gratitiude

My blue sky moment

My cousin’s wife walked into the funeral home. 

She wore a sequined top that shone in the afternoon sunlight, and as she greeted us all with hugs announced “I wore this because I thought it was the kind of top Aunt Juanita would love.” 

We all nodded our approval before my cousin Terri spoke up. 

“Go have a look in the casket.”

Much to her chagrin, and everyone else’s amusement, she was wearing the exact same blouse my Aunt Juanita was laid out in. It was the lightest moment in an otherwise very sad day. But it was the kind of story my dad’s sister would have told over and over again. She had that dry British sense of humor that is common in my family. She had a knack for finding humor in strife.  

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Doug has written a few times about remembering the blue sky - that even when the clouds are hanging above you to remember that there is blue sky above. That moment of levity was my blue sky moment in the day. Recently, I’ve been focused on the practice of gratitude, trying to think of three new things every day to be grateful for, and to think of why I am grateful for them. 

That day, in that moment, I was grateful for my sense of humor and that my family shares in that humor. Humor is how my aunt survived a life of struggle. Humor is how I’ve learned to make the best of sadness. 

I’ve been home to Pennsylvania only twice this year, both times for a funeral. The longer you live, the more loss you will have I suppose. I am lucky, in that I’ve been spared the kind of loss that many others have lived through at much younger ages. If there is a cost to aging, then the empty feeling of losing someone we love must be the price of admission. 

I left the church to the closing hymn of “On Eagles Wings,” crying harder than I meant to as I watched my brother and cousins carry her casket. As I held the umbrella over my mother’s head on our walk to the car, I remembered the quote, “if you live to be 100, I want to live to be 100 minus a day so I never have to live a day without you.” 

Oh the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh. 

Emptiness is a tough feeling. It’s hard to know what to do with the hollow pit in your stomach. We cope in different ways - with food, with alcohol, with anything that will make us feel numb for a little while. Later in the day, after the funeral, I hung out with my dad at one of his local clubs, a time that would have typically been spent in the company of my aunt as well. 

Sitting in that club next to my dad, I missed my aunt - I thought of her laugh and her jokes and her love of Patsy Cline. I looked over at my dad who was sipping his beer, staring intently at a preview of Sunday’s Steeler’s game. I can’t imagine the pain of losing his first sibling - of seeing his family shrink. I felt a catch in my throat and tried to freeze the moment in my mind - I want to freeze so many moments of time with my dad.   

I leaned over and tapped my head on his shoulder for a second, then focused my attention on the t.v. 

Two people, holding their grief together in silence. Holding their grief together in love. 

My blue sky moment? That everyone should be so lucky, to have someone with whom to hold their grief. 



Stumbling into gratitude

I stood at the bottom of the mountain, penned in a box with 150 other participants, thinking of my typical Saturday routine. Sleep in a little, maybe meditate, then sit down with a fresh cup of coffee to write while Rooney sleeps on my feet. 

Today, instead of sipping hot coffee, I was staring disbelievingly at the side of the mountain that I was about run as part of the 2018 Tough Mudder Half. A mountain that in winter, is reserved for skiing.

Down.

Not running up.

So that’s a hill. And those specs are people…

So that’s a hill. And those specs are people…

All around me people were fidgeting. Some were jumping up and down, others were cracking their necks, while a select few others were screaming.

Like just randomly screaming.

Loudly. 

I stood, cemented in place, unable to shut off the steady stream of sarcasm rolling through my mind.

I looked at my teammate Lauren. 

“I’m not doing this next year,” I said.

“Yes I know. You said that last year, so I’ll remind you that you told me that when we’re standing in line for next year’s race.” 

We both laughed. 

I stopped laughing abruptly. 

“Yeah, that’s totally going to happen again isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yup,” she said. “Totally.”

*****

Next thing I know, we’re schlepping our way up the side of the mountain and I’m dishing out a healthy stream of bad one-liners. 

“Why would I want to be at home drinking coffee and watching College Game Day?” I asked to no one in particular. A guy who was doing his 100th race swept past. 

“Because this is so much more fun!” 

“Yes,” I said. “Yes fun. That’s the word I was searching for right there. Thank you.”

I’m not always proud of my sarcasm, because I know it bumps up pretty hard against negativity. I toe that line of negativity and often cross it, and I crossed it a lot more on Saturday than I wish I had.

Humor is how I cope. And Saturday’s course provided a lot of opportunities to work on coping skills. This was by far the most difficult course I’d ever attempted.

Towards the end of the run, once we had sponges for shoes and mud in places you never thought mud could go, we came around a corner to another mountain. But this one was too steep for walking. We had to scale the mountain on all fours. 

I’d like you to take a moment to recall the famous Chevy Chase tirade about a happy family from the movie Christmas vacation. 

Then add another minute of expletives.

That’s roughly what came out of my mouth at the bottom of that mountain - sans the Santa hat.

There was no way around this obstacle. Literally, the only way out was up. So all of us, many of whom shared my thoughts, threw ourselves into the mountain and just started climbing. 

Half-way up the mountain, I lost my footing. Up to that point I’d been methodically choosing my footholds and hand holds, moving quickly, not giving myself enough time to think.

But suddenly, I had nowhere to put my foot or my hands. I looked down. 

If you do this course next year, let me give you some casual advice when you arrive at this stage of the race. 

FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS SACRED DO NOT LOOK DOWN. 

So then I looked up. And I’d like to take a moment here to add a second piece of advice. 

FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS SACRED DO NOT LOOK UP. 

Not gonna lie - I kind of panicked a little. (I don’t think I peed my pants, but it was hard to tell, since I was drenched.)

But here is what’s cool about these kind of races. I said I was stuck, and the woman behind me put her hand up for me to step on it. So I did. And I was able to get my footing again, and after a few minutes, I could see flags in the distance and hear my teammates cheering me on at the top. 

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(When people cheer for me in sports, they can’t help but call me Kimmie, because they need that extra syllable. And for some reason, in that context, I find the name Kimmie oddly comforting).

Once I hit level ground and could stand up, I leaned up against a tree to catch my breath. I looked out at the view. I looked down at the others still climbing. 

And in that moment, I stumbled straight into gratitude. 

Gratitude that I have a body that allows me to scale a mountain. Gratitude that I didn’t have to go it alone. Gratitude for my health. Gratitude for a growing sense of camaraderie with my teammates, many of whom I had the good fortune of getting to know a little better on Saturday.

At the end of the night, a shower never felt so good. Sweatpants never felt so warm. And my bed never felt so soft. And I was grateful for all of those comforts.

But I’m not doing this next year….

How gratitude changed my mindset

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I have been working on a project for the past six months. 

I’ve spent almost ever waking hour, when not at the gym, working on this project. The process was a source of energy and light for me, a place where I could bring my creativity and a way to work through some of the grief I’ve experienced in recent months. 

I was cruising along, checking off boxes and getting things done, until my godfather unexpectedly passed away in April. I took a week off and went home to Pennsylvania for the funeral. I thought I’d continue to work on my project while I was home during my down time. 

But instead, I got nothing done. 

By the time I got back to Maine, my self-imposed deadline had passed and I found myself sitting down everyday, trying to force myself to finish. Then I found myself avoiding the entire process in ways that I hadn’t done before - I was watching Netflix, reading a book, checking social media - avoiding the entire thing. 

The soundtrack was playing in my head. I have always, always, always struggled to finish creative projects. All I could think was well, here I go again. 

And not in that good "Whitesnake" kind of way. 

I have a therapist I work with and whom I trust a great deal and out of desperation, I asked her for some advice. I didn’t need a pep talk, I didn’t need anyone to cheer me on or tell me I could do it. That wasn’t going to motivate me. I’m not wired like that.

So that’s not what she said.

She offered this quote from Nina Simone “You have to learn to get up from the table when love is no longer being served.”

She suggested that sometimes it is us who is no longer serving love to ourselves - and she reminded me to not come back to the table until I could sit with love and gratitude for the process of creation I’d begun in the first place. 

It’s a nice thought. And while I could appreciate it intellectually, emotionally I was thinking something more like:

“Son of a *&^^%$%*&^^%*&(.”

I just want to finish what I set out to finish. But without a better idea, I followed her advice and stepped away from the process. 

I let go of my self-imposed deadline. 

I had to. 

And that was difficult. It took a great deal of energy for me to let go of my expectations. It hasn't been easy. I still felt awful that I'd already missed my self-imposed deadline; that I already let myself down.

But I stepped away from the process. Instead of avoiding the work - I let myself work on other creative things.  

I worked on gratitude - on being thankful for the process of creating. Sometimes I could genuinely be thankful. And sometimes I was begrudgingly thankful.  

I tried to flip the script from "here I go again" to "let it be." 

Because the Beatles. 

Easier said than done. 

We do what we can to move our own needle forward. 

Whether it's for a personal project, nutrition plan, or fitness. We do the best we can with what we've got. 

Even if it's only a little bit at a time. 

But if we can just let go, even a little bit, of those inner expectations, the world opens up for life to unfold naturally, in a way that isn't forced. 

There but for fortune

Folk artist Phil Ochs wrote a song in 1966 that was later recorded by Joan Baez, and well describes the life I am lucky enough to live:

“There but for fortune, go you or go I.” 

On a good day, I can appreciate my journey. I can look in the mirror, see myself, and feel good about the steps I’ve taken, and even the steps I’ve missed along the way.

I can find joy in the ordinary. 

I can pet Rooney and think, with each scratch of his ear, how lucky I am to have a dog that so closely matches my needs. I can appreciate the first few sips of coffee when I sit down to my desk, and walk into the gym filled with gratitude that I work in a helping profession that allows me to dance, wear dinosaur costumes and help people.

But I often lose track of my good fortune. 

And this holiday season, my gratitude has taken a back seat to grief and sadness. As many of you know, earlier this month, we lost my mother n'law quite unexpectedly. 

Her biceps were bigger than mine. 

Her biceps were bigger than mine. 

I have struggled to find joy or gratitude in many of the moments over the past month. Earlier this week, as I sat quietly during the waning hours of Christmas Eve, in the glow of the lights from the tree, I was overcome with the realization and sadness that I will never share another Christmas with a family member whom I loved so dearly. 

As Rooney slept on my lap, I wept onto his head and wiped my tears with his long basset ears (which aren’t very absorbent). I wondered and worried how I’d get through Christmas day feeling any kind of joy. 

But then Rooney snuggled in a little deeper and Sheila brought me a real tissue in favor of the dog’s ears - and the snow fell softly on the Pennsylvania mountain outside the window, Phil Ochs' words popped into my head. 

There but for fortune, go you or go I. 

Sure I am sad. And there is an empty, aching hole in my heart. But I have a snuggly dog, a life-partner who loves me, and a family who misses me when I’m not around. I have a niece who loves Wonder Woman, a nephew who thought Stretch Armstrong was the best gift ever, and co-workers and clients who cleaned the snow from my car while I was gone. (Thank you.)

I am, not to sound dramatic, a very rich woman.  

Despite my riches, joy is often hard to feel. 

Intellectually, we know we should be grateful and we should feel joy, but sometimes life and scars and struggles numb us to both pain and happiness. 

It is my wish for you, as we wrap up 2017 and prepare for the coming year, that you might feel joy - in the ordinary - in the extraordinary. That you might inhale deeply, and exhale fully, and lean completely into the joy and gratitude of your life.