Willoughby

I don’t have many words these days.

Life goes on, when someone you love dies, and that’s so frustrating. I want the world to stop for a minute. Or at least I want to take a step away from it all for a minute, but unfortunately I still have to get groceries and go to work and say hello back to people. And all those people expect me to be normal or at least decent, but all I want is to not talk to anyone, to not look at anyone, to not care about things like money or drama or events.

Everyone is so sympathetic at first, so many big feelings sent. And then, like the rest of life, those people also go on, because they’re those people, not me, and because they should go on, they have to go on, they just obviously would go on, because why would they stop life to just watch me grieve for days and weeks and months? It only makes sense. Just because my world comes to a screeching halt, doesn’t mean the world comes to a screeching halt. Which is a little whiplashy. So after the first few days, most people have forgotten it, and after the first couple weeks, most who remembered it won’t dare to bring it up.

Why do people think it will hurt too much if they keep bringing up someone you’ve lost? Letting them disappear hurts so much worse. I daydream of moments when a friend would say “How are you doing with all this?” or “Are you okay?” or “I’m so sorry you lost him” or “Do you want to talk about it?” or “What was he like?”

Because I don’t want to be done with him. Ever.

What was he like? He was perfect. And by perfect I mean in a particular way.

He cost a lot of money to take care of in his old age. And when we left for too long in the evenings he would tear up a toilet paper roll or dump the contents of a backpack at the front door, which seemed to be his way of saying “I need to be with you.” His snoring and licking and midnight hijinks made it hard to sleep until I finally bought ear plugs. To record anything for my blog anymore, I had to close myself behind two doors and hope that no footsteps in the hall would make him bark and then deal with his looks of betrayal for a while when I finally opened the doors. And some nights I really didn’t want to take him back outside before bed.

So then what does perfect mean?

Perfect means that I never had to wonder, for even a second. Willoughby loved me. And he just wanted to be with me. And he would always, always be there, wagging his tail, ready to give all the licks and hugs. I napped more when Willoughby was around, because when you’re in the presence of so much love, resting makes sense. It was just love. Acceptance. Friendship. Perfect.

Oh, and he was absolutely hilarious.

I scheduled myself a Monday off work just so that I could bring Willoughby out into the world for one more good adventure day. His tumor was growing and I knew he didn’t have much time. The week before, I had taken him on a walk in the strong wind. He had run and run with the blowing wind accentuating the massive grin plastered on his face. Couldn’t get enough. When we had gotten to the front door, it was abundantly clear he wasn’t ready to leave the great outdoors. So we stood in the wind until the wind became snow and his old man legs started shaking and then finally he sat straight down on the sidewalk and I realized that this was the most important stuff of life so I sat down next to him and we just watched the world and felt the beating snow. And it was our best day. So I scheduled the next Monday to take him to go see all of the world that he could possibly want to see. But he didn’t make it to Monday.

I still feel this need to explain, somehow justify, why Willoughby’s death left me as torn up as it did. I think I’ve said “I know we only had him for about a year” twenty times, and I hate every single time that I have said that. When Willoughby died he was my best friend and he was my wife’s best friend. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with unconditional love. To become attached to it. Wrapped up in it. The last few years haven’t been easy. Honestly, life hasn’t. I had a lucky few light-hearted years in my early 20’s, but I didn’t realize then how much childhood trauma was simmering under the surface. Add a couple concussions that brought so much to the surface and then a pandemic and loss of community and chronic pain and too many more little things that added up so much. For a lot of it, Willoughby kept me going. Life drained me, but then I’d get home and Willoughby’s entire rear half would be violently wagging at the door because he was so damn excited that WE WERE TOGETHER AGAIN! So life was okay. And then he wasn’t there. And life wasn’t okay anymore.

I never really understood the anger part of grief so much. Like, sure anger about mean or abusive people that hurt you or the ones you love. But anger over the loss of such a good, pure, perfect thing? Why would you be angry?

Maybe because it was my lifeline. It was the good thing. It was the only uncontaminated thing. Everything else was up in the air. Now I understand the anger.

We gave Willoughby a home to retire in, but I honestly think in a more real way he gave us a home. He gave me a home. He gave my heart a safe place. And he gave me the gift of love. A kind of love that, even when he’s gone, is still just as strong. The kind of love that doesn’t depend on stuff and doesn’t go back and forth. Just complete, unconditional, untiring love.

“There’s nothing you could have done, ” said a soft voice, “Calm down, you will survive.”
~ SYML, DIM

Thursday morning I took Willoughby for a walk. All he wanted was to eat grass. He wasn’t interested in anything else. Sometimes dogs do that when they’re not feeling good in their tummies. I think it was the tumor taking over. That morning, Lyssi and I finally listened to SYML’s new EP, DIM. That night, Willoughby couldn’t stand up. The next morning, after a lonely drive crying in a way I didn’t know I could cry, we said goodbye.

I want some more time, I can’t give you up.
One lifetime is never enough, so stay with me.
More than a body, you’re more than my heart,
you’re my blood, stay with me, stay with me
!”
~ SYML, STAY CLOSE

Whenever I park my car and hop out, I instinctively glance up at the window and watch Willoughby let out an over-excited howl because we get to be together again. Now I keep looking up at the window before remembering that he won’t be there. It’s rough. And I keep imagining some way that we could actually see him again.

“Lay down with me tonight, breathing slow . . . rest now, kiss me goodbye in the morning. I’m with you always.”
~ SYML, DIM

Nora McInerny was right. In her Ted Talk on grief, which is everything I have to say about grief at this point, she shares the very curious fact that when people lose someone who matters so deeply to them, they keep using the present tense to talk about them. Because they’re not really gone. I used to not get that. But after Willoughby died, I kept catching myself talking about him like he was still here. “He’s the best.” “He’s so full of love.” “He’s a senior dog.” “He’s such a good boy!” “He’s our best friend.” “I love Willoughby so much!” “He’s so sweet!” Because he is all of those things. Willoughby’s Willoughby-ness will always be real, and always be beautiful, and always be happy, and always be perfect.

“Though you had to go, I won’t forget your light. . . .
I will protect your light.”
~ SYML, DIM

And I don’t ever want to be done talking about him. Or even talking to him. I still do that. Because he’s the best.

I miss you Willoughby. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write down just how much you mean to me, to us. And maybe I’ll be able to speak about some of the deep truths I learned about life and loss and love and grief and beauty and strength and friendship and hope from you. And just how rough it is to not see you anymore. For now, I don’t have many words.

Cut yourself some slack, it’s just how brains work

Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.

The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.

The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.

The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.

And here’s the fun thing.

The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.

In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.

Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.

This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”

But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.

Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.

Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.

Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.

That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.

But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.

You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.

That’s just human.

~

For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.

Good luck with your amygdala. <3

If you’d like some company figuring out this weird experience called being a human, subscribe below. We’re in this together.

Glacier Adventure

Glacier National Park.

My favorite.*

(*at least for today)

There are things in nature that I love with every little bit of my heart. Big mountains. Cold flowing water. Tall trees. And all the all the all the green.

Glacier is the ultimate mix between massive mountains and walkable woods. For some hikers, the cold rugged ridges of the Colorado or Canadian Rockies, soaring close to three miles above sea level, are a bit daunting–inaccessible. They feel sort of desolate. While that’s part of their draw for me, Glacier is different. Glacier feels more like a place to go just hike, no matter how little or much mountaineering you’ve done. Glacier’s peaks aren’t quite as massive and cold, but the slightly lower altitudes make it a little more comfortable and accessible–and SO GREEN!!! And the glacier-fed lakes and rivers are the most shocking turquoise! (Oh and all the wildlife!)

If you’re looking to get into hiking and national parks-type adventures, Glacier’s the perfect place to start!

If you go–hit me up, I’ll give you all the best spots!

My sister and her husband and my wife and I took a week-long adventure to Glacier National Park back in June of 2018. We took a train on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route from St. Paul Minnesota’s Union Depot to East Glacier Montana just outside the park. We stayed on the west side near Whitefish, where on the last full day we woke up early and cold and drove across the park to run the Glacier Half Marathon up and down mountains in the rain. What an experience.

Why don’t you come along on a visual adventure?

Apgar Lookout Trail

Photo by Alyssa Elbridge

Lake McDonald

Looking weird to feel good. Foundation Training always helps us stay strong and comfy on our adventures full of long train rides and hours in the car. | Photo by Susan Powell

Two Medicine Lake

“Trick Falls” – Running Eagle Falls

Views along US Highway 2 through Glacier

Photo by Susan Powell

Silver Staircase Falls

Photo by Susan Powell

Kayaking in and out of the rain on Lake McDonald

Photo by Susan Powell

Swiftcurrent Lake, Many Glacier

Photo by Alyssa Elbridge

Grinnell Glacier hike

Photo by Susan Powell

Glacier Half Marathon

Photo by Alyssa Elbridge
Photo by Alyssa Elbridge

Hope you enjoyed, and hope sometime you go find some adventure for yourself at Glacier National Park!

I’m free now

When I was a kid, I did have happy times. In fact a lot of my childhood memories feel happy. Even some of the stuff that, as an independent-minded adult, I now look back at as creepy or dysfunctional.

I wish people understood that just because someone has some happiness, or feels like things are also good, or has some of what they need (like food or clothes), or smiles sometimes–that doesn’t mean that their situation is okay.

All the dysfunction finally bubbled over. And now, as an adult, a pretty strong person, who has been on my own for years–the effects of my dysfunctional childhood leave me struggling some every day.

Even while I was finding some happiness as a teenager–listening to Ne-Yo and Fergie, watching Modern Family in my closet where my parents couldn’t know, playing out mental fantasies where I actually had friends I got to hang out and spend time with–even when finding my own happiness, I was simultaneously drowning in stress and fear and anger and hopelessness. And all the happiness volume in the world doesn’t somehow balance out toxicity.

It’s good to remind myself that I’ve come a long way.

Now, day to day stresses get to me. I feel frustrated when I can’t slow down and breathe or think, like when my phone rings fifty times in a day. It makes my heart beat harder. Or when I see yucky things on the news. Or can’t see friends face-to-face for the duration of a pandemic. Or keep having to take breaks from running with leg and back pain.

But.

And here’s where I want to sit today:

Now, I come home to someone who loves me. Someone who will hold my hands when things feel too big. Someone who lets me have feelings and needs and wants and dreams, and who encourages me to chase them all, even if they’re not her own. Someone who wants to hear me speak from my heart. Someone who deeply values me. And when I walk in the door from a long workday, I have a furry buddy who tells me, with all the whines and jumps and wags and licks, that I am so good and so important. And now I do have those beautiful, wonderful, amazing, fun friends in my life to hang out with that I wished I was allowed to have as a teenager. And now I have all these things in my life and about myself that don’t have a good-or-bad, wise-or-foolish, acceptable-or-unacceptable label to them. Now, I don’t feel like the most important people in my life are ashamed of me for watching my shows or staying up late with my friends or not-still-wanting-to-be-a-preacher-when-I-grow-up, and I never really have anyone raise their voice at me anymore (except, of course, the occasional experience in the any service industry). And nobody snaps at me when I’ve played the same piano piece too many times in a row. And nobody hits me anymore.

The people who don’t love me–I don’t have to be with them. I don’t have to take the phone calls, play the games, suffer through the holidays, bite my tongue at the cruel conversations.

Now, I’m free.

It’s easy to forget how free I am, because nobody graduates from all stress and hurt and struggle, and those things will probably always feel big. It’s easy to forget just how dark things were. Just how NOT free I have been.

Now, life–no matter how lifey it gets, is better. Now, I live with LOVE.

I am thankful for freedom.

I am proud of the courage to step out of toxicity, out into freedom. Proud when I see that courage in myself and proud when I see it in others.

And I am thankful for the life that freedom brings, that courage brings. It’s not too perfect, too fancy. It just has kindness and peace and boundaries and love.

That’s better.

Despite the day-to-day struggles that are a fact of life–has your life gotten better? Have you found some more freedom? Chosen more love? Grown? It’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. And it helps to remember it. Feels hopeful.

What about you?

~

P.S. I know navigating unhealthy family situations is a hard, scary, and misunderstood thing in our world. So much pressure. So many expectations. If it’s something you’re struggling with, I’m happy to listen. And if not me–there is someone else in your life, ready to talk, who has had to step out into freedom. Say your stuff, no matter how messy. Find your freedom and love. Rooting for you!

10 thoughts for your new year :)

Hi human.

At the end of a year, I like reflecting. Appreciating. Celebrating.

This year, I’m feeling happy about and thankful for and excited by my 7 years of blogging–how it’s grown, growing . . . I feel proud of myself, which didn’t used to be allowed. And I feel so, so, so thankful for all my friends–personally familiar or connected only by our shared humanity–who have read my blog, shared my posts, and let me know when words I’ve expressed have touched their soul in some way: Made to feel less alone, sparked with inspiration or energy, lent courage . . .

We’re all “just” humans–very real humans–(yes, all of us, even the put-together ones)–daily stumbling through the dark, awkwardly and beautifully figuring out this “Life” thing–together.

My passion in life has something to do with grabbing the hand of anyone-anywhere and saying “It’s okay that you’re stumbling through the dark . . . me, too . . . maybe we can help each other?”

Helping each other, I think, looks like listening and sharing. All the deep stuff. Thanks to all our own unique and odd adventures through life’s ups and downs, we’ve each acquired quite a lot of wisdom–often without even realizing it. And sometimes it seems oh-so-random whose wisdom helps who–whose experiences or perspectives or even unique language just happens to resonate, happens to be EXACTLY what “works” for someone in need.

So: Speak. And listen. Ask the deep questions. Share the deep feelings. Remember the humanity in each of us. Dare to connect. Be bravely real.

Anyway, friends, I’m so grateful to know in some ways I get to help some beautiful people stumble upon some of the wisdom they’ve been looking for. Writing makes me feel alive, it makes things makes sense to me, and once in a while I get to hear someone say “I needed to read this,” and that is about the most fulfilling sentence I ever, ever hear.

To celebrate, I’m wrapping up the last few days of 2020 by sharing my top 10 favorite blog posts I’ve written. If you click through the links below for some year-end reading over the next few days, I hope they speak to you in some helpful way–and if they do, I’d be honored if you pass it along, and I’d love to hear what exactly resonated.

Thanks for reading friends!



#10. The problem with growing up

This is an easy one. Very short. Like 33-words-and-a-Winnie-the-Pooh-quote short.

I love this one because it is the one thing I need need need to keep remembering every every every year, month, week, day.

Keep returning to your inner child, my friend.



#9. We eloped to Italy!

I usually write about “deep” or “important” topics–at least in my mind. So when I was trying to narrow down to my 9th favorite blog post I’ve ever written, this one jumps out at me. Because it’s not a “topic,” it’s a celebration. A shameless reveling in the most wonderful memories of the absolutely most bestest day of my life.

I love, love, love sharing about this day with anyone who will listen–not because it’s worth your time, but because it’s worth my whole life. So thanks for letting me share this biggest happiness thing with you. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop being excited about it.



#8. My 100th post: A few thoughts about writing

Do I have any writer friends out there? Or friends who sometimes write? Even if it is “just short” or “just silly” or “just on Facebook” and “doesn’t count”?

Maybe you don’t write, you “just” talk to people, or do meaningful projects at work, or give advice, or share your story . . .

People need your voice.

And your voice is so much more perfect than you think.

This is for you.



#7. Canadian Rockies adventure

The holidays and new year season reminds me of the adventure of life. Always. Times to remember, beautiful places we’ve gotten to explore, fun little life moments . . .

This–one of my favorites–is an adventure memory. In a year full of staying at home and not doing stuff, I hope these pictures scratch the wander itch for you.

Mountains again so soon!



#6. Death

Trudging through the snow with a good friend last Saturday, we talked about death. He told me about his own experiences. And I shared that it’s actually a topic I think about a lot. Like it even keeps me up at night sometimes. (That may be largely thanks to the way I grew up. It’s what kept 13-year-old me awake at night, too.)

We don’t usually admit or advertise that we think about the really sad, awful, unknown things (you do too sometimes, don’t you?). So we stay alone about them. Struggling silently.

When I wrote down and shuffled around my favorite things I’ve ever written, this landed high up on the list. Because it’s deeply honest and it’s . . . really, really, really BIG. . . . Because it’s a universal experience. It’s one we ALL face.

So maybe we can face it together?

I wrote this right after my friend died. I didn’t even realize it was sort of for him until I’d finished writing it–why it was so loud in my mind. Death is not easy.

Wishing you peace and warm hugs.



#5. Happy Thanksgiving 2019!

This is a peek into me. But more than that, it’s a peek into what it means to be human.

And it’s a little celebration of all the different freedoms we find as we learn health for our minds and our hearts.

Keep on finding freedom and finding You. 2021 will be a good year for it.



#4. Sad people

Do you feel like you HAVE to be a “happy” person?

This is one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, which feels . . . scary and good, all at once.

I love this blog post because it is about deep understanding and acceptance of ourselves and each other–even for those of us who have a lot of sadness . . . for a little while or a long, long time.

It also carries ten pieces of advice at the end that I think are some of the most helpful if you are sad or love someone who is.

Wishing you radical self-acceptance and self-love. And wishing your sad friends acceptance and love from YOU.



#3. What we got wrong about love

Can I ask you a question? I’d love to read your answer in the comments here or, if you have my contact–shoot me a message. I’d love to chat. Here’s the question: What dysfunctional things did you learn about love? Things that tell you you’re not “good enough” or “worthy.” Or that make you afraid you’ll lose your worth if you lose things like your health or skills or relationships? How has it impacted you? And how have you set out to re-learn real love?

This is my 3rd favorite thing I’ve ever written. You can read it, OR listen to it while you drive or do dishes or work out or whatever you do! It’s not short, because it goes deep. Deep into our deepest experiences that shape our hearts.

If my thoughts in this post are especially helpful to you–make you feel understood or help put a finger on what hasn’t felt right about your self-judgments . . . I’d love to hear, and I’d be honored if you share it with someone else you love.

“Love” is an important concept to not get backwards.

Wishing you all true, no-strings-attached LOVE in 2021!



#2. I have anxiety and that’s okay

I don’t want you to feel alone.

That is why I wrote this.

If it speaks to you, if it helps you–pass it on. Or, better yet: Write your own version. I know you have one.

You are not alone. And you are loved.



#1. If I could send a message to 18-year-old me

As a year turns over and we think about past and future, what we’ve lost and what we’ve found, and all the changes and roller coasters and adventures in life . . .

I want to share with you my FAVORITE thing I’ve ever ever written.

I hope this speaks to you.

It’s amazing how much alike we all are, isn’t it?

Maybe we could help each other . . . ?



LOVE TO YOU ALL THIS NEW YEAR!

Wishing you peace and presence and all the feelings in 2021.

<3

Cheers!

P.S. Thanks for being on my writing journey with me, friends. From the bottom of my heart. This is so special for me. I appreciate having your ear and hearing your thoughts. You and I are here to help each other. <3