Endings and Beginnings
I know it probably seems cliché to write about endings and beginnings as we near the end of another year, but still, I wanted to ruminate on these things as we complete this cycle and move into the wild unknown of the future.
A year can make an incredible difference in a life. Or it can be perfectly mundane. When COVID started in 2020, I remember many people talking about how different life suddenly was. But honestly, have you experienced many life-changing moments that were gradual. I doubt it. In those first few months where everyone was inside, cut off from the social web of one another, and wracked with fear, I spent my time fixating on the quiet. I would walk my dogs along this road that runs adjacent to a highway and there were barely any cars buzzing by day or night. There weren't really even that many people. Wildlife flooded into the neighborhoods, and I grew full anticipating the local coyote that prowled the parking lots each night. I would stand still and listen to the wind moving through the valley between my body and the mountains. I could hear everything. It reminded me of being at the beach when I was little. All that enormous noise distilled so clear by a lack [of humans, of technology, of civilization's whirlwind]. While I was nervous for my loved one's safety, I loved the shift; that kind of moving back toward nature, toward a world alone - without us.
As time went on things got noisier, people reappeared everywhere without any concerns about walking (and coughing) right past you, everything grew crowded again and loud. I prefer the quiet, the aloneness, letting the outside world be in charge, be in control. I was and remain struck by how the shift to shut down the world was so sudden, how fast the outdoors thrived as we huddled inside, how quick that change was, but then how gradual the return back to "normal" was for many; almost as if nothing ever happened at all.
In many ways, my life has remained quite different since COVID. For the safety of my immunocompromised dad and myself, I still take many extra precautions. I still don't socialize much. I still don't travel. I still feel safest in the alone spaces of my life. I still prefer the quiet. Perhaps I always liked the quiet and the pandemic just helped me see it. Even with the return to things as they were before the pandemic for many, there have still been enormous and swift changes in my life over the last year and change.
A year ago, my dad suffered a stroke, and I became his full-time caregiver (in addition to still needing to work full-time). That experience was a huge shift in my life away from the person I was beforehand. Sometimes I think about her, a ghost to me now. I was selfish back then [which is not a bad thing, just a thing] with my time, my energy, my focus. I wanted the next steps of my own life to take root. I was aggressively submitting one of my manuscripts to publishers. I was preparing hopefully for a family. I was looking at houses and considering a move. I was taking charge of my finances and life around the big changes that I was sure were just around the corner. Well big changes were, but not like I expected.
Swiftly my life moved from the freedoms I once knew to the slow and lonely state of caregiving. I spent my afternoons cleaning dishes, prepping meals, driving to doctor's appointments, guiding workbook sessions, and organizing medication or finances. When I was in my own home, I mostly cried, stared at the wall while thinking about the mountain of things I needed to take care of or sat in front of the computer trying to suss out bill pay, medical appointments, files, etc. When I would take a shower, I often just sat on the cold tile floor and let the hot water pour down over my hair, over my body. I barely had the energy to wash myself. I was lucky (and grateful) that my husband, R., took over the myriad of house and life duties for us without complaint and with endless love and patience.
Some days I was envious of the woman I was before, what she took for granted. Sometimes, I remember that this life is what it is. I am no longer that person. In the last year, the only thing that has mattered to me was finding a way to fulfill my caregiver duties as smoothly and gently as possible. I would be lying if I told you I did it easily or it felt natural or that I was prepared. I had some prep, but caring for an adult who used to care for you and help you with all your issues, means that you will be unsure of everything you are doing, uncertain of whatever decisions you do make, and terrified that every step you take is wrong. There is no road map when caregiving and certainly no guarantees that things will get better. You exist in this kind of vacuumed state where you are constantly in action doing things for this other person, but also always waiting, always measuring, always silently existing.
Little by little things got better, and extremely slowly over the course of a year, our lives inched closer toward normal. But even now, the call list on my phone shows only the same phone number over and over again, my dad's. I still spend plenty of time each week providing care in a plethora of ways. My friend circle shrank immensely, and even still I only see a couple of friends with any sort of regularity. I don't even get to spend the same amount of time with R. as I had before. What grew in the heavy space of where communion used to sit, was my loneliness. But I didn't have the time, let alone the energy, to hang out and relate to others. I didn't even have the energy to relate to myself. Some weeks when I could make it work, I kept my therapy appointments, but even in those I still felt so lonely. No matter how great your therapist is, they cannot change your life or your situation. Sometimes even you can't. The days moved on and on. Each one filled with job work, caregiving work, and then collapsing into bed, where I'd lay awake half the night anxious about the future. Through the tough parts of the last year, I wanted to believe that things would get better, but I also knew deep down that they would never be the same as they were before. The sadness that comes with watching pieces of a future you hoped for slip away is very lonely. No matter who you talk to about it or how, you are still there alone with this weight.
I have spent the vast majority of my life in some form of therapy. In some office somewhere trying to weather myself. After decades, those experiences of being in therapy and being mentally ill/neurodivergent, are no longer foreign to me. They are as consistent as the crisp, blue Colorado sky I see [nearly] every day. They are my normal. This component is one that I don't see as something to be ashamed of or hide. It is as much a part of me as my arms, my eyes, my tattoos. With that though, I have always felt resistant to the thinking that I am better because I am this way. As R. likes to say, what other way is there to be. In this life, we don't get a lot of options. Many things are the way they are or happen the way they do [I am not discounting our own agency, but more that we make choices and then those choices are in the past and we cannot bend time and revisit them]. As such, spending time fixating on what is behind us, or what is, does not really serve us.
I won't tell you I am "better" because I am mentally ill/neurodivergent, I just am that way. I won't tell you that becoming a caregiver has made me "better," it is just part of who I am now. There is no other way for me to be. [Note: I am not saying that if you live with mental illness/neurodivergence that you should just try to exist on your own without looking for help. Each person has to make their own decisions about receiving help/care for their mental landscape. For me, CBT and DBT therapy (and a myriad of lifestyle changes) have been incredible tools for helping me maintain a stable life - which is what I want. But I also accept that no amount of therapy will ever fully re-wire my brain, make it capable of behaving like a normal person's brain. I will always be in a cycle. I will always be moving through phases of not stable and stable, and I have to hope that I have set myself up with the right tools to come back to even, safe, and alive.] In some way, telling myself there is no other way to be/no other way for things to have gone also helps me recognize the hard parts of this last year and accept them. It was what it was. It is what it is. I only have what is ahead.
Before I said that I like the being alone, but aloneness is not the same as loneliness. Before the pandemic [and in hindsight, I can see], I was pretty bad about giving myself alone space. Not just to write or read or paint, but to just be. If I went outside [usually to a climbing area], it was nearly always with a friend group. At home, I always found some excuse to pick up my phone and scroll through nonsense or do a chore, instead of actually give myself dedicated time to be creative or just exist in the quiet spaces of my life to think about who I am. I was always busy, on the go, taking care of life. The only real alone time I have ever been good about giving myself is when I am outside on a run. That hour [or hours] performing as a break from having to be anything other than a body in motion. Maybe that is why the wide empty spaces the pandemic created in our everyday lives felt familiar or comfortable. It reminded me of the strong pull of the desolate trail at dawn. It reminded me of the space where I could feel the most like myself. It reminded me that all that silence can spur a desire to heal.
Recently I attended a group divination session hosted by Four Queens Divination, where the facilitators drew tarot cards and spoke about the month ahead: December. Before the session started, I pulled a card for myself from the deck I feel most drawn to using these days (Rider-Waite Colman-Smith deck). The card I drew was the three of wands. In the tradition of the woman who taught me about tarot, this card signifies pause energy. A place where you can take a moment and consider where you have come, where you are headed, and do an inventory of what you want to bring with you [and with that, what you no longer need on this journey forward]. I considered this as the Zoom session clicked on, and the hosts welcomed everyone into the space. Both diviners spoke of this month as a time of rest, a time of cozy-ing up one's interior space - our home space, a time of going in and rooting. I felt very drawn to that idea. The beginning of winter is always when I most want that warmth, that internal caretaking, that slow, soft silence. Maybe I felt even more attached to this since last year at this time I didn't get to revel in that calm, safe, rooting energy. They also spoke of this idea of a permission slip to take care of yourself, which might look like changing your mind about a plan you made, stepping away from harsh words that can be easily tossed around during the holidays, and rejecting self-judgement. Even though we live in the treat-yo-self era, I think most of us struggle immensely with real self-care (buying that bag or cupcake is great, but for many of us it is followed by heavy guilt and stress, which is the opposite of taking care of yourself). As this year is ending, maybe it is time that we reflect, we pause on this idea of care - what it means, how it presents in our lives, and how we can cultivate it.
What always strikes me about divination [my experience with it] is how alone the process is. Even when you are receiving a reading from a diviner, you are still alone in the space where you see the cards, hear the interpretations, and then integrate that information into your body. But that alone space is one where you are doing the hard work of finding communion within the walls of who you are. You are taking these guides (in my case the cards) and using them to help you verbalize what you need. I have been taught and am of the mindset that tarot is about uncovering elements of yourself or feelings/needs beneath the conscious surface of your life, which far far down you already know. When I pulled the three of wands that day, I already knew that what I needed most this month was an opportunity to invite myself to take time out of every day and reflect, to pause and consider, what's next.
A writer I really admire, Brittany Ackerman, wrote this wonderful newsletter for this month, in which she discusses this idea of finding comfort in one's aloneness (or rather within the sphere of oneself within the context of the world and one's life) and Amina Cain's book A Horse at Night, and she quoted this passage (which I am going to also quote here):
“To be in favor of solitude is not to be against community or friendship or love. It’s not that being alone is better, just that without the experience of it we block ourselves from discovering something enormously beneficial, perhaps even vital, to selfhood. Who are you when you are not a friend, a partner, a lover, a sibling, a parent, a child? When no one is with you, what do you do, and do you do it differently than if someone was there? It’s hard to see someone fully when another person is always attached to them. More importantly, it’s hard for us to see our own selves if we’re not ever alone.”
A Horse at Night by Amina Cain
I love this sentiment. It drives home what I am trying to tell you about this difference between loneliness and aloneness. It is so hard to know ourselves without the space to see who we are when we take off our tethers to others for a little while. In her newsletter, Brittany talks about how she struggled in her life to figure out who she was without a partner - herself always tucked away, a shadow of someone else's desires and dreams. Reading her words, I immediately thought of all of the partners I was tethered to in my life, for whom I was more than happy to disappear into. The times when who I was was fully absorbed in the space of someone else - their likes, activities, goals. My body just a hard shell I existed in. There was no room for a me - who I wanted to know and was scared of. During those years, I also found it surprisingly easy to disappear into someone else. If I knew the boundary lines of everything they wanted or they did or they felt, then I knew where my body fit into their narrative, because in my mind if I fit somewhere, then I was safe.
I am sure you just read that last part and did a little bit of a double-read. I grew up in the middle of a divorced family, like many other folks have, but I was lucky enough to be deeply loved by both of my parents. However, I (now know looking back) also developed two different and sometimes competing personalities while being shuttled back and forth every day between houses, people, and lives. At the time, I would shift smoothly into different skins depending on which parent I was with, echoing back what each one wanted to see from me, how they wanted to talk with me, to try and grow into the different people they wanted me to be. I love them both, but it took me many years to figure out that trying to grow into someone else's vision of who you are just won't work. This splitting of my personality was not the fault of the divorce agreement (nor would I have changed it if I could, I loved that I got to spend so much time with each of them), it was just what my brain did to try and survive itself. My neurodivergent mind is wired differently than a normal brain. My misfiring signals taught me (among other things) that love meant safety, and safety meant looking like what someone else wanted, being a part of something or someone else. It meant not being lonely. Ultimately what I felt I needed to stay safe, within the walls of this self, was tranquility in my interactions with others.
Despite all my efforts to avoid it, that space, of trying to live within the shadow of others, was a lonely one. A place where I didn't know entirely who I was, how I was or what I really wanted. Over the years, I have worked hard to recognize these elements when they arise within me and gently try to offer my brain an alternative. A permission slip to remember that making decisions and space for myself doesn't mean I will suddenly become unsafe and lonely. But I still tip back into that behavior sometimes, as we all do. I might agree to do something I really would rather not do just to avoid rocking the boat or inciting a reaction that might put distance between me and someone I love. It is easy to stay in old patterns, old behaviors, and old lonelinesses, even when you have grown and know better.
In the last few months, I have begun to cultivate an aloneness practice. Through that space, I have learned to care-take myself, to give myself whatever I might need or want on that particular day. I have made more time for running, more time for writing, more time exploring new hobbies that I may enjoy and develop, and more time to think. I know that carving out this aloneness and finding comfort within it will create invaluable tools on my ever-evolving road toward self-realization and acceptance (read as: self-love).
One of the things I have spent a lot of time lately working on is to recognize and ruminate on the difference between being a part of someone else's life and evaporating into it. These days who I am is deeply tethered to others, but for the most part it doesn't look like it did before. One example of someone I am tethered to is R. Our lives are deeply entwined with one another, as it often goes in marriage. But one of the great things about him is his constant support and encouragement for me to make space for myself - alone, but healthy space. He often will offer to cook dinner so I can slip away and write. Or walk the dogs so that I can carve out the space to take a bath and just exist in the hot water. Or go on a walk with my dad so that I can disappear for several hours on a trail run. As part of our collaborative relationship, I try to make that space for him too, for the days where he wants to play guitar or go be outside and hike or climb, and cultivate the aloneness that allows him to reflect on who he is and wants to be.
I am also tethered solidly to my dad, not just because I am his caregiver, because he is my family and my friend. There was no question of "should I do this" in my mind when our lives went sideways a year ago. No contemplating what I might be giving up and how my life might change, I just did it. I just became the support that he needed. He has spent his whole life showing up for me, reminding me that love means taking care of one another, helping me process and get through every challenging thing in my life. There was no pause, no second guessing that I would in return show up for him. That is what love looks like. That being said, there was a period of time where I disappeared into the caregiving, when my supervision and assistance were needed constantly. But that was only a period of time. I still provide my dad with plenty of support, but I no longer feel that I have disappeared into his needs. I am now here, a participant, helping alongside him, and I am grateful I can provide that in a way that is healthy and helpful to us both.
My point is that our tethers to others are important. We cannot and should not just remove all of them because they are what also bring so much vibrancy to our lives, they (and the people we are tethered to) make our lives interesting, special, and less lonely. So long as we do not disappear into them. So long as we still find alone time for ourselves to remember and honor the vows we make to our soul about who we are, and allow ourselves space to grow into who we will become.
As a society, we don't speak up enough about the hard stuff. I mean, it's getting better, sure, but we don't really talk (in a healthy, non-complaining way) about the things that gut us, the ways in which our lives shift as we age and responsibilities creep in, and what we lose. It is just as easy to assume that all the glowing, joyful photos on someone's Instagram account means that their life is perfect, as it is to fall into a pattern of keeping your own dark experiences silent. My lived experience is not exactly like yours or your mother's or your friend's, and that is part of why I create the work I do and why I write these blog posts. I hope that elements of my experience can be held, touched, and shared, providing this communal space where I am not lonely with it and neither are you. The world is a better place when we have many voices speaking up through the darkness of unknowns and are telling us what their experiences are like. It allows us to feel close to someone else, to see elements of ourselves in a character or a poem or an author, to cultivate intimacy.
Maybe that is why I am writing about endings and beginnings this month.
Maybe there is some deep hope in between the thin veil of my writing this and your reading it, where we can be in communion and conversation with one another about this path of life that we are on, this endless cycle of death and birth.
Maybe in ending my own self-imposed silence about the hard stuff (for fear of loneliness; that coming out and talking openly and honestly about my struggles might be misperceived or ignored or devalued) and beginning to honor this new realm of discussion will help me find even further inroads to what it means to be me.
As I write this to you now, I am alone, happily and comfortably. As you read it, you too are alone, in your space, with your thoughts swirling around what you have read, how and what of it you want to take with you out into your life. Some moments will end, and new ones will begin.
All we can do is continue trying to go on and do our best, each in our own unique and special ways, to make this world just a little bit less lonely for ourselves.