The Unquiet

I drove about 15 miles north of the city cruising at 60 plus, fingers fidgeting with the radio station dials. My ear grew weary of the same song heard over and over and so I flip, flip, flip. I hesitated on “The Monster” by Eminem and Rihanna and sung along to a verse, then the chorus:

“I’m friends with the monster that’s under the bed. Get along with the voices inside of my head.”

I let loose, singing as if I’m the next Mariah Carey or Beyonce and imagining myself a diva with the voice of an angel when in reality I only sing by myself in the car and have a voice that attracts stray cats. 

The chorus of “The Monster” really gave me pause. Get along with the voices inside of my head? No, I’m not sure that I do. And there aren’t multiple voices, either. It’s really only one voice in my head and she became more defined for me at a retreat back in January. One of the speakers called her the ego and named her “shady bitch.” I laughed at that name a little too long and a little too hard because it struck a nerve. Mine is the shadiest bitch of them all, I thought. The bitchiest bitch. 

I know exactly what she looks like. She’s me, but better. The me I wish I looked like with the life I wish were mine. Of course, she knows this and I can only presume that’s why she gloats so much. This is she: 

My shady bitch is tall at 6’1″ with just past her shoulders blonde hair that’s wavy and bouncy in all the right ways. Her eyes are bluer, a bit more piercing. She wears a tasteful curve-accentuating dress adorned with some sequins (nothing too flashy and definitely alluring) and somehow she executes the balance of girl hot and guy hot seamlessly. She maintains an intriguing mystique, never revealing too much and always leaving you wanting more. Her skin is flawless, her makeup perfect and she had a six-figure salary by the time she was 30 years old. 

Don’t you just want to slap her silly?

Here’s an insight into a recent exchange of conversation between the two of us: 

She: You’re ugly. (hesitates, reevaluates?) Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. Shall we say un-pretty?

Me: “Un-pretty?” You must be listening to TLC again. No, I’m not as ugly as I thought I was at 13, but you’re right. I’m not pretty.

She: You have small eyes and pale eyebrows. Your skin isn’t perfectly even.

Me: Thanks. (like I didn’t know this before) I know. I use makeup. I try to make myself  prettier. I wish I were prettier.

She: Maybe you should try harder.

Me: (silence; is unsure how to respond)

She: You were stupid to get a theatre degree. Did you think you were going to be famous or something?

Me: The stage is what I loved. Acting and writing. Writing and acting. I wanted to be successful for me. Yeah, I thought I could be an actor.

She: Hmmm. Guess you thought wrong.

Me: I wish I could go back and change things. I would if I could, now that I know more. Do things differently.

She: Well, you can’t. You were stupid. Now you’re stuck.

Me: (offended) I’m not stupid. I was pretty smart. 

She: (staring at me, judging me, offering no response)

Me: (protesting) You’ll see. It will out for me somehow. 

She: But it might not. 

Me: (resigned, with a sigh) You’re right. It might not. 

And so I sit with my fear that everything shady bitch has ever said to me is true. I’m worthless, stupid, “un-pretty,” a bad decision-maker, the list of my flaws and shortcomings is endless. 

That’s why I drove away from the city – to practice sitting a different way. It was the final class in a three-week meditation seminar. We learned how to crawl, then walk and now, this final week, we were going to run. Meditation is something I’ve tried to do over the past few years with varying degrees of success and regularity and thought this seminar would help bring more focus to my practice. My purpose is to find clarity, self-knowing and a cure for what is dying inside me. 

Sitting in the quiet, I’m no part of shady bitch and she’s no part of me. Her criticisms are suddenly silenced. Here in this place I look to find me, who I really am. Here in meditation, you are not your body. You are not your thoughts. You are greater than both. You have no shady bitch. 

That’s reason enough for me to sit. 

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the quest for the quiet in Sedona, Arizona

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The Winter of Our Discontent

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snow-covered Bean

It snowed again in Chicago today, adding to the 60 plus inches of snowfall we’ve already received. I’m sure a collective sigh and disgusted shouts of “enough already!” could be heard across the area. This winter has been a rough one. Meteorologists regurgitate recycled forecasts: snow, cold, snow, sub-zero temperatures. Repeat. 

Suddenly, we’ve all become citizens of some place dubbed “Chiberia,” which is either some futuristic version of Chicago or Chicago transported to the Arctic. The winter has introduced new words into the vernacular like “polar vortex,” “steam devil” and “snow rollers” amongst others. It’s a winter for the record books: the coldest in 30 years to date. 

With the scene set for any of you readers who might not hail from this frozen Midwestern city, the worst thing about this winter to me is the cold. Although I’m grateful to have found a pair of long underwear long enough for my 36″ inseam, I’d be happier if I never had to wear them again. A January baby born in the year of one of Chicago’s worst blizzards that cost a mayor’s reelection, winter is my season. While I don’t particularly spend much time outdoors engaging in any wintry activities like skiing or ice skating – most likely out of fear that my nearly six feet tall frame will come crashing down to the ground, I will happily sip hot chocolate, bundle up in a warm sweater, or sit by a cozy fire. Winter it’s a season we must endure. How can you enjoy the warm without the cold? Summer without winter? Sure, sometimes it can wear me down, but my heart leaps whenever I look to the sky and see those glittering, every one of them unique, snowflakes floating down from the clouds above. 

One winter day some years ago, I looked up to see those snowflakes falling and immediately thought of my sister. I laughed about it for a moment first, but quickly silenced myself. I wasn’t wrong. The snow felt like a gift for me, a reminder that Emily was present and thinking about me. At a four-day high school retreat,  we were surprised with letters of support and well-wishes from family and friends. We left with our packet of letters and returned to our rooms to read them. As I climbed the stairs to mine, I looked out the window to see some snow lightly falling. My breath caught and tears came to my eyes. This was Emily’s letter to me: I am here. I am with you. 

We are all just looking for reassurance and solace that our loved ones are still with us. People see signs and feel messages in all sorts of different things. It can be easy to dismiss it as crazy until you see it over and over again and you finally listen to that voice inside that tells you otherwise. 

The winter of 2013-2014 may be the winter of the collective’s discontent, but I feel oddly contented. I’ve gotten 60 inches plus worth of love, hugs and support from someone who continues to look out for me. And it’s really after the hardest winter seasons of our lives that we come into the the biggest gifts and greatest joys of spring. 

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So Raise A Glass

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Nothing says the new year like a pyrotechnic display

The last ball has dropped. Champagne has been drunk, party hats thrown out and the confetti all swept away after revelers the world over toasted to the fourteenth year of the 21st century. 2014.

Suddenly, the whirlwind of the holiday season has come to an abrupt end. It feels like the carpet has been swept out from beneath our feet and we’re left breathless and trying to regain our balance all at the same time. There’s no more pressure to buy, bake, eat, wrap, unwrap, mingle and make merry. Come the second of January, it’s life as we always knew it.

But it’s not. It’s a new year. 

Each new year heralds the spark of anticipation of things to come. Resolutions made still unbroken. A full year of 365 days ahead of us in which anything can happen in our lives: the good, the unfortunate, the surprises and everything else in between. 

I woke this January 1st with sore feet, unable to shake the feeling that I’d been given a “do over” with this new year. So many times I’ve wished that I could just go back and start all over again. I’d do it all differently. Maybe I’d be born a math or science whiz. If I was still inclined to follow the arts, I’d get a different college degree. If I’d done it differently, maybe I’d be in a better place now – whatever that might look like.

It’s not always easy to distance myself from these thoughts and instead accept me in this life as it is now. When I do find the perspective and peace to let this all go, some voice somewhere tells me that one day soon I’ll realize to do differently would be foolish. 

The new year is a blank slate; a chance to try again. It’s a do over. No, not to start at the beginning of life, but to start now – wherever that now in your life is. Imagine the possibilities and the unknown that lies ahead…

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Ho-Hum?-liday

Just 15 short days after she died it was Christmas, a day meant to fill the heart with hope and peace. Mine was frozen.

On the Christmas day service of that first Christmas without her, the four of us – me, mom, dad and brother – sat in our usual church pew near my favorite statue of Mary next to the emergency exit door that taunted and teased me as a means of escape. But there was nowhere to go.

I don’t remember much about that mass. I know they said Emily’s name out loud as one of the recently deceased. I know I wanted to run from the bench and punch out the entire choir when they sang “Away in a Manger” as part of their selection of carols. Upon hearing the first note, my chest grew heavy and I eyed my parents nervously. Both swiped at tears building in their eyes. Not that song, please, not that song. “Away in a Manger” was one of the songs my parents had requested at Emily’s funeral mass less than two weeks prior. 

Those past 15 days, I’d become weary, worried and tense whenever I saw my parents cry. Especially my dad. At age 11, I was rocked with the sudden reality that this sadness and loss had affected all of us and my parents were not immune to the suffering. We were all vulnerable. We were all hurting. But it’s something else when you see your dad cry.

As the years passed, Christmas was just another ho-hum holiday to me, more “hum” in my heart that “ho-ho-ho”. The stillness of the sad crept in around December 10 and hovered until the New Year before departing, just to come back the year after and the year after. 

But 23 years laters, this Christmas is going to be different. 

I was given a directive to “embrace Christmas”. Love the season. Bring back the peace, the hope, the joy.

I admit I’ll protest against a few challenges, but this one sunk like a stone in my soul. In my being, I know that I have to change and find a lightness of heart, a happiness that was never there before or, more likely, was buried a long, long, long time ago.

I didn’t object about putting up the tree and decorations. I didn’t imply that maybe it was just too much work and not worth it. That was a big outward change that did not go unnoticed by my husband as he’s the only one who has to listen to my groans every year. 

All other shifts to a new awakening are happening with me:

My heart is thawing.

I’m figuring out what happiness looks like. 

I want to be hopeful about so many things. 

I think there are many reasons to be joyful.

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Angels on the Emily tree

The first Christmas without her it started with a small tree and an angel ornament or two. Of course, she also had her own stocking that hung on the mantle between mine and my brother’s. Every year, a new angel ornament would be tucked in her stocking to add to the tree. The tree grew. Now, it’s a 6′ plus tree filled with angels and reminders that Emily is always with us. 

The loss is always greater on the darkest days of the year, but within that dark there is a light that shines still.

I wish you, dear Reader, the light and love of this holiday season. Happy Christmas from a reforming Scrooge. 

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An Ordinary Monday in December

It was just an ordinary day. Until it was not. 

It was Monday, December 10. 

I went to school that day and then babysat for a family in the neighborhood. An unexpected knock on the door and the instruction that I was not to go home that night disrupted the ordinary. 

It was another “Terror Night”. Something happened that summoned my parents to the hospital that evening to be with Emily. My brother and I had a sleepover on a school night at our neighbor’s house. Before going to bed, I remember thinking, praying and hoping that everything would be all right as it always was in the past. Maybe it was another setback and, sure, that would be rough. She’d get through it, though, just as she fought all of the other curveballs preventing her from getting healthy and coming home. 

The next morning we ate breakfast and our friends went to the bus stop without us. We were not told to get ready for school. I walked up the block to my house, four doors away, to pick up the board game Mall Madness. I tried not to consider it strange that I wasn’t going to school and would be able to sit at home and play games all day. 

My dad’s car was in the driveway. I opened the front door and headed down the hallway. There, in the living room on the couch sat Emily’s plush Santa, clown and teddy bear. Why were those there? They should be with Emily at the hospital in her crib, I thought to myself. 

My dad was on the phone and I tried to capture his attention, but he waved his hand away. 

I stormed off. Somewhere, deep down, I knew something was wrong. 

Upstairs, I found my mom and learned the terrible truth. 

Emily, two days shy of her five-month birthday, died peacefully the night of Monday, December 10. 

And in that moment, the stress and anxiety of the past 132 days vanished in a blink. There would be no more ups, no more downs, no more hope, no more disappointment. No more of anything. Only emptiness and a terrible, horrible void. 

The whirlwind of joy that I had a sister to her too-short life had come to an all too abrupt end. Here I was, a few weeks from turning 12 and I couldn’t quite understand what happened. There had been plans made and discussions had to bring Emily home sometime after Christmas, maybe the beginning of January around my birthday. I’d already decided that Emily home would be the best birthday present ever. 

But there must have been other plans, bigger than me, larger than any of us, that I could never grasp. To be fair, no matter what your age, when someone is taken from us before we wanted or expected there are always more questions than answers. 

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Family photo, 1990

Two weeks before Christmas, grief and memories replaced visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. 

I don’t remember much about the weeks that followed or that first Christmas without her except for a few things here and there. I know we had to begin coping without Emily in our lives. I know it was strange that visiting the hospital was no longer the routine.

But, I’ll never forget the Santa, clown and bear sitting on the sofa on a day after the day that would never be ordinary again. 

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What If?

It’s never a conversation between the two of us. 

No, the voice inside my head only ever talks at me. It prattles on relentlessly, incessantly. I am judged before this voice – all of my faults, my fears and my shortcomings facing brutal scrutiny. The frank, pointed and somewhat accusatory questions that the voice asks play as follows, never skipping a beat:

What if this is all you’ll ever do?

What if you can’t do anything else?

What if this all there is?

What if I do this and not that?

What if he/she thinks I’m ridiculous? 

What I’m not good enough?

What if…what if…what if?

Now, a new “what if” has infiltrated the lexicon, skipping that record for the first time in a long time. This new “what if” shakes me a little too much these days. Eyebrow raised, the voice asks this time: “What if you can’t write one more word?”

And I worry because the ideas are there, but the words have dried up. What does come out reads like rubbish and I’m humiliated, frustrated and disgusted with myself. The letters stumble out as if they were shoved from behind and they fall…fall…fall…then crash to the ground with a thud and get stuck in some mud. They become jumbled and dirty, no longer resembling letters at all. Whatever they were is just a broken mess. It reminds me of staring at word for so long, slowly dissecting each letter that comprises that word until the letters become nothing and the word no longer makes sense. 

In this world of what ifs, uncertainty and the like, I struggle to keep up with the Joneses, although apparently no one gives a toss about the Jones family in 2013. Instead, I must keep up with the Kardashians, but I can’t quite comprehend why I want to or even why they’re famous. Suddenly, I feel like I must keep up with something or I’ll be left behind in the dust. Am I OK with that? Am I strong enough if I choose to be left behind? I’d like to think so and think that it doesn’t matter, but…I’m not so sure. I have the “what ifs” to thank for the self doubt.

But just when I’m convinced that the what ifs are out to get me,  I realized that those what ifs are strangely two-faced. They can be game changers for the better. It’s the manager who reads a resume and makes the phone call to schedule an interview, thinking “what if I take a chance on this person?” And what if that chance was what the person on the receiving end of the phone call really needed in order to make a new start, get ahead and succeed? That happens. 

So, I dance with the what ifs like I dance with danger or the devil. Some days, that voice in my head is shouting, screaming at the top of her lungs all the negative what ifs that I fear could be true about myself. She makes me believe that they are true and I’m small. So very small. 

Then the voice disappears or at least gets quiet and I feel harder, better, faster, stronger – just like the world expects me to be. I’m the only one in charge of my what ifs now and I think: “What if this is the start of something amazing? What if life is really just beginning now? What if…? What if…? What if…?
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When I’m 64…

Let me preface this by saying that I do not think 64 is old at all, lest I receive angry phone calls from my parents. I’m sure if The Beatles were to write that song today, they’d adjust the age to be 84, maybe 94? After all, the life expectancy has raised almost 10 years since 1967 when that song was written. 

Growing up, I knew my mom was a nurse, specifically a rehab nurse, but I didn’t quite know what that meant. What I did know is that she worked in a nursing home and there were a handful of times when my brother and I visited there. We’d meander through the building and poke our noses into some of the rooms or wave to those residents sitting in the halls. Everyone was always overjoyed at seeing two little kids. Some would give us pieces of candy, others would mistake us for their own grandchildren and call us strange names. 

I became accustomed to old people and that distinctive nursing home smell. It didn’t bother me, though it unnerved others. Whereas some tread hesitantly, I was nothing but comfortable in their presence. 

To fulfill service hours in high school, volunteering at the local nursing home seemed like a natural choice. I helped with activities for these residents: leading Bingo games, reading stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul, watching movies, painting nails or parcelling out snacks. I’d listen to their stories – and such stories they had to tell! I marveled at the lives they’d led and the experiences they’d had. 

Joe was a regular on manicure day and had no shame about pampering himself, even as a man. He’d once been a bartender and always believed it was important to be well-groomed, especially if you were serving the public. He’d leave the community room with a clear coat of polish on those days. Or there was Frances who would grasp my hands and swing them back and forth singing, “you are my sunshine, you are my sunshine.” Esther told me about living in Austria during the war and Hilda lovingly shared the accomplishments of her children and grandchildren. 

Even those whose memories were elsewhere and past the point of verbal speech would still grab hold of my arm or hand and gaze longingly into my eyes. That was always enough. Those moments took my breath away and made me blink back tears. 

All of these dear people in full mental capacity or same variation of its loss were just searching for connection. To know that someone still cares. 

On family days, I’d always wait with bated breath, praying that everyone received visitors. I’d struggle to understand how anyone could just forget about their relatives living here and I’d try to fill in the gap when I’d see one of my activity regulars sitting alone. 

I worry about my elderly loved ones today who struggle with their health and loneliness, a feeling that any of us can empathize with, no matter our age. I worry about the days when they are no longer in my life and think about all that I’ve learned from them. I chastised myself on Monday for not regularly calling my grandma who always took me shopping when I was little, was home waiting for me after school with paczkis on Fat Tuesday, knitted me scarves, hats and leg warmers, attended my dance recitals, and shared her joy of jigsaw puzzles with me. I don’t call because I worry about her which is a ridiculous reason not to call and I worry about the day when I won’t be able to call her. I was fortunate enough to know two great-grandmas, two grandpas and two grandmas…and now this grandma, my Grammie, is the only one still here.

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Me portraying an old lady

I hope that when I’m 64, 74, 84, 94 or even 104 that I keep living, loving and fighting. I admire 90-something year old Irene who despite being blind, ran errands and kept such a busy schedule the planners for her birthday party couldn’t keep it a surprise as intended. They had to tell Irene about it, just to find a date she was free and could attend. Or 80 plus year old Helen who had once been a nun but told fantastic, dirty jokes. Or my Polish great-aunts who kept dancing well into their 90s. 

Yes, sometimes I think about the creases that don’t completely fade on my forehead or the faint lines on my face. Those will all likely deepen by the time I’m 64. New wrinkles and more lines will appear. But I’ll wear each one proudly, Botox be damned. And I’m going to call my grandma. 

 

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