Coming into the Light – 10 Life Lessons from a Year of Writing and Living Courageously

A year ago, a friend asked me to create a blog about our trip to Guatemala. I had never set up my own website before or blogged (gosh, I still detest how that word sounds) or publicly written much at all to that point. But she knew that I liked to write, having watched me carry my journal everywhere back in our days together in Madagascar in the 1990s and then again as we traveled around Guatemala. I assumed I could figure it out, and it seemed like a good challenge.

What I discovered is that there is more formatting and behind-the-scenes work needed to get a website set up than I expected. It’s more time-consuming than it is difficult, and I spent ages just trying to think of a website address. I eventually settled on “Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First” thanks to a sticky note that sits on my desk as a reminder to myself. At a certain point, I just needed to get writing. So I plugged it in, and after confirming that no one had claimed it yet, I went with it. I know it’s probably too long, but it was time to unstick myself from the nitty-gritty details and get down to writing. As time passes, I adjust and tweak the site’s format and layout. As with so much in life, greater clarity comes with time. You can perfect – or improve it – later. The most important part is to just get started.

First draft yoda

And start I did. I published my first post on November 15, 2018. Looking back at the past year, I am astonished for many reasons, but especially with how this writing endeavor has blossomed and grown. In the past year I wrote 50 blog posts. FIFTY. That’s a lot of 5am wake up calls. The lesson here is that writing is most effectively accomplished with focused, uninterrupted time, and for many writers that’s early in the morning. The other lesson is that I can pretty much turn any pursuit, even if it starts as a passion project, into work. The good news is that I noticed it happening and backed off a bit. That’s the gift of being in your 40’s – perspective and life experience!

Throughout this year I have had days – okay, weeks – where I have become discouraged and self-conscious. My strong and judgmental inner-voice has ruled my thoughts saying, “Who really wants to read this stuff?” and “Isn’t this a little self-indulgent?” I hear a Sarah Palin-esque derogatory and snarkily delivered, “How’s that hopey changey stuff working out?” in my mind and wonder, “What’s the point? Does all this – any of this – really matter?” I am but a drop in an ocean of snark and negativity, and does anyone really care about what I have to say anyway?

Anais Nin quote

But I carried on, because I like writing and how it helps me sort through my thoughts and experiences. About halfway through the year I began to pitch essay ideas to journals and newspapers, partially out of curiosity and partially, to be honest, to see if the pros though my writing was any good. And I was delighted that a couple pieces were chosen to be published! My essay The View from a Chicken Bus, about an indigenous girl’s journey to school in Guatemala, was published by Sky Island Journal in their Issue 9 in June. It has since been nominated for Sundress Publications’ “Best of the Net” and the Pushcart Prize. My essay on being a sandwich generationer and a child of Alzheimer’s was published by the Washington Post in August and then picked up by the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, and eventually by Maria Shriver who published it in her Sunday Paper on November 3, 2019.

What a thrill and unexpected gift it has been to watch my words travel around the world! Talk about validation! The feedback I have received from readers has been astonishing, compelling, heartening, and uplifting. I am amazed that my words can bring others to tears, or lift their spirits, or provide a new perspective to set the tone for their day or week. Other caregivers who have walked the long, lonely, difficult road of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s reached out to me from all over the country to express their sorrow at my loss, but also to share with me their journeys and their pain.

The fact that my experience resonated with so many other people, that my words touched people’s hearts and inspired them to open up to me, highlights how important connection is, how critical it is to break down the feelings of loneliness and isolation – be it from our circumstances or our modern culture – that can overwhelm us. A friend shared, as she observed my writing journey: “I had never really considered how sharing an experience, beyond an in-the-moment conversation perhaps, could help others.” But it does. I think, in some way, I have always felt that innately, but evidence is mounting about how much it matters (and is missing). According to the results of a recent scientific analysis, loneliness is becoming a worldwide epidemic, and not just for caregivers. Fostering connection with other people, providing a means to have hope, it turns out, are critical remedies to a burgeoning public health issue.

Hope is what drives all of us forward. When all else is lost, what propels us forward besides our hope and our connection to other humans and those we love? So, then, why not be guided by hope? Why not seek connection with others (and, when I say connection, I mean authentic, genuine connection, not Instagram likes or FB “friends”). The alternative is so bleak. Everyone struggles. Everyone seeks a purpose and for their lives to have meaning. Having hope is not an absence of difficulty, or an avoidance of reality. It’s the light at the end of a tunnel of darkness; it’s the anchor that keeps you moored in stormy seas; it’s an intangible but absolutely critical feeling that is sometimes found in the unlikeliest of circumstances and where you least expect it. It matters immensely. This coming year I will redouble my efforts to share stories that give hope, especially where and when we least expect it.

Walt Disney storyteller quote

This year has been an exercise in writing, personal growth, and reflection. There is plenty of room to continue to grow in all of those areas. As author Rob Buyea has said, “The largest room in the world is room for improvement.” Isn’t that the truth? I will forever battle the internal judgement that says that no one wants to hear what I have to say, or that I have to prove myself, or that I am only as good as my last published article. I continue to find room to breathe into the self-doubt, to practice empathy and self-compassion. I live and write with integrity and intention. Or I try to. And I am blessed by this purpose-filled life that has grown out of the sometimes tumultuous and quagmired quest for who I wanted to be when I grow up. As I look back, here are the lessons I have learned through this year of writing (plus a couple of years of living):

  1. Don’t let the details be your undoing; as with writing, the first draft usually stinks but it has to be written to get to the next draft; so it is with life – get started and keep going;
  2. My biggest critic is myself – and I suspect I am not alone in that (why else would the imposter syndrome be a thing?). Check the narrative. The feelings are real, but is the story they are telling you true? Monkey mind is how Buddhists describe it. I guess I’ve always been a storyteller of sorts ;-).
  3. Be open to new perspectives about who you are and what you can do. As I began to think of myself as a “writer,” it opened my eyes to new opportunities and to connecting with people in a new way. I have made new friends this year that I would never have known or had occasion to overlap with a year ago;
  4. Curious gets you a lot further than furious when it comes to connecting with and understanding other people;
  5. If you’re at all like me, learn to check yourself when what started as a fun pursuit becomes a deadline-driven project; remind yourself who is in charge – or should be – you or your to-do list?;
  6. Being vulnerable is uncomfortable; it is also real, human, and relatable;
  7. Conformity is boring. Be uniquely you. Always;
  8. Sharing our stories is how we relate to and connect with one another;
  9. Storytelling is an art, and it’s an important part of helping humans understand their purpose and their past;
  10. Thank you for reading!
  11. BONUS – I like lists (and post-it notes).

First draft Anne Lamott

“My deepest fear is not that I am inadequate. My deepest fear is that I am powerful beyond measure.

It is my light, not my darkness, that most frightens me.

I ask myself, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who am I not to be?

I am a child of God.

My playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so other people won’t feel insecure around me.

I am born to manifest God’s glory within me. It’s not just in some of us: it’s in everyone. And, as I let my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As I am liberated from my own fear my presence automatically liberates other.”

-Marianne Williamson

 

What are We Without Our Memories?

My mom forgot my birthday for the first time six years ago. As an almost-forty-something, I didn’t need a big birthday party or lots of attention or anything like that. But it is a stunning milestone for a mother to forget the day that she brought her baby into the world. And for said baby, it was incredibly painful the first time it happened. There are some things that seem like they would be impossible to forget.

Especially for my mom, a woman who embraced motherhood fully and in every way. Raising my brothers and I was the best job she could dream of. That’s not just me putting on rose-colored glasses and saying so – she told me that. When I say our mom was our biggest fan, I am not exaggerating. She showed up in so many ways. She was on the sidelines for all of our games, only missing them if there was a conflict with another sibling’s schedule. She attended every ballet recital (a bouquet of flowers in hand), swim meet (day-long affairs in over-hot, heavily-chlorinated air to see your kid swim for 30 seconds), soccer game (sometimes taking up entire weekends for months on end, game after game), hours and hours of shuttling us to music lessons, baseball practice, soccer, tennis – you name it, we played it. Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s she was there on the sidelines for Kindergarten soccer and witnessed her grandson’s first goal ever. It was 28 degrees, the field was covered in frost, her memory was failing, she was frightened about the future, her world was shrinking – and there she was. She showed up time and again – for us, for everyone in her family, and for her friends.

Don’t get me wrong, we were far from perfect and I am pretty sure she had her moments when she wanted to run out of the house screaming to escape from us and the insanity we were causing her. In fact, she actually did so on at least one occasion, prompting our next-door neighbor, who had been out gardening, to come over and put his arm around her to comfort her. It kind of became neighborhood lore. So I know she thought we were royal pains in the ass sometimes – and we were – and surely she was overwhelmed keeping track of us and our schedules and our issues and, of course, the never-ending laundry. I imagine she had her moments of cursing us quietly under her breath, or venting to her friends or sisters on the phone. I am certain there were lots of things that got missed. My mom was chronically last minute in her approach to life. Her desk was a jumble of papers, binders, and – to my mind – complete and utter chaos. It looked like she didn’t sweat the small stuff, but I think the truth is that she was the world’s biggest procrastinator. You could count on her, but she’d make you sweat it out, tumbling through the door with the cake or hors d’oeuvres or whatever she had promised to bring just seconds before the start of a big event.

For my birthday, she would hang streamers in the dining room and bake a cake from scratch. She took cake-decorating classes to improve her skills, and – as cliche as it is to say it – she baked love into every morsel of every item she made. She planned epic treasure hunts in the woods for my friends and I – two-hour hikes with elaborate clues and “treasure” hidden along the way that ended at a river where we would feed the ducks with stale bread she had been collecting and freezing for months. It only occurs to me to wonder in hindsight how she got the clues placed and the treasure hidden all while baking and decorating the cake, organizing the party, and keeping up with my brothers and I. While those more elaborate birthday celebrations faded away as I got older, if I was home my mom would always bake her famous chocolate chip vanilla cake with cream cheese frosting (recipe below). If I was away, she sent a card and called. She was never extravagant, more of a simple but elegant woman. But she always acknowledged what a special day my arrival was for both of my parents and how much I meant to them. Like I said, this is the stuff that you would think you could never forget.

But forget she did, first six years ago and increasingly each year since as time for her becomes more and more of a loose construct and words and their meaning elude her. This year I baked her famous cake for my daughter’s birthday and brought her a slice to see if the taste brought back any recognition of all of these wonderful, deeply held memories. She liked the cake, smiled while she ate it, but otherwise was blank. For my birthday, I brought tea and cookies to her care home to celebrate. Because, really, my birthday is about us, maybe even more about her than it is about me if you think about it! She was happy as usual to see me, springing from her chair with delight, her hands swinging dramatically in the air to wave me over, a huge smile across her face. She loved the idea of a party, but I don’t think she really understood the birthday part. She used to break into song, part of her brain holding onto familiar tunes like Happy Birthday better than other things. But she didn’t sing this time. She just enjoyed her cookie and her tea, and I enjoyed her company. Despite all that I have lost of her, I still have that.

I am left wondering time and again as we face into Alzheimer’s ever more deeply, what is life without a memory? I read Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and, while inspired, grateful for this new perspective, and appreciative of the recommendations for aging and dying well, I found myself wondering how one can have a meaningful, purpose-filled life and live life to the fullest until the very end if you can’t remember anything. Who are we without our past? It’s one thing to live in the moment, moment to moment. That’s enlightenment. But isn’t life, ultimately, a collection of memories? Isn’t that what we all aim for, to create wonderful memories? So many of my conversations start with, “Remember when?” What happens when you don’t? Without memories, what does it mean to be alive?

I don’t have any good answers. I just wonder. And I wonder what goes on inside my mom’s head, what she is seeing when she points to things that aren’t there, what she is trying to describe when she can’t find the words, what it feels like to entrust yourself and your well-being completely to another person.

Where is the hope in this? I don’t know. But there is definitely connection. There is some deep, biological recognition of one’s own, no matter what else has departed. And I guess there’s hope – or magic of some sort – in that. And there’s always cake.

Bethie O’s Famous Chocolate Chip Vanilla Cake

1 cup yogurt (plain or vanilla)

1 cup oil

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

2 heaping teaspoons baking powder

3-4 eggs

1 bag mini chocolate chips

2 teaspoons vanilla

Mix. Bake at 350.

Tube cake – at least 1 hour

Flat cake – 30 – 35 minutes

Cupcakes – 20 – 25 minutes

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 ounces cream cheese

Confectioners sugar

Dab of milk

Mix to taste and consistency. And enjoy!

Just because you carry it well