicles 28:20. As I read that verse over and over again, I hoped the words would eventually cause my feet to act on what was growing inside of me. I wrote down a quote in my journal by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “Our lives begin the end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I knew this was the truth. That until I spoke up about what was happening in my life, and acted on that truth–that I would continue to choose a life that was rooted in darkness instead of in light.

Silence creates shame. Ironically, the more we don’t act on changing things that we know need to be changed, the more the shame seems to grow.

I knew the work I needed to do was to leave my marriage. The more I knew it, the angrier my spouse seemed to become. The abusive episodes escalated until a moment in February 18, 2010, where my daughter witnessed something that no child should ever see. I felt my heart jump out of my chest as I called the Julian Center the next day, “I need help,” I told them.

I began to call attorneys. I began to interview attorneys in secret. I began to go to the Julian Center for a women’s support group.

And then I told my family. I started with Uncle Roy. Uncle Roy was patient and kind and truthful. He helped me to begin to not be ashamed of my experiences but to actually own them. I began to understand why “responsibility” is the fourth stage in the cycle of violence: for it is when we take responsibility for stopping the cycle, that it can finally end. Ownership of truth leads to responsibility.

Abusive relationships are addictive. People become addicted to each other during the cycle of trauma. There’s something called trauma bonding that happens-which is why the average woman tries to leave an abusive relationship multiple times before she actually does it with finality.

People ask me all the time: what causes some people to finally leave abusive relationships, and others to never leave? And I used to say all the time, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I just know I somehow did it but I’m not even sure how I got there.”

And while I still don’t completely know, what I do know is this–there is a connection between humility and courage.

My parents always acted on the extreme side of teaching me humility. Sometimes I felt that they aimed so hard to teach me that vanity and pride were a load of crap, that I actually almost had none.

But this trait they worked so hard to instill in me–a sense of humility–was ultimately what caused me to change my life.

Humility is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “freedom from pride or arrogance.” When you are humble by nature and are facing difficult challenges, you can start to say things like, “Hey, I don’t know how to do this. Let me get some help from someone. Let me listen instead of speak. Let me admit that I’m jacked up right now. Let me sit with this and know that God will lead me out of this if I listen hard and surrender to the fact that I cannot control my situation, but I can take responsibility for it.”

There is something to be said to listening to your inner compass. But when your inner compass is not working, there is wisdom in listening to and following the advice of others who love you and who are professionals. When you are blindsided with fear and anxiety, your inner compass doesn’t even work. It’s like a compass on steroids, spinning and spinning and freezing up.

So that is when you find the following two people:

-a very wise, professional well researched individual who is an expert on what you are going through (like a psychologist or doctor)

-a wise friend or family member who always wants what’s best for you and loves you more than you love you

And then you sit down and listen. Filter out what sits better with you than what doesn’t. But trust that they know things you don’t.

We don’t know it all. We can be experts and read books until we are dead, but when we are experiencing something keeps us stuck in a shame cycle, anxiety spin, or is just painful as hell, we will need help.

We will need help. We will need each other. We will need truth, that is borne from love.

For me, my rebirth was the road to freedom. I still have pain and difficulties in my life, but I have ME. I know how to be me and it’s safe to be me. I am free from abuse, and just like an addict who becomes sober, I will never go back “there.” I will not become entangled with someone who abuses me, uses me, and confuses me.

But I wouldn’t have gotten to that point without learning to listen, and without a humble heart. The challenge with raising a child is aiming for humility AND self love. It’s hard-it means you must do a lot of talking, modeling, and building understanding of healthy relationships.

I feel so much gratitude today. Gratitude for my 11 year old baby, gratitude for humility, and gratitude for freedom. The other day, I saw this quote from Nelson Mandela, posted at a school I was in:

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again, before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

May we remember this: that no one, not even God, has promised us an easy life. But we have the ability to be quiet, be still, and listen. And within that stillness, we just might find a new path or new way of being. I am so thankful to this child, whose birth was a reminder that it’s never too late to change your life. And it’s never too late to become free.

Pain is Pain

What I know to be true: discovering your partner is unfaithful is a painful experience. In addition, living in an abusive relationship can be like hell on earth. I have written on this blog rather openly about discovering my ex-husband’s infidelity, as well as experiencing domestic violence, in posts like The Cave or Weak is the New Strong.

But in the last year, I have mentioned my former marriage more peripherally as opposed to writing about the experience of it. I will explain why in a moment, but first, I want to explain why I wrote about it to begin with.

I started this blog in 2014. Writing about my past experiences I had worked hard to heal from, seemed to help me to find my voice. It also helped me to process the past, look back on what I had learned, and more importantly, to maybe even help someone who was going through difficulties similar to mine.

I feel so thankful, to this day, for the painful experiences that have been a part of my life. Those experiences shaped me into a woman with an empathetic heart, and a spirit that seeks peace. I have a different view of the world, and a deeper understanding of human behavior, due to experiencing darkness. I learned that the pain was only pain–that it wouldn’t kill me, and in fact, pain is just a reminder that we are alive. Pain is our most powerful teacher, if we have the courage to sit with it and let us teach us what we need to know.

As a result of sitting with that pain, one of the universal truths I now know is this: humans are neither completely evil nor completely good. We are complex people with layers to us. We hurt people when we’ve been hurt, unless we dig deeper to understand what’s behind our feelings.

And no one has life figured out. I don’t care if you’re the smartest person in the room–you still don’t. Life has this very interesting way of breaking us in two when we cling to things or people not meant for us. And then we have to learn all this crap, all over again.

And now, here I am, eight years post leaving my marriage, processing these universal truths, and remembering some things I’ve never said before.

Amy Schumer, when speaking publicly about her own experiences in an abusive relationship, said, “You don’t choose to fall in love with someone that hurts you.”

And yet we do. Why do we do that? I don’t know, because each one of us has our own particular true reasons, but what I do know is this: most abusers are not always abusive. Sometimes they are the kindest, most loving people you will ever meet. And yet, the next moment, they are not. And that is sometimes what hooks us–grappling with the confusion of it all.

In 2010, my therapist I saw right after my divorce, invited me to attend a women’s therapy group. We listened to each other talk about experiences from the past. The therapist would look at people’s faces around the room and stop and ask us things like, “Jane, what emotions does this bring up for you when Teresa talks about relapsing on alcohol?” And even though Jane had no experience with alcohol addiction, she could somehow make a connection to her experience because PAIN IS PAIN. All of us had very different stories, but this never seemed to matter, because we could somehow make the most insightful connections by listening to each other.

One day, a woman named Anna (whose name I changed of course) was speaking about her father, who was dying.

She told us all about how confused she was by the fact that her father, who was extremely physically and emotionally abusive to her and her entire family throughout her life, had sort of “mellowed out” once he figured out that his death was eminent. And what was even more confusing to her, was how her heart had softened towards him.

“I guess there were always parts of me that loved him no matter how abusive he was at times,” she said, somewhat perplexed. “How jacked up is that?”

The therapist saw me tearing up.

“Emily… you seem to be having a reaction to that. Is there anything you would like to share?”

I took in a deep breath. I had learned that deep breathing helped to keep my voice from being shaky when I was tearful.

“Yes,” I finally said. “I don’t think it’s jacked up, Anna. Because nobody is entirely good nor entirely evil. We are humans. We are complex.”

It was hard for me to admit this. And yet, I knew it was true. I felt it in the depths of my spirit. Even today, I still feel it when someone who has hurt me deeply does something that is kind, such as genuinely apologizing for past behavior.

Please do not mistake the words I’m writing to be in alignment with the belief that allowing people to abuse you or even keeping people in your life who are abusive is in any way, shape, or form OKAY.

I value my peace, so that I can do important work in this world, which has lead me to have boundaries that may be firmer than most people’s at times. I block people from my life and put up a metaphorical drawbridge when needed to protect my heart, my spirit, and my energy.

But I don’t choose to live in the thought that I am any better than anyone else.

Instead, I choose to live in the thought that each of us is responsible for our own life. And what that means by default is that I am in charge of my peace and joy, and living my best life. What that further means is that I must have boundaries with people who engage in toxic behaviors with me or behaviors that steal my joy.

Humans are complex. And I refuse to engage in the belief that I am a better person or more righteously evolved than another. It is that very belief that fuels indifference to other’s pain. We cannot be indifferent, but what we can and should be is AWARE of how others’ choices affect us, and undoubtedly act on this, to protect our dignity and wholeness.

I love knowing in the depths of my spirit that I can do hard things. I can break in a million pieces, feel deep pain, and still will rise. I believe this for you, too. But the only way to arrive at this is to be aware and act on taking responsibility of this awareness through a combination of honesty and action.

When we feel continually hurt and devastated by the actions of another human, it’s time to put up the drawbridge. Like don’t overthink it–put that drawbridge up! Because it is only then, when we are in our separate castles and at peace, that we can begin to forgive and to start to see, when the time is right, with clarity, that the person who is hurting us, is simply a person–someone who is showing up in their pain and hurt, maybe even doing the best he or she can.

Random photo, circa 2013:

The Softness that is Forgiveness

If anyone again asks me what it means to forgive someone, I will tell him or her this story.

It started when I was 32, in the summer of 2009. My husband, at the time, was from the Dominican Republic. We decided to make a trip there so his family could meet our daughter right when she was turning one year old.

We arrived in the hot month of June. The Dominican Republic is near the Equator, and from the moment we stepped off the airplane, I could feel the heat of the sun percolating on my pores. I had lost all my baby weight, but now was almost too thin due to not eating. My marriage was falling apart at the seams and I was unraveling too. The only thing holding me together was my focus on my child and her wellbeing.

“I’m so glad you finally lost weight,” my mother-in-law said to me in Spanish, with a widely genuine smile when I greeted her at the airport. While I knew that a person’s weight is not as taboo of a subject in the Dominican Republic as it is in the United States, her words etched a streak on my already decrepit spirit.

My mother-in-law never seemed to like me, but I could not ever seem to deduce why. Sometimes I thought it was due to the fact I was a foreigner. Other times I thought maybe I was unknowingly breaking some cultural rules or wasn’t submissive enough, in her mind, to be a good wife.

But ultimately the reasons behind her perceived dislike for me weren’t really worth spending time analyzing. I just had to deal with it.

During this trip, I tried to keep my daughter on a nap schedule. My mother-in-law told me this was ridiculous and that no child needed such a thing. I didn’t want to argue with her because I felt that would be a sign of disrespect, but I continued to put her down for a nap everyday at the same time, even though she would blast merengue music in objection to my decision.

I loved the Dominican Republic for so many reasons: I adored the welcoming nature of its people, the love I felt from my host family when I studied abroad there, the hospitality of strangers in the community, and the kindness and resilient spirit I witnessed in its people.

But I did not love my mother in law. I could not love my mother in law, no matter how hard I tried.

I looked at her and I saw pain. The pain of being an abused wife. The shame of being left by her husband. The guilt and oppression she suffered from so many losses.

And yet, I couldn’t find it in my heart to accept her in her brokenness.

The entire time we were in her home, I was belittled and criticized for being overly focused on my daughter. I was confused by the criticism that seemed to be contradictory at the time: one moment I was being told my schedule was ridiculous, but the next moment, I was called disorganized for not getting my daughter’s bottle ready quickly enough.

It was gaslighting behavior, except for it was my in-laws doing it, instead of my then husband.

As for my then husband, he remained silent most of the time, choosing not to intervene. When he would intervene, it was to side with his family as they were telling me what I was doing wrong in my mothering.

The last night we were there, I felt relief that we were finally going home. As I was rocking my daughter to sleep that night, my mother in law called for me to come talk to her. When I was done putting her to bed, I went to find my mother-in-law in the kitchen.

“I need to tell you something,” she said to me in Spanish, “something I should have told you before.”

I had a moment where my heart softened. She’s going to apologize, I thought. She feels badly for criticizing me.

But before my heart could soften any further, her words quickly transformed into daggers that were aimed at my heart, my self worth, and my ability to love.

“You are an awful mother and wife,” she said.

I gulped down air, feeling like I needed to run away, but instead froze.

“Do you want to know why?” she asked.

I didn’t answer, standing there without moving. Apparently I was now an ice cube, stuck in my tray, unable to transform back to fluidity.

“You have paid more attention to that child than your own marriage. So if my son cheats on you… if he has other women he wants to sleep with–that’s no one’s fault other than your own,” she said.

“You deserve however he treats you,” she stated, and finally stepped aside so I could walk away if I chose to do so.

I suddenly felt my legs melting. I bowed my head and exited the kitchen. I went upstairs and wanted to cry, but couldn’t. I didn’t have tears. I felt as if whatever bubble of dignity was still present in my spirit had been popped by a sharp needle and had oozed away.

Despite this terrible emptiness, I somehow realized a small push of determination to fight for myself was still present within me. I imagined myself putting on armor, lying down in it to rest, knowing that this was temporary. I just needed to remember that the armor was there to protect me.

The next morning we left the Dominican Republic. One year after that, I left my husband.

And then nine years after that, I walked into my ex-husband’s house to pick up my daughter, and I saw her face. When they told me she would be there, I was scared. Scared I would not know what to say. Scared she would take her anger at me out on my daughter. Scared that she would take me back to that day nine years ago in her kitchen when I last saw her.

But when I saw her face, I instead felt the strangest thing. I felt something weird, as she walked over to me and cupped my face in her hands and side kissed my cheeks, as is the custom in the Dominican Republic.

I felt a tenderness. I felt empathy. I felt respect. I felt seen.

I don’t know how that happened. I have no FREAKING idea. But I know that’s what forgiveness is. It’s a softening. A turning towards. It is not reconciliation. It is simply understanding. It is letting go. It is loving from a distance. It’s gratitude from learning the lessons the pain taught you.

Time creates space. Space creates room to see the truth. I know that without the gift of time and space, it’s hard to learn to recognize the truth. And the truth is that you never need closure for anything. Things fall apart and the only thing you need to remember or try to do is put yourself back together. And once you do that, you may see that in your brokenness, you are strong. In your pain and bitterness, you have lessons. And one of those lessons might be that you may one day, after time and space, find yourself looking back on everything, with a very different softness about you.

And that softness is forgiveness.

What it’s Really Like to be a Single Parent

The other day I went to my doctor’s office for an appointment and was making small talk with the nurse. I told her about an upcoming solo vacation I was going on for a weekend, and the nurse asked me if I was taking my daughter. I told her no, she was with her dad that weekend.

“Oh,” she said. “So you can like get away and do things by yourself when she’s gone. Man, I wish I were divorced so I could get a break from my kids!”

🙆🏻‍♀️🤔😐

I thought of a couple sarcastic, semi humorous possible responses in my head, but chose not to verbally respond to her statement, knowing that it was probably more of a commentary of her sentiments about her own marriage and responsibilities, and less of a statement about divorce.

Because no one who has ever been divorced says stuff like that.

And what the nurse didn’t realize is what it’s REALLY like to be a single parent.

Preface: This is my perspective, based on a few different factors pertaining to my individual situation listed below.

    I am divorced and have my daughter alone about 75% of the time.
    For various reasons, I do not co-parent with her father. We have more of a “business relationship.”
    I do not have a partner in my home. It’s just me and my kid.

So in essence, I’m about to give you my take on single parenting from someone who is truly single parenting 75 % of the time to one child.

Here goes:

Single parenting is like living inside a computer that never turns off. There are many different tabs and programs open and only you can close them because you’re the one with the username and password and operating instructions. Oh, and the operating instructions are ones you have developed yourself based on your own experiences as a child except for you have to keep tweaking them as you realize your childhood and even your child is quite different than you. People may try to help you and sometimes you’re like oh my goodness, thank you for your help, YES, because your computer is so warmed up from running all the time, and you have all these different tabs open, like a tab for meals, clothing, homework, cleaning, extra curricular activities, one for trying to figure out tweens or toddlers, and not even mentioning the tabs for your own life.

In contrast, many homes with two involved parents have a computer they share. They exchange operating instructional notes. They both know how the computer works. And they can divide up the endless tabs and responsibilities. And sometimes one of them can say to the other, “I’m losing my patience with this kid we are trying to figure out. I need to walk away from the computer, so can you keep tabs on it while I go to the grocery store and get a mental break?”

But the single parent has to keep all the tabs open even when she or he wants a break. Any breaks taken from the computer are never, ever spontaneous. No one just randomly shows up at her door at the exact moment she needs a break. That doesn’t mean she or he never receives technical support to keep their computer up and running smoothly. But it does mean she is the only one responsible for running that computer. It is she who must make decisions and decide how to fix it most of the time.

It is the times when my child is most emotional that I feel the greatest responsibility of single parenting and running that computer. When she is devastated about a loss, or extremely excited or nervous about an upcoming event, or angry with me because she didn’t get her way, I feel her feelings and I hold space for her and I realize that THIS IS IT. I’m her emotional support and I have to be present. I have to help her process.

It is in those times that I sometimes literally fall to my knees and say, “Lord, lead me, because it’s just me and my heart leading this kid, and I don’t know what in the heck I’m doing. Give me wisdom and strength to bear this great responsibility.”

Here’s the thing, though: I cannot bear witness to the challenges of single parenting without bearing witnesses to the beauty in it.

I am no more proud of anything than I am of the work I do as a single parent. I am not doing it perfectly, but I am doing it. I know that there are times she wishes, as many children of divorced parents do, that her parents were not divorced. What she doesn’t know, and may never know, is that I fought very hard to save my marriage to the point that I had lost myself completely in another person.

However, I found myself as a mother when I had the freedom to be me. I found myself when my daughter was two years old, woke up vomiting in the middle of the night, and cried for me. I found myself when she was three years old and fell running at the pool and got a concussion, and I scooped her up off the ground and rushed her to the doctor. I found myself when I took her to a child psychologist at the age of four because I was so worried I had no idea what I was doing raising this strong willed, vibrant little girl. I found myself when she received straight As all year long and won an award, and I was the sole person there to support her. I found myself when she got in big trouble in first grade for throwing her shoe over the fence during recess and she went the rest of the school day wearing one shoe.

In a million and one ways, I FOUND myself due to parenting my daughter alone.

And while I do not wish the challenges that come with divorce or single parenting on anyone, I am grateful for the million and one ways that the experience of single parenting has forced me to find myself.

With great responsibility, also comes a great reward, if you are simply willing to find yourself in the midst of the hard stuff.

Pablo’s Story

I made this two weeks ago, but couldn’t figure out how to upload it. Yes, I know I have uploaded videos before, but I couldn’t remember how I did it. Sigh. Technology is hard. And one more thing: when I say tests are dumb, what I meant is–STANDARDIZED tests not designed with English Language Learners in mind–are dumb. Just wanted to clarify.

Click below for VLOG number two:

www.youtube.com/watch

One decade ago today

One decade ago, I was lying in a hospital bed in great physical discomfort as I was birthing my daughter.

This day is sacred to me unlike no other. My child’s birth was my rebirth. For this reason, her birthday is even more special to me than my own. She woke me up to the possibility of a new life and a new way of being.

She ignited a fire in my heart that I followed: a fire which burned through

injustice,

darkness,

and fear.

I took the ashes from this fire and buried them. I built walls to prevent me from veering off the path. I knew the new pathway I was creating required a significant commitment to growth, courage, and love–both for myself and for my child. I knew it was going to be hard, but that the reward would be great.

I am not being dramatic when I say Aliana saved my life. That statement is both a beautiful and ugly truth for me. It’s beautiful because it was because of my love for her that I took responsibility for my life. It is ugly because no child should have to enter the world, bearing a burden of such consequence.

The world of domestic violence is a dark one. People who live in it experience warped realities and emotional and physical trauma. There were three things that saved me: my love for my daughter, getting professional help, and about two people who knew my story and never gave up on me. Those two people told me everyday that I was strong and smart and that they believed in my capacity to do hard things. They reminded me of who I was when I forgot.

But if I hadn’t had that trifecta–I may not have left.

I feel that I am one of the lucky ones. Some people live their whole lives in an abusive relationship. Some get out, but they never heal or understand how they got there in the first place. They continue to repeat the patterns or form new addictions.

When you decide to take the pathway to healing, you will discover that it is simultaneously incredible and also brutal. You must be willing to be ripped open and dissected and put back together. Not everyone is willing. But I do believe everyone is able if they allow it to happen.

But they must really allow it to happen. All the beauty and all the terror– to allow it to wash over them, as Rilke says.

Today, people sometimes write to me and ask me for advice about how to help a friend or family member who is experiencing abuse and what I usually tell them is this:

  • Listen
  • Affirm their feelings
  • Accept their decisions
  • Set boundaries when necessary
  • Encourage the victim to get professional help
  • Acknowledge that leaving is very hard but it is the only way their children will know the love of a parent who has the capacity to love with her whole heart.

I am not a therapist nor do I know if the advice I just gave is the best or not. But I do know that conquering an abusive relationship is similar to conquering an addiction. That’s because all these crazy neural pathways are formed in your brain during trauma bonding. Research it. It’s a real thing. Stockholm Syndrome and stuff.

But if you actually DO it–if one actually leaves the abuse, the amazing thing is how quickly one can heal when you

  • Take responsibility for showing up in your life
  • Allow justice to be served by setting boundaries like you’ve never known before.

I am so lucky. I am so grateful. I will never ever EVER stop feeling grateful for my trifecta: my daughter, the professional help I received, and my two people who believed in me nearly a decade ago.

But it all started with my daughter. With me looking into her eyes and me saying to her, “I don’t want you to live like this.”

Beauty and truth. It’s what’s being served in our home, one decade later.

I love you, Aliana.

“Well, it depends.”

One of the most bizarre things a mother can experience is that she can birth a child into the world who has a personality completely different than her own.

My mother did just that.

I came into this world, very quickly (my dad barely made it to the hospital in time) and very loudly, according to my father. I was a horrible sleeper (a trait I passed on to my own child) and sensitive and fearful. I was wired for anxiety and phobias and seemed to be driven by my emotions.

From the time I was two years old, up until adulthood, my mother spent a lot of time sagely advising me to slow down. To wait. To be patient. To think. I didn’t like that she was telling me these things, but I mostly listened because something inside of me knew she was speaking wisdom to me.

But the best piece of advice my mother ever gave me of all time was simply two words, or sometimes three, depending on how she framed it:

“It depends.”

That’s right, folks. Two words: IT DEPENDS. Sometimes she added in the extra word, “well,” at the beginning, and in that case, she said:

Well, it depends.”

If I had a dollar for every time my mother said, “It depends,” I would be rolling in the dough. To this day, she says it frequently in response to people making “should” statements that are filled with emotion. The following are a list of statements to which my mother has responded with her adage, “Well, it depends.”

  • Our culture: “Follow your heart.” Mom: “Well, it depends. Sometimes the heart is just a bunch of feelings.”
  • Our culture: “Be fearless.” Mom: “It depends; sometimes fear is there to protect you.”
  • Our culture: “Live your life with no regrets.” Mom: “Well it depends. Sometimes regret can teach us things.”
  • Our culture: “Stand up for what you know is right.” Mom: “Well, it depends. You may not be right and may just be being stubborn.”
  • Our culture: “Take the bull by the horns and act quickly and efficiently.” Mom: “Well, it depends. You can take your time and be efficient as well.”

You see??? IT JUST DEPENDS. That is what I have learned from my mother.

My whole point in sharing how my mother’s phrase has helped me, is because I realize today that it has caused me, despite the fact that I’m wired to be emotional and even anxious, to choose to be OPEN to multiple perspectives. To be OPEN to multiple ways of existing, and feeling and thinking.

And while there are definite moral truths that cannot be argued with when it comes to equality and justice for humanity–no matter who you are, where you live, or what you have done– beyond those universal truths lies the world of “It depends.”

No one has this freaking thing called life figured out. We are all going to make independent judgments based on our experiences. However, there is great comfort in knowing that feelings are just feelings and, as a wise yoga teacher once said, “I am determined to see this mountain as just a mountain. It’s not a statement on my life,” (meaning not everything we perceive as terrible that’s happening to us has anything to do with us).

Pastor Rob Bell says our culture is all treble and no bass. People get their news and develop their thoughts from what they are exposed to on social media. Through the lens of technology, we have begun to believe there are quick answers to everything. In the craziness of all of this, my mom has been my bass, my voice of reason, by asserting that we cannot depend entirely on feelings, or easily swayed by new voices simply because they sound good. It just depends.

I close with a photo of my Mom, telling everyone to chill out, because no one knows what’s going to happen. “It depends,” she probably is saying. ⬇️

For the People Who Care the Maximum Amount

This one is for the people who care the maximum amount. Those of us who care about others, what others are thinking, if we offended others, suffer from social anxiety, perfectionists in our relationships, etc. If the aforementioned describes you, lend me your ears.

Many years ago, an incident happened with a friend, that I felt was a betrayal. Others perceived it as a miscommunication. I wanted to give the person the benefit of the doubt, so I communicated to her that a boundary had been crossed in our relationship, and I then restated my boundary (which happened to involve my child).

My friend said, “No problem, I understand. This will not happen again.” So, I carried on in the friendship until, one day, she became very angry with me about the boundary I had expressed and it was stated to me by both her and members of her family, that my boundary was unrealistic.

I spent a night agonizing over this. Was it unrealistic? Was I wrong? Was I… being stubborn 😳?

You see, I had spent most of my life, believing that people who could not come to an agreement on things were exhibiting pride and/or were operating purely from their egos. I didn’t want to be a person who was so caught up in “my beliefs” that I couldn’t compromise.

Until one night I was talking to my friend Melanie about this incident, and she said something profound:

“This is one situation where you can’t budge. It’s beneath your dignity to do so.”

“Dignity?? Like, what does that even mean??” I asked her. (I mean, I knew the word “dignity,” but its meaning felt so foreign to me in this context that I needed to hear an explanation.)

“You know… dignity. Like, you’re worthy of respect.”

“Dignity. Okay. My dignity,” I slowly said, taking it all in.

Within that particular moment, what I was beginning to realize was this: my boundary that had been violated was an extension of my values. So I just couldn’t bend–or I would break and be compromising WHO I was. I would be compromising my self worth–what I value, who I am, and my dignity.

And here’s the thing–for some people, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. But for me, it was. Because I’m wired to care THE MAXIMUM AMOUNT about my relationships. Like, on a continuum of caring about other people, where zero is literally “IDGAF” (don’t google that, Mom) and ten is “I really want people to be happy with me and not hurt their feelings,” I’m pretty much a 12. While saying no to others may come easily to some, it does NOT come easily to me.

And this situation was a hard one. I ended up disappointing a lot of people: people who I loved and people who my child loved. I had to take time to grieve the loss and work through this betrayal.

But the one person I didn’t end up disappointing was myself. I had not betrayed my values. I had spoken from my heart, and from a place of truth. This was not pride–it was dignity. And dignity is the very ONE THING we cannot compromise. Our lives will never be easy, but we can at least know we are living in integrity when we speak and respect our values through our decision making.

I’m talking to YOU–the one who cares the maximum amount. Don’t forget to care about yourself.

Photo: My friend, Melanie, who has been teaching me about dignity since the third grade.