and so I’m offering this simple phrase to kids from one to ninety-two
The Christmas Song
One of my earliest vivid memories, marked by the musty smell of old books in the college library: Two fellow professors stopped my dad and struck up a conversation. They held their briefcases and said big sentences to each other and I knew that the world would be okay. The grown ups were in charge.
I can’t remember, on the other hand, when exactly I began to realize that’s not true. First, they’re not really in charge. Second, they’re not really grown ups anyway. I think I see this more and more every year.
I wonder what would happen if all the people who think they’re in charge remembered every day just how not grown up they are and not grown up everyone else is.
The term “grown up” is misleading, and I a little bit vote we retire it.
Have you ever slowed down enough to carry on a conversation with a little kid? It’s funny, they’re shockingly alive.
Jack was my oldest tiger, Sebastian was my biggest tiger, and Dakota was my favorite tiger. It’s not that my world quite revolved around them and all their stuffed siblings, it was more like they were my family, like I retreated to them for love after a day of facing my other family. There was Basil (pronounced like the pesto, because who doesn’t like basil pesto?) the beanie gorilla, and Peter Rabbit the sleepy rabbit, and India, the beanie baby bengal given to me by my best friends’ little sister I had a transient crush on, and more. (Notice the tiger theme, because tigers are awesome.)
At its peak, I think my stuffed family consisted of 50 or so. And while I remember a few of their names, it’s challenging because their names morphed every few weeks (kids clearly don’t automatically think identities must be set in stone). The whole lot of us would gather for a feast, prepare for a battle, or hunker down for a stormy night. I loved my stuffed animals.
“You’re getting older now, Peter. You’re becoming a man. It’s time for you to stop playing with stuffed animals.”
It felt like getting punched in the gut. I hadn’t thought yet of questioning my dad’s alwaysrightness, but I knew this one felt impossible. My face felt a little numb and dizzy and I cried tears of growing-responsibility and I loosened my grasp on wonder a little more.
My dad softened a little and let me keep the tigers only. The rest had to go. Adulthood is inevitable.
Each time a need goes unmet, we’re called by society to bury it deeper. This is called growing up.
We’re encouraged to get in line. Follow the guidance the other “adults” made up. Not rock the boat. Do our budget and then die someday.
Rarely are we encouraged to get back on all fours and imagine again that we’re a tiger living under a waterfall in the jungle. Or even just to laugh or cry or dream like a child.
I’m not saying don’t budget, don’t work hard, don’t do important grown up things. If nobody did grown up stuff we wouldn’t have doctors and farmers and plumbers.
But the doctors and farmers and plumbers and politicians and pastors and CEO’s aren’t as certain as we think they are. Somewhere under numerous coats of grown-up paint, they’ve still got their sensitive childhood-colored skin.
And while we grown ups have to make grown up decisions and face a grown up world and take grown up responsibility, we could make the world a safer place by remembering and reminding each other that deep down, we’re all just doing our childlike best.
It’s okay to retreat back into your pillow fort once in a while. The world isn’t as grown up as you think it is.
The world is not as okay as we believed it was when we were 5. The grown ups aren’t really in charge. And the ones in charge today won’t be tomorrow.
But maybe while we fight an ongoing fight to protect each other from angry or selfish grown ups with their guns and their rules and their money and their hierarchies, we also make the world a little safer by coming back to our childlike selves and each childlike other. Making the same safe space for each other now that we felt decades ago, where we get to retreat for a minute and let everything be “okay” for now.
None of us can carry the grown up world without childlike rest.
And I want to just say, those childlike rests are very much more possible for some of us than for others. I’m a white male whose family has lived in America for generations. I have no kids to pay for, and a salary that allows me to disappear to the mountains on occasion. I can afford Disney+ and a TV to watch it on. Whether or not I “should,” I can habitually buy artisan cheeses that cost $24.99 per pound.
And I have neighbors that can’t. And many neighbors can’t because of decades and centuries where our world went along with the “grown ups” who insisted they’d figured out how to make the world better. But better for who?
So as we make ourselves spaces to soothe our inner child, let’s also make safe spaces for our neighbors who don’t have what we have.
I had scores of stuffed animals. Somewhere in my city there is a kid clinging to an old tattered one. And after thousands of years and trillions of dollars, the grown ups haven’t yet figured out how to fix this difference. So maybe sometimes when we retreat to our pillow forts, we can invite a friend who doesn’t have a retreat.
tl;dr “grown up” is a lie or at least an unhelpful term, nobody has it all figured out, it’s okay to admit you’re still a child, and remember to share <3
Can I join you on your fight against growing all the way up?
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.
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 . . .”
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.
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?
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.
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?
P.S. Thanks to Nora McInerny for maybe the most helpful 15 minutes I’ve ever found:
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!
I’ve had a dream since childhood of performing piano in front of a crowd. I imagine playing so beautifully and masterfully that it captivates the listeners.
What’s an impressive skill or feat you dream of? What would your big talent show moment look like?
I daydream of being fluent in a bunch of languages, too. Of singing an epic solo in a concert. Of being a published author or a successful public speaker. Of being a black belt in a martial art. Of winning a race. Of being a good dancer.
If you’ve ever seriously practiced piano (or worse, been in a house with someone else practicing), you know it gets repetitive at best–downright annoying at worst. To learn a piece really well takes patient, slow repetition. Today I came to a little part–just a measure long–that was just so tricky for some reason! It didn’t look hard on paper, but it just wouldn’t flow! I spent over 20 minutes practicing those 4 beats–slowly, quickly, left hand, right hand, all together–getting it right ten times and then suddenly losing it again.
Point is: Glamorous doesn’t start out glamorous.
Being a concert pianist is epic. But becoming a concert pianist takes a lot of very un-epic moments. And by a lot, I mean hours and hours, weeks and weeks, years and years.
Progress can happen very slowly. Success is rarely immediate or even quick. Mastery doesn’t happen easily.
And I think that’s why we DON’T go for the things we really want.It goes something like this. . . .
You dream of being fit and strong, of feeling confident and healthy. You feel inspired and you start going for it. You make a plan. You get excited. You start eating healthy and working out. Healthy doesn’t always taste great. Pizza sounds delicious. You’re tired. Planks don’t feel good. It’s been a week and you don’t see much of a difference. A month goes by and you’ve got some momentum, but you really miss taking it easy and eating all the sugar and dairy. You don’t really know how to take your workouts to the next level. You don’t know how to work on this muscle or use that machine. It’s too hard. It’s taking too long.
We give up on our dreams for 3 big reasons: DISCOURAGEMENT. DIFFICULTY. BOREDOM.
But those big obvious reasons disguise themselves as insignificant little moments: I can practice this part of the piece later. . . . I can go to the gym tomorrow. . . . I can cut this run short. . . . I’ve studied long enough for today. . . . This blog post can wait. . . .
The flip side is that finally “getting there” is AMAZING! Living your dream IS glamorous! Just close your eyes and imagine it.
Every time I master a beautiful piano piece, the unglamorous hours of repetition suddenly make sense. The beauty and happiness and pride make all the work more than worth it. . . . Every once in a while, one of my blog posts resonates with a ton of people and the feeling of helping–of making a difference–makes all the unconfident weeks of writing and scrapping and re-writing and wandering and writing again–all worth it.
Life is slow and difficult. It’s not all a concert. Most of it is the nitty-gritty, “boring” work to prepare for those concerts. But those concerts can be breathtakingly epic!