Seeking My Best Self

trying to make sense of my life – and lose some weight

Thoughts on the Eve of a New Year

glasses

Another year has passed. Of course, seasons and years are artificial constructs – they don’t truly exist, except in our minds. Still, they provide a way for us to divide the expanse of time into digestible chunks. At the end of this chunk we call 2015, I find myself reflecting back on a year of heartbreak and breakthrough.

The breakthrough began when I finally went to counseling. Yes. Me. I know I’ve ranted (for decades) about the voodoo that is psychology and huffed self-importantly as I denigrated the soft social ‘sciences’ (usually including the air quotes.) Dubious or not, I finally tired of repeating certain life patterns and found a competent counselor.

07atiyeh 48webOn my first visit, I did my best not to roll my eyes when she wanted to start with my childhood. Hello. I’m almost 60. How relevant could my childhood be? I’m WAY past blaming Mommy for my choices. Then I found myself blubbering like a baby as we discovered that my deep-seated abandonment complex came not from my husband’s suicide in 2002, not from my mother’s remarriage in 1961 (she spent two whole days alone with my step-dad before fetching me to share the rest of their honeymoon) but from my bio-dad’s abrupt departure when I was a toddler. It turns out, understanding origins really can help.

cherie bio pic 2016I learned that there isn’t a bad Cherie and a good Cherie. That the good Cherie isn’t the ‘real’ Cherie, but that I come as an entire package and until I learn to embrace my whole self, I can’t be happy. So I let bad Cherie out of the dungeon. I felt sorry for those around me, because bad Cherie – ahem, because I – can be snippy and abrupt, quick to let others know when they’ve tread on my toes, and impatient with rudeness and incompetence.

Imagine my surprise when a friend told me I’m actually easier to be around. “You’re more light-hearted,” he said. “You seem calmer, even in the midst of small crises.” He’s right. I do feel calmer. I’m glad to know my outside matches my inside.

My self-improvement crusade included losing fifteen pounds (ten to go), having a regular yoga practice, daily prayer/meditation, and regularly indulging hobbies, including playing my piano, guitars, and ukulele. I haven’t opened my clarinet case yet, and I’m sure my neighbors are grateful. I’m clearer on my life and on my goals. And at the very end of the year, I met someone. More on that (I hope) in posts to come.

My heartbreak is for our nation. Police treatment of people of color in our country has been beyond shameful – it looks a lot like deliberate genocide. The response of our court system to the police murders is even more horrifying. It appears they’ve totally misinterpreted the statement, “Justice is blind.”

grandkidsI fear for my grandchildren, who could be shot dead on a playground for playing with toys that white children may use with impunity. I fear for my son-in-law – a teacher, a tri-athlete – who runs daily. My daughter said she worries every time he goes out. She should. Apparently, no judge would prosecute the police officer who killed him for the crime of jogging while black, which means it’s open season on people of color.

grandma and gidu scanThe Syrian refugee crisis hits just as close to home, because my grandparents emigrated from Syria in the early years of last century. The rhetoric of some in our country toward the refugees scares me. Their concerns have nothing to do with national security, it’s merely an excuse to hate and to attack anyone who looks different from the white ‘norm’. I am outraged at those who dare use the name Christian while spouting such ignorance and hatred. I am frustrated because I don’t know what to do about it.

I don’t know what to do about ANY of it. The injustice. The bigotry. The deliberate choice to hate. What I do know is that I cannot respond with hatred. In the midst of it all, I am called to love. To embrace those who are hurting. To embrace those who do the hurting. To embrace myself. All of myself – the hurting and the hurter, because I am both. Our country is both. Hating will not lead to healing. We can only love ourselves into wholeness.

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An Inverted Turtle

situ and kidsI’ve loved my sojourn in Gettysburg and Madison. Caring for my bright, determined grandchildren. Discussing theology, listening and being with my daughter as she walks the path of the pastor-to-be. Basking in the energy and enthusiasm of my son-in-law. Immersing myself in passionate intellectual converation with my son and his friends. Learning new ways of being church in the twenty-first century. Ballgames! And so much more.

After three weeks, it’s time to return home. Or perhaps I should say it’s time return to another home, because a piece of my home is wherever my children and grandchildren live. Truth is, I’ve realized that home isn’t a place external. I am an inverted turtle, carrying my home not on my back but in my heart. Home is with all I love, including me.

That means the more of the world I can embrace, the larger my home becomes. Without monetary exchange or land title. Could that be the key to solving the world’s strife? If we take more time to love, we’ll feel less need to possess, because we’ll already be home.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join me, and the world will be as one….”   –  John Lennon.

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My Favorite Job in the World

grandkidsI’m sitting at my daughter’s dining room table, sipping coffee and listening to the rain. I’m here for three weeks to care for my grandchildren while their parents work. However, school is still in session (two more days until summer vacation) so the house is quiet.

I’d planned to walk to city center to shop and explore, but the weather isn’t cooperating. Looks like a home day. The grandkids won’t return for seven hours. The living room is picked up, the dishes washed, the beds made. There’s nothing more to do.

Anyone who’s known me for more than five minutes knows that the girl must not be bored. But I’m not bored. I’m relaxed. Happy. This is my favorite job in the world. It always has been.

True confession time: I love being a homemaker.

My mother always worked. As a child, I hated it. So when I had kids, I stayed home. I discovered that I loved moving through the world at their pace. I loved sharing it with them, teaching them about plants and people, about stories and science. I loved keeping a clean and beautiful home. I was really, REALLY happy.

But finances were tight, and people were disapproving. (Which is a conversation for another blogpost. For now, I’ll just say that I was young and impressionable.) So I found part-time work. Bookkeeper, bank teller, delivery driver, salesperson: a quick succession of jobs. Wherever I worked, I rose quickly to positions of greater responsibility, because I was (and am) smart and competent. And just as quickly, I’d hit a glass ceiling. No degree? No further advancement.

So I returned to college. Got my degree. Started a full-time, well-paying professional career.

And hated it.

I was good. Very good. But it just wasn’t fulfilling. So I worked harder. Over the next years, I moved up the ladder until I hit a position – and company – that was an extraordinarily poor fit. I was miserable. With my husband’s encouragement, I quit and spent three months at home while I searched for a new job.

Once again, I LOVED being home. It was as challenging as any outside job, but much more fulfilling. Eventually, though, a call came. Would I interview for an administrator position at a local non-profit? It seemed like a perfect fit. I interviewed and was hired immediately.

I cried when I got home. I didn’t really want the job. I already HAD a job. Nicholas, then ten, cried when I told him. “Please don’t go back to work. Please, Mom.” I cried the night before I started.

“You can stay home,” said my husband. “We’ll figure the finances out.”

But I wanted to ‘pull my weight’. To contribute. So off I went.

Taking that position is one of my biggest regrets. I wasn’t true to myself or to my family. The time that was lost can never be regained.

So this morning, I revel in the home around me. I rejoice that I am temporarily returned to the job I love most. Caring for family. Keeping the home fires going. Enjoying the expectant silence of the morning, because soon this house will be filled with the sounds and sights of those I love.

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It was a Good Year

By most measures, this was not a stellar year. In 2014, my marriage turned rocky, my brother had a stroke, I had a heart event, and now my mother has died.

Death, ill health and relationship struggles dominated, yet I feel fondly toward 2014. “Wasn’t that a nice year,” I find myself thinking. “I hope 2015 is as good.”

Really? From the outside, this doesn’t look like it was such a great year. Heck, I didn’t even lose weight. I’m still hovering at the 150 mark, which is about 15 pounds heavier than I’d like to be. How can I feel optimistic about THIS year?

The thing is, for all its sorrows, 2014 brought significant emotional growth. I am more content and peaceful than I’ve ever been, and it was the challenging events of this year that provided the jet fuel for my rapid progress. (That, and being in my fifties. Did you know that happiness increases dramatically beginning in this decade? I’ll talk about this in another post, but for all you youngsters – it turns out aging is something to look forward to on a LOT of levels.)

ertswed1313I’ve been pretty close-mouthed about my relationship woes. I’ll admit, it’s been a pride thing. I hate providing fodder for all the I-told-you-so’ers, who rolled their eyes when I married a much younger man, whispering behind their hands that it wouldn’t last. (Yes, your comments DID get back to me. Gossips gossip.)

Despite my best intentions, when B and I married, I drifted into some of the same old poor relationship habits. He did the same. As a result, in March we made an almost complete emotional break. We’ve moved to different homes. But over the ensuing months, we’ve discovered that this relationship – whatever it will be – is worth working on. Changing for. We’ve both been doing hard work on ourselves, to be the people we want to be in this and ANY relationship.

I don’t know what ‘we’ will look like when we’re finished. If there will be a ‘we’. But I’m not looking ahead, I’m doggedly focusing on now. Let the future take care of itself. I’ve wasted too many nows worrying about thens. This year, thanks to our relationship crisis, I finally learned to live in the present. Turns out, I am much happier concentrating only on NOW. I have so much more emotional energy for the present when I’m not angsting about the past and anxious about the future.

mikecorinnaIn June, my brother had a stroke. I immediately moved in with Mike & my sis-in-law Corinna, to help and (let’s be honest) to hover. When Michael came home from the hospital, it looked pretty grim. He depended heavily on a walker. He couldn’t hold objects in his left hand. His face drooped. When I left a month later, Mike was walking over a mile a day without assistance – no walker, no cane! His face was symmetrical. He’d lost significant weight, thanks to new, healthy eating habits. He was even recovered enough to do some photography work for me.

I didn’t participate in a tragedy, I witnessed a miracle. I watched Michael take charge of his life; make changes that were needed; show determination and optimism in the face of a terrifying physical event. We can ALWAYS make a new start. It’s never ‘too late’. Our dreams and our life lie ever before us.

Even more importantly, through this event, my brother and I reconnected. We’ve always loved one another, but we’d drifted off into our own busy lives, and hadn’t been close in decades. This brought us back together – Mike, Corinna and me. It rekindled our delight in one another. We rediscovered true family. Became a strong, cohesive team.

mom webWe needed all of that new-found closeness to work cooperatively in helping Mom, who was showing signs of mental decline. We worked together to move her from her house and into an independent living apartment. She went from a life of isolation into one of community. For the first time in years, Mom had regular interaction with others. A social life. Friends.

Then Mom died in a freak accident. How would we have endured if we hadn’t re-established strong ties? But we did, and it’s made ALL the difference. We text and call daily. “How are you doing?” we ask one another. “I love you. I need you. I just wanted you to know.” Our closeness holds us together through this grief. It is a blessing.

My heart event came as a result of years of maintaining ridiculous cortisol levels as I worked too hard, too long, took on more than any reasonable person could possibly manage – in other words, led the typical Amerian life. Then came a kicker event: in October, a job that I thought was going to provide tremendous income for me and for the family members and friends with whom I’d contracted, looked as though it were going to tank. All these people were depending upon me, I thought, and it looked like I was going to let them down.

BOOM. My heart called a time-out. I spent a month wondering if I would need to revise the almost four decades of life I envisioned yet spooled out before me. Would I have mere months or years? Would I have to let go the dreams of 500 mile walking pilgrimages? Of travel to foreign lands? Did I have a future at all?

The tests came back negative. My heart is strong. Chances of another event verge on zero. But I am not immortal, and I do NOT want to spend what hours, days, or decades remain focused on unfulfilling tasks.

So, since October, I’ve published my first book. I’ve started an art project that mixes Spirit and photography. I’ve moved to the helm, rather than the decks, of the exciting new venture that melds ministry and business. And I daily embrace my friends and my family. It’s a good life. It was a good year.

And next year, I’ll get those fifteen pounds off. No, really.

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Eulogy for Mom

07atiyeh 48web

Mom & Me, 2007

Mom died on December 7, 2014. She slipped in the shower, hit her temple, and passed immediately. A freak accident. A totally unexpected loss. My last parent – gone.

We held services this Monday, December 15, 2014. My daughter, a Lutheran seminarian, gifted us with lovely liturgical service at the cemetery in the morning, while my brother’s church poured out their love with a beautiful praise service in the afternoon. Nicholas sang at both, and Gabriel and Hanna provided scripture readings. I gave the eulogy. It was a family affair – which is just how Mom would have wanted it.

Here is the eulogy:

“We’ve all seen families torn apart by greed after a family death. Otherwise loving people turn ugly when it comes time for inheritance. Not my brother. As we sat together in Mom’s living room on that terrible day of her passing, his eyes wandered slowly around, and then he spoke. “Cherie, I know that you’ve always wanted it, so it’s yours…

…you can have Mom’s dustbuster.”

Anyone who knew Mom more than five minutes knows that she had a penchant for ‘clean’. One might even gently, and with great love, call it an obsession. And yes, this quirk could be exasperating. But we all have quirks. What Mom also had was a huge heart filled with love for everyone. She expressed it through true Syrian hospitality – which meant that every person who walked through her door was automatically ‘family.’ Welcome. Loved. And expected to eat, and eat a lot.

She was a woman who loved to laugh. She had a great sense of humor (my brother inherited it from her.)  I loved to make her laugh, and did so the last time I talked with her. After I hung up the phone, I told Bryan, “I guess when it comes to our mothers, we never grow up. Robin Williams became a comedian because when he was a little boy, he made his mom laugh, and he wanted to do it again and again. He craved his mother’s approval. And so do I. Still. At age 57, making my mom laugh matters more to me than almost anything else.” It made my day, and I think it made hers, too. I’m glad that’s my last memory of Mom.

Mom was a voracious reader. She especially loved romance novels. She, her sister Lyn and my daughter Ariel traded them around like baseball cards. It was a hobby that drew them close. Mom liked her family to be close. Most of her life centered around family. She loved her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren, and talked often of them. She believed that she was the one who nicknamed Isabelle ‘Izzy’. It tickled her to believe so.

memom1web

Mom & Me 2008

Speaking of grandchildren. Some of you know that Mom had some mild dementia in the past couple of years. Thinking back, I realize it must have manifested far earlier than I realized: about the time the grandchildren came along. You see, things that were REALLY important to her when Mike & I were growing up suddenly slipped her mind when it came to the grandkids.

For example, when I was a child, I had to have the contents of the refrigerator memorized, because I had about 1.2 seconds to open, grab, and close the door. Any longer, and Mom would be unhappy with me – and she could hear that door from ANY part of the house.

But I remember the day when my youngest, Nicholas, toddled into the kitchen with his cousin, David. They told Grandma they were hungry. She walked them to the refrigerator and opened the door.

“What would you like?” she asked.

“I no know,” Nick replied.

They proceeded to point to EVERY container in that refrigerator. “Whatsat?” they asked. And Mom patiently told them. Over and over. The door was open for at least two minutes. At the time, I wondered who this person was, and what she’d done with my Mom.

On another occasion, David & Eric were terribly ill – vomiting & diarrhea. Corinna was exhausted and ill herself. Mom called, and when she discovered what was going on, she & Dad went over there, packed the up kids, and brought them back to her home – brought these ultimate mess machines into her tidy home – and cared for them until they – and Corinna – were well.

Mom 2014

Mom 2014

So, either an alien abduction/swap thing happened, or Mom was a bit confused even back then. Or I suppose it could have been her extravagant love for her grandchildren.

Mom was a very organized person. She worked as a bookkeeper for United Grocers for many years. She helped me with my filing and books when I first started my photography studio. I also asked her to write my thank-you notes to my clients, because her hand writing was beautiful. I think it was a peek into the artistic person that lived inside.

I was far into adulthood before I saw much of that side of my mother. I learned that she was a bit of a rebel in her teen years. For example, in the mid-1950’s, cashmere sweaters were ‘the’ fashion statement, but my grandparents were very thrifty people, and didn’t approval of frivolous spending. Mom was undeterred. She would buy a new sweater, leave it in the bottom of her drawer for a month, and then wear it.

“Is that a new sweater?” my grandmother would ask.

“No, Mom,” she would reply. “I’ve had it for a long time.” She didn’t lie to her parents, but she was creative!

Some of you may not know that Dad was not my biological father. My mom eloped with a sailor at age 17 (he was barely 18.) I found a copy of the marriage certificate – she lied about her age! The witnesses were two of her best high school friends. I occasionally heard stories about the antics of these three girls, but this was their most madcap adventure.

Mom & Dad's wedding day

Mom & Dad’s wedding day

Like many adventures, it was ill-advised. She returned to my grandparent’s home two or three years later with me in tow. Then she met Dad, who bore a striking resemblance to a Marlboro man, married him, had another child, and happily lived her life.

Dad adored Mom. He loved this sometimes irascible, exotic beauty. To the day of his death, he treated her like his own fairy princess. When Dad died, a big part of Mom died, too. I don’t think she ever really recovered.

Her passing is way too soon. My family is extraordinarily long-lived, and I expected another decade or two to enjoy her. It reminds me to appreciate everyone now, in this moment, because there is no guarantee of future moments. I loved my mom, and I know you all did, too. I will miss her. Oh, how I will miss her.”

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Family Matters

mikecorinnaIt’s been two months since I last posted. My brother has had a miraculous recovery from his stroke. He’s not *there* yet, still attending both PT and OT, but he’s back to work (for me!) and feeling good. He has lost 50 pounds in these two months, with a goal for another 50 by years’ end. That’s a dramatic loss, but he’s doing it in a healthy and measured way, and it’s his best defense against future stroke events.

My sister-in-law, Corinna, also jumped on the health bandwagon – and she’s also lost 50 pounds. It’s been so much fun to watch her explore new foods – discovering that cherries and other fruits are DELICIOUS. That salads can be a fun and filling dinner. In fact, I ate much better when I stayed with them – maybe I should move back!

The month I stayed with them allowed us to reconnect and deepen our relationship.  It was the silver lining in the stroke storm-cloud. Why did we allow geographic separation – and only 60 miles – to cause such emotional distance? As far as I’m concerned, this is the person  for whom the song “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” was written. I would walk any road for my baby brother – no matter how long. I’m sorry it took such a traumatic event to bring us back together.

I am determined not to let it happen again.

 

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Farewell, Little Girl

sweetaphiSeven years ago, I read Marley, a tale about the world’s worst dog. The next thing I knew, I was at the Humane Society, looking at dogs. “I’d like one smaller than a border collie,” I said. “One that’s 4-5 years old.” I reasoned that an older dog would already be trained, an activity I was loathe to take on. The one thing I DIDN’T want was a puppy.

They brought me a lab mix. ‘Lizzie’ was a bit larger than a border collie. “She’s two years old.” Huh. A little bigger and a little younger than I wanted.

She’d been on the streets for a while. She was captured in Bend and brought to the Humane Society in Salem, because her chances of adoption were better here.

She was obviously well trained. Lizzie sat when I said ‘sit’. She extended her hand for ‘shake’. She knew ‘fetch’. She was gentle. She laid her head in my lap, and looked up at me with her beautiful brown eyes. I was smitten.

“We aren’t calling her Lizzie,” announced my son when I brought her home. “We’re going to call her Aphrodite, the goddess of luh-huv.” Aphrodite it was – a fitting name, because she was a lover. She craved attention, and we were happy to provide it.

Aphi was a little dog trapped in a big dog’s body – she would have loved to climb in my lap and curl up. She occasionally tried, and I had to discourage her. “No, Aphi, you’re too big,” I would say. So she’d lay her huge head in my lap and look at me with mournful eyes.

Aphrodite was an escape artist. We built new gates after we found her clinging to the top of an ivy concrete wall adjacent to our home. She found all the weak places in our six-foot fence. She annoyed all our neighbors by running in their yards. She annoyed me with her propensity for finding deer poop and rolling in it.

She was SO energetic. Every day, I took her to the (fenced) playground next door, where she tore around like a crazy woman – er, dog. I’d had her about a month when it struck me. She wasn’t running, she was galomphing. Like a puppy. Not only that, but I’d swear she was getting larger! I called my friend, Neil, who’d been a strong advocate for adopting Aphi.”Neil, is Aphi getting BIGGER?” I demanded.

“Well,” he replied in a sheepish voice, “I didn’t want to SAY anything…”

I took her to a dog-expert friend. She looked Aphi over. “Oh, Cherie, this dog isn’t even a year old!”

Like it or not, I had a puppy.

Over the next four years, she was the delight of my life. Yes, she was big (and got bigger) but that meant I could take walks after dark. I could hike in the park. I could go many places because my Aphrodite was there to protect me.

Life changed in those years. I started traveling more and more. I had less time to walk her, and our small back yard didn’t provide enough bounding room. I realized I was not providing her the quality of life she deserved.

Enter the Haugens. My friends had an eight-and-a-half acre property outside of Salem, one Aphi loved to visit and run around. Would they? Could they?

They could. Aphi became part of their family. She was a willing 4H project for their son, Lars. The property wasn’t fenced, so Aphi occasionally visited the local school yard, bounding up and barking her big-chested woof! But the children and the police (mostly) understood, and Neil & Miriam did their best to keep her from wandering.

Last month, Bryan & I joined the Haugens on ‘the farm’, as we call it.Their big house seemed empty after their older children left, so we rented the lower level and had a joyful reunion with Aphi. Introduced her to our new puppy, Tali, a (tiny) poodle mix.Tali immediately asserted dominance over Aphi, insisting that she lay down so he could leap on her head and be king of the mountain. She loved it. He loved it.  I envisioned years of happy romping.

But a week ago, I went upstairs to find Neil in distress. “Something’s wrong with Aphi,” he said. “I’m taking her to the vet.”

I looked at my girl. She was breathing hard and noisily.

The verdict was congestive heart failure, possibly caused by a bacterial infection. They treated the infection, and for a couple of days, all seemed well. But yesterday, the labored breathing returned. She refused to eat. The verdict from the vet: there was nothing more to be done.

So we spent last night and this morning saying our goodbyes, as Aphi lay on her side and panted. It would have been cruel to wait any longer, so we loaded her in the car. The rest of the family took her for her last ride. I stayed home with Tali, because I couldn’t bear to watch her very last breath. I’m waiting here, to help put her to rest next to Synch and Katie, two other beloved family doggies.

Those two lived to ripe old ages, well past fifteen. Aphi was only eight. It doesn’t seem fair. She was gentle, beautiful, loving. She – and we – deserved a longer stay.

Her short life reminds me to slow down and enjoy the NOW. I have a bad habit of not being ‘present’. Instead, I gaze about three steps ahead or ruminate about ideas/plans or (more rarely – I’ve gotten much better about this) poke old memories.

Today, though, I think I’ll give myself permission – for a short while – to freely roam about in Aphi memories. Be at peace, little girl.

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