My mother-in-law died this week. It wasn’t unexpected. She was under the care of hospice, and had been declining in health since her husband’s death in 2011. My mom died in 2012. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, for close to two years I’ve been embroiled in a family fight over money that has created stress, and with it, debilitating anxiety. We finally reached a settlement agreement a couple of weeks ago, but 2014 has been the hardest year of my life. In 2013, I’d buried my grief and escaped into my work. But by 2014, as family tensions escalated, my grief erupted and I had to stop working. My clients fell away like dominoes, I reduced my teaching schedule to one class, and I hit the pause button on my memoir, The Raw Years: A Midlife Quest for Health & Happiness.
I stopped working on my memoir for two reasons. First, I was sick—not physically (though I experienced physical discomfort, such as intense jitters and pressure in my chest), but emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. I needed to focus my energy on getting better; I needed to slow down my life and take time to grieve, as well as to heal. When you’re struggling to get through the day, work feels relatively unimportant—all you want is to be well again.
But there was more to my not working on my book than that. I was writing a memoir on my “midlife quest for health and happiness,” which I’d thought I’d attained. I was an “expert” on the subject, writing my “success story.” My life had been at an all-time high; I’d felt like a flower in full bloom. The word “flow” best describes the ways in which my life was unfolding—until everything came crashing down around me. I couldn’t help but wonder, How can I write a book about health and happiness when I’m such a wreck? I felt like the oncologist who gets cancer.
It turned out my “raw years” weren’t over. My book is divided into three sections: body, mind, and sprit, and the proverbial shit hit the fan two chapters short of beginning the “spirit” section. It was as if the Universe said, “Now wait just a minute! You don’t know as much as you think you do; you have to live this before you can write about it. Buckle up, I’m taking you for a ride!” Well, let me tell you, it’s been a doozy. Never have I felt so out of control; never have I experienced such fear; never have I trembled, cried, and prayed so often or so hard.
The upside is, I’ve learned a few things. Every illness or malady contains within it an invitation and opportunity for healing and growth. The lessons of spirit have to do with surrender, faith, letting go of what others think of you, and, even more important, letting go of what you think of you. Anxiety shattered my self-image. I was supposed to be a helper, not someone who needed help. I was the kid who always had a “good head on her shoulders.” How had I gone from King of the Hill to hooligan?
The hardest lesson was learning to accept “what is” without judgment. Judgment creates tension in the mind. Tightness creates tension in the body. I experienced both. As humans, we all have pain, but that doesn’t mean we need to suffer. Suffering happens when we resist our pain. So I’ve learned to lean into my discomfort. I’ve also encountered a new word: kindfulness. Stephanie Nash, a mindfulness meditation coach, coined this term. She uses it to refer to bringing loving attention to the body. “We only have so much real estate in consciousness,” she says. “There’s only so much you can focus on at one time.” I’ve had to consider where and how to focus my awareness. I’ve had to learn how to be kinder and more patient with myself. I’ve had to consciously choose love over fear—over and over again. I’ve had to allow myself to be where I am, to befriend my fear. And I’ve learned that we are all much larger than we think.
Thankfully, these past few months, my internal storm has raged less and less, and I sense it has almost passed. I have borne what I naively deemed unbearable. We humans are stronger than we think. When I first heard the news about my mother-in-law, I feared her death might throw me back into the pit out of which I have worked so hard to climb, but I feel calm, and grateful, because she lived a full life and was ready to go. It’s a blessing. This is life. We live and we die. Her death inspires me to live. And for me, writing is a huge part of living. Although I haven’t been writing my book, I have been writing. My journal has been a close companion and a source of comfort during this time. I’ve also written many letters to my mother, and monthly blog posts. Though that’s not the same as working on my book, it has taken the lid off of my internal pressure cooker and enabled me to express myself. This kind of writing is a tremendous release. I let go of what I don’t need and receive universal wisdom, while keeping my writing juices flowing. I liken this process to daily barre exercises, which I did for years as a young dancer.
Sometimes it’s hard to know when to work on a project and when to pause—and for how long. I knew I needed to stop working on my book, and I trusted that I’d be called back to it when the time was right. My mother-in-law’s passing has made me think the time is now.
I don’t have everything figured out, which I know isn’t necessary, but my hand and heart are steady enough to return to my memoir, old friend, who I suspect will deliver me to my next level of healing. No need for perfection. No shame in falling apart, when in coming back together I bring with me new gifts of insight, deeper compassion, and expanded consciousness. Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some trepidation. So I’m asking you, my kind readers, for your support, love, and prayers as I begin again.
This post appeared earlier this month in my She Writes Column.
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