Broken Spirits…..Part 2

After much reflection and filling half a journal, I have peeled off a few more layers of understanding about the impact that our protective armor can have on our spirits. I actually had a really big AHA moment this morning, which is the reason for this addendum to yesterday’s post.

What started this search was an explanation of how I fell back into old childhood patterns so late in my life. The clues were hidden in the fibers of my life story. I have often said that I lost my compass after Skip died in October, 2002. Now I can see more clearly just how incredibly true this was. But there’s some backstory that also deserves attention.

In September of 2001, my daughter Brelana was just beginning high school at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia. This was her decision and anyone that knows my strong-headed girl can appreciate that she was all-in for this empowering decision she’d made for herself. Her devoted step-dad Skip was a graduate of VES and it was evident that she embraced this fresh start for herself as a chance to “belong” in ways that made her feel worthy and valued — by association, being the “daughter” of a respected, congenial graduate of this boarding school. While I supported her decision, my heart was aching because I knew I would miss her terribly. I knew all the reasons she’d made this decision, which is a story for another time. Just know that she was desirous of a clean break from a confusing pattern with her dad as a result of our divorce. While I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, I now know that I was very angry at having to pay the price of being separated from my daughter because of my ex-husband’s behaviors and choices. This pattern of paying the price for someone else’s actions has a very long thread in my life story and those origins lie in my childhood.

Skip urged me to go with him to Scottsdale Arizona where he was conducting an international banking conference for a week. He thought the distraction would be good for me. Bless his heart — he hated to see me sad and he could tell that I was struggling with emotion about my baby girl being so far away from me for months at a time.

Skip knew the bond that Bre and I have – he often told me that Helen Reddy’s Song, “You and Me Against the World” reminded him of the two of us. Each time he passed a bubbling water fountain in the Philadelphia plaza near his office, he would toss two pennies in it as a symbol of his pact with God to protect us.

Perhaps if I had stayed home, I could have processed all my emotions. The anger about who and what had prompted such a decision, the gratitude for Skip and the role model that he was for my daughter, the sadness about being apart from her and not having conversations over cookies after school.

But as often happens in life, that big life event got swept under the carpet very quickly. While the banking conference had indeed been fun and a distraction, it came to an abrupt and tragic halt on the morning of 9-11. Just typing 9-11, I can feel so many strong emotions coursing through me, the memory of that morning returning with such clarity that I can feel it in my bones. Skip’s adult children were scattered across the country, as were my three children. Phones were jammed as we frantically tried to make contact with loved ones. Bre’s classmates at VES had parents who worked at the Pentagon. The VES faculty were scrambling to keep kids safe and address their fears. In a split second, our world had changed so dramatically. Collectively we all felt fragile, vulnerable, scared.

Skip was a hero in my eyes with how he conducted himself at that conference, being a source of comfort and resilience to so many. Again, the full scope of his efforts are a story for another time. I have shared some of it in an earlier post. We got home, to a small apartment in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It wasn’t really home. It was a temporary place for us to live while our house was being built. Home for me was our cute townhouse back in Millersville, full of happy memories, familiar furniture, treasured keepsakes.

Ironically Skip had to leave shortly after our return for an international business trip. Flights had resumed and although there was much uneasiness in the day to day life routines, everyone was trying to get back to some sense of normal. That is, all while keeping a watchful eye out for suspicious white vans or shady activity. So I was home alone, in an apartment, where I did not know any neighbors. I’d go to work each day at PNC Advisors, grateful for friends and something to do to pass the hours. But things were changing rapidly at work due to the terrorist attack and safety precautions being instituted to protect clients and financial affairs. It was overwhelming to process it all especially with a healthy dose of fear added to the mix.

Cell phones did not get good reception in those days. We had not yet gotten a land line installed in the apartment, so I would go to a payphone outside the apartment complex gym to call Brelana or await a call from Skip. A few weeks of standing in the dark, talking on a pay phone hoping that I sounded cheerful, calm, and comforting.

Just one month later, my mother died suddenly. A blood clot from a surgery I did not even know she was having. Now my mother and I did not have a really good relationship, but we had been trying to get it back on track. Oddly enough I had heard some church bells ringing in the distance while walking our small dog at the very moment she passed. As I realized that coincidence, I took a little comfort from it. A sign that in the end, we were ok.

In 2002, I had high hopes for the pendulum to swing back to more positive experiences. The house Skip and I were building was a source of joy for both of us. But only two months after we had moved in, my beloved Skip passed away in my arms…..having just returned from a 2-1/2 week business trip in Cairo. My world went dark….and extremely quiet. So did I. There was just not an ounce of grit and determination left in me. I was beyond worn out. For a very long time, I felt numb. I think it is the body and soul’s way of protecting us — cocooning us when things seem so unbearable.

I know this story of mine is beginning to sound surreal — so many big, impactful life events all unfolding like dominos….one right after the other, without a moment to catch a breath, cry it out, start to heal.

Yet I am sure that if you look around, you will see similar stories that are unfolding right now — through this current collective event of a global pandemic. It is the impetus for me sharing all of this. To open your eyes and hearts to the many events and experiences that are breaking spirits of others.

A key similarity to my life experience and the pandemic is isolation. When Skip died, I was all alone. We had moved from my hometown to the Philadelphia suburbs. No family, no friends yet. Too much isolation during my darkest hours.

I believe that it was that isolation — that long lonely recovery period of grieving — that really put me in a tailspin and sent me spiraling backward into unconscious behavioral patterns.

In my post yesterday, I shared how even experienced practitioners can get snagged on emotional baggage from their past. These deep emotional experiences can have very strong currents that pull on us when we are most vulnerable. So often, we then begin to sift through old memories and excavate other painful experiences. I have done this myself, stringing together a series of past events where I was alone, vulnerable, in struggle. It amplifies our emotions and can flood us to the point of overwhelment.

I have witnessed this happening to people I love. They ask questions I cannot answer and those questions reveal the unhealed parts of their life that still snag them.

This is why I am sharing such personal vignettes with you today. It has only been through a lot of inner work, with the help of a cherished friend, that I have been able to go back and process what needed to be faced and healed. I was dragging around of lot of old baggage for far too long and allowing it to hold me back. This is precisely why we need to help each other with non-judgment, kindness and an abundance of empathy.

Inner Child

I’m celebrating another milestone today — I have been blogging for 5 whole years! What initially was a rather daunting commitment to myself has become a source of great joy. I have reawakened my love of creative writing through a blog that I started as a means to hold myself accountable to personal growth.

I’ve written 81 posts over the course of the past five years and admittedly I am proud of that. I’d set myself a goal of one a month and I have met and slightly exceeded that. While I once was a determined over-achiever, the old me would probably have dutifully cranked them out driven solely by that initial goal.

The “evolving” me has come to appreciate that it is far better to be fully committed and stay the course using the goal as a guideline, but not letting it rob me of the joy of the creative process. My approach to writing each of my blog posts has shifted rather remarkably over the course of five years. What initially felt like work and a public confessional, has become a source of pure joy for me. I love writing and I forgot that. I became disconnected from my love of writing and my own creativity that I naturally possessed as a young child. Blogging about my personal growth journey has reconnected me to my “inner child” in ways that I never would have imagined. Trust me when I tell you that I possess a wild imagination….I’ve come to realize that I was not using that gift wisely.

Personal growth work requires a solo walk down memory lane, hand in hand with that very young child we once were, and being courageous enough to revisit the places and events that impacted us in ways we were far too young and too innocent to comprehend. If you are a fan of This is Us, you probably are beginning to see through this current season’s episodes how our childhood experiences and our young child’s perspectives can entangle us and our relationships all throughout our adult lives. It is the perfect real life example of why this personal growth work is so necessary. We carry all those childhood perspectives, immature coping mechanisms, and emotional roadblocks into our adult lives and wonder why we keep treading water as we try to build our own futures. We are bogged down by that baggage and it tethers us to the past. Personal growth work untangles us from that labyrinth and frees us up to embrace the flexibility of being our most authentic selves, making better choices and living with grace and compassion for ourselves and for others, in the present moment.

Over the past five years, one blog post and one emotional layer at a time, that is what I have come to see so clearly.

The reward for all that hard work is feeling at age 69 like the 5 year old I once was — back in touch with the wonderment of an innocent child who marveled at the intricacy of a delicate spiderweb in the morning dew and thought it was the fanciest doily she’d ever seen. I was too young to be afraid of spiders. I saw only the beauty. Today I embrace the paradox of life — and I can see both the beauty of the spider’s craft and his painful bite.

Father Richard Rohr writes about this transformation into maturity and the inherent gift of paradox that comes through learned wisdom in his book Falling Upward. When I first read it, I was intrigued and desired that kind of wisdom. I am now realizing that I am given those opportunities to grow into that maturity more naturally almost every day. The key is to be “aware” and then to be childlike in my “exploration and observation”. Honestly, I am delighting in this fresh approach to life and especially how I show up for others. A small child can touch our hearts in the most simple yet most profound ways. A small child lives in a healthy state of paradox.

Just the other day, my 4 year old grandson was watching his beloved mom struggle with a massive to do list and more than a few things going wrong. He looked at her so tenderly and said “Go ahead and cry mom. It’s okay.” My heart melted into a puddle. He was holding space for her, acknowledging that a good cry will release the tension, is often soothed with a hug, and will pass. This is the very gift she offers to him every day when he is overtired, frustrated, overwhelmed. He mirrored it back to her with a wisdom that comes from the heart. A heart that is not entangled with all the armor we adults accumulate.

If you want to examine this real life example from an unaware adult perspective, think about a spouse that is also juggling a similar overflowing plate and the natural response “We all have a lot to do, get it together.” Or the well intentioned grandmother who says “Oh honey, look at all the good things you have and the stuff that is going right”. Both responses seem benign on the surface. The wisest is the innocent four year old who sees the situation for what it is — the present moment with honest feelings. That’s love and understanding that comes from an open heart, not an armored heart. It also comes from truly living in the present moment and being aware of it. Do you know that my little grandson remained calm through it all. He’s only 4, yet he didn’t let his mom’s emotions override his own. He’s too young to realize what a superpower that is. He just operates that way naturally.

This is the inner child I am reconnecting with myself. I will be completely honest and tell you that it was incredibly hard work and very painful at times. Yet each time I took my younger self back to revisit the past, I accompanied that innocent version of me as a caring, supportive, trusting adult. The one that was missing in my young life experiences. At times I even discovered that there were rather remarkable adults who did show up in my earlier years and offered me guardrails, a beacon of hope and some cliff notes about life. My appreciation for what those guardian angels did for me has deepened exponentially.

These childhood revisits have illuminated the ways I began to sabotage myself with an armored heart and protective but ineffective coping skills as I moved through my adult life. Oddly enough that concept of paradox has proved to be the rarest of clear lenses to view the past. I can now see where my blind spots were and how I contributed to things not going as smoothly as I’d hoped. I can see where I got in my own way often and where I let others take advantage of me. And I learned (with more practice than you can imagine) to let it go. The more I shed the old layers of self-doubt, armor and triggers, the lighter I felt and the more in touch with my true nature.

I’ve often used the phrase “freeing up the real estate” to describe that internal space I’ve gained in my mind, my heart and energy, when I let go of the past, of how others operate and of hoping that reality could be different than it is. What I happily discovered was that when I freed up that real estate, better things began to move in. And that is where I re-discovered my own tap root of creativity.

As a young child, I was quite naturally creative. I made the most elaborate sand castles at the beach and my beloved aunt would marvel at them. They were complex in structure and decorated with the most unusual treasures I could salvage from my beach hunts. I learned to make forests by creating layered sand trees, letting sopping wet sand dribble from my loose palms into the landscape around my castles. Sand and water, shells, driftwood and a feather. Simple raw materials turned into magical kingdoms of castles, gardens, forests, tunnels, and moats. I’d forgotten just how much I thrill to create all kinds of mixed media art from things I find in nature. I’m playfully reconnecting with that now and sharing it with my grandchildren.

Just like my young grandchildren, I loved to sing and I often made up songs as I played. But I only recently remembered how much I did that as a child and I even recalled a song I wrote as a teenager. That song is lighthearted and playful, full of hope that love would always be exciting and fun. I still recall every word and the catchy melody. Today I am infusing my daily life with more music. I cherish the memories that are evoked from favorite songs and I relish in the discovery of new artists and songs. And rarely a day goes by that I am not making up some whimsical little song for my grandchildren as they tidy up a room or wash up for dinner.

All throughout elementary school, I sang in the choir at church and for a long while, I used to sing solos on Sunday mornings at various churches throughout Lancaster and Lebanon Counties in Pennsylvania. I recall the highlight of my singing career happening in middle school when I was named the lead mezzo soprano for the school choir. It was a short lived moment of joy and accomplishment since that was also the very day my mom left my dad and we moved. I stopped singing for quite a while after that. Today that memory serves as a reminder to pay close attention to when I stop doing something I love, when I feel my joy or creativity waning. While another’s actions or a life circumstance may be the intial cause, what can I do to return to those parts of me and my joys? That is where my agency lies. It is also an anchor to my true nature — if I give up the very things that fill my heart I won’t be living in the joyful, playful part of me. The reality is that I won’t be able to be my best self. I have doused my inner light when I stop being creative and appreciative of life’s little marvels.

I wrote poetry when I was in elementary school and my grandmother was my biggest fan. She’d read everything I wrote and then she would read it out loud to me. Hearing her voice place emphasis in different places than I did made me aware of how personal writing is to both the writer and the reader. Art in any form is a creative wonder for both the artist and those that are drawn to it — and often it speaks to us in the most profound ways. A painting, a book, a song or a play — all land in our individual hearts where we have space for them. Space to heal, space to feel. I recently decided that I would try my hand at poetry again. The inspiration for this came from a gauzy-feeling idea that came to me as I woke up one morning. I jotted it down in my bedside journal and found myself giggling. It felt amazing to be so aware of the joy coursing through me simply by writing an inspirational short poem. I now have a pretty pale blue notebook dedicated for my poems. As I have expanded my awareness of ideas coming to me, I jot down these fleeting moments as they happen if I can. Sometimes I will write a whole poem, and other times I will just have a framework for something that requires deeper reflection. I imagine that I am feeling the way an aspiring cook feels when she creates a new recipe and delights in savory tastes that linger in her mouth.

My teen years were really hard because of choices my mother made and responsibilities that I assumed. I wish I had journaled then or kept up with writing poetry. I think it would have been therapeutic for me. Looking back, I think I lost my creativity due to the multi-levels of darkness in my family. I turned my creativity toward resourcefulness and resiliency for the pragmatic things in life. So I read instead, escaping from my circumstances and living vicariously through empowering stories.

After hearing the podcast with Brene Brown and Dr. Angus Fletcher about the marvels of literature, I became very aware that the books I read filled the places in my life where I was not getting, but truly needed, some aspiration and a clear path for building a better life for myself. I also realize that my love of “self help” books probably originated from the realization that my family was a Petri dish for unhealthy issues. Even in my early 20’s that’s the section of the library or book store I was often drawn to visit first. That remains unchanged almost 50 years later — I am still a work in progress. What’s changed is my perspective about it. I am not trying to “fix” my imperfections anymore. I am embracing them and learning from them. I am excited that at this late stage in life, I still have room to grow.

To celebrate my 5 year blogging milestone, I decided to reflect on the places where my reconnection with my inner child’s creativity merge with that child-like sense of curiosity. On purpose, I work very hard to replace judgment with curiosity. We learn to be judgmental — of ourselves and others. We can unlearn it and replace it with curiosity. Picture an iceberg and realize that most of us go through life showing only what we want to project out into the world. It is the parts of us that are hidden under the surface that are often guiding our life trajectory and the birthplace of blind spots. Now that I have spent so much time getting to know myself, I have a much greater appreciation and awareness of what others may have under their own surface. There is no doubt that it has organically expanded my empathy and compassion for others.

I now have that beautiful example of my young grandson offering the gift of space, compassion and present moment awareness to use as a poignant reminder to stay in the present moment, to remain grounded and calm, to honor what others are truly feeling, and to hold space for others.

My childhood life experiences created a lot of layers of armor that I brought into my adult life. The armor tethered me to a past in ways that went unexamined for far too long. I somehow got the message that I was on this earth to fix things for others. I am not here to fix things for others. I needed some serious pruning shears to get all those brambles and entanglement cleared away to find that truth. Yet letting go of striving to fix and wanting to fix things for others allowed me to clearly see that the best gift I can give to others in their time of struggle is that of truly being seen, heard and valued. This I learned though over five years of hard personal growth work and over 80 blog posts I have shared with all of you. My 4 year old grandson reminded me that we are born with it. “Out of the mouth of babes,” comes the greatest wisdom — and they live in a constant state of present moments.

Today I am grateful to have rediscovered my inner child and to be delighting in exploring the many ways creativity is beginning to show up in the real estate I have cleared in my approach to life. Let’s just say that the new tenants are so much more fun, energetic and inspiring!