Sitting in the Ballroom

she believed

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting in an empty ballroom at a hotel in Boston. My colleagues had all gone to lunch and I chose to stay behind to catch up on some work and enjoy the solitude. I was unexpectedly working at a client event on a Saturday – I hadn’t planned to be in Boston. But, as it turned out, I was there. As the quiet descended upon me and my mind began to settle onto my laptop screen, I took a breath and leaned back in my chair. It suddenly felt like an eternity since I’d had a moment to shut myself down and just think. So, rather than focus on the work I had intended to do, I gave myself permission to bask in the peace and quiet and let my thoughts run free. Almost out of nowhere, I felt overwhelmed with emotion and I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. As the emotions rushed over me, I couldn’t help but wonder why I was beginning to cry. Was I sad? Was I happy? Or, perhaps, was I simply exhausted?

I went with my feelings but tried to suppress the tears because I knew I did not have the time nor the space to let them go. I had a four hour drive home later that afternoon to surrender to them but, for now, I had to take a more analytic approach to uncover what I was experiencing. I went with the idea that I was exhausted. I had just come off a few weeks of incredibly intense work and travel. And, to some degree, I do sometimes get the sensation that I am forever running on a treadmill without any certainty that I am making any advancement in my trek. My focus is always on moving forward but, frustratingly, sometimes I am not always entirely clear on how to do this. So then there are days, like yesterday, when I take a momentary pause and realize how tired my legs are and how familiar my surroundings seem, leading me to wonder if any progress has been made.  On top of that, I sometimes get scared when I don’t have a clear sense of direction. Even more frightening is when I lose perspective on my purpose, which seems to happen more frequently as my life becomes more complicated. I am nothing if not intentional and, rarely do I take action without a somewhat defined sense of the purpose and the anticipated outcomes. It can create an existence fueled by reflection where I devote a good chunk of effort to memorializing my life through my writing or photographs or just burning images in my mind. However, at the same time, I am typically very firmly situated in the present moment. I have struggled with spending too much time looking backwards missing what’s gone or too much time looking forward, hoping for what’s to come and, because of this, I have diligently put an emphasis on being present so that I can appreciate all that is happening and be able to navigate my complex life.

Yesterday, sitting in that ballroom, I never questioned that my feet were firmly planted on the ground. There was a clear sense of purpose of why I was there – to support my team – and I was grateful for the opportunity to do so. Despite my confidence and clarity in my overall reason for being where I was at that moment, I still felt a little lost and out of touch. Over the past few weeks, running so steadfastly on that treadmill, I had somehow become disconnected from my objectives and was simply in the mode of doing. So, I selfishly embraced those free moments of reflection and from somewhere deep inside me came all those free-floating emotions seeking each other out like molecules searching for each other to form compounds.

The moment quickly passed as my colleagues returned and I erased the emotions from my face, collecting myself in order to get back to the work at hand. Later, as I made my journey back home, speeding down the highway and watching the sun slowly sink into the horizon, I relinquished my tight control over my thoughts and feelings and let my mind run free. During my exploration, I acknowledged that the last few years have created extraordinary shifts in my life. Without question, my homeostasis has been altered and I have created a new normal. What made sense and seemed acceptable just five years ago no longer makes sense today. And, while I deeply believe that change is critical for growth and that evolution incorporates both joy and misery, this shift feels so dramatic. There are very few elements of my life that have remained untouched and, in fact, most have been reshaped and sculpted into new forms. I keep searching for remnants of the me that I am struggling to remember. From a distance, most wouldn’t recognize any of the significant changes but all you need to do is push a bit beyond the surface and it looks like my DNA has changed. My tolerance for what was previously acceptable behaviors from both myself and others is now low and my expectations have significantly increased. I have created a state of being and a state of mind that is rooted in deep respect and authenticity. Anything less is unacceptable.

When I allow myself to really take inventory and familiarize myself with this new and, hopefully, improved version of myself, I can’t help but acknowledge that I have had success far beyond what I ever imagined. Sure, on paper, it doesn’t look like much but I am the only one I am trying to impress. Some people take pity on me because of my sad childhood, the loss of my family, or how I have struggled with my weight and my body. In the past, all of those pieces have been complicated and have often overwhelmed me, paralyzing my ability to tackle any of it. But now, it all seems to make sense. It’s as if I have put together enough of the puzzle pieces so that the final image is starting to take shape. I know what I want the picture to look like and, while the final project will not be completed until I take my last breath, I can begin to embrace and take pleasure in the progress I have made. Yesterday, when I was sitting in that room, suddenly alone with my feelings, I knew the tears were an amalgamation of all that has transpired. It was a sigh, collectively expressing my joys and sadnesses. A cheer for all the blood I have managed to draw from this seemingly dry stone. And comfort for all the companion heartbreaks and disappointments.

I used to reach points where I felt like I no longer had the capacity to move forward. As a teenager I would have suicidal moments where I fantasized about not having to fight the fight. It would feel as if my tank had reached empty and there was no place to replenish the fuel. The fear that would overtake me tapped into my deep abandonment issues, resulting in a lack of confidence and an inability to believe that I truly had all the tools and resources necessary to prevail. The reminder that there was no family structure that allowed me to believe I would be caught when I fell backwards created intense panic when I became overwhelmed by the pressure of moving through the more treacherous terrain of my life. Suddenly the fear of the unknown perils that might lie around the next corner rendered me incapable of imagining how I might prevail. The future was a strange and scary uncertainty. For a child who never believed I would live past 25, I never allowed myself to imagine anything beyond the here and now because my life was a paradoxic constant state of impermanence. But I felt none of those fears or worries yesterday. Awash with emotion, anxiety about those familiar terrors seemed remarkably distant and unfamiliar. Instead, the surging feelings were attributed to me catching up with myself. I am moving at the speed of light and rarely have the opportunity to level set. I have flashes of recognition of what is happening and, trying so intently to be present, sometimes it all just moves too fast for me and I can only get a gentle whiff of my new reality. And that’s when I start to feel a bit lost and confused and my mad memorialization skills can’t come into play because I have not been able to stop long enough to jot down a note and capture the experience. For the first time in my life, I am moving in so many directions at once and simultaneously progressing on so many different roadways that I don’t have the luxury of acknowledging and appreciating it all.

Before I left the hotel in Boston yesterday, I ran into an old pal. She’s someone I haven’t seen in a while. Actually, she’s kind of a new pal who I hadn’t seen for quite some time. She is one of those rare people who you meet and immediately connect with on a deeper level, making you feel like you’ve known each other forever. And, she’s one of those people with whom the sight of her face makes my own face light up. She just makes me happy and magically calms me. We ran into each other in the hallway (admittedly, I knew she was there and was hoping to see her but had just about given up on a chance interaction) and we embraced with pure glee. We stopped to talk to me for a few moments and soaked each other in. As if knowing exactly what I needed, she took a long hard look at me and acknowledged me. She had been watching me from afar, checking in through Facebook or sneaking a peek at my blog. I was so thankful for her genuine and heartfelt comments and I am sure she had no idea how much I needed her acknowledgement in that very moment. Her embrace and kindness was like an antibiotic. She managed to gently shock my nervous system and reset me. Surely unbeknownst to her, she is a part of my external memoralization – one of those important souls who keep track of what’s happening and help me on the days that I can’t remember. The days that I’m too caught up in what’s happening in the moment and don’t have the ability to reflect on where I’ve come from.

Driving home yesterday, I took all this into account and started to unpack some heavy bags.  I needed to break it all down for myself and take some personal inventory. The solitude of the drive, the ease and comfort that came from putting the work behind me and appreciating the brief yet meaningful interaction with my friend allowed me to unwind and let the air out of my lungs. It was time to take stock in myself and truly embrace the changes happening inside and outside of me. For years now, I have sat in my weekly therapy sessions, picking at small wounds, letting the blood flow freely and finally giving them the air to breathe and heal. Over the recent months I have tried to catalog all of this and, rather than searching for the individual scars to remind myself of the pain, I have remarked at the beauty of my healed skin. I see myself differently. I can now see the caterpillar that transformed into a butterfly.

The journey home was a series of self-exploratory internal dialogues that led me to some simple understandings and declarations. Most importantly, I knew that all of the components of me that the outside world was experiencing was influenced by one simple truth – I had finally taken control of my life. No longer is anyone else dictating who I am meant to be, how I am meant to live, or what makes me happy or satisfied. The process of reclaiming control was intricately intertwined with a simultaneous release of pain and fear. No more looking backward and trying to rewrite my story in order to make it more palatable. No more looking backward with regret or to recapture moments that felt so good in fear that they will never occur again. Instead, I have reached a point of acceptance and, remarkably, with the acceptance has come another transformation – one that symbolizes so much more for me than anything else I could accomplish. My body has transformed into one that I am proud of and feel extremely comfortable in. No matter what other successes I have, this will always be the one that I will feel most proud of. As someone who has struggled from my earliest memories with shame and a lack of respect for myself, to be able to see myself differently and be able to nurture myself lovingly is almost mind-blowing. As the metaphoric weight of my emotional burdens have been lifted, so have the literal pounds melted away and the person that looks back at me in the mirror is someone new and I am getting to know her for the first time.

As I pulled off the highway, traveling the surface streets to my home, the sky was growing dark. Sitting at a stoplight, I looked up and saw the most magical pink and purple sky. It reminded me that, for about an hour of my ride through Connecticut, there was a little strip of rainbow surrounding the sun. I wanted so badly to grab a snapshot of it because it was so unusual but, alas, the traffic was moving and there was no chance to capture it except in my mind. Near home, I looked at the pink and purple sky and appreciated the daily transformation of day into night. My experience in life is probably not unique, except for the fact that it is mine. My travels likely align to many of the experiences that others have as they transport themselves on their own human adventures. I suddenly felt small and minute in retrospect and it felt good. The largeness of my feelings that afternoon were important but minor in the grand scheme of big life. It was a moment that I may remember years from now or may just be another moment that helps enlighten me as I make my passage through life. Hopefully, it will resonate for someone else and give them the permission to indulge in an emotional exhale just like I did.

Building a Family


In truth a family is what you make it. It is made strong, not by number of heads counted at the dinner table, but by the rituals you help family members create, by the memories you share, by the commitment of time, caring, and love you show to one another, and by the hopes for the future you have as individuals and as a unit. – Marge Kennedy

When I think about my life over the past few years, the closest analogy that comes to mind is a roller coaster ride. And, I despise roller coasters. The highs have been incredibly high with me waving my hands in euphoria and the lows have been suffocatingly dark and dreary. Yet, I have stood in the arena again and again and bravely faced all of the opponents that challenged me, refusing to back down, refusing to be thwarted. Each day, for me, is a delicate balancing act of managing my demons, checking my emotions and leveraging the ample opportunities that come my way. Every day, I tap dance and juggle, having learned to make lemonade from the copious bushels of lemons that have made their way to me.

I choose to do this without regret. I choose to do this without feeling looked over or left behind.  I choose to do this, embracing the flaws that compose the mosaic of me because, without them, I would not be myself. And, inarguably, I have my days where it is harder to detach myself from the anxiety and frustration that sometimes comes with my daily regimen. Today felt like one of those days. In fact, today was a roller coaster ride on its own. We began the celebrations and ceremonies of our children moving up from elementary and middle school. We started the day clapping the 5th graders into school, signifying the last time they would enter the charming schoolhouse as students. Emotions were high and tears were shed and my boy marched boldly down the path, head held high and proud as a peacock. Later we sat in the small, hot auditorium, where, as a parent, I have sat countless times over the past 9 years laughing and crying at assemblies, plays, concerts and moving up ceremonies from kindergarten and 5th grade. I wept as I watched my son reveal himself to me in ways he has not demonstrated before. He assured us that he was maturing and understood what was important in life. He stepped outside after the ceremony and hugged me and his father and traveled around the front lawn of the school looking for teachers and other parents who have been familiar faces over the past six years and embraced them, sharing his love. And I was so proud.

As we drove home, I quietly reflected on all the families that were in attendance. I counted all the extended families that were there cheering and weeping, sharing their love with the young graduates. Many were familiar to us as we have seen them over the years and some feel like extended family to us. However, for my kids, my husband and I have the daunting task of playing all those roles as, in our family, there are no grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins to cheer them on. No cards or notes to acknowledge their accomplishments or friendly faces showing up, especially for them, to show support. It’s mine and my husband’s job to fill in all the gaps. And – hopefully – my kids never notice the difference. I suppose there are many ways to approach our situation that is devoid of family. For me, I choose to fill the empty slots and ensure that my children never feel like they are missing out. Our little unit magically bridges the gaps and plugs the holes so there is no seepage. No love escapes without first being showered over my children. My goal, always, is to ensure that they grow up without deficiency.

Recently, my younger son and I were talking about a trip I was taking to visit with the family of a faraway friend. I talked a lot about my friend’s mom and how much she loves to bake and fills their home with multiple varieties of cookies and cakes. My son, always on a mission to satisfy his sweet tooth, grinned wildly at the notion of experiencing such reckless abandon and asked if he could stow himself away in my luggage or, better yet, would I purchase him his own seat on the plane to join in the fun. Sadly for us both, I had to decline his plea. Earlier this year a similar conversation arose about my friend’s mother and my son declared “I need a new grandmother!  Sign me up!” It is moments like those that the reality creeps in for me and I wonder if my attempt at filling all the roles in my kids’ lives is sufficient…or if they just do a good job masking their disappointment.

Over the years, the burden seemed to have lessened but, recently, as my daily life has become more complex and there are more pressures heaped upon me, I have become acutely aware of the added stress of trying to be all things to our children. Sometimes, in moments of weakness, I allow myself to lament the absence of anyone else who might offer to supplement all that we can offer our children. I find myself envious of friends who can call upon relatives to fill in for them when they simply cannot be there or, amazingly, just need a break. And then I think about the conversations I have had with friends about asking for help or getting support when days are tough and, on the inside, I whisper, ever so softly, “can you give me a family?” It’s no longer a need for myself but now for my kids. Well, that’s not entirely true. I need it for myself because I need to lighten my load. I need to outsource some of the responsibility and loving. And the minute I even remotely feel ashamed by this truth I remember that family is a structure that exists for that very reason. It is there to provide support and to build a foundation to ensure that the house does not collapse. So, meekly, I cry “uncle” both literally and figuratively and know that it is perfectly acceptable to do so. My kids deserve it and so do I.

On the other hand, I feel a remarkable sense of accomplishment that we have been able to provide our children with all the love that would otherwise have been showered by an array of relatives. We have managed to compensate – to over-compensate – for all the missing puzzle pieces and, for that, I feel tremendous pride. When I look at my kids, I recognize how well-adjusted and confident they are and know that we gave that to them. There is never any doubt. We made it happen despite the absence of any support. We inherently knew how to love and nurture them and never once displayed our own disappointment – or dismay – over the missing family. Despite my younger son’s wistful fascinations over someone else’s grandma, aunt or cousin, I truly believe that he will not grow up remembering what was missing and, instead, will relish what was present. His gratitude will be ever-present and, in my opinion, no greater gift could ever be offered to him.

We have done a superb job of building a little network, here in our community, of friends and neighbors who showered my son with hugs and kisses today. He felt loved and appreciated. And, even though we congregated at lunch, just the four of us, and even though there was only one card to read, only one gift to open, we made sure it was substantial and meaningful so he didn’t wish for more. And, of course, he didn’t. Frankly, it’s all he knows and he is thankful for what he is offered. I also make sure that each weekend, as my older son takes his place on the lacrosse field, fighting hard to lead his team to victory, I take enough photos and videos to make him feel like the world is watching and cheering him on. And the other moms and dads pat him on the back and send their good wishes, making him feel acknowledged and proud.

As the little car of my roller coaster climbs to the top of the peak, I feel a sense of dread and anxiety about what I am missing and how I may default on the needs of my children. But once we crest the top and the wind is behind us and the inertia sends us careening to the bottom of the ride, I let my arms rise above me and release the fear and tension, knowing confidently that I got this. I can always wish for more (and I do and I will) but, when I get off the ride, I realize I had this all along.