Sunday, April 8, 2018

Dad in the armoire

Dad? Are you in there?
It's me, Susan.
Last week, I sat on my bed staring at a moss green fleece in my sweater closet, deep in thought about a book I've been writing since I was, let's say, much younger.

It's unfinished. It may stay unfinished because I feel about this book like I do about Burger King whoppers. I remember when I loved them but can't imagine wanting one now, and I can imagine anything.

And just like that, my dad's voice was in my head: 

What could you have done while you were finishing a story you don't care about? 

I wrote this down. It was mantra-quality.

"Is there more?" I asked this armoire-dad

There was a lot more, and I wrote that down, too. And I'll tell you what, it was like I was hearing the words of the Man Upstairs himself, instead of  his new friend, my dad.

Now. Does that mean I sit on my bed and open my armoire when I need advice?  

Yes, it does.  I've been back a few times.

Decide if you're trying to understand someone or make them understand you.  
---green cardigan-dad

Your words are a gift. Don't make them weapons.
---shell pink tank and cardigan-dad

Honesty and kindness are more important to you than having the last word.
---wheat v-neck-dad

Most opportunities to be suspicious are the same opportunities to trust. Choose trust.
---black v-neck-dad

Two things have to happen before you believe your closet is talking to you. First, you must be contemplative, reflective, and meditative. Second, you must have lost, and miss badly, a person who knew you so well, you'd never try to conceal an important emotion because he or she would detect it and describe it for you, and share a similar feeling that they had once.

That kind of missing won't kill you, but something of your missed one must remain in your life, maybe in the form of conversations with someone who knew your missed one as well as you did, or, if possible, your raspberry summer cardigan.   

It's become my belief that wherever we were when we allowed insight to settle the soul - the parking lot at Rite Aid, the bend in the road near my mailbox - or allowed a revelation to overwrite old ways of thinking - near exit two on route 89, looking at my neighbor's house from my kitchen window - we will expect more of the same on returning and probably get it.

Because expectation is half of receiving.
---Susan Bonifant.

Some people go to the ocean. Some go to their fireplace. And, some go to their furniture.

May no one ever be helpful enough to suggest to me that it is not my missed one I'm finding there, but my own counsel; that it isn't a kind of peace I'm left with, but a state of attunement to the deepest depths of grief,  that my moss fleece is just a moss fleece.
Conversations with my armoire-dad will never be like the lunches we used to stretch into two hour dates. But if I can't anymore say to his tilted, interested face, "Here's something I'm trying to figure out,"  I can pick a spot – or sleeve – to focus on, and before long my deepest issue, worry, or concern will wiggle its way to the front of my mind.

You've been taking your own advice and asking me to help you trust it. I was only holding your coat.
---burgundy tunic-dad

A couple of weeks ago, I struggled with my own judgment about something and was trying to decide how to respond, and noticed that while trying to be more candid I was only beginning to feel pious. There was no good response, any comment I might have made would have been superfluous. 

Don't act on anything while you don't like the way you are seeing yourself
--- new pullover which is some color between brown and charcoal and doesn't go with any of my shoes-dad

In the five months that have passed since I lost my dad, I've been feeling drawn to a "next book" which could be a new way of thinking or a new way of life. It's not something I'm building. It's a thing that is there and waiting for me to find it. 

Like Dad in the armoire.

It's already happening. I've made some small decisions about new things I need or old things I no longer want, and one big one to return to school in the fall and finish my degree work.  Go Wildcats.

It's counter-intuitive but healing, this time of personal retooling that has followed the loss of a go-to who kept me grounded.  It feels like I've taken off tight shoes to think about rewriting the decades ahead. 


Regret is worse than guilt and nothing is sadder than the words "I should have."  
---gray sweater jacket-dad

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Your inner voice has one job. Don't argue with it.

If this were my therapist, I would
probably leave a lot of stuff out.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about grief and a little about therapy. 

I had planned to write more today on the therapy subject - from deciding to go, to finding a therapist whose photo doesn't look, as a friend put it,  "like a depressing selfie they took on the subway," to organizing a chronology of your life before visit #1 that isn't a fifty pound book. But, I think it needs another week or so in the blog oven. 

So, here are the last of my thoughts on grief for a while. 

Grief is about what has been taken away, of course. But as time passes, I am understanding the things that grief brings back-to-life-back-to-reality, as well. Because, ask around. Life, after a loss, can take on a carpe diem, now or never feeling.   

In that spirit, today's post is dedicated to anyone who, for whatever the reason has found themselves wishing to shake things up; shrink the distance between themselves and others, grow the confidence to ask for something better, and check behind the couch of what they're used to, just in case there are some old dreams still lying around back there.

Some thoughts:

Here is the thing about reaching out.

There is a risk. 

There is a risk that you won't be welcome, or liked, or respected. Risk that you'll be sorry you tried, or will say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Risk that you will want, more than you are wanted.

There is a risk that you'll seem needy before you remember that we are all needy. Every one of us. 

There is a risk that people will be surprised by your flaws after you stop trying to be perfect, before you realize you are more likable, overnight, because of them. 

Here is the thing about confidence. 

You don't get it, or find it, or dig deep and pull it out of some special "will" pocket. 

You earn it by leveraging the things about you that are true – your bravery, smarts, humor, honesty - and letting go of the things you affect. 

You earn it when you feel you must try, more than you must succeed, so that when only that is done, you have have indeed, succeeded.

You earn it when, after you do succeed,  do win, do understand that you did have it in you, you're left with a unique desire to face uncertainty again.

Here is the thing about dream-chasing.

A dream is not something you think up in traffic or while you're on hold. Dreams steep. Dreams pounce. 

But dreams must be felt, before they can be chased. 

Dreams you feel when, you realize you can survive a break up with your old self and be happier with the new one you build.

Dreams you feel when, you consider that the best of what you've known might pale in comparison to what you decide to know now.

Dreams you feel when, a vision does not feel flighty or whimsical, but like information.

Dreams you feel when, you know that someday, you will look back on now as the time before you decided and then acted on what will be a thing you can't imagine being without. 

Risk is so uncomfortable, it makes us accept distance.
Believing in what we deserve is so uncomfortable, it makes us accept less than we really want.
Change is so uncomfortable, it makes us accept wishing over acting. 

Screw distance.
Screw mediocre.
Screw complacency.

Everyone has an inner voice, a gut feeling, an instinct. 

It only has one job, which is to help you live your only life.

Don't argue with it.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Here is the picture I show
therapists in our fist visit
when they ask what I need help with.  

My sister and I communicated recently about how each of us has fared since our dad passed away. 

Because, not only did he pass away, he passed away three days before Thanksgiving and thirty-four days before Christmas, and if that was not enough of an undertow, he's been coming back to us in dreams. 

In hers, he appears in ways that make no sense, e.g., standing in his kitchen while people who have just attended his memorial service file in and ask why he's there. 

In mine, he is the dapper, v-neck cashmere and khaki-clad host of his own going away party, right as rain, standing at the door asking people if they had trouble finding the place. 

My sister's update: "Getting better with lots of pause-for-thought speed bumps, but unfortunately a sinkhole here and there."


I'm going to talk about sinkholes today.

Once, a few years ago, when I was facing a number of major transitions at once, I saw a therapist for help with untangling.  

"I'm usually really good at getting through stuff,  keeping myself in motion," I said, "but I keep doing nothing."

She said, "Your last two kids are leaving in the fall. Your fourteen-year-old cat just died. You don't like your job. Your brother is dying. Your husband is going to be traveling five days a week when this all happens. Do you know how stressful your life is right now?  Because you got a lotta, lotta stress going on." 

Why did I need someone else to point this out? I'm not sure. But it's come back to mind lately, because she was describing a sinkhole and I am in one of those at the moment. 

Since shortly before our dad passed away, I have been in a frustrating, alternating state of vague readiness for something newand general reluctance to embrace anything newMy ideas for topics and projects do not feel new or inspired, but old and repackaged. 

Last week, I watched an episode of The Crown at 4:00 in the afternoon, which, in my world, is on par with drinking at lunch.  

The other day, I looked in the mirror and asked my own face why I keep doing nothing. And to my own face I answered,  "Because you got a lotta, lotta stress going on." 

I wrote in my last post about creating a "new normal," i.e. changing the habits and rhythms and routines that trigger such acute awareness of a person's absence. It's been my way of staying on this road without feeling I'll be thrown from the vehicle with every sharp turn.

But, sinkholes.

Sinkholes leave you understanding that you didn't actually leave Grief Town, you just moved across the street.

It helped to admit this.

It helped to understand that change, even if it's forced on us, can still be a gift of fate, long in the making, really essential, and often not possible to initiate without the catalyst of loss.

I woke up at three in the morning recently ( it's always three in the morning, ask anyone) and realized with a little panic that all this effort to envision a new normal had not moved me toward anything,  but only away from everything that was familiar.

It's how I feel when I wake up the first night on vacation in a strange hotel; like I've been abducted and blindfolded, until my husband says, "It's okay. I'm Larry and we're in Vermont."

I had not gone to bed dreading a dawn of worry or anxiety or fear. I just woke up that way.

In a sinkhole. 

Without a ladder.

I waited for my mind to settle. I asked myself the question I urge my children to ask themselves when they are tangled:

What do I know? What do I know I am supposed to do, right now?

Answers to those questions, elusive as they are, don't always come when they're called, but it's my belief  they come when they know they'll be welcomed.

What I know.

At least today,
I'm going to try a thing that might work.
I'm going to do everything a tiny bit better.
I'm going to be mindful, and not preoccupied.
I'm going to watch what I eat and read and listen to.

At least today, 
I'm going to make a plan that intimidates me a little.
I'm going to take John Mahoney's advice and remember the last time I wasn't just satisfied but thrilled.
I will be settled and focused instead of flighty and fighty, as I get when I'm overwhelmed.

At least today,
I'll speak to myself in stark, honest terms.
I'll admit that I'm not feeling the old goals right now. Not one of them.
I'll stop "pushing the river" as my mother says, forcing my heart to the page where we live, when my heart is trying to take me to other places where answers live.  
I'll reach out to guarded people who don't resist connection as much as they fear it.        
At least today, 
I'll understand that it will be like this right now, here and there, for a damn good reason and stop saying, "I don't know why I'm doing nothing." 

I'll be okay with that.

Because right now, here and there, there will be sinkholes. 

But. They are not that terrifying, when you realize that for a long time, you have been collecting skills to build a ladder.

Rung by rung, baby. Rung by rung.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

After loss: the way healing feels

Dad, me and a coupla sibs
I talked to a good friend recently who asked me how I come up with blog ideas every week or so. 
I explained to him that I spend a little time each week thinking about a thing that meant something to me about life, people, loss, love, etc. Something that would likely be universal, because I don't notice magical things, I just notice important things. 
And sometimes a single event can teach you something about all of those things – people, life, loss, love – at once. 
My father's death has been that event. 
When he passed away two months ago, I experienced what other people call "the hole" of  loss i.e., the feeling that life would not ever feel as it did when the lost person was in it. Even the parts of my life that my dad never really understood  would not be the same.

The old normal was gone.

I've dreamed about, planned, and carried out plenty of changes in my life and so the feeling that my life had changed, was changing every day without my permission, was alarming. The feeling of loss had affected everything from my thoughts while cooking, to my happiness over an accepted piece, to my ability to look forward to the future the way I always had.  

I wasn't really aware until now that I am a person who carries a visual of the future more than an idea. It's a sprawling, changing Monet of possibilities – seeing all my children build lives they love, imagining the publishing dreams that excite and inspire me, and who knows, maybe a life near water someday.

A month or so after my dad died, trying to pull up that view  was like trying to inflate a pool toy with a hidden hole. It would only puff up so much before refusing to do more. My visual was a sunless sky that didn't know whether to clear or rain or what, other than remain on duty until the night sky arrived to relieve it.

The drive to get "back to normal" was powerful, and the muscle memory of familiar life made it easy to head  that way. In the hazy days after losing Dad, I wanted to live on auto-pilot, and allow my mind to deal with the air pockets of grief, and nothing else.

I yielded to this. Tried, tried, tried in that before place to do what I've always done – get up, go to work, talk on the phone, read texts, attend meetings, have dinner – while the feeling of "before" remained, ever so slightly, beyond reach.

This is the "hole," people talk about, the life that looks, after loss, exactly as it did before, but feels expired, hollow, a place where you once lived but don't anymore.

It was opening my calendar like I do every morning but remembering that I didn't have to schedule a visit to the Memory Care unit. It was driving past the restaurant where we used to eat lunch like I often do, but not thinking it's been too long since the last one. It was driving past his street like I do every day, but not wondering if it was too late or early for a visit.

I thought about that hole, and about how I was trying to fill it by carrying out normal habits and trying not to lose it when I saw someone who looked like my dad. 

I began to wonder if maintaining a normal, unchanged life might be making that hole even bigger with all those glimpses at what wasn't  there anymore.

I discovered something wonderful.

It would never be a process of teasing out the reminders.  But it could be, step by step, a process of shrinking the prominence of this person's absence by changing the context of their presence.  

I decided to change my normal life, one tiny habit at a time.

I changed the music I listen to.
I changed the way I eat.
I started dressing a little differently. 
I changed the kind of writing I do and my targets.
And how I spend money
And how much I sleep
And who I want to see more of 
And what dreams my husband and I can share of a life we might love in a new place.

Few of these things have anything to do with my dad's absence. Most had little to do with his presence. I miss my dad still, to the point of tears. But I embrace memories now, and wait for the spiritual lift that comes after I've wished for his take on a problem or struggle.

"So Dad..."

There is a hole, but there is a new Monet coming together, too. I'm making something about every day different, healthy and new. I am again connecting to the future with joy and imagination and I am realizing that the past has done all it was supposed to do, which includes the gift of knowing my dad, getting his take on things, making him laugh. 

I hope if you're in this place, you find the same picture of new things to come, new places to be, and if the absence of your loved one is painful at times,  I hope their spiritual presence will become a perfect piece of furniture in your new home of "after."

This post is dedicated with love to Teri and Dana 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

We are never doing nothing

Here is a picture of some
decisions I'm making.
Two things happened recently. One of my articles was mentioned in a Post round-up of most read parenting pieces in 2017, which was great.

And, I was turned down by a publication that is smaller than the Post, but equally discriminating, which was not great.

I've written before about taking control of happiness, choosing our point of view, learning to hear and listen to our inner critic so that we can report  it to our inner therapist who will remind  us that our inner  critic is full of shit.

I write about these things because for a long time, my inner critic ran the show and it just became my default state to feel awkward or out of place, and see myself through the eyes of others. It changed when I began to journal. On the page, I laid out my truest feelings like dainty, knotted necklaces in need of detangling.

I learned a few things after several years of this.   

That negative self-talk is easier to believe than the self-talk we use to challenge it.
That fear feels like information in our minds, but looks like a nervous child on the page.
That figuring it out is not only a valid strategy, but sometimes the best one because it draws on intuition more than practical skills.
That intuition is information.
That truth is often discovered when you're doing nothing to find it.

We are never doing nothing.

It doesn't surprise me that what captured my attention last week was the rejection. Because feedback like "well done, but not ground breaking," makes me feel like I must be playing it safe, or don't care enough to develop new ideas.

If that's what's going on, I thought, I have a new necklace to free of knots.

That is what's going on.

I've been sleepwalking, and today I woke up with a "what now?" stretch on my hands.

As I write this, I'm thinking about an article that I haven't drafted yet, the three or four short stories that are in progress but have no target, the novel that I like but don't love yet.

It feels like I'm not serious, but I'm never not serious.
It feels like I lack the energy to be better, but it's passion I need.

I would have panicked in earlier years to think of what all this meant:

Oh, my God. Maybe I'm in the wrong job/relationship/city/major etcOh, my God.

But I have learned that  as much as I dread them, a what-now stretch heralds a new turn, a change in direction, a shake up, a thing that is coming and is supposed to happen.

While I was doing nothing about this, a surge of honest conscience emerged about really, how hard I've been working at my writing. My inner critic offered that it could be harder and, for once, my inner therapist agreed. And that is a good thing, because knowing I could be working harder, but am not, is a perfect  opening to the question of: 

If not this, then what?

It's a complex question that only presents yes answers after the no's – not this, not that – have been exhausted.

I am taking my own advice today.

I will stop focusing on what I should be doing better and consider what I should possibly be doing instead.

I will accept that only some ideas can enter a habit-oriented mind, but that others, if I rest and open my mind will present themselves.

I will think about the difference between undisciplined and uninspired. 

I will try to remember that ideas are supposed to come and go as often as they come and stay.

I will aim to love the work in process as much as the idea of finishing it. 

I will consider that effort not fueled by the heart and mind can be injurious to the spirit. 

But mostly, I will, I already do,see this stretch as a test,  a break, a time to realize that if I'm not doing enough, or doing the right thing, the something behind it all will present itself. 

It will be one of those times when I'm not doing nothing. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

No one grows up for free

The last breaking day of 2017. 
Once, because I am an introvert, I felt that the only thing worse than not being invited to a large, important event full of strangers was attending one. 

Because, small talk. I don't know what to say or ask, I screw up anecdotes, and my timing is bad.

My attitude changed when I grew up, became a writer, and realized that conversations are my classroom.
A full year of conversations has come to a close and my bag is packed for 2018. 

For many I know and love, it has been a year of major decisions around all the big stuff – parenting, career moves, relationship shifts, having children, moving, marriage and divorce – and the risk, regret, relief and reward of making those decisions have been significant.

I know someone who left a relationship and someone else who would like to start one. I know someone who wants to make a different career choice and someone who gambled big on a business idea. I know others who wonder if they blew it as a parent.

Issues of regret touch me the most because I am, as my son would say, a "stud" at handling this in my own life. And so on this last day of 2017, I'm going to share some thoughts on the subject of mistakes and regret and the parting gift we are handed as we leave mistakes behind:  new wisdom. 

First, we are, every one of us, every day, as long as we're alive and have a past, still growing up.

Second, no one grows up for free.  

There are only two ways to go when we think back on a bad decision:  Mire in it, loathe yourself for it, and refuse to trust your instincts going forward.

Or, realize that at any point on the continuum, you can't know more than you do. You can't factor in maturity that hasn't arrived yet. You can't factor in the age and wisdom that you haven't earned yet. You can't factor in consequences that will punish your impulses, or outcomes that will reward your intuition because those things are like grades on an exam that you'll get when you get.    

I've learned that all you can do with every decision, even the risky ones, even the big or costly ones, is take a chance on your instincts because instincts, like children, need to be field-tested to work right.

I've learned that all you can do with every decision, is know that in the process of recovering from a misstep, you will have learned something about your decision making that you needed to know.

This is important for people who are considering new jobs, new homes, new love, and new lives, with or without someone they hoped would be at their side.

This is important for people who have ventured into unknowns and stumbled, sometimes badly. It's important for those who regret a thing they've said, or done, or caused. 

You will do it again. 

You have to. 

Because the alternative is to live so cautiously you'll run out of things to think about and eventually won't bother to dream. 

I've learned that wisdom can come from things you've done right, but it usually comes from the things you've done wrong first. And while the parting gift of new wisdom isn't glamorous, it is your co-pilot, and it is your therapist.

Once, I believed that life should be lived with some imagination of how we want to look back on it. I've learned that this is false. To believe we have any control over a future memory at all is to believe we will still be ruled by the moods and moments and motives of today.

We won't be.

Next year, when you do brood over your flaws or mistakes or poor planning or bad decisions, remember this:  You are, thankfully, flawed,  which will instantly improve your likability because no one likes a flawless person. 

Whether we are teens, or college graduates, or newly married, or empty-nesters, or facing retirement, we are always growing up. 

It isn't free.

If you're doing it right.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Pencils down.

"And how was your day?" said Abby
to her friend, Tree. 

(quote credit: Courtney Bonifant)
A little arrow of joy sailed into my heart this morning to realize it is the twentieth of December. 


When you are in the twenty-somethingth of December, you are not close, but really close to Christmas. And, in my blue exam book, this means pencils down. 

This means it's time to do stuff that matters. If you're a list and task freak, all stressed out over what you have to do, it's time to realize that a lot of stuff is more important than finding holiday plates and napkins that don't have Rudolph and snowmen on them.

Ever since I was a wee me, there has been something magical about December 20. 

Back then, it meant the start of classroom parties and school vacation and the long awaited (single showing) of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which was punctuated every four minutes with commercials about Norelco shavers. 

Afternoons turned dark before the bus finished dropping us off, and little homes with candles in the windows made even the crappy neighborhoods look like they could be featured in a snow globe.  

For me, December 20 starts a short stretch that is not about undone tasks on the list, but stuff that doesn't make the list because if it did, the list would look like this:

Replace candles
Thank someone for making a difference in your life
Pick up sugar cookie mix
Check beer and tortilla chips
Say something encouraging to a stranger. 

For me, in these last days, have-to's become hope-to's until all that's really important are the want-to's which tend to arrive late. 

I was hoping to receive and wrap the balance of gifts I've ordered by now. I was hoping I'd find a new centerpiece for the Christmas Eve table. It would have been nice to replace some of the linen and towels before everyone arrives. I should buy new candles. 

But it is December 20 now and my "want to's" are here.

Handwritten cards - meaningful ones - will be composed  for best friends and others.

Comfort foods that my children love and request every year, even though they would never order them in a restaurant, will be waiting.

There will be a date with my husband in a quiet place where we will likely have a conversation about life; how it changes, how it doesn't, and how it should, if we want to embrace memories in the future rather than dodge them.  

There will be an airport reunion  with the daughter who moved to California two months ago and wasn't planning on coming home for the holidays until two weeks ago, when she changed her mind. I will cry before I see her, to know I'll see her.

There will be more than one meaningful conversation with another daughter and her husband about career dreams and marriage and life goals and raising children and other relationships, because they are artists, and artists are bad at talk that isn't about stuff that matters.

There will be attempts on the part of both of my sons to teach me about football again. It will start with the annual, remedial explanation of downs and yards which I will forget. It will end with diagrams on post-its of tiny figures and directional arrows which I will not understand but will save anyway to put with the others in a box near my bookcase.

And as this day fades into tomorrow, marking exactly one month since my father's death, I will focus on a memory I've gone back to a few times over the last four weeks. 

It was Dad's last Christmas Eve with us, his nineteenth.  At the end of the night, he said the same thing he said every year. "This was the best one ever. I don't think you can top it, next year."

In a few days, when Christmas is finally here and we raise a glass, I will think about that and offer a special toast to Dad, the best one ever. 

Happiest of holidays to you. Make them the best ever, surrounded by people who matter the most.