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.

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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Aerobatics & The Other Side of Fear

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A few days ago I did something incredibly insane. On my final day in Hawaii, quite at the last minute, I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do… go up in an old biplane for a flight. That’s not really the insane part…. somehow my fear filter must have switched off for exactly enough time to get me to choose to do the aerobatics package. Are you kidding me?

The moment we taxi down to the runway, it dawns on me – in horror – what I have just agreed to. “WHY on earth would you have agreed to this?!” I think to myself, followed by repeated statements of “this is insane. You’re insane!” The engine growls loud and we quickly take off… so quickly in fact that I don’t even realize we are off the ground for a moment. Its far more graceful than any small Cessna I’ve flown in. And the open cockpit and the air whizzing by is incredible.

The first half of the flight is a tour around the northwest coast of Oahu, over beautiful mountains, pristine beaches and patchwork farmlands. The pilot points out several landmarks below over the headset; Waimea Falls, the pineapple fields, the town of Haleiwa where we’d eaten lunch. It’s pleasant, and eventually I relax my death grip on the bars in front of me and just sit and soak it all in. That is until we begin to return back to the airfield… where the aerobatics is going to happen.

I’m terrified. In that moment I remember nothing about the tricks I’ve seen biplanes do at air shows dozens of times… all I can conjure is a loop. My mind just latches on to that. “Okay, a loop. That doest sound too awful.” I think to myself. I’m also thinking, “I can’t be the girl who chickens out. Noway. I have to at least make it through ONE loop. After that, I can chicken out” (but I really don’t want to be the girl who chickens out after just ONE loop either of course). I search for something to calm me… and then I think of Drew.

Any time I got worked up or hysterical over something – he would simply tell me to take a deep breath. And then another. And one more. It always worked, darn him. And so, 10,000 feet or so up in the sky, with the wind whipping through my hair, that is what I did. Deep breath in, and out. Eyes closed, I whispered to myself “Just trust”. And when I opened them again, though I was still scared, I was ready. I was doing it.

We neared the airfield and the pilot called out over the radio that we were readying for aerobatics. Crap. This is it. This is insane. How the HELL did I get up here and why the hell do I choose to do things like this?! Too late now, we are climbing fast, prepping for the first stunt. And then, with a gentle dip forward, he suddenly pulls back hard and we rocket straight up into the sky. I can see nothing but blue atmosphere and the blinding sun for a moment, and then I look to my side and I see the entire horizon moving in a full circle. It is so mind boggling that I can’t even comprehend what I’m seeing. About halfway through the loop, I start screaming… not with terror, but with joy. Joy? Yeh! JOY! (I’m clearly insane at this point). As we make the full loop and right ourselves for the next maneuver, I am laughing with full abandon – laughing in a way I have not laughed in years. The fear is completely gone – the whole thing is so surreal that it almost becomes like an alternate reality – and I am positively in love.

Another loop, and another right after, and some twists and what feel like barrel rolls… and more loops, all the while I scream and laugh wildly. And then finally, the last maneuver – a hammerhead. We fly up and up until we lose airspeed and the propellor and entire plane stall out. Then, in a moment of total silence we float in midair until the plane slowly begins to bow back down to the earth. Her nose dives straight towards the ocean. There is no other experience on earth like looking out the front of a plane and seeing nothing but the ocean coming up at you fast. I know now what Drew experienced in some way – in all his years of flight school practicing engine failures in helicopters. It is the most incredible mix of fear and excitement. This is what it’s all about. This is the stuff he fell in love with. Now… I see. I see his world like I never have before.

As we make a nice, lazy turn back to the airfield, I begin crying. I’m overcome by so many emotions. I feel connected to him so intensely. I feel a deep pride in myself for not backing out and for actually going through with it when I was just on the edge of giving in to my fear.

Before he died, he was always more daring than I. He convinced me to go skydiving, and despite loving it, it’s not ever something I’d have done on my own. He was always challenging my limits, which I loved. And somehow, here I was, thousands of feet up in the air over the island of Oahu doing something many would never dare to.

“Who IS this girl?” I asked over and over. She is certainly NOT the girl I was. She has balls and conquers anything in her way and lets no fear stop her. Whoever she is… I like her. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would make a choice like that all on my own. But I guess that’s one thing his death has done to me. I take more chances. I live a little larger. I don’t let the fear stop me as much anymore. Oh it still stalls me out a bit… there’s plenty of things I still haven’t achieved or tackled because I’m dancing around in the fear. But it stops me a lot less.

The thing of it is, the more times I do something that seriously scares me – whatever that may be – the more times it reaffirms to me that the level of fear about tackling something is always equal to the level of satisfaction of conquering it. The scarier it is, the more incredible it feels when you get on the other side of it.

This was bold proof of that… it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, and it is hands down the most incredible experience I have ever had, the most alive I have ever felt. Sorry Drew, but it even tops skydiving and the helicopter rides you took me on (although I know you wouldn’t hold that against me, and would likely agree!) It was a bold reminder that feeling truly alive, satisfied, and proud of ourselves – is always just on the other side of some fear. Whether it’s doing loops in the sky, quitting a job to go for your dreams, or being honest when it’s the harder choice…  We need only to buckle in, breath deep, and decide to face it head on.

 

A Return to Our Town

Its the first time in about 5 months I’ve been back to the city he and I called home. The last time I was here, I was finishing packing my apartment – it was just 3 months after he died. It was so traumatic I couldn’t even finish the job. Even with countless hours of help from incredible friends, we got nearly there and then my father-in-law volunteered to come back up without me and do the moving of it all. A saint he is. Since then, I haven’t been able to face coming back here until a good friend decided to fly in from Hawaii to visit. She’s worth it.

Tonight, I’m sleeping on my best friend’s couch after a night of Sex and the City re-runs, beer, chinese food and ice cream. A good night. Probably the best kind of night I can imagine having here. I look forward to seeing my friend from Hawaii when she gets in soon, and a few of my other friends over the next few days, I’ve missed them so much. But still, I can feel my fragility… the unsteadiness of not knowing when something might trigger me or where. When the reality will strike with electric intensity and swiftness and shatter me to my core.

Driving through town today was so strange… it feels like what happened was so immense and so horrible that this entire metroplex just ceased to exist when I last left town. Vanished. Of course, it feels that way because it did for me. My whole daily life did cease to exist. The best thing that happened to me while living here, my happiest years here, the good morning greetings, the hello’s on my lunch hour, the venting about stressful days, the back massages to melt away those days, the dinner plans, the late-night movies on the couch, the strong arms never far away, the laughter, the best friend I’ve ever had. All of it. Gone. Instantly. All of the beauty and memories will be with me everywhere I go. I know that now. But I just could not face the infinite vacuum left behind here… trying to work my way around that obvious canyon of what used to be. It seemed to me more like a horrible form of torture. I had to leave. I had go find a new normal, one that would help me find ways to create space for missing him while also giving meaning to how he will shape my life going forward.

I do still wonder… is anyone else who fled the scene of such daily memories feeling this way when they make their return? Does it feel just as dreamlike and surreal to others? Is that just the shock still lingering, and will it one day wear off and cripple me with a new blow of reality almost as hard as the first? Does it make me weak, because I chose not to face my life here? Or does it make me smart, for trusting my gut when it said that it was time to leave, that this was not the place for me to heal and rebuild. In the end, I know the answer to that. Its in the peace I feel when I think on it.

There is a rightness within me about where and how I’ve decided to go since he left. I’m surrounded by art and creativity and support in a way I never have been before, and it feels like coming home to a place my soul has searched for all my life. It has led me to the most beautiful new experiences and bonds – ones that have pumped blood and life and hope back into my tired veins time and time again. And so I know… the typical suggestion not to make any big life changes… it doesn’t fit everyone.

So here I am, facing this hurdle 8 months after he died. And though I’m kind of terrified, at least today went better than expected. No major break downs. I will try for the rest of the week to remind myself that I’ve had to do a lot harder things than this in the past year, so it will be okay. …As I’m writing, a helicopter just flew overhead… I suppose that’s a good place to stop for the night. I like to think he’s reminding me I need some rest. Its getting late after all. Goodnight All.

Leaving & Arriving Home

Well, it’s been a long but good day. The drive went pretty well, my cats surprisingly did not cause me to crash, nor did they poop in their carriers (always a bonus). Oh they howled, but not constantly at least. Yay for sedatives! It’s inspiring to me how fast cats adjust. They’ve been totally removed from the place they have called home for the past 4 years – and within just a few hours they are both napping happily on the bed beside me. It’s as if they’ve lived here for years. Cats are so cool.

This was the first time doing the drive down to Seguin by myself – and five hours is a good amount of road time to think. There were certainly some tears. Leaving Dallas was very hard – it’s been home for the past 8 years and I have many good memories and amazing friends there. I’m not gonna lie, I have been pretty terrified the past few days about all this. But that’s to be expected anytime we face a big change in our lives. Since Andrew moved on, I’ve just decided that “scared” just isn’t a good enough reason not to do things anymore. It’s just a feeling, one that can be faced and overcome.

So the morning began with all this apprehension and uncertainty. It began with leaving home behind. For those who don’t know me too well, my mind truly thrives on blowing ideas like this up into huge things. “Oh my GOD I am leaving EVERYTHING I have known and ALL the people there and ALL the memories and its SUCH a big deal!” That is my brain. I have to remind it that we don’t really need to be a drama queen like this.

One way I do this is by imagining what Drew would say to me in such situations. Today though… I thought to myself how he would handle a situation if he were doing something really big and scary in his own life. Like when he was about to start his flight instructor rating. He was totally intimidated by it, worried he wouldn’t be able to get a job once he was done. He had doubts like we all do. But when it was time, he picked himself up, stood tall, and faced it head on. And with that image in my mind, I sat up a little taller in my seat, told myself this was NOT the big deal I was making it, and off we went.

After arriving in Seguin and getting the car unpacked, his folks and I went out to dinner. Somewhere in the evening all my apprehension went away. I realized that although I had just left home behind, at the end of the day, I also arrived home. This may not be a very new concept to other people in their 20’s, but since I haven’t had my parents around for quite some time, I have never really had that other home to return back to… I’ve only ever had the one I created myself. So for me, this is a very special thing. I’m going to bed feeling peaceful. Goodnight all!