Home, Heart and Facing Fears

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Written Jan 2:
Last I wrote, I was really struggling with this move, and trying to learn some patience with it. I was on my way to my first backpacking trip with Mike. I’d have to say, I found so much peace in the woods. We’ve been hiking nearly every day we get a chance in the past month now… and it really is helping to settle me.

To fill you in, I was down in Texas visiting Drew’s family last week for Christmas. It is the first time I have ever “visited” Texas… the place that has always been my home. I had fears before leaving that it would dredge up so much emotion. That visiting the cemetery where Drew is buried would be so painful. That I would find myself missing Texas so much that leaving to come back to Ohio would be really painful. I feared all kinds of pain leading up to that trip. But, I am back now… and it wasn’t as bad as I’m anticipated. There were hard moments, but what I realized from those moments is that I have missed the experiences of my life with Drew in Texas, far more than the place itself.

I realized, I wasn’t sad just for western boots and plaid shirts. I wasn’t just sad for country bars and dance halls and the wide open Texas skies. I was sad for times I shared all those things with Drew. Going back there meant going back to all those things without him. Suddenly, they didn’t have the same meaning anymore. They felt empty. I also realized something else. Something that surprised me… I missed Ohio. In only a few months of moving, somewhere else is starting to feel like home. I can tell you, I never in a million years thought I’d be saying “I miss Ohio” haha. But it’s true.

I’ve had a new sense of appreciation for my new home state since coming back to Ohio last week. A feeling that I am more ready to embrace this life. A knowing inside that Drew is not down there in Texas… he is right here with me on every new adventure that Mike, Shelby and I go on. In this new life, with new memories, is where he will always live.

I want to end this post with a little side note. Like everyone, I’ve been reflecting on the past year. A year ago this week, I shared with you all about the debacle of my New Year’s Eve in this post. On that day, a man I’d been on a date or two with basically took advantage by messing around with me and then bailed on me. It was horrific, and one of the worst triggers I have had since Drew died… particularly because it was the first romantic encounter I’d had since his death. I still cannot even describe how traumatic that was.

This New Year’s Eve, I was sitting in the kitchen of my own house (my own HOUSE!), drinking beers and dancing around in the kitchen with Mike like a fool… to such old hits as the Fresh Prince theme song. There was laughter. So much laughter. And so much joy. And goofiness. And there were no triggers, and no sadness. Just life, and love, and joy. And everything felt good.

A year ago, if you had told me I would meet some guy in Ohio and end up moving my entire life 1400 miles away within a year in order to date him, I would have laughed in your face. Like really hard. Because I was never leaving Texas. And I do not make sudden moves in my life, ever. And I didn’t feel ready to be in a relationship at all. AT ALL. I believed 100% that my 2015 would be spent focusing on trying to get my career as an artist and writer going a step further in the right direction, and that’s it.

Then Mike shows up at Camp Widow, and turned all of my plans upside down… as men do. As life likes to do. (Does anyone else ever feel like life is just laughing at you when you start trying to make plans?) Before you know it, we’re flying to visit each other, meeting each other’s families and in-laws. And then bam, we’ve been dating for 8 months and I am flying up to look at a rent house in Ohio. Um, what? How did all this even happen?

Every step of this “after” life has been new, painful and terrifying – including this entire past year of beginning a new relationship for the first time since Drew died. I have walked through the fear that I could never love again, only to find that yes, I can… and that I am an even better partner now because of all I’ve been through. I have walked through the fear that I could never be a good role model or mother figure for a little girl because I lost my own mother so young… only to find that I am exactly the sort of woman this little girl needs in her life going forward, precisely because I lost my mother – as she has – young. I have walked thru the fear that I am fragile and cannot handle much since he died, only to find that I am handling more each day. Not always with the grace I would like to, but still, I am handling it.

Every step along the way has been scary and hard. But it’s taught me that it’s worth wading through the fears to see what else is out there for my life. To see what’s on the other side. It’s worth enduring some sadness and some scary new things now and again – even if I don’t know where they will take me. By enduring all the parts of life that are challenging, and stepping through them, I have almost always found joy, love, and fuller life on the other side. As always, I have Drew to thank for so much of this.

Making Meaning

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Every now and then, something comes along that fills you to the bones with gratitude for this totally messed up, chaotic, stressful, sometimes shitty and also amazing life.

Just moments ago, I finished up a live phone interview. I was invited to speak about grief and the healing power of creativity at DeathExpo – an annual online conference held by the End-of-Life University. It all started by going to another conference about death, in Virginia earlier this year, where I met the founder of the university. We chatted over a few drinks at the bar and after hearing about my story and my photo series on grief, she invited me to be a part of this wonderful expo. That was back in the summer, so I’ve been waiting a while for this event.

Now, I have to preface the rest of this with the fact that I am an introvert. I tend to like talking to one or two people at a time. I don’t like socializing in big groups, much less speaking in front of them. I’m also a writer. Normally, my words are carefully chosen and put to the page, with painstaking thoughtfulness, before they go out into the world. I don’t exactly enjoy anything that makes me have to speak off the cuff or string words together spontaneously in front of people. I also can’t multitask worth a damn, so trying to put together articulate sounding sentences WHILE speaking is sort of a subtle form of torture for me.

But when someone approaches you to share your story about grief and loss, and share what you’ve learned in hopes of helping others, you don’t say no to that. Partly because I’m superstitious. I’ve lost both parents and my fiance before the age of 30… at this rate, I try to listen when the universe presents things like this to me. I mean literally, I am afraid someone else in my life might be smited if I ignore God or the universe or whatever it is. It’s obvious I’m supposed to be doing work that is related to grief and death in some way – or I wouldn’t have so many dead people in my life. And so, despite my fear of public speaking and interviews and the spotlight and all of it… I’m just allowing the universe to drag me into all this uncomfortable shit.

And you know what?

This interview was awesome. I loved every moment of it. I don’t know why, but I’ve never felt particularly confident or assertive when it comes to sharing with others. Tonight though, for the first time ever, I felt like I knew what I was talking about. I felt like I had good, valuable lessons to share about grief and using creativity to heal. And for the first time I felt just a bit comfortable stepping into that spotlight. After all, if there are two things I know, it’s grief and art. It was a pleasant surprise, and felt really good to finally experience that kind of confidence.

It has taken a LOT of uncomfortable feelings to begin to get to this place… a lifetime of them really, but more recently, hours and days and weeks and months of working on presentations and interviews (and also hours and days and weeks of procrastinating because I’m so terrified of it). This is the first time in my life I’ve even been confident enough to just TRY to do things like this. The person I was before Drew died would have never even attempted this stuff. The person I was a year ago wouldn’t have even tried any of this.

It’s got me thinking about a lot of things. Like how trying to stretch ourselves and grow means we have to go through a lot of doubt and fear before we can begin to reap the rewards at the end. We have to be willing to feel pretty damn uncomfortable before we can begin to feel comfortable when tackling something new. I’m also thinking about how important it is to have others be part of our healing… because I got so much energy and strength back from doing this interview tonight. Energy I desperately have needed during these tough times of relocating from Texas to Ohio. Energy that helped me feel less alone and more connected to others again. Energy that I know is going to help me feel motivated to get to making some art soon.

Lastly, it made me think about the meaning of death and loss that can continue to be built over time. I cannot even express how much meaning was poured into my world tonight. It was a reminder that every shitty day, every tear cried, every moment I’ve missed Drew since he died, and every time I wanted to give up and I didn’t… they have ALL been worth it, because maybe something I shared tonight will help someone else on their own road through grief. This was also a reminder that as my life continues on, things like this will come into it and continue to give meaning to Drew’s life. He will continue to impact the lives of others in ways that he never imagined too, as a reach out to give a helping hand to others.

Ultimately, doing this interview reminded me that no matter how difficult this life gets, meaning does not stop being built into it. It continues to build over time… over our lifetimes, if we choose to give it a chance. Fifty years from now, should I be fortunate enough to still be around, there will be hundreds of new ways that Drew’s life will have impacted the lives of others. And even though he would not be in a single picture from June 2012 on… you would still be able to fill a dozen scrapbooks with the meaningful things that his spirit has gone on to do.

Note: For anyone who would like to hear the interview with Death Expo, you can listen and view the slides we discussed HERE.

Into the Woods

slide_352583_3820972_freeWRITTEN Dec 19:
Patience. I’m trying my hardest to have some lately… with myself, with change, with pain. It’s easier said than done. I am beginning to realize that it is going to take a lot longer to adjust to moving somewhere so far away than I’d imagined. Especially while carrying my grief on my back wherever I go. No matter how much good there is about this move, it still feels like another aftershock of Drew’s death. I can feel it causing new cracks in the earth of me to splinter off… new openings into the grief.

That’s one of the things I am learning about living on with his death in the 3+ year era. Not that I expected to magically not have new layers of grief. I’ve been dealing with death for 24 years already from losing my mom as a child… I know better than anyone, that grief stays with you forever. I guess somehow I just maybe was still holding out some sort of hope that I wouldn’t have to deal with it so acutely in this new chapter. And while it may not be like the first year, this internal earthquake has definitely shaken things up more than just about any major change has since he died. It should though. And I shouldn’t be surprised that it is, really.

This year I have begun a whole new direction in my life, one that would have never existed were he still alive. From here on out, whatever happens will be a complete split from the path he and I were on. I think that is the part I am struggling with most. It creates a lot of sadness, and even some resentment, despite the fact that I am quite happy with this new adventure I am on. There is no way around feeling sadness and pain it seems. It makes an already stressful holiday season even more stressful.

While I am going through some very deep and complex emotions about the direction of my life, Mike is often feeling bad for being the reason that I’ve moved so far from everything I’ve ever known. I remind him that this was my decision, and that I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t truly wanted to. But that doesn’t mean it will come without a cost… without some very complex emotions to navigate. And complex questions to try and explore. Who am I going to be in this new life? How do I go about creating that? How does my old life fit into it? How do I honor that life? What parts of myself do I want to change? What parts do I want to keep intact? What do I want to carry with me, and what can I leave behind? How do I begin to challenge myself and grow in ways that will help this new life feel rich and full of purpose?

I’m pretty much a different person every day since moving here. It feels like reverting back a year… the feelings of being uprooted and lost and prevailant. Insecurity and loneliness for friendships and many other things that are just going to take time to resolve. Bottom line, there are a lot of difficult factors that I just cannot change overnight. I have to take a kinder approach to adjusting myself to a new life… just like I did after her died.

I should know this. I’ve done it before. And it was only a few years ago that his death quaked into my life and I learned how to be kinder and more gentler to myself. His death taught me how to nurture and be compassionate with my heart. Amazingly, it was during those darkest and most painful times that I learned how to love myself the fullest. Once you start moving again, it’s so easy to lose sight of that ability. You get caught up in the hustle and bustle of life again, you start comparing yourself to others, you start doubting yourself, and before you know it… you’ve bullied yourself into a stress level that you do not deserve. I’ve been watching my stress rub off on Mike, too. I know, it is draining to be around someone who is stressing about EVERY SINGLE THING at a near-constant rate that I have for the past few weeks. Seeing it exhaust him, actually, is what is helping to make me aware that I need to stop pushing myself and start taking care of myself.

We’re on our way out to Mohican State Forest as I write to you. Mike is taking me on my first backpacking trip. It’s going to be in the 20’s, which is ridiculously cold for a Texan to be sleeping in the woods. But I decided I need to shake things up a bit. Firstly, getting out in nature is always a sure-fire way for me to remember to fall in love with life again, and stop stressing about umpteen little life problems – mostly revolving around my career and finances. Secondly, it might just be good to shove my self into the thick of a new experience just for a day or two to remind me I CAN do this. One week, one day, and one step at a time… remembering the lessons Drew’s death taught me about getting through life’s challenges with grace, tenacity, and spirit.

Metaphors for Grief in Nature

12316117_1176946098987591_6548427694565428408_n.jpgWritten Dec 12:
I’m always astounded at the things nature teaches me about life and grief. This week I went for a walk at a park near my new house. It’s a wilderness park, with one trail that makes a 2 mile circle surrounding a prairie. For years, this area was farmland, and the park system has now preserved it to allow the landscape to fully restore back to it’s original state. For miles all around, it is now an expansive prairie, flanked by thin fingers of woodland and bogland where the ground slopes low. Mike and I first found it a few weeks ago, and it has quickly become my favorite escape since moving to Ohio two months ago.

Firstly, not many people go there, so it’s easy to feel almost entirely isolated in nature while you’re there, which I love. Secondly, with the time of year, all the plants have begun to die off or go dormant, with their seed pods yawning wide into the brisk winds and tossing their seeds into the breath of autumn. From the moment I first laid eyes on this place, I was completely drawn to it. With dozens of varieties of flora, even dead plants create a kaleidescope of textures and shades – from browns to tawny yellows to silvery blues. For weeks I’ve been feeling a pull to go back here… to feed my eyes with all the richness of seeds and grains, cattails and milkweed pods, dried leaves and rustling grasses. To be surrounded by a place where death is beautiful…

I’ve always had a love of things dead and forgotten… dead plants, skulls and bones, old discarded furniture left to rot on the curb. I have forever been a rescuer of the forgotten. It’s taken me years to realize that this is directly tied to all the death in my life. It’s as if, even at a young age, honoring old bones and dead leaves and forgotten places was a way to honor those I love who have died. Giving a new life to an old chair or desk someone threw away was a way to symbolize my own ability to give new life to the souls of those loved ones. This week, the prairie rekindled that love of honoring.

Thanks to El Nino, this has been an unseasonably warm winter in Ohio… you could be inclined to call it autumn still, based on the temperatures. Which is what got me out hiking. As I walked through the prairie last week, I ended up at a trail that went into the center of the park. And at the center there was a small pond. I hiked around to the far side of the pond, followed a deer trail that went up into the three-foot-high foliage, and sat down in a grassy spot. There, surrounded completely by nature, and the end of life-cycles, I began to think.

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Just like the prairie – I have been going through a long autumn in my own life… for probably the entire past 3 ½ years since he died, my seasons have slowed almost to a standstill. I was dormant for so long… and this past year or so I have been spreading seeds and waiting for what will grow come spring. Now, it feels, that spring – the spring of a new life, a different but equally beautiful life – is finally on the horizon. I couldn’t help but feel completely at home there in the prairie grasses… as if we were both on the same sort of journey. Am I anticipating what grows in my own spring, and also excited to see this sepia-toned prairieland in its full, bright, springtime glory.

It amazes me how many lessons nature has to give. I’ve always felt connected to nature this way, and particularly so right after Drew died. It’s been presenting me with lessons, incredible metaphors for my own pain and the seasons of a life with grief since those first months after his death. One of the most memorable was when I visited the Grand Canyon, three months after his death. Back then, I wrote about the metaphor of the canyon and the rift in my heart…

Much like the canyon itself, in times when I have the courage walk up to the edge of this unspeakably large hole in the very earth of me… the strength to open my eyes to it with an un-judging heart and fully see it… I find beauty. I find that the winds of every soul in my world have blown through and softened the walls of this pain, and they continue to do so, little by little. I find a landscape in me that has been slowly painted with passion, creativity, and dreaming – rendering it vibrant with color. Also, deep within, I find the river still rushing through – the losing of you – still creating rapids and cutting into me with strong currents. And it is here on the edge looking out that I know… this journey, canyon of my heart, will last my lifetime. It will not fade, I will not forget, it is now a part of my landscape for all time.”

11222575_10153662886925306_7272631406032413798_n.jpgThis experience has been a reminder to allow the wound of losing him to remain. A reminder not to try and dam of the river of grief, or try to fill in the void to cover it up, but instead to honor it, protect it, and know that even this trauamtic part of me is a beautiful piece of the landscape of who I am. This idea has stayed with me through all these years working hard to rebuild myself. Something tells me I will be finding some powerful lessons about life here in the new landscapes of Ohio, too. As I made my way back to my car, I collected as many different specimens as I could from the prairie to bring home as a reminder of this place that may seem dead and forgotten to so many others, but still holds a magic and a beauty all its own.

 

The Trades We Make to Live On

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Written Dec 6:
I was reading an article today about grief, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. One of the things that really stuck in this article was about the platitudes people throw at you when you are grieving… mainly, “It happened for a reason”. They make the assumption that, if you became a deeper, more compassionate, better person after the loss, that this loss was somehow necessary for your evolution. Like the author, I don’t agree with this either. I want to share a small excerpt from his article, as it really resonated with me and got my gears turning:

“…But loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in some ways it’s hardened me. While loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it’s also made me more inclined to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature and a greater impatience with people who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people…

…To say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young.

…I’m certainly not going to pretend that I’ve made it simply because I was strong enough, that I became “successful“ because I ”took responsibility.“ I think people tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand….” 

I feel the same about how the losses of Drew and my parents have changed me. This life has hardened me. I’ve spent most of my life with death and grief as visitors, and despite the ways it has made me a better person… it is not the loss itself that did so. It was not some magical strength or ability that people like to pretend we have once we’ve endured loss, either.

Yes, I am a very resilient person. Yes, I’ve survived a lot of heartache and I am still here, determined and working daily to rebuild a life of meaning and beauty. But all of that came from the trades made, the agreements accepted over time about continuing to live on. Not some innate inner strength or courage, but from what life itself has taught me about being alive.

We’ve traded a lot, in the aftermath of loss, to keep on living a life that has meaning and eventually, joy in it. We trade innocence for resilience. We give up naivety and unknowingness and instead accept a deep understanding of the fragility and pain inherent in walking this earth. It’s a haunting knowing, but one that allows us certain advantages. We trade the sugary taste of denial and the ease of ignorance for the healthier and more useful perspective of reality. It allows us to be less shocked about the pains of life, and thus, more resilient when pain does happen. And more open to letting the feelings of pain run through us. This trade, though, means to give up the illusion of safety that denial and innocence creates.

Not a day goes by that I am unaware of the possibility of death. With every positive thing that comes into my world, there is at least one moment of considering when the pain will come. When I will lose this thing. It’s not a worry, or something I get overwhelmed by, so much as a knowingness. A quiet understanding. A silent agreement that I have made in deciding to live a life. I know, at some point, that all things will be lost. It is the price of getting to be here, the price of this also beautiful, incredible, stunning world that is full of as much love as it is pain.

I wonder sometimes if other cultures, or our own American culture long ago, had a better understanding of this. We had funeral services in our homes, and took care of our dying ourselves. Many other cultures still do this, as well as other customs around death and dying that seem to make it much more a normal, accepted part of life. It seems as though we have removed death and loss from our overall culture to such a degree now, though, that we have collectively come to think of it as this shocking, unfathomable thing that shouldn’t happen. But when you really think about it… living on this earth, with all its perils, and somehow living a long and relatively painless life seems honestly, against all odds.

I personally feel like it would be a miracle to live to be 80 and for my partner to make it that far too. Not a rule, but a serious exception of having dodged illness and disease and sudden freak accidents for decades. When I look at it that way, it seems so odd for me to have had the naive belief that I would get to be with Drew for all of my days. I could only have that view after making some trades, though. Accepting some awful truths about life. I used to assume I would have Drew for all time. That I deserved loss-free life after losing my parents.

Loss can be very humbling though. Now, with Mike, I find myself thinking often, and sometimes saying to him “I hope I get to have you for a very long time”. I know now, that I don’t have any privilege when it comes to death. None of us do. I know now, to hold in my heart a humble gratitude that life has given me this person for even one more day. It doesn’t take away the haunting knowing that death will one day come. I don’t like that I am more cynical, harder, and that my thoughts do so frequently lean towards death and loss. Trading innocence for understanding has made it easier to live with though. And holding an acceptance of loss close by has made me more able to embrace the beauty of what it is here before it’s gone.

Source: Read “Not Everything Happens for a Reason”, by Tim Lawrence, the full article I quoted above.

Doing It Anyway: Pushing Through Fear

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Written Nov 21:
So my latest update on moving and homesickness and new places: it still fucking sucks. Don’t get me wrong, being close to Mike is wonderful… and things could not be better between us. The joy he brings into my world is immeasurable. But as the weeks go on in this new landscape, other things are actually feeling worse, not better.  Things are starting to wear me down… like the house still being in complete chaos and not being able to find anything when I need it. And not knowing how to get anywhere without my map on my phone telling me what to do. And not even knowing how to find some of the things that I am looking for – like a good community of artists or writers. And not having anything figured out in regards to work yet.
Okay, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, these are all good reasons to be freaking out. It’s a lot. And it hasn’t even been a month since I moved here. It’s completely normal to feel all of this. So why can’t I just accept it? Why am I fighting it so hard? There’s a good reason for that too. After Drew died, I fought tooth and nail to find my joy again. I battled day in and day out with the pain and the sadness and the lack of motivation and the chaos of grief… and finally I had begun to pull out of that. Finally, I’d found my way back to joy, and groundedness, and peace. Finally, I could sometimes go to bed at night only feeling normal tiredness and not complete emotional exhaustion. Finally, I could wake up and not STILL feel exhausted. Finally, I felt like I was living. I do not want to let go of that. I do not want to have to sit in pain again.

I can’t avoid it though. I mean that is life. Struggles won’t stop happening just because he died. And just like the darkest days of grief… I am feeling exhausted all the time again. Suddenly, that joy I fought so hard for, is feeling harder to get to. That groundedness within myself is feeling shaky. The peace I had begun to find is feeling distant. A change this big is no doubt trying to pull apart the very foundations I have worked so hard to build. And suddenly I am feeling myself very much in fear and feeling lost. Fear of losing myself, fear of becoming bitter or isolating. Fear that I won’t be able to adjust to all of this. And especially fear that I will not be able to figure out the next steps for my work, which is very much my life as well. As an artist and writer, I’m still at the very early stages of building a career. I am on the cusp of continuing on and maybe one day “making it”, and giving in and going back to working for someone else. I am living off of savings just to give this a shot. So right now, I’m feeling paralyzed with what steps to take next to balance bringing in some better income with my art and writing. And that is where it ties into grief a great deal.

The unknown can sometimes be an exciting place. Other times, it’s terrifying. Like grief. This whole minefield of unknown pains. It’s so easy right now to see my unknowns as the same kind of minefield. I feel like I am just waiting for another explosion to happen somewhere nearby. Almost 3 1/2 years after Drew’s death, I am still trying to figure my life out. And I am just tired of trying to figure shit out. I am not in the depths of grief any longer. I have met someone new and wonderful and he has brought so much joy back into my world. But there is still so much that I do not have figured out… and sometimes it just gets scary, and exhausting, and frustrating beyond belief.
I forget sometimes that I somehow did make it this far. I am even still HERE and I have worked through a huge amount of grief and pain and heartache and anger in these years just to get to today. I have created a beautiful series of photography and essays on grief in the process of all this, too, and it has taught me much about healing with creativity. I have learned so many things that I still wish to shared with others who are grieving… things that can help. Lately, I’ve forgotten all of that. And all I’ve been able to see is my fear. Fear about how I will sustain doing this meaningful work. Fear about which directions to take it all in.
In the process, I’ve forgotten that the only way I got this far, was by choosing to push through the fear. It’s the only way to make room for things to begin to happen. I already know this. Ugh. I mean WOW how our minds tie us in knots sometimes. I have felt so small and confused and lost lately… being in a place where I know almost no one and everything looks and feels very foreign. How quickly I’ve lost sight of things, and of myself. It was by pushing through fear that I ever made it to Ohio. I was terrified on the drive up here from Texas, and I did it anyway. I was petrified to begin to date someone new for the first time since Drew died, and I did it anyway. I guess I just need to remember all those experiences, take a deep breath, and ride it out… because indeed – despite my fear – I am going to push through, do it anyway, and trust that things will work out.

Building from the Grief Up

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Written Nov 8:
We took a trip to Pittsburgh yesterday. It was my first time to ever visit Pennsylvania. I’m not sure why, but I’ve wanted to visit this state since I was a kid. As we approached I was so surprised. The city itself was so beautiful… and the landscape was nothing like I’d expected – although I am not entirely sure what I expected it to be. The hills all around were steep and towering, the city itself built up within the twists and turns of the natural world. It felt inventive, and sturdy, and wonderfully adapted to the landscape. Tall, skinny houses on steep slopes. Narrow winding roads to accommodate the inclines and declines. A system of bridges to connect things amidst the two rivers that surround downtown and meet on one end.

I’m always fascinated by cities built up in areas like this. Even more impressive is that this city is 400 years old. You could feel the history of this place just driving through it. There was a certain feeling of grit and determination about it. A sense of the ingenuity and adaptability it took to create. I started to consider the idea of a place like this as a metaphor for human life and all it’s struggles…

Sometimes in life, we are born into a place with steep inclines and deep valleys. Other times, we are delivered to such a place somewhere along the way… by events like the death of a spouse, parent, child or other loved one. Or by some other catastrophic event.

The city was a reminder to me of our ability as humans to be adaptable. Despite the harshest of landscapes that life puts in our way, we can survive and create amazing lives. This city was also far more interesting and beautiful because of the hills and valleys that people had to work around to build it. And so I think it goes in life. Grief is the harshest landscape we will likely ever have to build the city of our hearts within. As we adapt though, we create something breathtaking. Every beautiful street in our hearts is influenced by the slopes of our grief. Each step took hard work, but work that was meaningful. We might start out in the bottom of the valley, where things feel overwhelming, but over time, we build up. We reach higher up the slopes. And eventually, we are looking down over the landscape of our grief and seeing a thing made beautiful – not in spite of the difficulties, but because of them.

Visits of Comfort

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Written Nov 1:
It’s been a week now since I made the big move up to Ohio, to live near Mike. I’ve had a roller coaster of emotions going on. At this point I’m just feeling like it’s a miracle I’ve made it through one whole week. While I don’t have any reservations about my decision to move here, still I’m having anxiety and headaches pretty much daily. A lot of change always does this to me. This is the farthest by far that I have lived away from home, and the homesickness has already kicked in too. Feeling vulnerable doesn’t help things. Having grief wrapped up into it all doesn’t help things. Needing to find work still doesn’t help things. It hasn’t taken long for all of this to constrict around me and start creating anxiety. I’ve caught myself spiraling into my own thoughts and fears about all this newness. The irrational sort of stuff that doesn’t to any good to focus on. And for a time, this strong, resilient person that I am is worn down and overwhelmed too much to be so. I hate being in this state of overwhelm…

It’s not unlike grief itself. It makes you vulnerable. It takes your energy away and leaves you depleted, less able to function like you normally do. It creates limitations. It creates irrational stories in your mind. It gets your mind running rampant on you. In this sense, how similar my grief and the change of moving have felt.

I’ve wanted to be able to just enjoy this move, to open my heart to it and just let it all happen. To meet it all fearlessly and in a positive light. It’s clear though, it’s going to be a battle for me to relax and be able to trust. It is just how I am now after so much loss and so much painful change has happened in my life.

For the last few days at least, I have had a small break in the anxiety of it all. My best friend came up from Texas for a first visit Friday. It’s been so comforting to have her here, and so much fun. Halloween has been our holiday since Drew died, and so the plan was to celebrate it up here in a new way. She, Mike and I went out Friday night to the bar for a costume party – all dressed as pirates. We danced and enjoyed the night, and for a little while, I didn’t feel the anxiety or the fear or any of it. Yesterday, Mike chauffeured us around the area. He took us to a bunch of the best nature areas and parks. We saw old barns and waterfalls and gorges and lakes. With the fall leaves in full effect, it was nothing short of breathtaking. Getting to see it all for the first time with my best friend made it even more special. And watching Mike and her together, talking and laughing and getting along so well gave me such joy. Especially being that she has been my closest friend through all the years dating Drew and through his death and these years or surviving after. And now she not only approves of Mike, but she has gained a wonderful new friend in him too. For this new person in my world and my best friend to get along so flawlessly feels like the most comforting and beautiful full-circle kind of thing.

In an eerie way, these past few days, it has started to feel like things are exactly how they should be – despite how painfully we arrived at this point. Having her here and getting to see new sights with her has helped to switch my panic mode off some, and help me see this new adventure as just that – an adventure. A new and exciting journey that she and I will be going on together, even if from very far apart much of the time. It’s beginning to sink in, that things will be exciting, and new, and beautiful. Grief will still be here. But There will be new landscapes to explore… a whole new winter world soon unlike anything I have ever experienced in Texas. Sometimes, all you need is a good friend to remind you to shake off your fears and find the positive again.

33 Years in 40 Minutes

image1-6.JPGWritten Oct 18th:
It’s Sunday afternoon as I type this, and I’m on a 4 hour layover in Denver on my way back to Texas. I have spent the past 3 days in Portland for a conference on death and dying – where I stood up for the first time and did a presentation about my story with death and how creativity has helped me. What an experience it has been. Almost a year ago now, I was invited to speak at this conference by a woman who I’d shared my photography with. Small world, she turned out to be in charge of the arts & culture section of this brand new conference called DeathOK… she wrote to me and said I was the first person she thought of inviting to speak. I decided it was meant to be, and despite me total fear of public speaking, I agreed to come out.

This was a first. A big and scary one. I’ve never presented anything outside of a few less-than-mediocre speeches in college. That was over ten years ago. And I totally bombed my presentations most of the time because I was so nervous. Let’s just say, public speaking is NOT one of my strengths and is something I have completely avoided for the entirely of my adult life.

Until one day last year, this woman emails me, asking me to present… and I realize that I might just have something really important that I want to say for the first time. And that something… is my story. About losing both of my parents before the age of 26. About losing the man I was going to spend my life with, and this whole bullshit ride death has taken me on. Also about how creativity helped me time and time again through each of these losses. Suddenly, when presented with her request, I realized my desire to share this journey with others was finally greater than my fear of public speaking…

So after a crazy few weeks of writing and rewriting, rehearsing and editing, freaking out and crying and avoiding and trying again and basically a generalized feeling of not knowing what the fuck I was doing… I stood up yesterday afternoon in front of 30 or so people and I told my story. For forty minutes, I shared about my mom, my dad, my fiance, and all the ways that art and creativity has helped me to cope with all of it. I didn’t fall apart. I wasn’t overly nervous. I finished exactly on time. My ending was only slightly awkward and nothing was a disaster. Once done, I opened up for questions… really hoping I’d just at least get ONE. The very first comment was from a man who thanked me for sharing such a personal and inspiring story, and how much he loved my photos on grief. And then came questions about my creative process with some of my photos, and questions about different artforms, and insights on how some of my work speaks to many other painful traumas like the PTSD of veterans and the struggles of homeless children. We had such a beautiful and intimate exchange. At least half of the people there came up privately once we concluded to thank me and share something. We left with hugs and business cards exchanged. For all of myself that I have poured into this for the past few weeks – and for the lifelong journey that has been required to get me here – I was given so much back. It was overwhemingly beautiful.

I remembered something when I stood up there yesterday too. I forget this so often, but it was reiterated in the keynote address that morning and I thought about it all day. The ones going through the darkness now have a responsibility to put some lanterns out there in the wilderness to light the way for those who follow. And when it comes to death and dying… everyone, eventually, will follow. I have known death nearly all my life… but I often am selfish and feel everyone should have to learn for themselves. It’s an old bad habit of mine. Yesterday pulled me out of that in a major way.

We all have that obligation, whether or not we act on it or not. Each person who came to my presentation reminded me of that yesterday… and it is something that I hope I will not soon forget. It isn’t about whether I like doing presentations or not. It’s not about whether I’m an amazing speaker. It was never about that. It isn’t about having all the answers or being the most knowledgable person. It is about sharing whatever I have. Sharing what I’ve learned from the pain of loss with the hope that there will be at least one nugget in there that will be picked up and carried in the heart of someone else. After all, countless others have done the same for me. I have been following the faint light of their lanterns all along my own journey for years.

As I sit here halfway between Portland and home now, I feel so proud. I wanted to quit. I wanted to run away from it, to cancel my spot in the event. I seriously contemplated chickening out. And I didn’t. Instead I cried and cursed a lot and eventually got to work. And now I have followed through with confronting a huge fear of mine. Instead of giving up, I decided to try. I decided to believe that, even if I’m not the best public speaker, I can still do this and I still have something valuable to say. As much as I write and share, you’d be amazes at how easy it is to believe that what I have to share isn’t valuable. It happens to all of us… we get in our heads. This time, I didn’t let my head get to me.

I found myself in tears after I wrapped up and had some time by myself last night for a moment. It was an all-too familiar layer of grief… the one that wishes so badly for my parents to be alive for this moment. To imagine the pride in their voices as I called them to tell them. And at the same time, knowing that they brought me here. I would not have been standing in front of anyone yesterday if it wasn’t for my parents, for their death, and for Drew and his. And so they all three come with me, on this part of my new life and every other part ahead.

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To Choose Pain

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Written Oct 11:
It’s been a long week. Most of my stuff has sat in storage since Drew died three years ago. And before that, probably half those boxes hadn’t been opened in years. With the move to Ohio in just a few weeks, it’s time to finally tackle this.

I decided that I didn’t want to take any extra baggage (literally) with me on this new venture, and that means I’m opening up every last box. I’m pulling out a million different little pieces of myself from long ago… and deciding which pieces I want to keep and which I want to leave behind.

It’s been emotional. To dig through my past and remember who I used to be. A lot has happened to me that isn’t just the grief over my fiance. Death, alcoholism, family dystunction, abuse…I haven’t had the worst life by far, but it hasn’t been easy.

Revisiting the boxes reminded me of how I spent the first 25 years of my life in survival mode. There was never stability, or healthy relationships, or a feeling of safety in my world. There was never room to put down the armor and just relax into life. Not until I met Drew…

He helped to give me the kind of stability and healthy love that allowed me to just enjoy life for those few years we shared. For me, it was one of the biggest gifts… to understand what it can feel like to live life from a place of security instead of always being based in fear.

These years since Drew’s death, I have started to find that sense of security again. This time, it’s coming more from within me though. There is a solidness that wasn’t there before. And it comes from having survived such immense trauma that I know in a much deeper way that I can trust myself to handle things. I am rarely in survival mode anymore. It’s is probably one of the most important gifts that he could have given me – one that will affect the entire rest of my life in really important ways.

There is also a newfound sense of security in having Mike in my life too. And I believe 100% that Drew brought him here for a reason, at this very time in my life, to help me with the next chapter of moving forward. I will admit, Mike’s solidness has helped give me the courage to take some big steps – like this presentation I’m about to give in just another week on using creativity to greive. And moving across the country for the first time in my life. Despite all of these bold decisions as of late… one thing is never far from my mind: That Mike could be gone at any moment. In fact, its been on my mind a lot with the move approaching.

Drew and I were at a pinnacle in our life together when he was ripped away from me and gone suddenly. We were moving forward, looking towards marriage, his career as a pilot was just getting off the ground. Things were going our way. Then BAM, all of it gone, with one phonecall.

Now, I’m at the edge of a first big pinnacle with Mike. The closer this move gets, the more nervous I become that something will go horribly wrong. After all, it happened before… Now I know, I am not immune. None of us are.

It’s scary to let someone matter this much again. It’s scary to begin building a life with someone new. It really really is. It’s far scarier than most people in my life realize, because mostly, I am quiet about it. It takes a LOT of courage to step into love again after death. Now having lost Drew, I know just exactly what I am agreeing to. I know in a very real way that attaching my heart to anyone outside myself will inevitably, someday, end in pain. Mike is of course just as aware of this as I am, after losing Megan.

Some day, one of us will die, and there is no way of knowing when that will happen. All we can do is hope that we are lucky enough to dodge the accidents and the illnesses that could take us early. That’s all we’ve got: hope. Hope and the attitude that we aren’t going to let things like that stop us.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop having this thought though. It’s an awareness that’s ingrained in me now. Instead of letting it get to me though, I use it to my advantage. I allow it to be the thing that reminds me to be grateful of what’s here today. The thing that keeps me constantly aware of how beautiful every little moment is between Mike and I. That is also Drew’s gift to me. His way of still loving me and being in my life.

Drew will forever be there to remind me. Even if this wasn’t what I had planned before, to never take this life and this beautiful new love for granted, ever. To never let the fear of pain get in the way of pursuing happiness again. When we choose love, we also choose pain. He reminds me to take responsibility for that choice. To see pain as a part of the journey, not as something to avoid or let hinder me. He reminds me that pain should never stop me from taking hold of what joy I can in this life and riding it till the end. To choose the inevitability of pain – time and time again – for the privelage of love. Love others. Love ourselves. Love life.

Love, he has taught me, is the worthiest of reasons to hurt.