2016: The Year of Enough

Happy New Year! Welcome, one and all, to 2017!!

Party animals — NYE 2017. Me and Curls watched a movie and ate BBQ chips… I’m old.

I laid in bed early yesterday morning, scrolling through Facebook’s daily reminder of what I’d done that day in history… and since I started Under the Tapestry, I’ve pretty consistently spent New Year’s Eve reflecting on a big theme, a lesson learned, a summary of the year about to end. I wanted to do that again, but my head was pounding and I hadn’t slept well and I needed to be up at and ’em for reasons I’ll explain momentarily, so bliggity blogging remained on hold. Even thinking remained on hold, to be honest.

Instead, I closed Facebook down, took a deep breath, and dialed my nextdoor neighbor. To my profound relief, he picked up the phone.

I’d left Lyle in his bed the night before, honestly unsure of whether he’d still be alive in the morning. He was so weak and confused, short of breath, complaining of a back ache. But all he wanted was sleep. He hadn’t eaten all day, just a bit of water, the glass of OJ his niece and I begged him to drink. He us to leave him so he could sleep. I called the hospice nurse as soon as I got home and though somewhat reassured, I still cried a bit, thinking of what that day somewhere in the near future is going to look like… when one of us finds him in the morning, having passed on. I know that’s the point of hospice, but I also thought the point of hospice was supposed to be comfort… a good death. This doesn’t seem good. It seems hard and scary and uncomfortable. What I’m learning though is that what hospice is truly about is autonomy… about saying enough is enough and living what’s left of your life on your own terms. We don’t always choose the best terms for ourselves, but that’s the thing about choices. No one else gets to make them for us.

Just a week ago, Lyle was looking alright on Christmas day — we brought him an old fashioned and had a nice visit.

As I sat in the maroon recliner at Lyle’s house that morning after the phone call (and a quick run to Dunkin Donuts for an uneaten breakfast sandwich and undrunk cup of coffee), Lyle dozing, in and out, in the blue recliner next to me, I began pecking this post out on my phone. Vague ideas and misspelled, fat-fingered words, just a start. Because I’d realized, despite the headache and the fear, that the idea of what exactly constitutes enough is what I learned in 2016.

Most recently, I’ve worried desperately about Lyle. We’ve lived nextdoor to him since moving in o our house in the summer of 2012, and in that time, we watched Lyle care for his rapidly declining wife, Marlene, Mar, through an awful battle with Alzheimer’s disease that ultimately ended with a broken hip, brief hospitalization, and rapid death last December. In the year since, Lyle has declined even quicker. I’ve seen what a broken heart and battered psyche can do to a man’s body and all the while, I’ve worried about whether what I’m doing to help is enough. As I watch Lyle suffer loss of appetite, mobility, strength, weight, will to live… I’ve constantly wondered about whether I could have done more. I feel like I tried so hard, but had I really tried hard enough, wouldn’t this be a better process? It was yesterday, on New Year’s Eve, as I emptied out Lyle’s catheter bag that I knew suddenly, in no uncertain terms, that I had indeed done enough. Because enough, in this case, is my best… in the face of what Lyle has chosen to be enough for his life. Lyle and I, both imperfect, are both doing our best. For ourselves. For one another.

When I realized that, all the other moments of “enough” throughout this past year flooded into my mind.

After our miscarriage late last year, I needed to demonstrate that I could make my body do something I really, really wanted it to do — for that, only a marathon was enough. And it was exactly what I needed, extreme catharsis.

I desperately wanted (and still want, really) a family, but every aspect of our infertility battle has taken a lot out of us, mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, temporally We were fortunate to find a doctor that understood me, both medically and psychologically – she knew I needed to “leave it all out on the field” or I’d have questions, always wonder, and she advised me accordingly (Christine Broadwell at Generations in Madison, should anyone reading ever need such services). After the second round of IVF with donor eggs, third round of IVF this year, all with no success, we’d finally had enough. Somehow, despite the sadness, profound grief, feelings of failure… there’s also incredible relief in saying “enough!” and believing it.

Likewise, I desperately wanted to make things better for myself and those around me in my place of work and I felt like I fought the good fight for a long time. Actually, I know I did. I tried really hard. But I couldn’t keep doing it. It had become so hard to get out of bed in the morning. So I put down my sword and took a new job in a new department. Two weeks in and I am already profoundly certain that I’ve done the right thing… and I feel good knowing that I did everything I could do to try to stay before saying enough and making the choice to move on.

 

 

Enough, upon reflection, is a beautiful thing. It’s a step back from must-be-perfect to as-good-as-it-gets and I’ve-tried-my-best. To say “enough” and really mean it is a huge relief. Yes, even to give up on a baby, to say enough to infertility treatment, though sad, honestly feels like a relief. We’ve had enough.

Getting to “enough” reflects my autonomy to make a decision about what’s right for me, and to have that kind of autonomy and the wherewithal to use it is a blessing. So, hasta la vista, 2016 — I’m glad to have learned from you, but have really had enough. I suspect I’m not the only one.

Happy 2017, friends! May this year bring you the courage to say “enough” and really mean it!

Reset Button

In early November, Seth and I were in Annapolis for a beautiful wedding with lots of old friends.

I have so many friends! The thing I said about Annapolis is true!!

While there, Seth got a text in two parts. The first part was something along the lines of:

Please don’t say no right away, take some time and think about it…

Time to think about what? The second part was the invitation:

Want to come with us on a 12 days cruise to Australia, Fiji, the Maldives???

We balked, of course. Hence the first part — our friends know us too well. Twelve days off work PLUS the travel time to get to Australia? How could we possibly?

But they’d asked us to think. So we thought. Could we? Should we?

 

We returned to Wisconsin a couple days later and first thing Monday morning was my final pregnancy test — a negative, of course. We promised ourselves no more. We laid down our arms, walked away from the infertility battle, and thought a little more about that trip.

We’d spent the last 5+ years carefully saving vacation time for trips to and from the fertility clinic in Madison, hoping that our stockpiled days wouldn’t be used for more trips, but for the birth of our baby.

The fact of the matter is, there isn’t going to be a baby for us. So… Australia… Fiji… with our best friends… a once in a lifetime opportunity… why not?

We said yes. We booked flights — CWA > DTW > LAX > SYD. We’re really going!

A short while later, all of the sudden, the new job I’d been working on building/acquiring came to fruition. I start on Monday.

And just like that, we’re hitting the RESET button in a very big way.

{Source}

 

I look back on my life five years ago, newly married, fresh out of grad school, really digging my life as a scientific writer, and excited about the family we were going to start and it’s easy to see just how big of a reset this is. I expected us to be full on nuclear, in the family sense — focused on having and rearing a couple of toe-headed braniacs with stubborn dispositions (that’s anice way of saying jerks… but they would have been my little jerks). But that’s not reality, and a reset is necessary to bring me back to earth.

I’ve always enjoyed the end of one year and the beginning of another. I love that the advent season, with its time for reflection and focus on the coming light, blends seamlessly with the new calendar year and two weeks later with a new year for me personally when my birthday hits. This year is extra special, a bonafide reset, for three reasons.

First, early on the morning of November 7th, before our last negative pregnancy test, my sleepy Seth rolled over in bed to tell me that no matter the results, he loves me and I am enough. My heart… it somehow simultaneously broke and swelled. He thinks that I, just me, no baby, am enough. I can’t tell you how much that settled me into this new reality. Seth, Curls, and me — a happy little family.

Second, on Monday, I start my new job — my dream job, really. The dream I didn’t know I had until two years ago when I started working more and more with community facing programs and the amazing woman who will be my boss. I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve done so far and I’m so excited to dedicate myself full time to a position I feel so passionate about. I was feeling a bit insecure on Friday — what if they find out they hate me? But I start during Christmas celebration week and I’m the Leslie Knope of gift giving AND cooking baking… there’s no way they won’t be impressed. Bring on Sneaky Santa!

{Source}

Finally, on January 28th, we’ll be getting out of dodge, crossing the equator for the first time, and heading to the other side of the world for nearly three weeks. I never thought a trip like this could possibly be a reality, but we’re doing it together, with our friends, and it’s going to be incredible. I know it in my bones.

omg. omg. omg. @rachelstanksi is ME!

 

Meanwhile, a reset is really only a reset if the reset-y things actually change you for the permanent. And in this case, I very much suspect they will.

For the time in maybe ever, I actually believe that I am enough for Seth. Worthy. I know that makes me sound like I’m in some sort of terrible, abusive relationship, and maybe I am… but Seth’s not the perpetrator. My traitorous psyche, the “second track” I’ve often referenced, is. But what further proof could I possibly need than everything we’ve been through for the sake of having a baby, and to have Seth still, faithfully, happily by my side? He thinks I’m enough (block head, frizzy hair and all), and I think he might be right — we’re M-F-E-O*, baby or not.

Second, I’ve found true meaning in my work. I am so excited to dedicate my time and talents to the amazing things being done in the Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach. I see such incredible work going on, such incredible dedication to community health from a variety of perspectives (e.g., high risk youth, alcohol and other drugs of abuse, social determinants of health), and I want to tell the story, give it a voice, make people aware, continue to build programs and make them replicable in other communities.

Finally, I’m going to live my life now — starting by spending the time to go on an amazing vacation. No more saving and banking for something that may or may not happen. And I need to translate that into using “yes” and “no” appropriately at other times as well. Yes to community engagement and social events, but no when it becomes to much and I need to recharge the introvert batteries. Yes to the things that are truly good for me, and no when things hurt. I’m practicing already — we’re going to a dinner party with friends tonight! Yes, yes, yes!

 

Anyway, given my recent track record, I suspect I won’t write again before the new year — so I hope you enjoy the holidays, wherever you are, whoever you’re with, and I’ll look forward to sharing a new adventure in 2017!!

R

A happy Belvedersary, even still.

I’ve got to admit, I’m at something of a low point. Until now, things always seemed to work out according to some sort of natural order… and if they didn’t, it was removed enough from my day-to-day life that I was able to deal and keep going.

Losing the infertility battle, though… it feels like I’ve been cut in half, scooped and scraped clean, and refilled with something unfamiliar and painful before being put back together. I don’t know how to move forward. I can’t figure out what comes next.

Though far more painful than the last, it’s not the first time I felt adrift…

On Friday, we celebrated our sixth Belvedersary. Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, we mark the fateful day in 2010 on which a weird series of events led to our next big step. I was in grad school at the time and had spent nearly six years being trained for a career in academia… a career that I knew I didn’t want. But a girl needs a job and I was desperately searching for an better-than-nothing position as a post-doc after graduation. Until that day we celebrate year after year.

On the day after Thanksgiving in 2010, and please forgive me for repeating myself (it’s been a while), Seth and I were in Wisconsin for the holiday when my in-laws suggested we head to Marshfield for a fish fry at the Belvedere Supper Club, a quick stop at Festival Foods for a couple bottles of Captain’s Walk White to bring back to Maryland, and a tour of the Marshfield Rotary Winter Wonderland at Wildwood Park and Zoo. On the way through Marshfield, I noticed the big clinic anchoring the town… and the rest is history.

My future as a Scientific Research Writer was literally triggered by a million tiny light bulbs.

It doesn’t get much more obvious than that.

 

So yesterday, my amazing-at-humoring-me in-laws came to Marshfield to join Seth and me in celebrating our sixth Belvedersary.

First, a fish fry at the Belvedere.

belvedere-2016
Love him for humoring me; I only ever get one shot at a photo. If I get one at all. Oh, Sethy!

Then, the lights at Wildwood.

wildwood-2016
Just the drive through version for now… we’ll walk the park when there’s snow on the ground, it’s even prettier then.

It was so much fun. It’s always fun. And it’s such a good reminder of how things can work out, even if it’s in a way I couldn’t in a million years have anticipated.

 

And last night, celebrating our Belvedersary with people I love very, very much, my ucky new insides didn’t feel quite as painful as they did the day before. I don’t know if the future will be as clear as the million lights at Wildwood this time, and I know that I’m going to hurt for a while, but there will be a future. Somehow, some way. Just not the one I imagined.

Dear Body: A Letter of Apology and Appreciation

Dear Body,

It’s been a long five years, but the journey is over and it’s time for me to reflect on what that journey has been like for you. Miserable, right? And oh my gosh, am I ever sorry.

Five years ago, we started trying to get pregnant. It was fun at first (wink), until a couple of months had gone by and we had to get a little more serious. So I watched you like a hawk. Just tracking at first. Then predicting ovulation, a basal body temperature first thing in the morning, peeing on ovulation predictor sticks. The doctor refused to see us in that first year, that’s how it works — nothing for 12 months. And month after month, the fear grew, the frustration built, I hated you.

So, I started to subject you to ever more invasive interventions. It was just pills at first — the clomid with it’s bloating, headaches, and artificially elongated cycles that led to unrealized hopes month after month. Then came the intravaginal ultrasounds… and those wouldn’t stop for the next four years. Probes and clamps and ultrasounds and ultrasounds and ultrasounds. Six months later, the clomid had failed too.

So we traveled to Madison. Three rounds of IUI, four of IVF. Pills, injections (so many needles — bruising, bleeding, nerve damage), sticky patches and adhesive burns, another hysteroscopy, with a camera this time, so… many… ultrasounds… and every time, failure. Except the one time, when for 10 weeks when we thought otherwise, only to result in a stopped heart, a nearly unbearable surgery, and the worst months of my life.

It was awful, really. But it was impossible for me to let go of the hope, nor the anger at you. Until now.

Because, Body… you endured. The sticks, pokes, clamps, ultrasounds, surgery, heartbreak. You endured all of that, plus the physical symptoms of grief, anxiety, depression, and extreme stress. You may not have made me the baby I had so desperately hoped for, but you did every other thing I asked. Even ran that marathon. And for that, I am grateful.

So, Body, I’m done now. And you’ve certainly earned the kindness coming your way. At least 5 years-worth, probably more. I promise to give that to you. Of course, there will continue to be physical consequences for a while yet… you’ve been through a lot and I can’t make it all go away in an instant, particularly the physical manifestations of the anxiety and depression as I work to figure out a new way forward.

We’re in this together, and you’ve hung in there through some seriously tough stuff these past five years. I’m sorry for what I put you through, I appreciate how hard you let me try, how long you let me hold on to what was an impossible hope. Thank you for that. I’ll do better for you from now on.

So much love, for real,

Rachel

 

PS: Next time someone tells you to “relax,” permission granted to take swing.

My Year of Fear

Over three years ago, I started Under the Tapestry with a question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Over three years since my first post! Hard to believe!
Over three years since my first post! Hard to believe!

I answered the question by sharing my story, by putting my words out there, and engaging (with the internet) in an honest and authentic way.

It’s been stilted lately, though, this little blog-o-mine. And I’ve struggled to figure out why.

 

Last week, I enjoyed my first two days at Leadership Marshfield, a training program put on through the Marshfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MACCI) focused on enhancing the ability of potential community leaders to function effectively. It was an amazing experience and I’m really excited to continue with the program over the next 7 months… but it’s already had an impact.

Yay, Marshfield! I did this tiny town of mine!! {Source}
Yay, Marshfield! I dig this tiny town of mine!! {Source}

On the second day of the two day retreat, we were instructed to prepare to share our personal leadership hero(es) with the group… with a prop. Naturally, on my way home from day one, I stopped at the (brand spanking new and beautiful) Everett Roehl Marshfield Public Library to check out a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. (Don’t get me wrong, I own it, of course… but a Kindle just doesn’t make a terribly effective prop, in my opinion.) It was actually on the cart behind the circulation desk to be reshelved, which made my heart happy knowing someone else had recently had their hands on it, and I brought it with me the next day.

Still my favorite -- find it on Amazon here.
Still my favorite — find it on Amazon here or check out your local public library!

The next morning, I stood up in front of the group and talked about my two leadership heroes:

(1) Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, who changed my entire perspective about what it really means to engage in my life, my workplace, and my community. She taught me not to be ashamed or afraid of what and who I am, to value myself for my talents and my passions, and to move forward, with gusto, whenever I’m able.

(2) Ronda Kopelke, Director of the Marshfield Clinic Center for Community Outreach, who showed me what an amazing manager and leader should look like, up close and in practice. She continues to teach me (literally daily) what it means to really care about the people around you and to help them understand that you do. She’s also shown me how to be solution-oriented and engage with people in a positive, respectful, relationship-focused manner.

I sat back down, and then Shelley from Roehl popped up (sharing at Leadership Marshfield is popcorn-style… mmmmm… popcorn) and was mad/glad that I stole her thunder/had the same leadership role model as her. Again, my heart, so glad!

I thought a lot about Sheryl Sandberg that day, chatted with Shelley about her and about Lean In at the ROPES course (yes, I did the mother effing high ropes!! impressed? I am! go me!) and thought about what it was that reading that book had done for me and how it had changed my trajectory in the first place.

Sheryl Sandberg was the one who had asked me (and the millions and millions of other readers of Lean In) that question that started it all: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And I did those things. A lot of them. The blog three years ago. The ROPES course three days ago.

But I had never thought about the converse question:

What does it look like when you’re living in fear?

 

I know the answer now. Not on purpose. Not because I want to. But I look back on the last year and I can see, so clearly, what it looks like when I am afraid and I choose to live there.

I run. Literally, metaphorically. All of the above. I ran from my life and from everything that hurt and was scary. I ran and ran and ran. A marathon. Until I broke my foot (not literally, I just pulled a ligament, but it hurts like a b, so there’s that). I ate my way through Festival Foods to run from feelings and stopped vacuuming my floors. I ran from real life. I said yes to everything and anything at work to run from free time and I have ensured that I’ve had none over these past several months. No time to think or dwell, only run. From one assignment to the next. One workout to the next. One bag of chips (or box of candy, carton of ice cream, etc) to the next.

Yeah, I ate a lot... but I ran a lot too. So let's let the photo be of that at this point ;)
Yeah, I ate a lot… but I ran a lot too. So let’s let the photo be of that at this point 😉

I even ran from writing and sharing and speaking and connecting. So much of me was just so tender and everything and anything could be salt in the wound without warning.

I have been afraid.

 

Of what, though, really? Grief after a miscarriage is one thing, but fear? I mean, fear that it would happen again would be rational… but you have to get pregnant first for that to be a possibility… getting pregnant is even less my strong suit than staying pregnant, so what then?

The what, I have to assume, is failure. That infertility wins and this is it. And “it” is failure. A life of settling because I can’t do the thing I want to do. That I felt so strongly I was supposed to do. Meant to do even. Family is the next step — love, (schoooooool), marriage… baby carriage. Even my childhood rhymes said so!

It hurts to fail. And I can do physical pain, but emotional? Nope. I hate it. It feels bad to be jealous, too. And I felt like I had replaced my rose-colored glasses with green ones, everywhere I looked ultrasounds and bumps and even literal baby carriages that weren’t mine. Might very well never be. I don’t like those feelings. I don’t like to fail. So I ran, cowered, stopped vacuuming.

 

This September, the anniversary of all the bad stuff came and went. The missing heartbeat on September 11th. The surgery on the 16th. The black days immediately after when I felt like I couldn’t breath… and didn’t want to. A year later, I’m still here. Still moving. And slowly recognizing a haze of fear. Recognition.

 

I take you back to the scene in Love Actually when Mark confesses his completely unrequited love to Juliet (yes, I’ve literally already said this) and then walks away, saying to himself, “Enough. Enough now.” It’s like that. Just like that.

Enough now.

Time to move on. To stop being afraid. Or, at the very least, to stop running from it. To face fear head on. Like Brene Brown and FDR’s man in the arena (highly recommend Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly). But also like Shana Niequist in Present Over Perfect (my newest and truest literary love affair) — sitting with it, even when it’s uncomfortable. Letting myself feel it and living my life anyway.

We have a lot of moments in life that are before and after type moments. Things that define us. But sometimes the moment is longer than a moment. Sometimes the moment is more like a year. For me, it was a year of fear. A year spent running, but getting nowhere. Except back to life. And that’s ok.

Jesus on Toast: A Paradigm Shift

Another two months without a post, despite working pretty feverishly. The broken bits of me have been so in control. So many days spent tending to my shattered heart blow after  blow.

“He wept because God was unfair, and because this was the way God repaid those who believed in their dreams… I’m going to become bitter and distrustful because one person betrayed me. I’m going to hate those who have found their treasure because I never found mind. And I’m going to hold on to what little I have, because I’m too insignificant to conquer the world.”

But, struggling or not, I continue to work slowly and deliberately toward a new and fresh sense of clarity. A shift in my own personal paradigm about what matters. About what makes life worth it.

“I’ve learned things from the sheep, and I’ve learned things from crystal, he thought. I can learn something from the desert, too. It seems old and wise.”

The big shift: I’m done with silver linings.

If I were running for president, you could call me a flip flopper. But good news! I’m not now and probably won’t ever. So… since I don’t actually have to worry about what the press and populous think of me,  I’m free to change my mind all I want. Also to inhale. And to have sexual relations with whomever I want.

I could have made much less boring choices…

But. Back to that change of mind, which was my point… change of heart, really.

“Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the Soul of the World, and it will one day return there.”

I started this blog on the premise of silver linings. The idea that, no matter how awful something seems, there’s always something good hidden inside — a pretty picture in the tapestry. And I believed it wholeheartedly. Mostly. For a while.

But there were some cases where it just didn’t fit. Like when I wrote about the death of my friend Nate. I said, even back then, that sometimes there really is no silver lining. The first crack in my neatly crafted narrative.

More recently, as I’ve struggled through infertility, miscarriage, hopelessness and depression, I’ve become less and less convinced of the master plan/pretty picture and looked harder, further, and wider for something else.

Even in this little video, where forest animals animate a snippet of Brene Brown’s TED Talk about vulnerability, empathy, and compassion, a silver lining comes up as kind of a gut punch… so in constantly looking for one, was I inadvertently delivering the punch to myself?

Jerk moose trying to paint silver linings in everyone's dark clouds. {Source}
Jerk moose trying to paint silver linings in everyone’s dark clouds. {Source}

I’ve never exactly been known for self kindness, but this seemed like a whole new low.

I was searching for something, but maybe I was searching for the wrong thing.

“‘Every second of the search is an encounter with God,’ the boy told his heart. ‘When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve known that every hour was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.'”

It started when my brother-in-law picked up my copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning — a book written in two parts, the first a description of Frankl’s experiences as a clinical psychiatrist imprisoned in a series of Nazi concentration camps, the second a description of logotherapy, or the pursuit of meaning in life.

It’s a tiny book that packs a powerful punch. But in a way, I feel like the short length actually does it a disservice. When I was reading it, I was incredibly immersed, convinced it would change my life… but it didn’t take me terribly long to read, and I moved on relatively quickly.

As weeks and months went by and I slowly moved past the miscarriage and into another round of IVF, I felt really ready. But when I went through all of it again and still failed, I found myself back at the bottom of the pit, wallowing, binge eating, crying, so quick to anger, frustrated with everything and everyone — convinced that I am worthless, pathetic, and pointless. But also desperate to claw my way back out (and unable to run another marathon to do so).

Sometimes, like with the marathon, my desperation makes me almost manic. (I realize, of course, that I’m not using that term in a clinically correct way — but it is definitely a frenzied feeling, the need for action, to fix things and fix them NOW.) I thought about the book that Stu had ultimately taken home with him and chose that as my starting point. Because if the problem is that one lacks a point, then it seems as though the solution would be to find one,  to search for meaning, yes?

“You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it is better to listen to what it has to say.”

And so I read. I read and read and read… and am still reading. (See book suggestions below.) But the most important thing that all this reading has done for me to date is to really shift my focus. Away from trying to figure out why the cloud is there, from trying to paint the inside of it silver… and instead, trying to find meaning in the storm.

Searching for silver linings can be a fruitful personal pursuit and I’ve done an awful lot of it; sometimes they even exist to be found. It’s shallow, though. And I have come to believe that the search for meaning is more consistently productive and more fulfilling in the long run. Not only because humans are hard-wired for meaning (Rorshach test, anyone? no? What about Jesus in toast?), but also because meaning is determined from within rather than without. As such, meaning is within my control and subject to my will, not the fickle will of a chance-driven universe.

{Source -- and the article it came from is interesting, too!}
{Source — and the article it came from is interesting, too!}

I know that to say meaning is in our control is contentious… and I was unsure of it at first. But according to the experts in logotherapy that I have read (manically, maniacially?) over the past several weeks, there are three paths to meaning:

  1. Creative (what you make)
  2. Experiential (what you do)
  3. Attitudinal (how you feel)

While all three are technically equivalent, attitudinal is the one of the three that is always at our disposal. No matter what. Even in a concentration camp. Even in the depths of the darkest pit. We always get to choose our attitude.

“That’s what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”

Importantly, choosing our attitude is decidedly not the same things as putting on rose colored glasses or pasting a smile on your face. Because meaning is not the same thing as a silver lining.

For example, I truly believe that there is no silver lining to infertility. I am not going to wake up someday and realize that omg, it was so awesome that I spent five years unsuccessfully trying to start a family or that my miscarriage was the result of a baby that just “wasn’t meant to be.” I will forever grieve those things; they have changed me on a fundamental level. BUT I can find meaning in sharing my struggles. I can find meaning in supporting the women who struggled before me, alongside me, and will struggle after me. I can find meaning in the fact that the family I might eventually have someday will be intentional in a way that not many families truly are. I can find meaning in the education I received through the process — about how love changes hearts, about my own seemingly infinite capacity for hope, the necessity of equality in family building for same-sex couples, the universality of human struggle no matter what form it may take. And perhaps most importantly, I have been given endless opportunities to clarify my values and live an authentic life centered on the things that mean the most to me.

“The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was.”

After I miscarried, my dad told me that I’d find meaning someday — because the universe was teeming with it. It felt a little like a platitude, but I knew that it wasn’t, because my dad doesn’t speak in platitudes. He was just 10 steps ahead of me down this road, I think. Maybe that’s because it’s a road that can only really be known by experience. By crossing the desert, and listening to your heart as you go.

“‘Everyone has his or her own way of learning things,’ he said to himself. ‘His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that.'”

Maybe you believe that meaning is to be found in a gift from the universe. And you can keep looking for your signs, omens, and silver linings. It’s ok if there’s where you think you’ll find meaning. But I know that I won’t. I can’t believe in meant-to-bes — because if I do, I have to believe that I’m not meant to be a mom. And I can’t believe in #blessed because what does that make me? #cursed? And I know now that silver linings are desperate and unfounded strokes of luck that seem like meaning, but really aren’t. Meaning is something more than that. And meaning is what I truly desire, in my heart of hearts.

Most importantly, when you find meaning in your life… you cannot also be pointless. A meaningful life is never pointless.

“No matter what he does, every person on earth play a central role in the history of the world. And normally he doesn’t know it.”

I’m getting there. To a point where, on more days than not, I can see meaning. I can feel it. And at the very least, that allows be to peek my head up over the edge of the pit.

Last week, on the brink of pregnancy, an implantation scheduled for two days away, I got a phone call from my clinic… canceling the whole thing. Nearly 60 days of drugs and injections, thousands more dollars, hopes as high as hopes could be over our 4 – 5 fertilized eggs and it all came crashing down one more time. I cried. There was snot. I had to call Seth. I went to the office next door to get kleenexes and comfort from a coworker. I worked late. I went home. I ate marshmallows and cried some more while my sweet pup licked tears from my face.

I experienced legitimate grief. Disappointment. Frustration. I dangled my feet over the edge of the pit and looked into the abyss. And then I took a deep breath. And another. Even thought it was nearly 8 pm, I got up, I went into the kitchen, and I cooked myself a nice dinner. I vegged, watched The Bachelorette while I ate. I snuggled Curly on the couch and went to bed. I knew my life wasn’t over. And by the end of it all, I knew we still weren’t quite done trying — because our hearts are broken, but they still beat family… family… family…

“The boy and his heart had become friends, and neither was capable now of betraying the other.”

When my dad told me that the universe teems with meaning, I thought of silver lined clouds and blessings-in-disguise. But I really understand meaning now and I’m letting it into my heart, day by day, little by little. It’s a better way… for me.

[All quotations above are from The Alchemist by Paul Coelho — with thanks to Nicole M. for the perfect and timely recommendation. This girl knows what’s up.]

 

Recommended Reading (if you like any of these ideas):

  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy by Viktor Frankl
  • Meaning in Suffering: Comfort in Crisis through Logotherapy by Elisabeth Lukas and Joseph B. Fabry
  • The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo
  • The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

The Paper Tiger Breeding Program: Thoughts on Leadership

A couple weeks ago I saw a great documentary called Paper Tigers, which illustrates the effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on behavior and other health outcomes by following students and staff at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington over the course of a school year. It was incredible movie. It really does a beautiful job of making  what has always been, for me, an academic/philosophical discussion of ACEs real. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. A full-length documentary? So very many more! If you’re at all interested in the effects of childhood trauma or the social determinants of health, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Despite my familiarity with the topic (I routinely work with our clinic’s child abuse physician on programmatic and research endeavors, particularly those related to ACEs and trauma-informed care), I didn’t get the title until two-thirds of the way through the movie. As one of the featured teachers speaks over scenes of the school, he explains that the traumas these children have experienced have left their brains incapable of differentiating between real and imaginary threats; between real and paper tigers.

Light bulb!

I loved the concept so much! So I did some hard hitting, in-depth research. Ahem. According to Wikipedia:

Paper tiger is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu (紙老虎). The term refers to something that seems threatening but is ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge.” {Source}

I just loved that distinction so much — real vs. paper tigers. It was so striking in the context of this movie… and then a few days later, still rolling it around in my mind, I had reasoned it into a completely different context.

Real tigers are dangerous. Ask Siegfried and Roy. Ask Pi (from The Life of…).

Yet… real tigers are also the shiz. Even in the examples above. Even after an attack that may or may not have been “secondary and accidental,” Siegfried and Roy continued their magic show full of tigers (and lions too! oh my!) and now maintain a menagerie in Las Vegas. And what would Pi have done without the striped and terrifying Richard Parker?

Real Tigers: Stripes and Teeth, Talent and Danger {Source and Source}
Real Tigers: Stripes and Teeth, Talent and Danger {Source and Source}

Paper tigers, on the other hand, are only an illusion. They look like tigers, but they’re not dangerous. Nor are they the shiz. They’re just paper — no threat, but no talent either. Except that, like Daniel Tiger, they can go to the potty.

{Source}
{Source}

And that’s what I want to talk about, really.

Not every job, every position, every organization needs to be full of tigers. But when you’ve got a tiger, a beautiful, brilliant, maybe even somewhat dangerous tiger, it seems only logical that as a leader, you’d want to make them the star of the show, a la Siegfried and Roy. Or at least learn to appreciate their company, like Pi. Instead, we see tigers in an organizational context (e.g., work, church, school, clubs) reduced in whatever way possible — trim the claws, pull the teeth, tranquilize. And beautiful beasts slink away from places where they could have done so much good with their tails between their legs, a roar stifled in their throat.

To fill the vacancy? An influx of paper tigers. Threat reduced to no more than a paper cut. Leadership can relax.

But is someone in a leadership role really a leader if they can’t appreciate a real tiger?

This, I believe, is the crux of the problem. Too often we conflate management and leadership. We end up fooled into believing that they are one and the same.

I would suggest, however, that management and leadership are two separate and distinct constructs– not mutually exclusive, but to be certain, each can and does exist without the other.

Brene Brown puts it poignantly in the introduction to Chapter 6 Disruptive Engagement: Daring to Rehumanize Education and Work in her book Daring Greatly. She says:

“Before we start this chapter, I want to clarify what I mean by ‘leader.’ I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes. The term leader has nothing to do with position, status, or number of direct reports.”

I’m completely in love with this definition for two reasons. First, it explicitly removes position and power from the notion of leadership. Second, it centers on an idea of leadership characterized by accountability and a desire to recognize, appreciate, and make use of the talents, skills, and other valuable traits of those around you.

To bring this idea back to my own long-winded metaphor, a leader is someone who keeps the company of tigers. Real tigers. And likes it.

 

But what about the danger?

 

In Daring Greatly, Brown’s entire premise revolves around a really amazing quotation from a 1910 speech given by Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the area, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and short-coming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worth cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

As an academician, clinician, and shame researcher, Brene Brown describes how this whole idea of daring greatly is based on the willingness to be vulnerable. To allow ourselves to be seen, to open ourselves up to hurt, and to be willing to fail.

Most importantly, none of these things require position, status, or power. And since that’s the case… can do it, you can do it, anyone can do it anywhere. As such, I think more of us need to lead from where we are, when we’re there, and in whatever way we can. Refuse to be de-clawed, continue to roar, and appreciate the stripes of the other tigers around us. Look those tigers in the eye and thank them for being big and beautiful and brilliant and special. Maybe even encourage a paper tiger to leap off the page (like Pinocchio — I’m a real boy!).

I spend a lot of time feeling frustrated about my position and I suspect a lot of others do too. We feel unappreciated and powerless in our organizations, but we’re not because we can look out for other tigers and make ourselves accountable for recognizing their potential. We can lead from where we are… step out of the paper tiger breeding program and roar our loudest roar.

The Precipitate’s Not the Problem: An Infertility Primer for the Non-Infertile

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” – Your Mom

Or maybe not your mom. Maybe it was your dad or a great auntie. Maybe a principal or a well-meaning member of the safety patrol. Whoever it was — someone said it to you at some point. And you got the point. Unless you’re trying to fix the problem, you are the problem. We’ve all internalized it. And since no one ever ever wants to be the problem, our natural inclination is to offer solutions, to fix it.

And then we all grew up a bit. If you’re anything like me, you became even nerdier. Maybe you even got into the chem scene (which makes chemistry sound cool, don’t you think?). If that’s the case, you may have latched onto this alternative adage — my personal favorite:

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” – All the Nerds

{Source}
{Source}

It made you laugh and laugh (not as much as the ether bunny or the ferrous wheel, of course), but you knew deep down that it was only a chem joke. Not a real life lesson.

Or is it?

I posit that it’s a better saying, really. More accurate for particularly complex problems, like infertility. Because to extend the chemistry metaphor a bit further — in the case of infertility, there are only two solutes in solution. My partner and myself. Anyone else can really only be part of the precipitate. A precipitate can’t fix anything, it just hangs out in the tube, separate. But that doesn’t make it part of the problem.

{Image Source -- Thanks Dartmouth Chem Lab}
{Image Source — Thanks Dartmouth Chem Lab}

In the wake of our most recent crappy news, we’ve been offered a lot of love, a ton of support, and so very many ideas for next steps — ranging from “just relax” to offers of surrogacy and referrals to adoption case workers. These fixes come from a place of love, good intentions, and probably also a subconscious devotion to the first quote above. Unfortunately, it’s no one’s problem to solve. Instead, it’s Seth and my path to walk and because I know it’s hard to understand, hard not to want to fix, I thought it might be nice to share some aspects of infertility from my own perspective.

But you ain’t got no eggs!

Infertility happens for a million and one different reasons. Or even for no discernable reason at all. There’s male factor and female factor infertility. One or both partners can be affected. There can be no eggs, poor eggs, an inability to release eggs. Similarly, no sperm, poor sperm, immobile sperm. It can be mechanical — related to the shape or size or functional ability of the uterus, the shape or size of the vas deferens. It can be scar tissue, the result of surgeries, childhood radiation treatments. Genetic, chromosomal, hormonal issues. All of the above, none of the above, anything in between, or something else altogether.

We started out with “unexplained” infertility (i.e. everything seemed to be just fine). While it’s good to have nothing obviously wrong, lack of diagnosis makes treatment much more difficult — everything is just a guess at that point. However, after lots of tries (see below), we ultimately ended up with a diagnosis of diminished ovarian reserve. That means that despite being just 32 (and only 27 when we started trying to conceive), my eggs are just about out. The tank is approaching E and the few eggs I do have left are poor in quality — hence the miscarriage late last year. That’s our reason. And ultimately, it has the greatest impact on our potential solutions. So while I appreciate the offers of uteri for rent and the like, that’s not actually going to help me one bit. My body is technically quite capable of carrying a healthy pregnancy, we’re just missing half of the equation.

Grieving the loss of imaginary piggies.

Miscarrying last September was really hard. It was the most difficult experience of my life to date and the grief still comes so fiercely sometimes that all I can do is hold on and ride the wave for a while. I still had hope though, I thought that pregnancy would be followed by another. That we would have our own children. As it turns out, though, the lack of eggs means that the thing I’m really grieving is an imaginary future — one that was never going to exist, but always felt real to me in my mind. I’ve spent years wondering about the curly blonde babes Seth and I would someday bring into this world. I’ve always imagined us like Piggy and Kermit — all the girls would be pigs, all the boys would be frogs. Would they have my green eyes or Seth’s blue? My ready, beaming smile or Seth’s slower, more mischievous, lopsided grin?

Imaginary future... {Source}
Imaginary future… {Source}

And then just like that — I’ve been removed from the equation. No piggies at all. I can’t pass on the Vonck mouth. My genes won’t ever go anywhere, no matter what we decide to do next. That’s a hard pill to swallow. Something I have to wrap my mind around. Another loss to grieve, but how? There’s no memorial in the cemetery for this loss and it’s hard to know how to let it go.

All magic comes with a price, dearie.

After more than a year of trying to conceive on our own, we sought medical care for infertility and decided early on that we wanted to exhaust our possibilities to have biological children. And exhaust them we did. We’ve spent many, many, many thousands of dollars on diagnostic testing and assisted reproductive technology ranging from simple clomid and timed intercourse to intrauterine insemination (IUI) and finally two rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) over the course of 4+ years.  Side-effects, needles, injections, ultrasounds, surgeries, procedures, tears and snot and stress and rage and bloating and month after month after month of disappointment. We did it all for a chance — all at great cost.

None of it worked for us. Now we know why. And because we’re quite certain that we do indeed want to be parents, we’re left looking at the next set of alternatives.

Egg donation, adoption, fostering. And even those options have sub-options — fresh or frozen, international or domestic, public or private. And those sub-options have sub-sub-options — how do you pick a donor? Physical characteristics? Genetics? Occupation? Personality? Psych profile? And if you adopt — are you prepared to wait for an eternity? Are you willing to let a birth parent pick you? What if they change their minds? What if you fall in love with a foster child and then they get sent back to their biological parents (Wisconsin focuses on reunification whenever possible)? Can you bare that? Can you bare any of it?

It’s a lot to think about. So much to process. And all of it — every last option — comes at great cost. Physically, emotionally, financially. On top of everything we’ve already been through, every time we hear “at least” (e.g., at least you know you did everything you could, at least you can afford it) or “just” (e.g., why don’t you just adopt?) it’s like salt in the wound — minimization of everything we’ve done so far and the difficult road ahead to family. Yes, we are fortunate that we can consider options, but that doesn’t make the necessity of considering them any easier.

It’s not you, it’s me. 

The ugliest truth about infertility is that it colors everything. Over these last four years, infertility has become increasingly woven into my being and I have a hard time separating who I am from this thing I can’t do. I’m not proud to admit it, but in the face of cutesy pregnancy announcements, #blessed ultrasound pictures, and bow-decked baby bumps, happiness for those that I love and a sense of jealousy and bitterness are always there in equal measure. Of course, I wouldn’t wish infertility on my worst enemy, but that doesn’t mean I handle fertility with any kind of grace and I’m issuing a blanket apology for my poor reactions. It’s not you, honestly, it’s me. And presumably, someday it will get better, easier, to just be happy.

But here’s the most important thing: the announcements, photos, bumps, hashtags, motherhood memes — none of them have anything at all to do with me. So you shouldn’t stop doing them. It’s all worth celebrating and my scroogey attitude shouldn’t take away from that.

Conversely, radical self-care and self-preservation means that some Facebook friends are hidden and I won’t be RSVPing yes to a baby shower or making any more baby blankets for the foreseeable future. It’s too painful. I don’t ask for forgiveness or even understanding, just patience.

All roads lead to Rome.

Ultimately, there are a lot of different paths to parenthood. At present, I struggle because I don’t like any of the choices. Or, more accurately, I don’t want to have to make a choice. I will come around though. I always do, but as I said above, there’s no “just” about any of the paths. Once pregnancy via sex and waiting is off the table, nothing feels simple anymore.

In my present state of mind, egg donation proves that Seth really should have married someone else and fostering/adoption is unlikely to work out considering that even God wouldn’t choose me to raise a child — why would anyone else? Thankfully, Seth is much more capable of rational thought at the moment and I’m slowly starting to wrap my mind around some of the options. One foot in front of the other, all the way to Rome.

Not everybody wants to go to Rome.

But then again — Rome isn’t for everyone in the end. And there’s nothing wrong with making that decision for yourself. Families come in all shapes and sizes, Seth and I are a family all on our own and puppy makes three. Ultimately, though, the societal assumption is that if you’re infertile, you want to have children in any way possible and there’s the tendency to push couples struggling with infertility to pick a road and get to parenthood, one way or another.

Right now, Seth and I are pretty certain that we want to find a path to parenthood, but I think it’s really important that people accept any choices we do decide to make from the perspective of the precipitate. These things are incredibly personal and based only a little on biology, medicine, and rational thought. More than anything, we have to trust our emotions, our hearts, and each other to make the right choices for us moving forward. We both have to be on board with something 100%, no judgement if not.

The same goes for any other couple, any other family, and if you find yourself interested in learning more, I highly recommend perusing CNN’s recent infertility awareness week series. I shared this article on Facebook this morning and got a great response to it:

When you ‘come out’ about infertility

And there are several related articles written by or about couples who’ve made a variety of different choices that make great points about why people don’t talk about infertility (and why they should), how a “happy ending” to infertility can mean different things to different people, and how varied infertility experiences can be.

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the writing of Brene Brown and Anne Lamott and Jenny Lawson. Brave women who share their stories in an honest and beautiful way — they’ve opened me up to a whole new level of comfort in the idea of vulnerability and struggle and story telling and I think that for me, infertility is another avenue for that. The ranks of the infertile… not a tribe I’d have chosen to join, had it been a choice at all, but it’s a fierce one and I’m in good company. Someday, I’ll have a very intentional family and Seth by my side and I’ll be in good company then too. Thanks so much for being here through it all <3

 

Negative.

Our pregnancy test was negative and it’s all over now. I’m not ready to talk about it, definitely not ready to be any kind of positive about it. I need some time and space to grieve the future I had envisioned because it is most certainly gone, and that’s a hard thing to let go. It’ll take some time. I’ll be back when I’m done.
Thanks so much for hanging in there with me. 

A thought exercise (for me) and job offer (for Mindy Kaling).

Guys, I am struggling. All the hormones, all the waiting. The exhaustion — mental and physical. The guilt and negative thoughts. I’m really struggling.

But after an hour of tears in my therapist’s office and the ugly sobbing of so many incredibly unkind words toward myself, Dr. C suggested a thought exercise.

While I can’t quite wrap my mind around self-kindness, to treat myself as though I were a good friend, I can invent a friend and do pretty much the same. (I’m excellent at make believe, which is the nice way of saying lying.) I can invent a friend with a new diagnosis of, say, MS. (She was infertile at first, but Dr. C though maybe that would be a bit too much. So MS it is.) A debilitating and life-altering disease. A diagnosis that affects an individual and his or her partner. Sort of like infertility…

What would I say to that friend?

To my fictional friend, recently diagnosed with MS.

Your life is different now and will always be different. But your life is most definitely not over.

In fact, nothing has actually changed. Instead, you have an answer. It’s a terrible, horrible, no good and unwanted answer. But it’s an answer. And the answer doesn’t actually change a single thing about you.

The MS was always there. It’s a cruel trick of genetics, fate, chance. A cruel trick of whatever it is you believe controls the uncertainty in life.

(Personally, I believe in biology and probability, even when I don’t like it. (And sub-parenthetical, I apologize for being the kind of friend who cites their own blog in a letter to a friend.) But I have to let you chalk it up to whatever it is that you believe in.)

It’s not a punishment or a judgement on your moral fiber, the being that is you. It’s a circumstance. And you are not a victim of circumstance.

You are brave. You are resilient. You are head strong and heart sure. You love and are loved. None of those things will change. They are, like you, unshakable at their core. Because they make up your core.

Yes, there will be bad days. Days when MS feels like the only thing. When it feels suffocating and dark and all encompassing. Those days will pass. And there will be good days, days when you forget MS exists at all. Those days will pass too. Each is only a day. A day inhabited by the same brave and beautiful you, capable of anything and everything. Even surviving, living, thriving.

No one who loved you before loved you because you didn’t have MS. And there’s no reason to expect that anyone will love you less because of it. You are loved for something much deeper than your external circumstances, including what your body can or can’t do — by your spouse, your family, your friends, your dog. Like you, those loves will not change.

But the MS may, and likely will, change your mind and work some magic on your heart. It may increase your capacity for empathy and understanding. Maybe it has done these things already. Yes, it may also sometimes make you feel jealous and ragey and bitter about the able-bodied, unaffected folks around you. But a small price to pay for the beauty and appreciation and opening of heart you get to experience, don’t you think?

It’s not so much that MS itself is a blessing. More so that it’s not a curse or a punishment. It’s not out to get you. It’s not your fault. And because you are who you are, you can take what MS gave you, the cliched lemons, and make some cliched lemonade. Maybe some lemon bars too. Because you’re talented in that way and always go beyond the cliche to find something a little deeper and a little more dusted in powdered sugar.

Yes, MS is forever and it is yours to live with for all that time. But you will. Live. And love. And be happy and sad. Joyful and sorrowful. Grateful and jealous. Brave and scared. Just like everyone else, but also a little bit different than most.

I can’t necessarily understand, but I’m here for you, as your friend, as someone who loves you. And I’ll always be here for you, as someone who tries to understand and never stops loving you. No matter what.

Always.

R

Meant to be a mom or not, I can be a pretty stellar friend. Certainly a better friend than internal monologue-ist (which is not a real thing, I just invented it to make the point that I’m a total jerk to myself). And now, when my own verdict arrives in the near future, I can read the letter above. I can sub out the MS and sub in a state of infertility no longer changeable. And most importantly, I won’t have to go to my crappy internal monologue-ist for her thoughts on the matter. In fact, I may even have to let her go and re-post for the position.

We’ve decided to go in another direction…

Help Wanted — Qualifications: eloquent, Harry Potter fan with good sense of humor. No jerks need apply.

And with that, I suspect I may be trying to hire Mindy Kaling as my internal monologue-ist. She’s even had appropriate experience. This could be excellent.

{Source}
Couldn’t have found a better picture — results on Thursday. Two days is like forever from now. {Source}