Attention-seeking

What if half our problem is that we’re not asking for attention?

Junko is a handful, but she’s not complicated. She is a 2-year-old very-puppy who has no qualms about putting her foot down (literally–like on top of us) when she needs . . . . . or even just “wants” attention. (Is there really a difference?)

On the other hand, I’m super cool, but I’m complicated as hell. My deepest wish in life is for people to give me the exact sort of soothing care I want, at the exact moments I need it, without my having to say anything. That would be best, right? If people could just predict what I need?

Or I could do it the Junko way and say “I want a hug right now please and thank you.

When little kids “act out,” we like to call it “attention-seeking.” When 20-, 30-, 40-year old little kids have an outburst or stop showing up for work or start saying sad things all the time, we also sometimes call it “attention-seeking.”

And my goodness, what if we all could seek attention? Not just the ones who are honest about their needs.

What if your little kid doing whatever they know how to do to get your attention is actually asking for exactly what they most need, just in the only way they know how today?

And what if your friend or co-worker is literally just reaching out in the dark to see if someone still cares enough about them to pay attention and care for a minute?

Sure we could all be a little more like Junko and say things directly instead of throwing tantrums, giving the silent treatment, hinting for days, or all the other indirect ways we ask for attention.

But could we maybe appreciate “attention-seeking” for being one of the healthier self-interventions that someone’s able to do in a lonely moment? And provide each other some loving, caring attention instead of labeling each other needy or dramatic or annoying?

What if instead of saying they’re “attention-seeking,” we would say “they have unfulfilled needs”?

Because I bet if we’re all being honest, we need some attention, too.

What if you were allowed to ask for attention? Would it maybe help?

~

Do you need words and encouragement and hope sometimes? I’d love to write for you:

Deeper

Do you ever catch yourself looking into someone’s eyes just a little longer and thinking “holy **** there’s an actual person in there!” before quickly breaking eye contact and saying something like “ugh, winter” or “thank god it’s Friday” just to lighten the tension of the tangible spirituality you just experienced between two powerfully human beings?

How much energy do we spend trying to avoid seeing each other as humans and deeply connecting?

And then, once we’ve carefully avoided truly connecting, how much TV do we watch alone on the couch wishing that we had someone there to talk to? But like to really talk to?

And then when we do find someone to talk to, how quickly do we replace the magical mystery of deep connection with a less fragile, less volatile, maybe less explosive normalcy like “how was your day?” again or “what do you want to watch?”

Really seeing someone is uncomfortable. Really being seen is uncomfortable.

When someone says “Hey. . . . how are you really doing?” there’s this strange hit–half ecstasy, half terror.

Deep connection is too good.

And full of too much potential.

So we sign it away in exchange for casual predictability.

No more rocking the boat of our lives or each other’s lives. Safe familiarity. Safe predictability. Safe blandness.

Safe nothingness.

Lonely nothingness.

And then one day we dare to hold someone’s gaze a little longer and speak with a deeply felt emotion for the first time since high school. And the possibilities of being a human and how magical it is come flooding back.

How many words do you speak in a day? And of those, how many do you actually care to speak? How many of your words are just social lubricant so you can avoid honesty and vulnerability and connection? Tailored to avoid the smallest chance that you’ll reach your tender, childlike hands out for connection and be rejected again?

Toughness is manufactured. Toughness is protection against the chance of experiencing the pain that can come along with being deeply human. And so toughness accidentally protects us from the magic of being human at all.

But what would happen if you looked someone in the eye just a little longer and said something like “Hey . . . I appreciate you.” . . . ? Or even the terrifying baggagey words that you’ve learned not to use, or at least to breeze quickly through, diluted with as much casualness as you can muster: “I love you.”

What if you risked connection?

What if you risked touching souls with someone?

What if someone else is waiting for the same thing?

Do you think the weather could wait?

Is it scary? Yeah. Yeah, it is. We’ve all tried before and failed.

As a kid, I laid it all out there with my crush after years of “being mature” about stuffing my feelings, until she’d thoroughly moved on, and I realized I had to go ahead and speak from my heart, and . . . well, it didn’t go as planned.

Then as a young adult, I shared with my mom some deep feeling of sadness over leaving my students, and she just brushed it aside and updated me on her garden or something and it felt so yucky.

I learned it’s safer to stay surface level. “How’s work?” when I’m really more interested in how my friend is doing on their insides. I learned to make sure there’s an “activity” planned instead of just inviting someone to be together to be together.

This is a lot of rambling.

Okay.

I guess what I’m saying is,

it’s not too late,

look at someone in the eye,

see that they are a human,

feel that you are a human,

and say something real.

Live your deep humanity.

Don’t live a script.

Let your insides out a little.

Not every place is a safe place,

but I think we live as if there are no safe places,

and a world with no safe places isn’t the world you’re looking for.

You know at least, like, 20 people. Chances are, one of them you could get real with. And find in that realness–that connection–a strange feeling of care and love and aliveness and togetherness and magic that you haven’t felt since you were listening to Death Cab for Cutie as a teenager.

You’re allowed to go off script and show up as your deeply human self. And it just may free someone else who needs the same thing.

Get weirdly connecty.

Sending you love today. <3

~

Can we stay connected?

7 books I’m dying to let you borrow

Oh hello friends! I’m a reader. A slow reader. A let-me-digest-this type reader. And also a distracted-by-all-the-cheeses-I-could-be-tasting type reader. So besides my Mastering Cheese textbook, 2021 had seven books for me that I’m going to be raving about to everyone I talk to anyway, so you may as well just see the list now.

I hope you pick up one or two in 2022 and find your mind opened and your heart moved and your energy sparked.

~

See No Stranger
A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love
by Valarie Kaur

3 words this made me feel: Human, Love, Connected

1 thing this inspired me to do: Listen and learn about way more people.

A surprising thing I learned: The hatred and violence against Sikh communities in the wake of 9/11, and how radically loving their responses were.

Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Honestly, this one is just going to make you a better person. A more connected human. I don’t know what else to say.

Reading difficulty 1-10: Not. It’s easy to get lost in, hard to put down.

A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite: “You are a part of me I do not yet know. . . . Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence. Once people stop wondering about others, once they no longer see others as part of them, they disable their instinct for empathy. And once they lose empathy, they can do anything to them, or allow anything to be done to them.”

~

To Shake the Sleeping Self
A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret

by Jedidiah Jenkins

3 words this made me feel: Adventure, Free, Brave

1 thing this inspired me to do: Spontaneously take a winter hiking and meditation trip to the snowy, icy Minnesota north shore. Oh and revive my old pastime of spending hours and hours browsing Google maps.

A surprising thing I learned: Even though North America and South America are connected by land, you have to travel by water or air between Panama and Colombia because there’s a roadless jungle called the Darien gap that is known as a “smuggling corridor” and is considered one of the world’s most dangerous places.

Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: It challenges everything you’ve settled into. It pulls messy honesty out of you. It makes you dream again.

Reading difficulty 1-10: Another nail-biter. Honestly this reads more like an epic movie in IMAX. Difficulty negative ten.

A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite: “As thirty approached, and ‘youth’ was passing into ‘adulthood,’ the terrible reality of time hit me like a wet rag. I looked back on my twenties and realized that every time there was a crossroads, I took the first and safest path. I did just what was expected of me, or what I needed to do to escape pain or confusion. I was reactive. I didn’t feel like an autonomous soul. I felt like a pinball.”

~

Mating in Captivity
Unlocking Erotic Intelligence
by Esther Perel

3 words this made me feel: Understood, Excited, Inchargeofmyself

1 thing this inspired me to do: Communicate more.

A surprising thing I learned: Just how codependent and enmeshed American love relationships tend to be, and just how unsustainable and unfulfilling romance is when its core is a pursuit of absolute security.

Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: For almost all of us, sex and eroticism is a core part of us and so worth exploring and learning and getting help with. But it’s also not supposed to be talked about, so that getting help and exploring thing doesn’t always happen. This book is a life-changing, sigh-of-relief-giving, absolutely amazing place to start your own conversation about it.

Reading difficulty 1-10: Esther Perel is a story-teller who thinks and speaks and guides in stories. And through each story she somehow introduces you to your truer self. It’s not difficult, it’s completely engrossing.

A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite: “Fear–of judgment, of rejection, of loss–is embedded in romantic love. Sexual rejection at the hands of the one we love is particularly hurtful. We are therefore less inclined to be erotically adventurous with the person we depend on for so much and whose opinion is paramount. We’d rather edit ourselves, maintaining a tightly negotiated, acceptable, even boring erotic script, than risk injury. It is no surprise that some of us can freely engage in the perils and adventures of sex only when the emotional stakes are lower–when we love less or, more important, when we are less afraid to lose love.”

~

Stamped from the Beginning
The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
by Ibram X. Kendi

3 words this made me feel: Disgust, Determination, Love

1 thing this inspired me to do: Make a habit, every time I hear someone (including myself) place responsibility on BIPOC and other minorities to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” of redirecting the responsibility first and foremost onto the ones who are doing the oppressing or enjoying giant advantages from the oppression. In other words, while a Black person may choose to fight for themselves, a white person is fully responsible for making the world a safer and fairer and more equitable place for Black people and other minorities–and that is not done by ignoring away our head start and enthusiastically cheering them on to fix it all themselves.

A surprising thing I learned: While it was a huge and needed step forward, the passing of the Civil Rights Act also made way for a new version of racist argument in America: Since opportunity was now supposedly, officially “equal,” we could now just blame the Black population for ongoing disparities, instead of grappling honestly with the hundreds-of-years head start white Americans and their families had and the reality of ongoing racism.

Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: It is such a powerful eye-opener and motivator. It is incredibly informative and it’s a deep motivator for making the world a better place.

Reading difficulty 1-10: Honestly, this one’s challenging. I’d say it’s a 10 in difficulty, because it’s just got so much gross, depressing, nauseating truth for America to face. Which also means it’s a 10 for needing to be read by you and me.

A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite: “Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.”

~

Play
How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
by Stuart Brown

3 words this made me feel: Childlike, Happy, Relief

1 thing this inspired me to do: Make opportunities to laugh more. And sometimes swim laps less like a human and more like a dolphin frog. Or a frog dolphin. A frolphin.

A surprising thing I learned: Humans have a real developmental for “secret spaces” where we can be totally and safely alone, free, and uncensored.

Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Because you’re too busy right now, and it’s making you sad.

Reading difficulty 1-10: 1 if you read it, 10 if you don’t.

A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite: “Once she realized that she would need time for her heart play and started acting on that realization, she began to experience true play again. She began to feel an excitement with life that she had forgotten. . . . Setting out to remember those feelings can be dangerous. It can seriously upend your life. If [her] marriage wasn’t as strong as it was, her husband might have felt she was pulling away when she went on long hikes by herself . . .”

~

The Body Keeps the Score
Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
by Bessel van der Kolk

3 words this made me feel: Hopeful, Understood, Likeiactuallyhaveabody

1 thing this inspired me to do: Yoga, swim. “Think through” less, hug myself more.

A surprising thing I learned: Retelling trauma in talk therapy can actually continually retraumatize. Sometimes saying what happened isn’t what it takes to make your body trust that it’s safe again.

Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Because if you’re somehow one of the people who won’t find yourself deeply in these pages, you love someone who does, and this will help you get it. And whether for you or your people, there are so. many. practical. options. So good.

Reading difficulty 1-10: There’s science stuff, but it’s worth it.

A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite: “Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe.”

P.S. Bonus fact, when you get to the part where Bessel van der Kolk remembers the feeling of being a “little boy” with “stern, Calvinistic parents” . . . . . . same, friend, same. . .

~

Deep
Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves
by James Nestor

3 words this made me feel: Amazed, Excited, Powerful

1 thing this inspired me to do: Learn free-diving.

A surprising thing I learned: The deeper you go underwater, the more blood flows away from your limbs toward vital organs to keep them functioning longer. Peripheral vasoconstriction. “When a diver descends to three hundred feet–a depth frequently reached by modern freedivers–“ and I’m having to just quote this verbatim because I mostly skipped science, thank you home school, “vessels in the lungs engorge with blood, preventing them from collapse.”

Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Honestly, this sounds like a niche book for a niche audience, but I 100% swear you’ll enjoy it. Also, do you like sharks?

Reading difficulty 1-10: Less than 1.

A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite: “The ocean is usually silent, but the waters here were thundering with an incessant click-click-click, as if a thousand stove lighters were being triggered over and over again. Schnöller figured the noise must be coming from some mechanism on the ship. He swam farther away from the boat, but the clicking only got louder. He’d never heard a sound like this before and had no idea where it was coming from. Then he looked down. A pod of whales, their bodies oriented vertically, like obelisks, surrounded him on all sides and stared up with wide eyes. They swam toward the surface, clicking louder and louder as they approached. They gathered around Schnöller and rubbed against him, face to face. Schnöller could feel the clicks penetrating his flesh and vibrating through his bones, his chest cavity.”

~

Want to borrow one?

~

Sneak peek of what’s next . . .

~

Maybe all this reading results in a few helpful thoughts from my fingertips this year. Want to hear them?

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.

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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!