The older I get, the more people I know who are mourning the loss of a partner. Along with that, inevitably, comes the mourning of the loss of your future. Because couples make plans. That’s what they do. They have an image of what they’re working toward. When your partner dies or you get divorced, that image turns to dust.
That’s unsettling. Suddenly you have absolutely no idea where you are going. It is as if you’ve been blindfolded and spun in a circle. You spend a lot of time swinging your arms around in attempt to orient yourself and avoid crashing into things. And while you’re doing that, it seems as if the rest of the world is cruising merrily past you, intent upon one destination or another, not even having to rely on a GPS. You feel as though you can’t keep up. You’ve been left behind.
It can take many years before you’re able to find the strength turn your face toward the sun again. And when you do that, it feels really strange at first. What is this warmth I’m feeling? It feels good. Do I deserve to feel good? Should I feel guilty?
And then a funny thing happens. You start doing things that you like to do that you perhaps had abandoned because your partner wasn’t into them. And you stop doing things that you only did because your partner enjoyed them. In other words, you begin to take back your individuality.
Being an individual takes strength and courage. It takes confidence and creativity. At first you’re going to feel like a newborn giraffe. Not quite steady on your feet. A little confused about how you got here and why you’re suddenly towering over things that you never knew existed. The world will seem new.
But with any luck, one day you’ll wake up and you’ll realize that you’re actually kind of excited about the fact that the world seems new. Colors are brighter. Smells are more intriguing. Food has regained its flavor. Everything seems rife with possibilities.
And just like that, you begin to plan a brand new future. It may not look anything like the future you once imagined for yourself, but my wish for you is that it’s an adventure that you’re eager to begin. Onward!
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Not every dream you have is going to work out. Not every person you fall for is going to love you back. Sometimes you will make the wrong choices, life will get in the way, or things will be out of your control.
That was made abundantly clear the other day when I was unpacking boxes that I had been storing in my guest room. I was confronted with about 25 pounds of notes that I had taken when I was pursuing my Dental Laboratory Technology degree. Despite graduating with honors and having high hopes about buying a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina and starting my own dental lab out of the garage, here I am, a bridgetender in Seattle.
I wanted that dream so badly I could taste it. But I couldn’t convince anyone to hire me so that I could gain the needed experience, and I certainly couldn’t control the fact that 6 months later I needed surgery on my wrist that would make it physically impossible to do that work.
The death of a dream. Hate when that happens. I think I went into mourning for about a year, and despite the fact that I’ve since moved on, I couldn’t quite bring myself to get rid of those notes. I lugged them all the way across the country with me, even though I knew, without a doubt, that I’d have no use for them. I just wasn’t ready to let go.
So here was this massive pile of emotionally-charged notes that were taking up space in my guest room. But this was ridiculous. The last thing I need is a 25 pound albatross around my neck. So, trying not to think too much, I pitched them all into the recycle bin.
Well, no, not all of them. I kept my orthodontic notes. And textbooks. And tools. Because that’s what I wanted to do—make orthodontic appliances, like retainers. I know I’m being silly. I know that dream isn’t happening, ever. But it’s a part of who I was, who I am. And those tools might actually come in handy. You never know.
But it was rather cleansing, getting rid of all the other stuff. It felt like another step toward healing. It was high time.
Giving up on something or someone after you’ve exhausted all viable avenues of pursuit isn’t necessarily defeat. It isn’t abject failure, either. It means, quite often, that you’re being a mature adult who is being realistic and moving on.
There’s no shame in that. It’s a huge part of life. And if you’re lucky, like I’ve been, you can look back from a good place and realize you actually wound up right where you were supposed to be all along. You may not have been able to see it in the past, but things have a funny way of working out the way they should.
Sometimes you have to give up in order to get something spectacular. Sometimes giving up is the right thing to do.
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I remembered something last night that I hadn’t thought of in years. I went to travel agency school! I had recently gotten my Bachelor’s Degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies, and my Associates in Sociology, and it was becoming increasingly obvious, to my horror, that I was not going to be able to do a thing with either one of them.
So I got it into my head that one of those fly-by-night train-you-for-a-career-in-next-to-no-time schools was the answer to my problems. And hey, I absolutely LOVE to travel. I adore everything about it. And travel agents get cool perks like free trips to Madrid and things like that. Sounded good to me! Sign me up!
What those career schools don’t tell you is that their goal is not to get you a career. Their goal is to prey on your desire for a career in order to separate you from your money. Don’t believe me? Ask the admissions office for placement statistics for their graduates. I guarantee you, they won’t provide them.
Regardless. I attended that school faithfully, graduated with honors and then… never got a job in the travel industry. You see, by the time I showed up, that industry was already dying. Computers were starting to rear their ugly heads, and now everyone makes their own reservations. When’s the last time you even saw a travel agency? They’re as rare as hen’s teeth.
I did get an interview with Eastern Airlines. They even flew me first class to Miami. That was the first, and probably last time I’ll ever fly first class, unfortunately. But it’s a good thing I didn’t get the job, because Eastern Airlines went belly up about 6 months later.
I seem to do that a lot– Hop onto a trend when it’s already on its downhill slide. I got 8 tracks when everyone was already moving on to cassettes, and cassettes when everyone was getting CDs, and now I have all these CDs that I never listen to, taking up space in my closet. I also went to Dental Lab Technology School and got a third degree at a time when labs are starting to automate. I’m off trend in romance, too, falling for guys who are either not ready or no longer interested or were never interested in the first place. I’ve also made a lot of friends who turned out not to be friends. That hurts like hell.
False starts suck. While you are backtracking, you’re also experiencing a sort of mini mourning period. Then you have to gather your strength to start over. That isn’t so bad when you’re young and you think there will always be a new opportunity just waiting for you, but as you get older, you realize that isn’t always the case, and even if it is, you only have so much energy and time and money to start fresh. And you therefore start to get a little gun shy.
Learning when to go for it and when to listen to your voice of reason and give something a pass is a fine art that seems to elude me. I think moving from Florida to Seattle was my last big hurrah. But I don’t want to turn into one of those people who does less and less until one day I wake up on the couch with daytime television blaring in my ear, a room full of cats, and a serious lack of Vitamin D. That would be tragic.
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Most married couples have included that phrase in their wedding vows. But how many of them actually think about it? I suspect that it gets thrown in there because they want to stress the fact that they’re not planning on a divorce. But the truth is, if your marriage truly is for life, unless you both die in a plane crash or something, it’s only going to be for life for one of you.
Yep. Death will part you. And even though we all know that on a basic level, it still comes as a great shock to the person who is left behind. The grief of losing the person you love most in this world is indescribable. You don’t truly grasp it until you’re in it. There’s no real way to prepare for it. There are no shortcuts. You will either be the one who dies or the one who mourns. Frankly, I’m not sure which one is better off.
It’s a really strange feeling to have your future all mapped out with someone and then one day, poof, it’s gone. It’s unsettling. It’s like having the tablecloth ripped out from under your feast. It’s messy. It’s destructive. Shit is gonna get broken. There will be stains in the carpet that will never come out.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s important to have this conversation. Not that it will mitigate the damages. But at least you’ll get a sense of where each of you stand, while both are still standing. Just a thought.
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One of my biggest regrets is not taking advantage of the opportunity to celebrate the Day of the Dead when I was living in Mexico. I didn’t understand what a cultural and spiritual treasure this celebration is, so I skipped it. Ever since then, I’ve been meaning to go back to have this experience, but something keeps getting in my way.
Day of the Dead is a Mexican tradition that reaches back thousands of years, to an Aztec celebration called Xantolo, which used to last for an entire month. It is a time when the dead and the living interact. Basically, it gives you a chance to spend time with the dearly departed.
This concept most likely makes the average American very uncomfortable. We don’t like to acknowledge death. We struggle to come up with things to say to people who have lost loved ones. We spend a lot of time trying to achieve immortality, even though death comes to us all sooner or later. It is the great equalizer.
The result of this puritanical, squeamish attitude toward a natural, inevitable conclusion to life means that grieving in America can be even more difficult than it needs to be. People tend to avoid you. It’s as if death is contagious. No one wants to hear about it. Mourning in this country is a very isolating experience. We prefer that the dead rest in peace. In other words, “I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me.”
One of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, described Xantolo in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle like this:
“I’m drawn to this celebration, I’m sure, because I live in a culture that allows almost no room for dead people. I celebrated Dia de los Muertos in the homes of friends from a different background, with their deceased relatives, for years before I caught on. But I think I understand now. When I cultivate my garden I’m spending time with my grandfather, sometimes recalling deeply buried memories of him, decades after his death. While shaking beans from an envelope I have been overwhelmed by a vision of my Pappaw’s speckled beans and flat corn seeds in peanut butter jars in his garage, lined up in rows, curated as carefully as a museum collection. That’s Xantolo, a memory space opened before my eyes, which has no name in my language.”
I think Xantolo is a very healthy way to come to terms with the loss of loved ones. They may be gone, but they still have an impact on your life. Their absence changes who you are. That ability to effect change, to have an impact, is life of a sort. So why not acknowledge it?
You’re probably wondering why I’m writing about Xantolo in January. It’s because I celebrate Xantolo all year round. When I look skyward and say, “Yeah, I feel you. I know you’re close,” that’s Xantolo. It’s also the butterfly that lands on my knee, and the remembered joke that still makes me laugh. It’s that smell that brings me back to that particular day, or that song that I can still hear you singing.
Xantolo is the ongoing relationship that I have with people I can no longer reach out and touch. As with other relationships, sometimes it’s welcome, sometimes not. But I get a great deal of comfort from the fact that these people that I loved and still love are never very far away. We may have no name for that in our language, but oh, it’s there.
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A friend of mine just sent me this picture, and it made me really sad. To me, this feels like a death. It is the last gasp of a drawbridge that is about to be torn down because it has been replaced by a much higher fixed span.