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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Twelve Years Ago Today

leeTwelve years ago today, my husband took his life. Twelve years, and it still feels like a knife in my heart, like glass in my stomach. Loved ones NEVER get over suicide. Never. It changes our lives forever. I understand the hideous pain he endured, because with one shot of his gun, he transferred it to me to carry to the end of my days.

If you are depressed and considering suicide – TELL SOMEONE. Seek help. The ‘solution’ you are considering will destroy those around you.

For the rest of us, DONATE TO RESEARCH to conquer depression, the great killer of our age. There’s promising work out there, but it needs funding. Here’s just one example: Quinolinic Acid linked to Suicide.

And remember, it’s not a mental illness. It’s a physiological one.‪#‎endthestigma‬

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A World With Less

robinRobin Williams died today, apparently at his own hand. I am reminded of the worst day of my life, the day my husband did the same. I am more than reminded. I find myself thrown into deep grief, because both were men who brightened and lightened the lives of others, yet were unable to do so for themselves.

It’s been almost twelve years, but I still recall the moments and the reaction.

The reaction was universal shock. Lee was well-known and well-loved in our hometown. He made his friends – and everyone was his friend – feel valuable, safe, protected. He brought levity and love to any situation. The shock waves over his death expanded outward and outward and outward. Even years later, people express disbelief and sorrow.

I try not to dwell on the specific moments, but they are there, always hovering just below the surface, ready to rise. I neither encourage nor prevent, but let them be what they are. Often they emerge as one large surge, which crashes and quickly dissipates upon the shore. Other times, they roll and roll, and I concentrate on being a boat – bobbing but not tipping. Today, though, I am swamped by continuous waves that swell and storm around me. Today, Xanax is my friend.

Did his wife suspect that Robin was capable of such an action, or was she, like me, shocked to find him so desperate? Did she also try to dissuade him from that last, terrible deed?

Am I sobbing over her tragedy, or over mine? Or is there really any difference? A beloved man has lost his way, and the result is a world with less joy, less love, less Robin, less Lee – a world with less.

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Death Comes When We Do Not Struggle Against It

struggle“I’m sorry but I can’t take any more. My apologies to the world for being the awful person I am. I’m of no value to anyone any more. Even God doesn’t want me. Please make sure my dog goes to someone who will love him as much as I do.”

A friend, who I’ll call Rick, posted this message on Facebook yesterday at 11:30 am. I found it about 45 minutes later. By then, others had seen it and called the police. Friends called one another in dismay and fright. “Have you seen him? Have they found him?” The answer was no.

I spent most of the afternoon scouring parks near his house, because when I told Bryan about the post, he responded, “Rick has his dog with him. Muscle memory will kick in, and he’ll walk the dog in a familiar place. Let’s go search. Perhaps we can find him.”  It was as good a plan as any. It gave me something to do besides just sit and wait – because, to be honest, sitting and waiting was leading to crying and shaking.

Some of you know that I’ve been through this before. One terrible morning eleven years ago, I too called the police. They coaxed me away from my home, away from my despondent husband and his gun. They led me to a neighbor’s house where I waited…and waited…and waited through the long afternoon, until an officer knelt by my chair and gave me the news  no one ever wants to hear.

So yesterday we hiked in the rain and the cold. We searched three rustic parks and covered acres of ground. We didn’t find Rick, but someone else did. He’s alive and safe, and for that we’re overjoyed.

Why would an upbeat, intelligent, well-loved person try to take his life? It’s a question people are asking about Rick today. It’s a question many asked after my husband died.

I researched and wrote about suicide during my MFA studies. We read much about teen suicide, and many believe it’s a malaise of the young. But I found that, contrary to popular belief, young adults aren’t the largest population of suicides. They attempt in large numbers, but they do not succeed as often as the middle-aged. Suicide frequency actually reaches its peak between ages fifty-five and sixty-five.

Regardless of age, research shows that people don’t want to die. What they want is for pain to end. Suicide – death – is the final barricade between them and unbearable emotional agony. What triggers a suicide attempt? For instance, was the torment stronger yesterday for Rick? Did it press in on my late husband more cloyingly on October 3, 2002? Maybe, but maybe not. This sounds trite, but I what I found was that suicide results when a human fails to strive to remain living. Life continues because we work at it; death results when we do not. Whether we refuse food or wade into a river with rocks in our pockets, death comes when we do not struggle against it.

There’s a tired platitude that says God never gives us more than we can handle. Bullshit. I disagree. There have been many days when I’ve collapsed under the burden of worry, of grief, of all the stresses and strains that come with living in this human container. (By the by: I don’t believe God bestows pain and suffering upon us. She/He does not loom over us with a scoop, dumping burdens into our life like wrapped caramels into a plastic bag, watching us stretch and distort, seeing how much we can hold before we totally give way.) We are all sometimes pushed by life beyond the breaking point. We are all blown-out bags.

What makes the difference between those who continue to work at living and those who don’t? Two things: others and ourselves.

Over 150 people posted messages on Rick’s Facebook page yesterday. One-hundred-and-fifty people who were ready to drop everything and rush to his side. One-hundred-and-fifty friends, family, clients and even strangers who prayed and worried and loved. At my husband’s funeral, over five-hundred people attended. Five-hundred people, any one of whom would have dived head-first into the sludge pond by the Rickreall dairy to save Lee from drowning in his despair.

One of my favorite books is The Curse of Chalion by Margaret McMaster Bujold. In it Cazaril, the protagonist, asks a local saint why he was tapped on the shoulder to save the day. Why was Cazaril chosen by the gods? The local saint replies that Cazaril was not the only one chosen; a hundred may have been sent, but Cazaril was the only one who listened, who acted, who arrived. When I first read this passage, I thought, “Let me be one who arrives.” I determined then and there to be more deliberate about being open to nudges that cause us to act on behalf of another.

This passage came to mind as we searched for Rick yesterday. You see, he reached out to me via email more than a month ago. He didn’t tell me what was causing him pain, but he did tell me he was discouraged, and he asked for a word of encouragement. I was happy to talk,  happy that he had asked for help. After a few email exchanges, he indicated he was doing better. I checked in with him a couple more times. He didn’t seem despondent, but he didn’t seem like his usual self, either. Our last exchange was two weeks ago.

I failed him. I should have seen the signs. I should have pushed a little more and insisted on a face-to-face meeting. I should have kept more consistent correspondence, whether he responded or not. I, of all people, should have known better than to believe the social face of a person who’s admitted he’s in pain.

This was my self-talk, expressed tearfully to Bryan. “No. Just, no.” he said. “You reached out. You were a good friend. You are not responsible for another person’s actions. We cannot control what another person does.”

And that is the second thing that makes the difference between life and death: ourselves. We have to choose to shout out when our boat is being swamped. We have to choose grab the saving hand, to be drawn up from the depths. Sometimes, we have to choose to let others breathe for us when our lungs are still.

Bryan is right. I did reach out, both to my husband and to Rick. So did many others. My late husband did not choose to accept this help. Rick, thank goodness, did.

Struggle, my friend, struggle. May we all continue to struggle. May we all be blessed with one-hundred Cazaril’s, who listen and arrive.

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The Injustice of it All

I’ve been a wandering fool this year. Up to the Portland area. Two moves of my studio within P-town. Lots of exploring and trying on parts of the city for size. And through it all, the growing realization that there’s no place like home…

…and that as much as I LOVE PORTLAND, that’s not the loam where my roots twist and burrow.

salemSo last week, we moved back to the Cherry City. Well, outside it, actually, on a farm near Monmouth – a little college town that these days bears a strong resemblance to the Gilmore Girls’ Star’s Hollow.

I’m pissed. I am pissed as hell that Salem, stodgy old Salem is, for better or worse, home. I’ve been angry about it in the past. I’m beyond angry about it now that I’ve tried to return to the city of my childhood.

I’m mad at my late husband, who grew up in Salem and wanted to raise his kids in *his* hometown. Who after fifteen years decided he couldn’t take it anymore, killed himself, and left me stuck here, because my kids were firmly entrenched and I didn’t want to traumatize them any further by moving.

Where are those children today? They’re not here, of course. Salem isn’t their home, not anymore. They went away to college and developed new communities. They’ve tried to return…and left again. Most recently, Nick & Hanna returned with the intention of staying. They lasted three months before leaving because…well, it just isn’t home anymore. Their connections are elsewhere.

I’m pissed, pissed I tell you. I’m mad at the world, incensed with my fate…

and really, really happy to be back amongst those who know us, who love us, who are already filling our social calendar with happy reunions.

Needless to say, the only open thoroughfare in my psyche right now is Rollercoaster Road.

The injustice of it all! And the joy…

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What I Would Show You

A photo odyssey of my graduate school, Pacific University, and what I would show Lee, if I could. (Lee, my late husband, took his life on October 3, 2002.)

A classroom of fellow students. I would have known them better, but your shadow loomed between us, and I burned my foot when I tried to step across

A classroom of fellow students. I would have known them better, but your shadow loomed between us, and I burned my foot when I tried to step across.

She bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. Even with extra arms, it's sometimes too much.

She bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. Even with extra arms, it’s sometimes too much.

Here's where I sat when a ready reminded me too much of you. I called a man who wasn't you, for comfort.

Here’s where I sat when a reading reminded me too much of you. I called a man who wasn’t you, for comfort.

Scattered patterns of clustered blossoms. There are some patterns I choose not to repeat.

Scattered patterns of clustered blossoms. There are some patterns I choose not to repeat.

I still don't like impatiens. They look too real, or not real at all. They look too good to be true.

I still don’t like impatiens. They look too real, or not real at all. They look too good to be true.

This bench has the best breeze. A man, not you, showed it to me, and we sat and talked. About you.

This bench has the best breeze. A man, not you, showed it to me, and we sat and talked. About you.

This reminded me of me: a curvy, sweeping path of a life. There's you - see the narrow, straight road that suddenly veers away?

My curvy, sweeping path of a life. There’s you – see the narrow, straight road that suddenly veers away?

I thought I caught a glimpse of you down the straight path, but then you got lost in the shadows.

I thought I caught a glimpse of you, but then you got lost in the shadows.

I'm sure there was a message, but it's unreadable now.

I’m sure there was a message, but it’s unreadable now.

I still don't know who Alice Hoskins is. Amazing how you can spend years in a place, and still not know someone.

I still don’t know who Alice Hoskins is. Amazing how you can spend years in a place, and still not know someone.

I couldn't catch a clear photo of the butterfly. It's because my camera was set to manual. I tried for too much control. Sometimes you have to let the camera, or the butterfly, decide.

I couldn’t catch a clear photo of the butterfly. It’s because my camera was set to manual: I tried for too much control. Sometimes you have to let the camera, or the butterfly, decide.

I don't have to look up to know the season. The dappled grass tells me summer has returned, that the trees are in full leaf. Deep maturity allows the light through in the most beautiful patterns.

I don’t have to look up to know the season. The dappled grass tells me summer has returned, that the trees are in full leaf. Deep maturity allows light through in the most beautiful patterns.

Hydrangeas still bloom, even without the man who loved their color best.

Hydrangeas still bloom, even without the man who loved their color best.

I know you assumed seminary, but I chose writing.

I know you assumed seminary, but I chose writing.

Time hides its face from me. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Time hides its face from me. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

The rock weeps, but I don't, not anymore.

The rock weeps, but I don’t, not anymore.

A spray of grassy blades, reminiscent of water fountaining up - life renewed again and again. I could have moved to my shadow didn't show, but I decided it was part of the picture. Your shadow isn't here, not anymore.

A spray of grassy blades, reminiscent of water fountaining up – life renewed again and again. I could have moved so my shadow didn’t show, but I decided it was part of the picture. Your shadow isn’t here, not anymore.

Transmuted from flora to fauna, from fixed to free, the feathery frond is poised to fly.

Transmuted from flora to fauna, from fixed to free, the feathery frond is poised to fly.

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Writing My Way Out

Any serious writer’s work is nothing more nor less than their own self turned inside out and exposed to all. You can’t hide your unflattering bits, because if you try to avoid those dark little corners, your writing becomes oblate, uninspired, and worst of all, unread. Maybe that’s why so many famous authors take their lives by bottle or by gun. It’s not easy to look that deeply into one’s own soul.

This week, I’m attending a writer’s workshop at my graduate alma mater, Pacific University. This morning, I listened to a lecture given by author Carolyn Coman. She is primarily known as a young adult writer. She theorized that perhaps the reason many writers avoided writing about teen years is because “it conjures up a time that was unbearably painful, and they don’t want to revisit it.”

Of course, the internal places we don’t want to go are EXACTLY where our deepest emotion – and therefore, most fruitful writing – can be found. I thought about my darkest corner. I pictured writing about my late husband’s suicide. I imagined writing a whole novel from his perspective, from the point of view of his pain. No. Even after all these years, I can’t. I mean, I really can’t.

OK, I thought, from whose perspective COULD I write? I knew the answer immediately: the standpoint of his mother, a woman with Alzheimer’s, who knew that someone had died tragically but never understood who. Her point of view would provide a whisper’s breath of distance from the event itself, give myself and the reader the ability to look at it clearly for a moment or two, and then lapse back into forgetfulness. It might just be possible.

But it takes years to write a novel. Do I want to spend that much time in such a painful place? I called my friend Neil and asked his opinion. He was quiet, then said, “Perhaps the question isn’t whether you want to spend years there. Perhaps the real question is, how many MORE years you want to spend there? You’re never going to leave that place, not for good, until you write your way out.”

Ouch.

Why the hell do I call my friends, anyway? I know they’re just going speak painful truth. You’d think I would learn.

But perhaps this is the choice every writer faces. Drinking. Suicide. Or writing our way out.

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