Two summers ago. We are tired, but relieved and happy. We think the worst is behind us.
We’re at a funeral. Celebrating the long life and gentle passing of a loved one. We don’t know it yet…but in two months we will say goodbye again, and it will be harder and crueler and much less timely.
This picture sits on my desk, a reminder of how quickly things change. Because if death teaches you one thing, it’s that you aren’t entitled to anything. And each day is its own gift.
3 deaths in quick succession. First came the shock, then the acute pain. Long silences and numb birthdays. Children’s books about death. Sleepless nights repeating their simple lines….”Where are you, now that you are gone?’
This picture is my ‘before’. Before I stopped the long stressful commute surrounded by cars worth more than my salary. Before I finally heard the way I was talking to my husband after a year of long hours and toxic stress. The short, clipped tone, bordering on annoyance and anger in response to any innocuous question or request. Before I recognized that normal parenting stress isn’t the same as fighting hopeless tears when my daughter exerted her extraordinary (and completely normal) toddler will.
Before I broke wide open. All illusions of ‘I’ll do better tomorrow’ washed away. Death made clear there are no guarantees on tomorrow.
Death woke me into life. How?
I set a broken clock to 11:59 and carried around a note that said ‘this is all you have’. I roll my eyes reading this, it seems so cliché. And at the time, with the earth falling away below my feet, even if it was adolescent, it was also steadying.
I began to build the life I wanted.
1. I took an honest inventory of all my hard emotions and the behaviors I wasn’t proud of.
I didn’t like how hard I was making parenting and how poorly I was partnering. I didn’t like how I had shoved my friendships and extended family into the rearview. I looked at all my safe choices, the ones I chose that protected me from being vulnerable or scared or looking silly or stupid. And I saw that none of those choices protected me from the very worst fear…the brutal reality that we are not in control, we all die. There is no way out.
And in turn, these small, petty choices seemed to cheapen my life. Because if my moments were so few, was I really spending them hiding? Was my biggest goal to have a tombstone that said “Here lies Kerry. She tried really hard not to ever look stupid or silly.” Ugh.
2. I dug into my values.
I started making lists of when I was happiest or proudest. I started paying attention to the moments in my day when I felt truly relaxed, open, and real. Guess what? Some of my favorite moments were the silly, stupid ones. When I broke out into a Taylor Swift ballad at work to connect with someone; when I unabashedly invited everyone I knew to each presidential debate (my own dorky love)...and the only one who came was a stranger who became my husband.
I looked for themes between all these moments and boiled it down to 4 words describing what I wanted my whole life to be about: love, connection, compassion, growth.
3. I led my life, starting with my feet.
In deep grief came deep freedom. I fantasized about what I wanted my life to look like, all the behaviors and actions that exemplified those 4 value words. But then I didn’t stop at fantasizing. I started saying ‘no’ to all the things that weren’t my fantasy. And saying yes…big crazy reckless leap-and-maybe-the-net-will-appear yes’s. Because finally….finally I realized…those wouldn’t kill me. And these moments, the moments rich in your values? They’re all we have.
Not happily ever after
So that must be the end right? I got it all figured out and lived happily ever after? Aww you probably know better than that.
Nope, I’m not living happily ever after. (Ok truth be told, there are teeny little moments where I look out at those Rocky Mountains and think ‘….ok this is pretty close’ – but that’s not the point.)
Death taught me that life is a moving stream of moments, and each one can be created new. On one hand, that’s intensely comforting to me. It means we have a million chances to start again. (And I see this in therapy all the time. It is amazing how small steps off the well-worn path can create huge change.) On the other hand, I can drift into careless habits pretty quickly. I can disconnect from what I believe in, snap at my husband, bail on a friend, or float into mindlessness and miss my daughter pointing at the moon.
So what do I do (and what can you do)? How to keep the clarity of those life lessons fresh in a world that would love to convince us we’re all immortal?
1. I practice paying attention.
It began with two minutes a day. Just listening to my breath. And after 6 years of training and teachings and a now-daily meditation practice, the core truth and the greatest benefit comes from learning to pause in a moment, take one deep breath, and watch/observe/notice what is happening, without judgement, with kindness…that’s all it can take to begin again. (Remind me to tell you how well this works when you’re rushing to get out the door in the morning….I’m serious, it really works.)
2. I listen to myself, even when I don’t know what it means.
With paying attention comes a bunch of thoughts or feelings that you don’t really ‘get’ or understand. And what I have learned is that there is inevitably something valuable to learn behind my knotted stomach when I talk to X or the pull to tell a white lie to get out of Y. And instead of ignoring those things…or obsessing over them, eventually something fruitful comes if I am able to watch and listen (it’s a little like getting a secret message from space, you’re not sure what it means yet, but assume it will become clear in time).
3. When in doubt, I go back to the four value words.
To the very best of my ability, in a thousand microdecisions each day, I try to choose the action that is in line with those four touchstones, the four values that I want to mold my life around: growth, love, compassion, connection.
Simple example, the caucus. I didn’t want to go…it sounded long and boring and silly and just a pain to miss bath time with my baby and the final lullaby with my husband. And for what? To go out in the cold and stand in line, why? Oh the knot in the stomach. Oh the conflicted feelings. Because bottom line, I believe in speaking your voice. I believe in our responsibility to create the government we want. So moaning and groaning, I went. And loved it. Loved the excitement, loved being surrounded by my neighbors. That turned out to be a simple one; there are lots of hard choices and sometimes the choice that leads me to growth leads me away from connection.
But always, there is utility in pausing, and asking myself ‘what points me towards my values, what points me to home?’
Wishing you peace, equanimity, and joy,
An honest inventory of your life via https://yearcompass.com/
Disclaimer: You as a reasonable person know that reading this blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. And just to be super clear for all the lawyers in the house, I do not assume liability for any content on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your interaction with my writing and the content therein (oh my goodness, I hope you don’t injure yourself reading this). If you are seeking professional support, I recommend seeking services via the websites on my resources page or by contacting me directly.