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I believe in angels

barn-owl

My dad may have left this earth five years ago, but I am positive he is still here with me now. I’ve often thought I felt his presence, but it’s easy to dismiss that and tell myself that I’m just feeling my love for him and wishing him near me. But this year, the year I’ve dubbed “The Loss of George,” my dad has been cradling me and he’s made sure I’ve known it.

When he passed away suddenly on October 3, 2008, we were all shocked. He was 61, a strapping handsome man who took care of himself with just the occasional sneak of a cookie package from his work vending machine. He had just started running again, he fished, he worked in the yard, took long walks with his dogs in the woods, he rode his horse, he loved his wife and family. He did a lot of living. And the face smack of his dropping dead for no apparent reason was life altering for me. The rosy world I knew became an awful shade of gray, and life’s meaning withered. As I was crumbling in my father’s and stepmother’s home the week after his passing, I happened to ask my stepmom about a small barn owl in the kitchen. She said in her sweetest voice that my dad had placed this owl in this very spot because he felt like it was his mom looking over him throughout his life. She passed it to me and said you should have it now so that you can feel your dad watching over you. I took the little taupe owl, no taller than 2 inches, detailed with feathers and a rounded head as a small slice of solace, offering a weepy thanks in return. My dad’s owl found a new perch on our mantel, and I often kissed it as a way of passing my physical affection on to my father, wherever he might be. “Hi dad,” I whisper almost daily, giving the little owl’s beak a tiny peck.

The end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 has by far been the most challenging time of my life as I spent nearly 15 weeks by my brother’s hospital bedside as he lay dying from severe acute pancreatitis at 36 years old. It was an emotional roller coaster that I couldn’t help but be on, and it was alarming when that ride crashed to a deathly end, dumping me out on the side of the rusty cart with little faith left in anything. As I walked out into the foggy gray February morning shrouded in George’s death, I was almost broken. And I’ve remained that way this year. Though my wife and sons bring me so much joy, anytime I got a rare moment alone, I’ve just broken down sobbing, wondering where my dear men are. My heart aches harder than I ever knew possible. It never helped that I felt like a complete orphan, having been also deserted by my biological mother. She’s a distant memory now, but the raw pain of losing my father, brother and mother all in one swoop of five years has been quite the cross to bear.

Soon after George passed away, I announced to my wife, Maria, that it was time for Operation Fold-in. I didn’t want to see anyone who didn’t have a huge place in my heart and who I felt didn’t hold me in theirs. And it was very telling after George passed who cared the most. These precious people are on my team in life, and I feel very much finished with doing any people-pleasing for the ones who just don’t matter as much. In this short lifetime, we only have a certain amount of time every day to spend our precious hours doing things that matter, and to me, that means spending time with the precious few loved ones I have left and making a difference in this world. I am now realizing that those two actions are intertwined; I only have to look to my two shortcakes to see how I can make an impact on this earth. During Operation Fold-in, I haven’t spent hours on the couch in a gray, depressed cloud. But rather I’ve chosen to make the most of every day with my children, wife, family and friends. This has meant declining social invitations where I knew I’d be in an empty fog listening to random people prattle on and on about small things. Small talk has no place in Operation Fold-in. As I said no to more invites, they dissipated on their own. As usual, after a certain amount of time has passed after a traumatic event, the music starts back up and people get on with their lives. It’s up to you to decide if you’re going to jump back into the party or dwell in solitude, nursing your wounds.

So when my friend and PR maven Jamie invited me to a soiree at her home in August, I said to myself, “It’s time to join the party.” Jamie also has lost a brother, so it seemed like a safe, nurturing place to begin my journey back into the social fold.

Jamie’s party showcased several small business owners she was introducing to the media, including a medium named Jennifer. She was doing private readings throughout the evening, and though I had not initially planned on having a reading, I was swayed by all the praise people were singing for her. Not just from the readings that night but from long-term relationships elite members of the media had with Jennifer, who had been dead-on with her predictions and connections with spirits. So I made an appointment to have my 20-minute session.

Jennifer was sitting quietly in Jamie’s bedroom waiting for me. One of her first sentences after welcoming me was that if I wanted to know about anyone living or dead that I just needed to tell her their first name. And so after a short time of getting her predictions of my own future, I asked her about George and Bruce. She told me first that they had both “crossed over” and they were together. Jennifer told me that George had died from something with his stomach, but that he’d contracted a virus in the woods that was undetectable by the time he’d gotten to the hospital. This made complete sense to me, and it left me feeling peaceful. George’s girlfriend had been told almost the very same thing a week ago from her psychic reading, and this was all without prompting from either of us. I had agonized about why George had pancreatitis, knowing most of the typical causes didn’t apply to my brother. Jennifer said that George was watching out for his two children and that he was at peace with his death. By this time, tears were running down my cheeks.

We moved onto Bruce (my father, but I didn’t mention this). Jennifer said some really lovely things about him as well, and it made me incredibly happy to hear that she felt like he was doing well in the afterlife. As we were wrapping up, I asked Jennifer if she believed that spirits visit us as butterflies, as I’d often heard. She said that sometimes that’s true, but that spirits will find a way to communicate with us in a way we’ll most recognize as a sign from them, something special and shared. For example, smelling a strong pot of coffee, when none is brewing, or feeling a warm sensation of heat enshroud your body as a spiritual embrace. I left the meeting feeling at peace. As I talked to myself in my head, I said even if that was fake, it felt good, and really, isn’t that all that matters?

As soon as I walked into Jamie’s hallway and several media friends looked into my tear-filled eyes, Jamie swooped in, looped her arm in mine and took me out to her deck to talk. She wanted to check on me about my grieving and be there for me in an empathetic way that’s just not possible from someone who’s never lost a sibling. As we were talking in the early dusky evening, something caught my eye over Jamie’s shoulder. It was a barn owl, perched on Jamie’s detached garage about 15 feet away from us, and he was staring directly at me. I said, “That is a gorgeous owl. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real owl outside of a zoo!” Jamie swiveled her neck, her red tresses swinging with her. And we both silently stared at the woodland creature so clearly out of his element on a busy city street. As I looked into its eyes, I felt more comfort than I ever have since my father was catapulted out of his physical life. Jamie and I both sat still, savoring the moment, which lasted at least 3 minutes. Maybe 10. Time wasn’t a factor in this generous visit. A friend of ours stepped out on the deck, caught a glimpse of the owl and went to grab Jamie’s camera for us. As she motioned for it, the owl dipped down off his roost, expanding his wings in full glory and soared away. Motionless, I sat. Once I gathered my feelings as much as I could, I told Jamie about my dad’s owl at home. It was such a gift to both of us to share in this moment together, and one I hold very dear to my heart.

 

 

 

 

the vivid life

I will not disappoint you, Henry David Thoreau

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I’m trying to de-clutter my life, but it’s hard. One 360-degree glance around our home, and I see that it is filled with endless amounts of baby gear that I want to hold on to should we try for a third; books upon books ranging from topics of art, literature, cooking, romance, mystery, pregnancy, weddings, mythology and heaps of fiction; Leo and Rocco’s insane amount of toys that they adore; Maria’s art supplies and computer equipment from her 15-year career as a graphic designer and web developer; Barley, a sweet, devoted English creme golden retriever rescued from an Alabama harem where he served as chief stud; our aging crank of a cat who would probably prefer somewhere calmer rather than our home which, for him, has been turned into a race track as he is forced to burn kitty rubber to run away from Rocco’s sticky fingers and bouts of maniacal laughter as he chases him; an abundance of an eclectic mix of modern and antique furniture that Maria and I have acquired through our own purchases, but also inherited from grandparents who’ve passed; along with photographic time capsules of the life we’ve so richly enjoyed and of our dearest loved ones.

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.  ~Confucius

My sense of what is “mine” in this world is heightened right now because Maria and I are moving George’s belongings out of his girlfriend’s condo today. Two days ago, we visited his  5×10 storage unit, and it was hauntingly sparse, mainly noticeable were the treasures he’d gathered from my father’s belongings after we lost him 4-and-a-half years ago, as well as all of his soccer memorabilia from his champion days as the star goalie of our high school soccer team. Try as I might, I couldn’t help but let out a little helpless gasp of hurt when gazing upon his small pile. After 36 years of life, this is what his life had been whittled down to in tangible belongings. But George wanted it that way. He was a real minimalist.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.  ~Leonardo DaVinci

I’ve already spent a few hours at his girlfriend’s house just a week after he died so I could go sit in his closet and lovingly select some of the shirts I remember him wearing and have them made into a quilt. My stepmother did this for me with some of my dad’s shirts, having a small lap quilt made out of my father’s plaid and chambray button downs, with a thick navy border, and now his namesake, my son Rocco Bruce, sleeps with it every night. He insists on bringing it downstairs every morning, along with his owl madras quilt made just for him by his Mema, and his monkey dog, a stuffed animal that Maria insists is a monkey but we all know it’s a dog. Alongside George’s regularly worn shirts, he also had his lettermen’s jacket with all his prized patches from playing Varsity soccer, along with his yellow goalie shirt and his purple-and-black (so 90s) goalkeep shirt. His soccer coach, Greg Huberty, gave us all such a better memory in his eulogy at George’s funeral of how amazing George was on the field and protecting his goal. They called him “the terminator” and he saved almost every goal that was launched his way.

I spent some time going through George’s top dresser drawer, where he saved every important piece of paper. There wasn’t much because of his minimalism, but what he did hold onto touched me to my core: George had carefully preserved every single tangible item from my wedding, down to the menu and the cocktail napkins we served that read, “Eat. Drink. Get married. Kirsten and Maria. June 13, 2009” Equally heart-wrenching was the discovery of Tyler and Sarah’s baby teeth and the artwork they’d given to him over the years, with little love notes to their daddy.

George held onto what mattered to him and shed what didn’t. Thoreau’s wisdom is what George lived. His accounts were few, his relationships simple, his belongings minimal.

I have more social media and email accounts than I can remember, a few of my relationships are horribly complicated, and sometimes I worry I’m a beginner hoarder (not really, but deep down the fear is undeniable).

There’s no way I can (or shall I say desire to) live as simply as George or as Thoreau might be directing us all to, but I am trying to reduce what I have, buy less, close some email and social media accounts, continue to disengage with people who only bring about misery, concentrate on only what matters, and let all the needless frittering over silly, meaningless matters fall to the wayside.

The best things in life are nearest:  Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you.  Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.  ~Robert Louis Stevenson

 

featured, relationships, the vivid life

Maintaining a marriage (a celebration of nine years together)

kirsten-and-maria

Nine years ago today, Maria and I became girlfriend and girlfriend. We’d been dating for about a month before she asked me to be hers. There was a fluttering feeling of little wings going crazy in my tummy as I tucked my chin ever so slightly and replied “yes” with a delighted grin on my face. Since that perfect moment, Maria and I have lived a jam-packed life loaded with all the extra toppings–some we ordered, some were extra, and some we wanted to send back. But we’ve taken it all and enjoyed almost every moment. I definitely haven’t been a perfect partner along the way, sometimes dipping down very low on the contribution ladder when it came to being the most romantic or giving. And I’ve had to learn a lot about compromise, more so in expecting it rather than me just compromising all of my own beliefs because I thought it had to be that way to keep a good relationship going. To be fair, Maria didn’t know when I was doing this. She just thought she had lucked up finding a woman who happened to believe everything she believed. In our nine years, I have come out more strongly in the last few years as more of my own person, owning who I am and what I think.

Along the way, I’ve also had to learn a lot about relationships in general. I didn’t have a fear of commitment, per se. I just took off when the going got rough. What was the point if we couldn’t get along every second? Those were my thoughts in my 20s. I didn’t know how to effectively discuss my feelings of agitation or to let Maria know she’d hurt me without acting out in a passive-aggressive way.

When we got married in 2009, my grandmother, who’d divorced her first husband before marrying my Papa, said with a very loving tone: “Good luck in your marriage, Kirsten. You haven’t had any good examples of a marriage actually working out. Everyone in your family has gotten a divorce, including me.”

And she was mostly right with the exception of my father’s third marriage, which lasted 17 years until his death, to my stepmother, Clare. They loved each other in abundance every day, and hardly ever disagreed. Theirs was a love affair I want to emulate.

But I also married a passionate Italian who possesses the confidence to get her feelings across and yet let me know that she loves me in abundance. Maria has taught me so much about what it is to maintain a relationship, to keep ours going. It’s not just about loving each other. We’ve got that down pat. It’s also about allowing ourselves to take time to fume over something that’s got one of us in a tizzy, to talk it over, and for our hearts to know that we can give it our all at all times because we know that the other one isn’t going anywhere. We must tend to the garden that is our relationship in order to have it continually bloom, and that we mustn’t abandon it or else weeds will grow.

As we’ve grown older and (hopefully) wiser, I feel like we’ve also grown with each other, like roots of two different plants, intertwined deep within the earth, and I love knowing that we’re together through anything life throws our way (and it has thrown some major curve balls).

I love Maria in abundance not just during our happy times, of which there are countless, but during the hard times as well. And you’re not going to be together for nine or more years without a difficult time coming at you hard at some point in your relationship. But I’ve learned that you have to work hard at making it feel easy, that when the going gets rough, you don’t just throw in the cards.

Happiness in a relationship, I’ve come to know, very much depends on what you’re willing to do once the honeymoon period is over. Because I’ve learned how to do the work–and so has Maria–I feel like we’re reaping those benefits tenfold now, and we’re riding high on a fluffy yet sturdy

Photo: Our Labor of Love

the vivid life

If you’re not happy, change something

how-to-be-happy

 

This graphic is both accurate and absurd to me. Happiness isn’t that simple, but yet it is. We might not be 100 percent happy with everything in our lives, but if we’re fairly content with most parts of our lives, does that mean we’re happy?

However, the beauty in the simplicity of this is that everything is changeable when you’re an adult. If you hate your job, find a new one. If you’re unhappy in a relationship, work to change it or get out of it. Don’t like your body? Change it or learn to love it. The same principle applies to any problem you’re having.

Maybe you’re thinking “Yes, but ….” And that’s a toxic game to play with yourself or anyone who’s trying to offer you advice. It was first identified by Eric Berne in his best-selling book, Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships. Essentially, you always have an excuse to why you’re not fixing the problem that you’re complaining about.

Here’s a classic example:

Sally and Jane are chatting over coffee, and Jane says, “I’d love to order one of those scones, but I’m overweight as it is. I don’t need extra calories.”

Sally: “You could always just work out to counteract the extra calories, if you really wanted the scone.”

Jane: “Yes, but I don’t have time to work out.”

Sally: “So don’t eat the scone.”

Jane: “Yes, but I really want it.”

Sally: “So make time to work out. Perhaps you just take the stairs in your office today.”

Jane: “Yes, but that hurts my knees.”

Cue awkward silence.

Sally is so frustrated at this point that she’s fuming inside, and maybe even visibly. Jane feels smug because she thinks she won the argument and that Sally just doesn’t get it because she’s _________________________ (fill in the blank with accusatory excuse, such as already skinny, has loads of extra time to hit the gym, so fat it doesn’t matter if she eats a thousand scones a day, has so much money she could afford lipo). But Jane doesn’t ever think to herself that she’s the problem.

So back to getting happy. You can do it. The only obstacle standing in your way is you.

the vivid life

Martin Luther King Jr. chose to love

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Since the dawn of time, good has been combated by evil. Martin Luther King Jr. fought hate with love by being an optimist, a visionary, someone who wouldn’t back down. He changed our world for the better, and the lessons he taught are timeless.

Choosing to love instead of hate isn’t easy sometimes but it is the better road for your own journey. Hate hurts everyone, but most of all, it hurts you. Are you carrying around feelings of animosity and hatred? It doesn’t feel very good, does it? Justified or not, I have found it takes more energy to stay mad. And I mean the soul-stirring, anxiety-producing agitated state of mind that pure hatred causes, not the fists-in-the-air-we-won’t-take-this-oppression-anymore anger. I think that kind of passion can be good. But the festering in a dark place of madness doesn’t do anyone any good.

Anger isn’t all bad, of course. It incites change and action. Anger also can deliver you to a new sense of awareness. “Anger serves a variety of positive purposes when it comes to coping with stress,” writes W. Doyle Gentry, PhD from Anger Management For Dummies. “It energizes you, improves your communication with other people, promotes your self-esteem, and defends you against fear and insecurity. (Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all angry men — but they turned that anger into social reform that made the world a better place.)”

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about compassion and forgiveness. Compassion is ultimately the opposite of anger. Breathing compassion toward your enemies is important, as it helps to release the anger you’re feeling. It helps you to step back from your emotionally charged actions and realize that we are all human. We’ve all been through the good, the bad, the beautiful and ugly parts of life, just in different ways.

Today on Tiny Buddha, the author quoted Mother Theresa, who once said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”

But focusing on depressing your anger for the sake of others might get you all jittery and mad again. So let’s think about what feeling love for people rather than being angry with them will do for you.

When you’re angry you are likely to have “blame thinking” going on in your head. Inside of “blame thinking” you have emotions and these are caused by unmet needs. When you can get conscious of your “blame statement” you can begin to explore your feelings and use these feelings to get clear about which of your needs are going unmet. Source: The Center for Nonviolent Communication

Love makes us feel happy. We see the world as a better place, and we feel like we belong in it and we want to do more for it and the people around us.

There is relief and release in choosing love, too. Martin Luther King Jr. demanded love and compassion while fighting for equality and rights. He did this by speaking about love and not putting out more hatred into the world, but rather more compassion.

He didn’t just turn the other cheek. He fought hard. He worked hard. “You can’t be a doormat unless you lie down first,” wrote the recently departed Pauline Phillips in 1973 under the pen name Abigail Van Buren for her column, “Dear Abby.”

I bring this up because many people think that being loving, nonviolent and compassionate means letting people walk all over you. And that’s not at all what I am advocating, and neither did MLK.

Quite simply, I think the moral is to mindfully live your life with love in your heart, not hate, and you’ll have a deeper, richer life.

the vivid life

Wishing happiness for others

In order to achieve the highest form of happiness, we must first wish it for others.

I wish everyone well, even those who have been unkind to me. It’s not always easy, and it’s something I struggle with even now. But it is for me that I do this, not for them.

the vivid life

May we all be well, happy and peaceful

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As I work toward being more compassionate, I found this lovely Buddhist meditation to repeat to myself as I breathe compassion out to all people, not just my loved ones or people I know are suffering. It’s not easy at first, but I find that it helps me be far less angry with anyone if I concentrate on sending them compassion.

When I do this, my frustration with them dissipates, and I am able to move on from the emotion I don’t want to feel. I get terribly anxious when I am angry or upset with anyone. Sending compassion toward someone doesn’t alleviate what someone may have done to have brought on my reaction, but it helps me from wasting my time and energy feeling bad about someone else’s actions.

Here’s the poem:

May I be well, happy, and peaceful.
May my teachers be well, happy, and peaceful.
May my parents be well, happy, and peaceful.
May my relatives be well, happy, and peaceful.
May my friends be well, happy, and peaceful.
May the indifferent persons be well, happy, and peaceful.
May the unfriendly persons be well, happy, and peaceful.
May all meditators be well, happy, and peaceful.
May all beings be well, happy, and peaceful.