Being a person

“You don’t pass or fail at being a person.”

Neil Gaiman

It’s true. Nothing to add. Except maybe this one other little tear-jerker moment from Avengers: Endgame.

“Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be, Thor. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.”

Thor’s mom

And I’d say you’re doing pretty good at that.

Let go of all those pesky, shamey “shoulds” you’ve picked up like obnoxious burrs along the way.

You’re allowed to be you. You are you. And that’s good.

~

Can I write for you?

A different New Year’s suggestion

Watch, listen, or read down below :)

Hello again friends, happy new year to you! Have you made any resolutions this year? Maybe set some 2022 goals?

I haven’t.

And not because I think resolutions are bad. I don’t think they’re bad, I don’t think I’m better than you for not falling for them, and I bet I’ll make some again one day.

But not this year.

I think it’s because I’m in a very specific season of learning–can I share it with you?

~

I subtly shifted toward the window so my next-seat-neighbor couldn’t see my face on the flight home from Indiana. I didn’t want them to see the tears rolling down my cheeks every few pages as I read the little book Siddhartha. And they looked young, so I also wanted to hide the more adult pages, where Siddhartha’s lover teaches him “the game of love . . . one of the thirty or forty different games [she] knew,” like the one “which the textbooks call ‘climbing a tree.'” So yes, colorful book all around.

Exactly 100 years ago, a German-Swiss poet and painter authored the book Siddhartha. A story about a student of the Buddha. And not just a student of the Buddha, a student of life. Of business, of romance, of philosophy, of pleasure, of high society, of travel and exploration. In fact, Siddhartha’s study with the Buddha didn’t last that long. Can you imagine? Sitting and listening to the Buddha and eventually saying, “sorry, I love what you’re saying, it’s just lacking a little something for me.”

Siddhartha wanted life to make sense. He wanted to understand, to get it, to have meaning, to feel purpose–to be fulfilled as a human.

So he searched.

And tried.

He tried living with the Buddha. He took what worked for him and moved along to find more. He apprenticed with Kamaswami, a wealthy business owner, and became a massively successful financier. It wasn’t quite right. He traveled, explored, adventured. Still, there must be more. He met a woman named Kamala who opened him up to a world of passion, sex, romance. Even this wasn’t enough.

~

How many new strategies, practices, schedules, goals, and habits have you tried over the years, so that life can feel . . . right?

And how tired are you?

And again I’m wondering–which new way are you trying this year?

~

“It’s sort of a blessing–a gift–that life is so short.” My friend introduced this counterintuitive concept to me sitting in a coffee shop–the same coffee shop he keeps returning to for connection as year after year of life journals itself along.

I had just shared with him a roller coaster overview of some personal searching the last few years has held for me. A family wedding where I paid a visit to my old trauma stomping grounds. The cracks started forming, pressure building. Then a hike in the Rockies with a hat on–I never wear hats, so I’m not used to the brim blocking my peripheral of what’s above–lunging upward over a rock into a giant, unforgiving tree branch. A crack, blackness, stars, awake again, on the ground now, “F***!!!”, annoyed glances from parents of small children, looking around in a daze, one shoulder a little lower than the other, whiplash, dizzy, fuzzy, head throbbing. A concussion that just got nastier as the days passed. Powerfully knocking all the anxiety loose. The cracks widening, the dam bursting. Everything I’d internalized that had kept me “safe” in my quarter century on this planet suddenly falling apart. Therapy, more therapy, lots of therapy. Journaling. Denying. Realizing. Seething. Accepting. More therapy. Hoping to figure it all out and end up “all better” someday.

“Because we don’t have time to work on everything.”

My friend explained: “We feel this pressure to measure up, to be good enough, to make it all the way to our ideal version of acceptable or of healthy or of right or of whatever other way we think we’re supposed to be. Some arbitrary bar that we set for ourselves, or that was set for us. We keep trying and working and struggling to measure up. But eventually it becomes clear that life is too short–that there’s way more stuff than we’ll be able to work through–and that maybe we don’t have to figure it all out. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we’re not supposed to.”

~

What are you determined to figure all the way out this year? To beat this year? Achieve this year? Discover this year? Perfect this year?

And if you don’t reach that bar . . . is that okay? Are you enough? Is your now-life worth it anyway?

~

Do you watch The Office?

(It’s funny when a TV show becomes so legendary that it’s no longer “have you watched, but “do you watch?”)

If you’re an Office person, I know for sure three times you cried about it. Jim and Pam at Niagara, Michael saying goodbye at the airport, and the entire Finale episode.

In the Finale, goofy old Andy Bernard says something just outrageously profound that sums up the point of the whole show–a show full of different characters casting about in countless directions for meaning and growth and purpose and fulfillment. “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”

~

When Siddhartha embarked on his journey of self discovery, he was ferried across a river by an old man. After a long life of searching, Siddhartha again comes to the river, and finds the same old man–still radiating the same peace Siddhartha had seen in his eyes years before. Vasudeva, the ferryman, leads a simple life transporting travelers back and forth across the river. Having tried every different way in life, still feeling like he’s missing the point, Siddhartha decides to stay with Vasudeva–learn from him, see if he can find the peace and contentment the old man has found.

Vasudeva doesn’t have grand philosophies, programs, pleasures, practices, or opinions to share. Instead, he encourages Siddhartha to learn from the river.

As the years roll by, Siddhartha watches the river. The river just . . . flows. It keeps going. And going. And going. It is strong and soft. Steady and inevitable. The river doesn’t fight, and it can’t be fought. The water is carried to the ocean and brought back again by rain, birth and death without beginning or end. And without struggle, the river lives on–its various ripples and currents and waves and droplets all as one. One continuing, flowing one.

There is no perfecting the river. No molding its waves into the right shape. No struggle that will stop its currents.

The river flows.

The flow of life.

With all its bad and good, it’s happiness and sadness, it’s living and dying.

Life flows on.

And while one can learn peace and joy and beauty and love during life, one cannot master it, stop it, fix it, win it, or beat it.

One just . . . lives.

~

Nails on a chalkboard. I did not like what she was saying.

I’m a next level Scheduling guru. I can fit every different goal and passion and habit and session into a 7-day-excel-spreadsheet (color coded, too, because life is an adventure).

And then life’s currents do their thing and I have to rewrite the schedule. Every few days.

Over dinner, I was complaining to Lyssi that I just couldn’t figure out a realistic way to fit everything I want dependably into my day or my week. Running, yoga, meditation, breathwork, exercises, swimming, cooking, massage, reading, podcasts, languages, piano, movies, friends, journaling, reading some more, brushing my teeth. And on top of it all, actually writing for my blog again.

“I have a sort of strange idea,” she said. “What if you just didn’t follow a schedule at all? What if you just did what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it? Just listening to your body and your heart? Like when you wake up in the morning, maybe it’s a reading day, maybe it’s a movement day, maybe it lasts five minutes or an hour, or maybe you just stay in bed?”

Um. No. That is . . . the worst. It will not work.

“I’m just worried that if I don’t schedule it, the stuff I really need and want that isn’t comfortable is what will slide. Like movement and exercise. I’m afraid I’ll always just go with what’s easy.”

As much as I hated the idea and knew there was no way it would work, I also tasted this little flavor of relief, and had to go back for more. So I threw out the planning, and just lived what life brought me.

It has turned out looking like a lot more movement and exercise–especially yoga and swimming, almost every day. I haven’t read any less, maybe more. I have grown more in touch with my body, its pain and its insecurity and also its freedom and its strength. The only thing I feel like I’ve lost is a sense of failure at not measuring up every day to the Peter I kept planning and re-planning to be.

~

“In this hour, Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate, stopped suffering. On his face flourished the cheerfulness of a knowledge, which is no longer opposed by any will, which knows perfection, which is in agreement with the flow of events, with the current of life, full of sympathy for the pain of others, full of sympathy for the pleasure of others, devoted to flow, belonging to the oneness.”

~

So what was your New Year’s resolution? And how are you measuring up? And will it be enough?

~

I feel like six months from now I’ll probably be writing something about how valuable schedules and habits and consistency are, and I don’t think it will be wrong. Schedules are wonderful. Planning is important. Repeated practice adds up to a lot of strength and joy and beauty and adventure and love.

Which is why I’ll probably set New Year’s goals or intentions again someday. But this year I’m learning to lay down that bar I’ve been desperately seeking to measure up to, year after year, struggle after struggle, interruption after interruption, disappointment after disappointment.

Which season are you in? Are you trying yet another strategy this year? And here’s a more helpful question: Are you tired about it?

Then maybe it’s time to give yourself over to life. To trust it. It will flow. It will bring love and pain and excitement and sadness and hugs and loneliness and movement and boredom and the whole time it will be beautiful and it will be yours and it will be right.

~

Sure, chase the adventure and meaning you want in life. That’s part of it and it’s worth scheduling and pushing now and then.

And also, you’re already living. It’s life. It’s weird. It’s exciting. It’s confusing. It’s beautiful. It’s allowed. And it’s enough.

~

As Siddhartha nears the end of his life, he speaks again to his childhood friend and fellow seeker, Govinda: “What should I possibly have to tell you[?] . . . Perhaps that in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”

Can you let go of the Shoulds for a while? Can you just live? You may find that it’s enough. That you’re already enough. That you’re already there.

~

P.S. What’s funny is that after giving up completely on schedules and goals and Shoulds this new year, I’ve stumbled upon a clearer intention for this season of my life than I think I’ve ever felt. It’s a simple one and it’s helping. Ask me about it over coffee sometime. I’d love to share it.

~

Maybe I will write another tomorrow. Or maybe I will sleep in. If I write, would you like me to write for you?

Authentic, but like right now

I always armed the alarm system at night. If someone beat me to it, I’d find some need to go grab something from the garage or step outside so that I could re-arm it when I came back in. Arming it took a minute, because we had to bypass a few upstairs bedroom windows so we could let in the fresh night air. When I re-armed it, I’d add my first-story bedroom window. Besides my little brother/partner-in-crime, I don’t think anyone ever knew. Night after night, I’d slip out the window to go walk. In the dark. In my trench coat. (Yes. An odd window into my sheltered juvenility casting about in search of an identity named Me.)

It’s hard to pinpoint my first clear realization that I didn’t belong in my family. That I needed to be elsewhere.

When I was 11, I yelled and threw things a lot and thought my little sister was the devil (spoiler, I was wrong, she was just a drowned out human looking hard for a friend). In other words, I wasn’t happy. But I didn’t feel like I was supposed to get away. When I was 17, I was so certain that the environment was toxic to me that I day-dreamed of life in a faraway place, and at nights I walked the neighborhoods in my trench coat.

Somewhere in between, I realized I needed to leave.

Sitting around our ancient, creaky, memory-filled dining table for yet another family meal, the whole family was deep in discussion. There were laughs and there were criticisms as we sat in pious heavenly judgment of “the world.” Except I just sat there in silence, wanting to be anywhere else. “What Peter,” mom suddenly turned to me, “do you think you’re better than the rest of us? Like we’re all just mean and judgmental, and you’re above conversations like this?”

Yes. And no. Wait. Not better, no. I mean screw it, yes. Not, “I’m better,” but yes, it’s “better” to not find one’s entire identity in sitting around laughing and poking fun at everyone that doesn’t look and sound just like you. So . . . yes, sitting in silence did feel like the “better” option.

I knew I had to get out.

So I got out.

And it was maybe the best decision I’ve ever made in my whole entire life.

And . . . with that decision came what was maybe the most unhealthy talent in my entire life: Solving problems by changing location.

And I guess I start with this story to draw a clear distinction around what I’m about to say. Because there are toxic places, or places at least that are toxic to you. There are times you need to pick up and leave. There are people you can do nothing but drown with. There are environments that are too traumatic for you. There are times when the best, best, best decision is: I’ve got to get out of here.

But.

I have a favorite quote this year. It’s speaking deep to me as I take the 2021 twists and turns in my growth. It’s such a simple quote, I figured it must just be one of those old sayings attributed to a hundred different people. And I guess it probably is, but I forgot where I’d found it, and was delighted a minute ago to discover I read this favorite new quote in my favorite old book by my deeply favorite author:

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. “It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.”

“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

Okay.

Whoa.

Yeah.

Over coffee, a friend I work with asked me, “Peter are you burnt out?” It was sort of out of the blue, and I was so grateful for the question, and before I knew it I answered that question in a way I’ve never answered it in a work setting: Yes.

I explained that the years of trying daily to care about and focus on the things that I worry my position and industry suggests I should caught up to me. That saying the things I’m expected to say, agreeing to the things I’m expected to agree to, setting the goals I’m expected to set–that it has all meant I’m carefully keeping myself under wraps–at least at work. And not totally, but a lot. Worried that the compassionate me, the me that can never just small talk, the mental health advocate me, the don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff me, the anxious me, the me that speaks up when something feels unfair, the me that keeps daydreaming about jumping ship and taking out student loans to go be a therapist, the soft me, the me that gravitates away from cliquey criticism fests, the me that needs desperately to help the ones life isn’t as easy for, and the me that quit wearing ties when he quit living for approval from authorities because honestly we’re all just humans making this stuff up–worried all those me’s wouldn’t fit.

Like, in business, is a “man” supposed to be in touch with his “feminine” side?

And what if they found out I don’t know football?

And that I care less at the end of the day about being “profitable” than about really taking care of people?

But that ship has been slowly turning this year, sign-posted by a few honest chats over coffee or lunch with a few co-workers who have been on this same journey.

And the less each day is run by my anxiety, the more I’ve been able to say: “A little bit, f*** it, this is me.”

And it seems to be turning out well. And in hindsight I’m seeing that a lot of the anxiety that was keeping me from showing my true self was actually coming from not showing my true self.

And I didn’t show my true self because I felt, “My true self won’t fit here.”

So I realized, for the hundredth time, that I’d have to leave.

Find the place where it’s safe to be exactly me.

Haha.

Does this pattern feel at all familiar to you? You feel in a rut, like “this isn’t the me I wanted to be,” so you make a change–a new job, a cross-country move, a breakup, a new schedule, a new community. And then the same old fears and insecurities that put you in the rut in the last place show up in the new place? So we jump from here to there and then over there and then back here and then all the way over there. And no matter how many different scenes we try, we find the same damn struggles.

Why?

Well, “wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

In my own journey, I’ve slowly uncovered a pattern: I find myself a new place to safely build a home. I glance around expecting to find people who don’t approve of my home’s aesthetic. And of course, as Paulo Coelho put it, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And in the face of those threats, I be the me, choose the choices, say the sayings that I think will keep me safe. Be who you’re expected to be. And I wait, day-dreaming of this future where I’m happily living as the real me in a good place. But the dream fades as the façade heavies, and I find myself burnt out putting off who I want to be. So burnt out that this new home has become toxic, and it’s time to make a move. So I find myself a new place to safely build a home. I glance around expecting to find people, again, who don’t approve of my home’s aesthetic. And the cycle begins again.

And it’s not because the new place is the same as the old place. It’s not.

It’s not because where you are doesn’t matter. It does.

It’s because where you are doesn’t make a difference unless you get in touch with and nurture the you that you’re bringing with you. Learn how to bravely, authentically be the you you keep meaning to be, no matter who’s watching.

If you struggle with communicating your frustrations in a relationship, a new partner probably won’t change that.

If you struggle with giving your honest opinions at work, a new workplace probably won’t change that.

If you struggle with taking care of your body in Minnesota, Colorado won’t change that.

Of course there may be reasons to make those changes (like there’s no Mount Ida to hike in Minnesota). But when you leave to find a new place where you can be you, are you leaving because the place you’re in won’t let you be you, or because you won’t let you be you?

Truly?

My friend who has spent his career as a psychologist helping people understand their relationships has a really helpful way of putting it. Nine times out of ten, “if you leave your partner, a year from now you’ll be married to their twin.”

What is inside of you that is making your today-world what it is?

Because sure, the external world does come with its real threats. But is it stopping you from being you? Or are you stopping you from being you, “just in case” it doesn’t work?

And what would happen if you just . . . were you in the face of those (real or imagined) threats?

My dog Junko and I are very different. Largely because she’s a dog and I’m a human. Junko seems to have only one thing on her mind: The present. Right now. Where she is. Right now. This piece of cardboard to rip apart, right now. This squirrel to tree, right now. This belly rub to get, right now. I, on the other hand, obsess constantly over the future, and I mostly try to reject the present. The present is not good enough. I need a new place. That house to have, next year. That career to have, in five years. That painless spine to run with, someday. Then I can be happy.

Happiness, fulfillment, acceptance . . . they’re all waiting for things to be just right.

I’m sure you’ve watched Pixar’s Up. If you haven’t, pause right here, go find it–even if you have to pay for it–and watch it, right now. Once you’ve stopped crying, come on back and we’ll go on.

So–Up. Carl and Ellie get married with big plans to travel the world. It’s what will make them happy. Then, as we’re all familiar with, life happens. And they keep waiting for the day when they can take their big adventure. But life keeps happening. And with guilt and regret, Carl watches his best friend Ellie pass out of this world, never having taken the big adventure. It’s too late. In his grief, Carl opens an album of memories. Pictures of him and Ellie sharing a birthday cake, out on a drive, feeding the pigeons, picnicking under a tree.

Our lives of “not good enough,” or “not where I wanted to be,” or “not what I’m supposed to be doing,” are still our lives. And chances are, we’ve got a lot to love to tend to right here, right now. Like Junko. In the present.

I bet that if we treated each present moment as just as important as our dreamlike future, we’d show up differently. And just possibly in a way that would help us break the cycle of chasing new safe places that turn sour.

But that means accepting the non-dreamy parts of the present. Like going to couple’s therapy, or actually having those difficult conversations with a co-worker. Instead of giving up and moving on each time. It means digging into the you that’s too scared to show all the way up today. Asking the scary questions of your heart, like “why do I have a hard time trusting?” or “why can’t I say what I actually think?” or “why can’t I let myself have fun?” or “why won’t I take care of myself?”

Because those things are usually at least partly inside you.

And, “wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

What if instead of defaulting to changing our outer worlds, we dropped in on our inner worlds to ask some deep personal questions, like “What is stopping you from being all the way here, all the way you, right now?” What if we did self-nurturing just as often as we did future-dreaming? What if we got real bravely authentic, even though “this isn’t the place I dreamt of?”

Do you catch yourself holding out for a later time or a later place or a later job or a later person, at which time you’ll suddenly be able to shine your light and dance your dance?

Why aren’t you right now?

Because whatever parts of you are keeping yourself hidden today are coming with you when you run away tomorrow.

And yes, make the move when the place itself is a true problem.

But is the place really usually the problem?

Or is it that wherever you go, you keep bringing your anxious self with you?

What if you just decided to figure yourself out instead? To learn the stuff that’s keeping you stuck. Like trust, like vulnerability, like bravery, like communication, like acceptance, like kindness, like rest. The list goes on. Those things you think would be different about you if you moved to Colorado, but deep down have to admit are really just your fragile self.

Can you let yourself grow through the weeds into your beautiful, healthy self, right here, right now?

Or do you have to keep waiting till everything else is just right?

Maybe we can meet each other with brave authenticity and find life and love together?

It won’t all be easy and you’ll get a few bruises, but I wonder if it would feel better than waiting and hiding as the years tick by.

Here’s to your brave authenticity. <3

~

Want an authenticity cheerleader? Throw your email below.

Willoughwaves

Waddling’s the word for the way Willoughby walked. Willoughwaddles.

He was an old man when we adopted him. But as slowly and arthritically as he moved 95% of the time, he was still ready for an occasional mad dash when we played hide and seek, or to stand his ground like the Rock of Gibraltar when he wasn’t done sniffing a tree trunk.

The first time I remember seeing Willoughby run was at a rest stop in Wisconsin. Lyssi was gone for a couple minutes, which was a couple minutes too long. When he saw her coming, he started walking, and as she got closer, and he became more sure, he took off bounding toward her and gave her a giant Willoughby hug.

There was something about that moment. You know how in the movies when two people love each other to death and see each other from a distance, there’s this Valentinesy moment where they pick up speed and run into each other’s arms? And you feel like “Ugh, I want that to happen to me.” Well that’s what dogs give us. That moment never went away.

Willoughby hugs

If you read what I write, you may have gotten your fill of grief lately. Welcome to grief. This is, apparently, how it works. At some point, I’ll also write about other things. But not today. Grief has been on my mind, and I want to share with you some things I’ve learned in the last few months. I know you’re going to lose something or someone, too. Maybe already have. You’ll probably grieve many losses. And it’s just the worst. And there are a couple things that have been surprisingly helpful, so maybe they’ll help you.

~

For weeks and weeks after Willoughby died, I couldn’t stop playing this scene in my head: Somehow, somewhere, sometime I’d see Willoughby from across a distance. He’d see me, and he’d get that look in his eyes, and he’d start moving, and the waddles would turn into a run, and he’d land in my arms again, tail wagging, sneezes sneezing.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then a few different friends gave me cards with the story of the Rainbow Bridge. The beloved pets we have lost “all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted . . .”

It’s not real.

But it’s a story worth imagining.

And I’ve imagined it again and again and again. And I keep feeling “If only . . .”

Willoughby greetings

When I think about seeing Willoughby again, hearing his old man bark, seeing him running and playing, it hurts a lot. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I really cry. Each time feels a little different as grief winds its weird path and I feel the Willoughwaves come and go.

But it never doesn’t hurt to think about. So why keep thinking about it?

Like most of us, I always assumed that it would feel better not to think about the wonderful things we’ve lost. The things we were so attached to that the memory physically hurts. I remember my psychologist friend sharing that a lot of his clients who have lost loved ones say that they can’t let themselves start thinking about it, because if they start crying they’ll never stop. We believe grief will overwhelm and break us. That if we let it in, it will be too much. Permanent.

But it actually doesn’t work that way.

The first surprising grief lesson I’ll share was this weird thing that worked.

Pizza tasted good, but it didn’t really carry us through our feelings. Distractions delayed some tears, which honestly was really helpful, but then the distractions ended. The one activity that seemed to “work” in any healing way was watching videos of Willoughby.

Willoughby holidays

I didn’t think I’d be able to handle pictures of Willoughby, let alone videos, but it turned out they were the exact medicine. Especially the videos. The videos gave me his sound. I got to watch him and listen to him and relive the memories and fully feel how badly I love him.

And then, strangely, it would feel . . . better . . . ?

Which is the opposite, I think, of what we expect. Grief knocks us down, so we think the best defense is to not let it knock us down, and we find ourselves worn out bracing against its power, “not listening, not listening.”

But when we finally do listen, look, feel . . . it sort of moves through us. It does its thing.

Emotions are made to be felt, not fought. Well before Willoughby died, I gave a blog post the title Letting the waves do their thing. I described how surfing is used as an analogy for life–when the waves come, we learn to ride the waves. But not just that. We often forget that surfers don’t just ride the waves, they also wipe out, because from time to time a wave comes that is too big, and it pulls them under into a current that is too strong, and surfers have to learn a life-saving lesson: You can’t fight the water. When it pulls you under, you have to swim with it, or at least not against it. If you try to fight it, you will drown. And I think life is the same way. The waves are surfable, but at some point they’re going to knock you down and pull you under, and those giant emotions are too strong to fight. Too strong to deny. Too strong to say things like “well at least” or “it’s okay because.” Too strong to look the other way and distract ourselves. So when we try to fight them, we lose. They just get bigger and bigger and become more and more deeply entrenched. And one day our dams will break.

The strange thing that my psychologist friend gets to share with his clients who are afraid to let the tears start is that when we actually get open and honest and familiar and accepting with the tears, the emotions move through us. Emotions, when allowed, do their thing and then . . . let up. The current is strong, but if you go with it, it will let you back up for air.

Emotions, when blocked, exhaust us and grow bigger. Emotions, when accepted, fulfill their purpose and then recede.

And sure enough, when I put on that SYML song that brings me back to the drive to say one last goodbye, or when I tell a friend who is brave and thoughtful enough to ask all about him, or when I watch the videos of Willoughby being Willoughby–the tears come. And then they go. And it . . . helps.

So that’s thing one: Watch the videos, let the memories in, feel the feels. Deep. It hurts deep, but it heals deep.

And it keeps working that way, 4 months later. The longer I try to just put those thoughts and memories away when they creep up, the more ominous and yucky it feels. And when I finally just go, “Okay, time to hear the Willoughby playlist again,” it heals. It’s better.

At least for me. So maybe for you?

Why is it better for me to feel it all the way and let the grief grieve? I think maybe because Willoughby’s not actually gone from my heart. So trying to deny his visits to my heart hurts worse than just remembering the love and feeling him again.

Nora McInerny has a lot to say about this, and the day we let Willoughby go I listened again to her Ted Talk on grief, because I needed to remember that it is okay not to move on from Willoughby. I’m attaching her Ted Talk at the bottom of this post, because I hope, hope, hope you’ll watch it. It has been the perfect guide for me.

~

Thing two that seems to have really helped is this weird, masochistic-sounding experiment I did through the whole process.

Loss can change people. There’s something I’ve heard about the likelihood of couples who lose children breaking up. It’s just hard to survive deep losses. It’s hard to be healthy about them. It’s hard not to just throw shit at the walls and scream. It’s hard not to blame. It’s hard not to clam up. It’s hard. It’s all hard.

In his life-changing book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explores the origins of trauma. It’s fascinating. I promise this is way over-simplified, but: One of the reasons trauma is so traumatic is that it is too much to show up for, too much to process in our brains. Too terrifying to look closely. Like the shadow in the closet. We hide under our blanket instead of investigating, so we spend the rest of our lives under our blanket instead of seeing that the shadow has come and gone.

In Off Camera with Sam Jones, Matt Damon describes the true-to-life flavor they gave a scene in the movie Contagion. Near the beginning of the movie, a doctor tells Damon’s character that his wife has died. “Right. . . . can I go talk to her?” In researching how this would play, they learned from doctors that they’re trained to use very specific language. They don’t say soft things like “didn’t make it,” they get real brutally direct: “Their heart stopped and they did die.” Apparently the word “did” gives it some extra force. They do this because that truth is so hard for people to hear that we literally won’t hear it. Won’t understand it. Won’t accept it.

It’s easier to not look at the worst stuff. To block it out. To stuff it down. To turn our feelings off. To lie to ourselves and say “I’m fine.” To pretend the trauma’s not really there. To not look at it. To not touch it.

Because some things are too scary. Too awful.

But then, when we deny it, when we stay in the denial stage or the bargaining stage, it roots deeply in our core as trauma. Something we couldn’t bear to show up for, something that’s too big a monster hiding in the closet. So we live the rest of our lives in its shadow. Avoiding triggers. Emotionally shut down. Carefully blocking the experience.

So what would happen with that experience if instead of shutting down during it we opened all the way up to it?

One last Willoughby adventure

My experiment was to stay outrageously present for Willoughby’s death. No denying. No pretending. No blocking. No looking away. No trying to get away. No shutting out or shutting down. Just all the way present.

What did I feel? What did I hear? What did I smell? What did I see? And what–exactly what–was happening in my heart? And could I sit with it? Sit in it?

My heart was saying “I’m not ready for this! I can’t let you go, Willoughby.” I’ve never cried that hard and may never again. I felt the cold rain sprinkling on my skin. I heard the cars drive by as we stood in the alley behind the vet clinic. I heard Willoughby’s silence. Too tired. I smelled Willoughby as I leaned down to kiss his forehead. Again. And again. I felt Lyssi’s shoulders as we held onto each other. I heard my calming voice telling, promising Willoughby we weren’t going anywhere and telling him he’d been such a good boy. I saw Willoughby’s head peeking out from under the covers. I watched his eyes move. I noticed how completely normal but still tender this moment felt to the nurse who came out when we said we were ready. I listened to her explain what happens. And then I watched Willoughby’s eyes get really big all of a sudden. Like something was happening. And then he got sleepy and peaceful. We said silly things like “Thank you” to the nurse and walked back to the car. We sat in it and held each other and cried. Together. For a long time.

Lyssi and I agreed to be really present with each other for the grief. To accept it, to let each other show all the yucky pain, to be all the way emotionally available and emotionally together about it, no matter how awful.

It would have been easier to be a trooper. To keep my chin up. To “be strong.” It would have been easier to “can’t think about it right now,” or to get back to work, or to take care of things and do stuff. It was definitely harder to be consciously, carefully present. In the moment.

And I don’t think I can describe how much it has helped. It was a moment full of love that I will never ever get back. And if I hadn’t said the things and given him the kisses, I wouldn’t have that memory. If I hadn’t soaked it all in, it would be gone, and I wouldn’t be able to get it back.

And it would be big. A big shadow. That trauma thing.

Have you ever had an anxiety attack? Most of the time, we humans make it through pretty dreadful things. But anxiety is about feeling there’s a too-big thing looming around the corner. One you won’t make it through. And an anxiety attack happens when your body gets too overwhelmed with that undefinable, vague shadow, and begins to panic. So how do you calm an anxiety attack? By returning to the senses. What do you see? What can you touch? What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you taste? Because no matter how awful, usually, when we can return to our senses, we’re able to be there.

I think that happens with grief, too. With loss. It’s pretty gut-wrenchingly awful. And we can run away from the shadow, let the trauma hunt us in a game of hide-and-seek that will never end. Or we can show all the way up for it.

This pain, this loss, has stayed with me in a different way than others have in the past. And I do think it has some to do with how present we stayed for it. No denial. No soldiering on. No turning off feelings.

He was really dying. And we were really there for it. And we will always have that moment. We understood it. No matter how painful, we understood it and got to show up with agency and love in that moment while he crossed that bridge.

I’ve just seen so many people shut down to survive loss, but it always turns out they didn’t survive it. They just hit pause. The loss is still waiting. So maybe they’ll just stay paused. Forever. While the shadow grows bigger, and their heart grows emptier.

Being intentionally present with Willoughby’s death was so hard and so sad. But I think it helped. A lot. I think it saved some trauma. I think it saved some regret. I think it saved some dysfunction. Some struggle. I think it meant I get to look back with tears and love at our goodbye, instead of panicking and running away from the thought for the rest of my life.

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Willoughby memories

I don’t know if either of these will help you.

Deciding to show up in love and presence for the saddest times;

And letting the waves of grief do their thing, healing you as they go.

But they’ve helped me immensely.

So when the waves knock you down and pull you under–and they will–maybe try showing all the way up and feeling the feels.

The Willoughwaves keep coming, for me, but as long as I don’t fight them, they seem to be serving a purpose.

Do you show up for your grief?

Willoughby love

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P.S. Thanks to Nora McInerny for maybe the most helpful 15 minutes I’ve ever found:

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It seems we’re both figuring this whole life thing out as we go. Can I send you updates when I figure more of it out? Wishing you the best!