At the end of the day… or week… or decade… the reality of a rich, full life results, sometimes, in feeling a little poorer. Grief over losing someone dear calls into question everything we allow into our lives — like a balance sheet of pros and cons or a record of wins and losses. Sadness, as I explain away my tears to my young daughter, is simply the price of loving. What is harder to explain is how unless we merge the love we have for someone else with our own self worth, we cannot begin to justify this expense.
Just like a bank account, there is a limit to how much you can draw down before you are overdrawn, overwrought and and simply over it all. But sometimes, it is the emptiness, itself, that we must listen to in order for our own hearts to be heard. For me, happiness is not a well, that if I drill deep enough it will be a self-sourcing spring that I can simply dip into when necessary. It is also not, what I have been led to believe, something that if I simply breathe, meditate, center myself or focus outside myself I can magically tap into. If it is for you, then go for it. Because for me, happiness has always been a choice. Sometimes it’s a planned choice, like designing my own home or a career that I love. And then sometimes it’s a spontaneous one like simply deciding to treat myself to a donut after an early morning CASA hearing.
Yes, a donut. Donuts have a legendary status in our family after I realized the effect they had on my son’s demeanor as a young teenager. He could be down or disgusted or filthy dirty after a day of crouching behind home plate and if you pulled out a donut or pulled up to a Krispy Kreme, he would instantly transform. And so for the last 10 years, or so, those oh-so-bad-for-your-health circles of dough coated in a sugary glaze have been placed above the all-encompassing category of comfort food with the singular distinction of the “good-mood-donut”.
I know, I know. Every parent out there is cringing at my labeling a donut as a source of happiness but every person out there also knows that sometimes a small bite of a simple confection can lift our chin enough to lift our eyes and heart. It doesn’t have to be a donut — choose what you like… because that is the point… making a choice for what you like is the first step in choosing to be happy. And yesterday, in choosing to give myself even a temporary sugar-hit lift, I was choosing me. Because when I bought the donut, I also bought the hole… and in doing so, I chose to honor my whole self. I accepted the part of me that sometimes makes bad food choices within an overall good attempt at a healthy life. I embraced the empty space as a purposeful and profound place to simply remain open to what comes.
At that moment yesterday morning, I was an empty bucket. I had spent the day, prior, supporting people I love through a time that is, undoubtedly, the hardest thing we go through as loving, connected humans. I do this willingly and openly, by choice, as that is the only way I know how to love. What flows in, flows back out in a rhythm that I choose not to control. This shared grief, as an extension of shared love, is one of the most starkly beautiful experiences I have ever witnessed. It’s like an ocean that responds to its own changing tides while reacting to a storm rolling across it with rain and thunder and clouds breaking for a moment to let in the sun. It never stops churning — the day to day rhythm still continues as trash day and school days are still happening underneath the heaviest of hearts. I am not a member of this family that is navigating this death — I am connected by circumstance and choice, both mine and theirs. So, on this sea and in this case, I am a bucket. There to help carry something forward, help build someone up, help, somehow, be a container for something that may help shore up the ever shifting waves of grief. And just like a bucket caught on a wave, I ride the grief only because I am empty.
I have felt this before. Feeling that the cloud of daytime darkness can be broken up with moments of brilliance that feel divine and divinely sourced and I know that when I choose to capture it, somehow, I can remember it. It’s why I write. It’s why I take pleasure in taking pictures. It’s why I tell stories. I document it in a way that these moments become a day in which the good seems to, finally, outweigh the bad. I do this not only because of what I have been through, but because of who I am. I am a storyteller, at heart, that needs to wrap experiences with words and pictures in order to learn from them. I have learned that if I don’t momentarily pause and define the elements of my personal history they will be the very definition of my future. There is no pause more defining than the redesign process that comes from divorce.
Besides the donut picture, the photos accompanying this post were taken at a time when I was evaluating what it takes to be happy. I was at the beginning of the divorce decision process which centers around unhappiness… why we are divorcing, how we are divorcing and the only thing that was certain, I thought, was who I was divorcing. I had been married for 26 years and what I came to realize was that I had already divorced my own true nature in order to stay married. I didn’t relish her or cherish her as I hoped choosing my marriage was also a choice to be happy. I sat on the beach on that day and focused my camera lens on my young daughter playing with an empty bucket that was a joy because it is designed with a hole in the center of it. It’s purpose is to show up empty and open to possibility. It will contain what you place in it without constraining its potential. It’s function is to allow for flow and it’s form never changes whether it is full or not. It is waiting to be filled. It is willing to be empty. And if left to it’s own devices it will ride the waves and follow the current until it rests upon the shore.
Whether it’s a bucket or a dozen donuts, the hole is an element that is integral to the whole of it.
Exactly a year ago I sat near this very same spot with my oldest daughter. It was probably midnight and she was leaving the next day to go back to “real life” after our Memorial Day vacation that had brought all of my children back to this beach for the first time in many years. I wrote, at the time, about how it had not been a holiday as much as a memorial to all of her childhood memories of having grown up regularly visiting that island. We were there to push a reset button, of sorts, on those moments as we were sorting out the good ones from the hard ones because we were choosing to categorize this as a happy place. I told her that the only part of being married that I still grieved was that I no longer had a witness to a life well lived, as a human well loved. She looked at me like “Hello? What about us? Your children” … well, I imagined this look because it was dark… but I responded from an empty place that I didn’t know existed until that moment. I told her that what was documented and witnessed by children was different — because it was from the narrower lens of their experience that was focused out of them being my choice, not me being theirs. A life long relationship — a partner or a friend or a spouse — is one where we are chosen. I showed up, every moment of every day by choice. The balance of good and bad was weighed and measured and whether or not I was found wanting or wanting more, I stayed. I mourned not having someone to reflect those years, willingly weathered the storms with me and choosing to stay, choosing me.
So, I chose me. I relish no longer feeling captive and capsized by a nature vastly different from my own. Over the course of this last year I have drawn upon the magnetic pull of this empty space within to redefine myself and my life. In designing and building my own house, I reconnected with my well of creativity within that does spring, continually, from a deep, unknown source. I have found joy in reestablishing relationships that are a pool of resource and reflection for who I have always been and choose to be. And I have redefined the whole of me to include the hole within me as simply waiting for me to choose how to fill it.
Yesterday morning at the donut shop, I found myself waiting in a line that seemed long for 9 am-ish on a random Tuesday morning. The woman working behind the counter was caught off guard by the line of people to the door but she was not shaken by it. She calmly handled each request by each customer, one after another, sprinkling the interactions with just the right amount of sweetness and substance. When it was my turn, I asked for “Jack’s Dozen” as I was taking them home to my children, who would just be getting up as it was their first day out of school. Jack’s Dozen was a dozen donuts and a dozen donut holes — in effect, a dozen whole donuts. “We are out of holes”, she replied. So, instead, I chose a dozen of everyone’s favorites and as I was paying, she looked at me and said “I know this sounds strange, but you are really beautiful”. I was taken aback. It was a small comment — and any other day it would have felt petty or prideful and I would’ve waved it off as someone simply being kind to an obviously frazzled 56 year old who, at the very least, had made an effort to pull it together for her court appearance. But, instead, I looked at her and sincerely thanked her, tears coming too quickly to my eyes. I told her she had no idea how much I needed to hear it, today. Because today I had chosen to wear my glasses as my still-swollen cried-out eyes couldn’t handle contacts. I had not been able to sleep and so chose to get up really early and do my hair and makeup and put on a new sweater — even though the amount of time in court was shorter than the amount of time it was taking to get ready. It wasn’t about my outward appearance as much as I wanted my appearance in court to reflect the respect and beauty of choosing to do this for these children who are not mine because the ugliness of their lives is, most definitely, not their choice.
These simple morning routine choices, and the kind words of this donut-dispensing sweet woman dispensed with my emptiness with a wave of compassion. That small gesture on her part was a drop in my bucket — a drop that dropped straight to the bottom where it resounded like a thunder clap as it galvanized my strength. It resonated because while my passion is loving people in a way that walks them through the stories of their lives, I had just chosen to not demand that, anymore, from those around me. My happiness is my responsibility, not a request for a friend or partner or child. Evaluating and justifying choices is what I do for my clients, so if someone or something is not meeting my needs, then I need to make different choice. Whether that involves professional design selections for my home or business or defining the personal choices and relationships upon which I will build my life, I can not choose to walk with others without first choosing me.
Remembering my morning, I had chosen to walk into a courtroom as a witness for a child who cannot yet tell his story for himself. And as the courtroom proceedings were directed by the judge and documented by a court reporter I realized that I already had all that I had longed for. I had become my own witness. There would be, after all, a collection of connections that would become my story of strung together moments of brilliance… not because I had been chosen to be loved by one person, but because I was one person choosing to love. This child may never really know me as I am a temporary lift, for him, but I am choosing to galvanize him so that he can one day make these choices for himself.
I am my own witness… in this blog, in the photos that I take great pleasure in taking of my children, our surroundings, my projects and my people, I am documenting the deliberate designing and redefining of the patterns, textures and context of my everyday life. Since the camera is always in my hand, I have begun adding my face with my children’s or my projects in fun selfies and that, like the random “beautiful” comment feels a little selfish but asking that of someone else feels worse. In the moment when I took responsibility for picturing myself in my own life came another moment of sweetness that filled the whole of me… as I was helping this beloved family by taking pictures to support the life story of the man they had lost, his daughter asked if she could take my photo, with my camera in hand, next to mementos of his life, so she… could remember… me.
In seeking to fulfill the whole of me, I have become evidence that if we remain open to the emptiness that is possibility, we are freed to ride the waves, committed to the experience, expecting to be tossed about. Like the yellow bucket, I will focus on remaining upright, just enough, because the moment that the sun breaks through the clouds, it will brilliantly dance across the surface of the water while filling the emptiness, within, with light. Soundless and boundless, it will resonate.
That good-mood donut became a good-life moment of brilliance as this morning I am dunking one of the leftover donuts it in my coffee… relishing every single bite, cherishing the thought that as soon as I take a bite, the hole is gone as it simply becomes part of the space around it. All that is left is the sweetness to fill up on. Grief can consume you unless you choose to open up to the sweetness that surrounds it, consuming it as just a part in the balance act of love and happiness. I cannot control whether the storms will break or not, but they won’t break me. Because I will make my choices like I eat my donuts, one at a time, and maybe, sometimes because I can so choose, one after another, after another.