lifting the lens

I think sometimes in the midst of the bombardment of disappointments and devastation the world seems to hurl freely these days, it becomes easy to lose sight of just how much authorial control we still have within our lives. It becomes easy to unwittingly sink into helplessness and to relinquish our rights to the details of our story without even an honorarium paid. Lately, the stuff  of  life has become exceedingly good at bullying us into believing that we need a new year or a new phase of life to be able to fully enjoy and live into our existence.

Except that is such a lie. Such a lie.

And to sit idly, waiting for something to come along and offer immediate healing is a dangerous stance to take. In doing this we become bystanders in our own lives, rather than active participants. It is an admission and acceptance that our joy can only come from someone or someplace else. That we cannot create that for ourselves and must wait for it to be delivered on a schedule that isn’t published or even guaranteed.

In this season of giving thanks, remembering that in every circumstance we have the ability to lift the lens of gratitude rather than the scope of victimization holds the potential to restore our outlook. We have the ability to empower ourselves to seek the goodness in the scant and the beacon in the bleak. In the moments in my life in which I have felt the deepest grief and the least control over my circumstances, gratitude has unfailingly delivered a way forward while restoring my rights to the details of my own story.

There was no other way to walk toward peace after delivering a child into a world he would never know. The Oprah Show was still airing daily in the year that we lost Nathan. And you know, Oprah’s words carried weight, so when she began talking about the importance and life changing qualities of something as simple as gratitude, I paid attention. Okay, I also thought she had lost her mind. I was so deep in grief. I was so angry and for so many reasons. I was so full of shame and regret. And I couldn’t seem to let go of any of it let alone summon the strength to seek gratitude. What could I possibly have to be grateful for?

But Oprah said gratitude changed lives, so I tried it.

It wasn’t easy.

As Joy Harjo writes, “Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.” (link below)

Gratitude is an active stance and as such required total effort on my part. Without constant attention and care, without a mindfulness to lift the lens, gratitude disintegrates before it can invigorate. There is one day that the lens was lifted for me…one day that sort of changed everything. I was leaving the house of a friend who delivered her child a month or two after we lost ours, and I had to pull over because I was weeping so hard it became impossible to drive. I had just stopped in to deliver some treats and to see the sweet babe and somehow hadn’t prepared myself for the onslaught of emotion that would follow. As I sat in my car sobbing beneath the weight and complexity of loss, I caught a glimpse of the sky. It was crystal blue–not a cloud to be seen–and it was stunning and somehow full of hope that things would not always be so cloudy and dim. A switch flipped. Through my tears and with a shaky voice, I spoke into gratitude (like literally out loud)–thank you for this amazing sky to remind me that there is still light in the world…there is still hope.

Everyday after that moment, as I walked the often shadowy path toward peace after loss, gratitude was my guide…my signpost. But more importantly, gratitude was my choice. Gratitude (and well, I guess Oprah too) changed my life.

So, even now, in the face of all that 2020 has delivered, in the face of chronic illness and pain, in the face of so much uncertainty and turmoil, I walk the world wielding gratitude because that is something I can control…that is something I don’t need to wait for…that is something that even in the most treacherous moments unfailingly shines a light. It is not a perfect practice and often requires effort I don’t feel like exerting, but it is a worthwhile endeavor every single day of the week.

“For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” by Joy Harjo, referenced earlier, speaks to this effort towards gratitude beautifully. Honestly, it is worth clicking the link and reading the whole thing–this poem is stunning and a gorgeous reminder. But just in case, at least I can leave you with this excerpt…

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.”

(And trust me. This is not an attempt to oversimplify of the vast weight of mental illness. I am not offering gratitude as some kind of simplistic inoculation against the depths of depression or any other depletion of mental health.  Just as a way to see a less than forgiving world)

redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)