How to Move Forward When Your “Metrics of Success Have Been Blasted to Shreds.”

A story inspired by Rob Bell.

I grew up in a born-again Christian household, in a largely born-again Christian town. Church on Sunday, sometimes on Saturday, youth group on Wednesday. Church camp, Vacation Bible School and field trips during the summer. No Harry Potter, no Sabrina the Teenage Witch – no dressing up “like anything scary” on Halloween. I remember church and all of it’s functions being a time to socialize with friends, but little to nothing else. Even as a small child attending Sunday school I was always aware that every teaching should be taken with a grain of salt. Not to be interpreted literally, akin to the Grimm’s Fairy Tales on my shelf, or my favorite Aesop’s Fables. Useful stories and cautionary tales. Written by men and usually not very feminist.

Recently I’ve shifted my thinking from a strictly atheist perspective to more of an agnostic outlook. I used to take comfort in the simplicity of believing in what you can see. In science, in practicality, in the fact that when I die all that happens is my own decomposition. Back to the earth. I haven’t quite decided what I believe in now, but what I do know is that the universe is far too complex to believe any of our senses are producing the “truth” because our scope of understanding is simply too small. I do believe that each of us is a tiny part of one larger piece – the earth, plants and animals, and that is why our joy and our suffering is so intrinsically connected. So while I do not believe in god or a creator, I do believe in purpose, in connectedness, in energy, and ultimately in the simple fact that at the fringes of what we like to believe are “scientific facts” are actually whimsical and largely unexplained phenomena that all lead back to the same theme: We can’t believe what we think we know, because at this time our lens is not advanced enough to see what lies beyond our comprehension. There is so much more that we are blind to. When my body goes back to the earth, what really is it feeding? Isn’t that exchange somehow a form of magic?

My entire life I’ve been drawn toward a sense of connectedness. To plants, to animals, and to a feeling of belonging that I can’t quite explain. It’s not a nostalgia for my past or a wish for an ideal future, but a peace I feel on certain days when the smell of wet leaves and dirt sends me off to a place where I truly belong, but haven’t been yet. Crisp air, the sound of wind chimes, and white garden roses losing their petals, my husband and our animals – it’s magic. I feel like every choice I’ve made is leading me down this path, but I’m not sure where it goes, I just know it’s right, and when I get closer, I feel it. I’ve always been good at following my heart. Until this point I’ve always chased tangible dreams. College, business, career. And then one day I realized that all of these successes are amazing, but haven’t led me toward that feeling – to that place I’ve haphazardly been traveling to since the beginning. Toward that connection to something my soul feels but my senses can’t describe or articulate. To the unknown future that I know is there for me to discover. So for the first time I’m sitting with an open heart – trusting the universe to show me why I’m being pulled toward a feeling and a life that by all accounts can’t be measured by traditional metrics of success.

I recently discovered Rob Bell, a pastor and speaker who’s sermon-like podcasts on the Robcast often shed light on feelings or dilemmas that many of us can relate to. I’ve found that when strict religious underpinnings are removed from teachings like his, I love listening to smart and relatable sermons, and often use the time to learn, reflect, and meditate on the ideas. One of his latest episodes “A Hymn For the Curve” is about those of us that are drawn to do things differently, who know things can be better so we change our behavior accordingly. For those of us that simply aren’t sure why we’re drawn to be different, but we are. We take the path less traveled and are often misunderstood. Maybe we’re ahead of the curve, maybe we see something that others can’t yet see. Maybe if everyone saw it then the change wouldn’t be needed. But it is.

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He shared a version of this story:

There are a group of people living in a village near a river. One day they notice a body coming down the river so they jump in to pull it out. Then they notice another, and another, and another. The bodies start coming down the river so fast that the people can’t pull them out fast enough.

Another group of people living nearby observe the problem and decide to help, so they build a dam to help catch the bodies. The bodies begin piling up, but their method makes it easier for them to catch more to pull out at a time. The bodies keep coming down the river at a rapid rate, and eventually the dam will break under the weight because it will become impossible for the people to keep up, even with the dam.

A third group observes both methods, and after watching for a while, they turn their backs on the other villagers and begin walking upstream.

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What we know is that the third group is going exploring. To the other villagers they appear to be dismissive. They seem uncaring and unwilling to help. But in reality, they’re traveling into the unknown to discover where the bodies are coming from and why they’re coming down the river to begin with. They are seeing what the others couldn’t see so that hopefully they can change behaviors and therefore, change the outcome.

Maybe when we’re drawn to something we can’t explain, it’s the universe leading us to the magic. Our minds just haven’t caught up yet.

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Photo: Amanda Lankila Photography

Let’s Be Better At Loss

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief, trauma, and loss lately. Friends and close clients have been experiencing the death of loved ones or being presented with challenging life situations at a rate that seems higher than normal – unusual even. And so it has me contemplating something that one of my best friends said recently in response to the death of one of her close family members – maybe as we get older this just becomes normal.

So maybe we should start teaching ourselves to be better at it.

Learning how to be supportive, understanding, and effective friends and family members to those going through difficult times seems more important than ever. And with all the literal guidebooks out there to help us cope with loss, experience grief and depression, and help others in need, you’d think we would have improved by now. But I’m noticing that we haven’t. And from my own experience, I can say that most of us fail miserably at trying to be supportive – but not for lack of caring. Mostly it’s from lack of understanding and an overall feeling of helplessness. Most of us find the talk of death or trauma uncomfortable at a minimum, and so it goes undiscussed and becomes invisible. And with it, so do the people experiencing it. The world keeps turning even though your world closes in. And because your loved ones (and everyone else around you) are too afraid to discuss it, you’re forced to pretend that that loss, that grief, that trauma never happened. But everything is still different.

I am very aware that I am not any type of expert on loss, grief, or trauma. I’m not an expert on communicating or empathizing either – but I do talk to a lot of people. I don’t know if it’s the writer in me who is constantly compiling stories, or the critical analyzer struggling to understand as much as possible, but I compulsively ask the other question. Not just the what, or where but the why. There’s so much more to be found there, I think.

Yesterday I was in the treatment room with a client who I barely know. This happens rarely but she is the type of client that floats in a couple of times a year for an eyebrow wax, and during that twenty minutes we can only cover so much ground. She had just gotten back from a three-week-long vacation, and I asked her how it went. She said that it was great, but she was really forced to get out of her comfort zone and face some of her biggest fears. So naturally, I asked her to tell me what those fears are. She laughed and asked me if I really cared to know, and I said I’d love to know because then we could have a real conversation. And at the end of those twenty minutes we had both concluded what we’re sure we must have heard Brene Brown say somewhere:

“It’s better to just do it afraid.”

Maybe I’m being nosy. Maybe it’s none of my business. But it turns out we have a lot of the same fears, and it helps to talk about it. And it adds a level of humanity to an interaction that could otherwise skim a surface level simplicity that leaves us both the same.

Let’s apply this to loss.

I had an interaction recently with an acquaintance who had recently suffered a devastating death of a loved one. I had known the person who had passed also, but we weren’t close, and I had discovered the information via social media. When I encountered this person in public we exchanged pleasantries, but after thinking over this whole topic and how horrifying it must be to be trapped inside a mind that is suffering while having to casually respond to “How are you’s” with something like “fine, thanks.” I stopped myself and told this person how sorry I was, and how I know they’re not okay, and that’s okay. They mentioned that they weren’t sure if I knew, and thought it would be weird to bring it up. So I just said, how could this kind of situation get any worse or any weirder? And they laughed and said “I guess you’re right.”

It’s better to just do it afraid.

I thought I’d share the three most important things I’ve learned from experiencing traumatic loss myself, but also from talking with hundreds of people who all have some version of death or trauma that they can share and relate to.

#1) Don’t say nothing.

You will not make your friend, family member or co-worker “feel worse” or remind them of their loss if you offer your condolences, support, or make a gesture to let them know they’re in your thoughts. Most likely, there is no way that they could feel worse, and they are thinking about their loss or difficult situation at all times whether or not someone acknowledges it. It is literally impossible for you to “remind” them that their loved one has passed, for example. They are always painfully aware of that reality.

What can be hurtful is the isolation that we can experience when we’re going through a difficult situation and those around us do nothing, say nothing, and try to treat you like nothing happened. Or worse, ignore you all together because they feel awkward. The fear of saying the wrong thing often translates into saying nothing at all, and that can make the person who is hurting feel frustrated and alone. Just offering up a simple “I’m sorry and I’m here for you” can go a long way for someone who is suffering.

#2) Directly ask the person whether they want to talk about it or not, and then respect their answer.

One of my go-to lines in the treatment room is: “I’m here if you want to talk about it, but if you don’t then that’s completely fine too. We can talk about other things, or not at all.” Sometimes I lead with that statement; sometimes that’s a follow-up to another technique I learned from a client going through a terrible time. I ask how they’re doing today. In general, they are most-likely not doing well, but in this moment, today, they may be doing better or worse. I remember hating it when people who were aware of my loss would ask me a blanket “how are you” because I’d feel confined to answer in a socially acceptable way like “fine” when what I really wanted to say was: “Fucking terrible. How could I feel any differently?”

Some people may want to talk about it. Others may not. Some may tell you ahead of time through a non-confrontational text that they just want you to treat them like nothing has happened when they see you. Others may come through the door at work and immediately break down and tell you everything. But not everyone is that direct, or has the capacity to do those things. The point is to be brave enough to ask them what they actually want instead of saying nothing, or assuming you understand how they feel and want to be treated.

#3) Stop asking what you can do and just do something.

This, in my opinion, is the most difficult one to put into practice. What can you do for someone suffering emotionally other than be there for them? You want to make their life easier during this terrible time, but you’re not sure how, so you ask them. This seems harmless but actually then puts the heavy burden of delegating or deciding on the person who is already mentally and emotionally maxed out. So they usually respond by saying they don’t need anything. Which isn’t usually true.

Depending on the type of relationship you have with this person, the type of “help” will vary. But decide on something and just do it. Say, “I’m coming over with dinner. If you want me to stay and talk, great. If not, that’s great too. I just want you to have some food.” Say, “I know you’re going to be out of town a lot with family in the next couple of weeks. I’d be happy to watch your pets while you’re gone.” Come over and take their dogs on a walk. Babysit the kids for a few hours. Drop off some books or flowers. Sit with them. Answer their phone call.

I know that for me personally, I needed to continue going through my routine in order to keep my life somewhat together. What helped me tremendously, and what to this day I will never forget was the fact that for probably at least six months my sister never left me alone. And my best friends always answered their phones. My sister didn’t do anything in particular, but she was always there. Getting off work and having someone to sit with, and eat with, and watch movies with was very helpful, and being able to call my friends and talk in the middle of the night got me through some dark moments.

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I hope that these few tools can help some of you. I understand that not everyone is the same, and some of you may disagree with my ideas. Maybe my friend was right- as we get older these things start to happen more frequently, so naturally we should get better at dealing with trauma and loss as time goes on. But instead of waiting for practice, I think we should all try to be better now.

Photo: Kimberly Ann Photography

Notes From the Humboldt County Blackout

When was the last time you sat in your living room laughing at shadow puppets cast onto your ceiling in the dark? Cozy pajamas, flashlights, blankets, candles, and good company. No television or computers, phone use is limited, and leaving the house is discouraged. Especially at night when most of the traffic lights aren’t working and the dead street lights emit an eerie tone on the dark sidewalks. But the stars and moon seem to shine brighter than you’ve noticed in the past, even out here in the pacific northwest.

When I got the text message at nearly 7pm on Tuesday night alerting me to the fact that power at my house and my business was being shut off at midnight, for an unknown amount of time, I did not instantly see the silver lining. For those of you that may not have heard, in an attempt to prevent more devastating wildfires from taking place, the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric has decided to implement outages in high-risk locations during extreme weather conditions. The national weather service had declared a high-wind and low-humidity situation throughout huge areas of the bay area and into the northern areas of California. Although our temperatures have been hovering around a cool sixty degrees this week, we did have fairly high winds on Wednesday, and our power here is dependent on lines that run through Shasta county where the weather patterns are much warmer. So out we went.

For an area as secluded and rural as Humboldt county, you’d think we’d handle our shit better. There’s just no way to say that better. Unfortunately the communications from PG&E to the public and local media were lacking. Around 6pm my clients began asking if we were still scheduled for appointments on Wednesday. At that point the only notification I had received was a text message at 11:40am saying “To protect public safety, PG&E may turn power off overnight” with a link to click on for more information. I clicked it, and their website wouldn’t work. I chalked it up to the work they’ve been doing on the gas lines near downtown (since I get notifications from them often). Turning power off “overnight” shouldn’t be a problem.

After several more client texts began to come through, I started to panic. I tried PG&E’s website again, and it finally loaded. I typed in my business address into their outage information page and when the words “area not affected” came up, I assumed our power would stay on. But to double and then triple check I went to the San Francisco Chronicle and ABC News’ websites to cross reference their maps of affected areas in California. Humboldt County showed nothing – hovering hundreds of miles north of the bay area, no colors identifying it in any special way. But if you checked any local news outlet’s social media or current breaking news feeds, all everyone was talking about was the power being shut off at midnight for as long as five days, or even a week. And then at 7pm I got the official text that we were being shut off too – but no one knew for how long.

Yes, the notice was short, and the potential financial impact on local business closures could be massive. I get that. And truthfully that was the only thing I was concerned about. Missing a week of work can be devastating, and since I already have a greatly impacted schedule, working all of my days off to fit clients in can make my busiest season seem all but intolerable. And I had two clients getting married on Saturday. As I texted clients to let them know that I simply would not know until the morning whether my business would be open or not, I thought about the local media stations’ speculation and the fact that PG&E’s website kept crashing with traffic. And so the chaos ensued.

What will the zombie apocalypse look like? Humboldt County hours before a supposed five-day blackout with minimal notice. Sans the actual zombies. Local media channels show lines at gas stations extending out far into the street, empty grocery store shelves, shopping carts full of water, every single store sold out of ice and generators. It feels like when midnight comes, the world will end. Maybe it will.

My sister had to go to several stores to get a portable battery because they were sold out everywhere. The roads were mayhem. At that point I had contacted all my clients, charged my portable battery, and my husband had cranked up the freezer to make more ice and freeze ice packs for the cooler. It’s my raw vegan week. We’ll not only eat well, but extra healthy during the blackout. We feel prepared with our disaster preparedness kit, fruit trees in the back yard, and almost full tanks of gas. And because of that, I was privileged enough to know we’d be perfectly fine for a week with no power, so I decided to hunker down. If this means preventing devastating wildfires, we’re in. I left the house twice in the early morning hours to check on my business – the first day when the power was completely out I took both of my dogs with me, should I encounter anyone in downtown causing trouble in the pitch black.

Needless to say, the atmosphere that a blackout creates is eerily quiet. It’s that feeling you get when you sense someone is watching you, only there probably isn’t. There just isn’t any noise to drown out the thoughts.

Just as soon as the power had gone out and we had all accepted our fate, the power came back on. I missed one day of work, but on Thursday, Humboldt County was back to business as usual. Not before PG&E workers were threatened with violence, a small amount of looting happened, and several people had gotten into minor scuffles, not unlike the usual Black Friday shenanigans we’re used to seeing on the evening news. No pun intended?

I had spent the blackout doing work from my car with my cell phone plugged in, getting a good and uninterrupted workout done, and then playing board games, talking, and eating by candlelight with my family.

Kanan mentioned how bright the stars looked without the glow of light pollution. And seemed to enjoy walking around delivering the mail in a world where for just one beautiful day, people got to take a big break. From work, from school, from their televisions, phones, and computers. From obligations. He walks around every single day and found the sheer amount of people working in their yards, walking their dogs, and just being outside refreshing.

The blackout got me thinking about a world that is rapidly changing. About how our daily food, water, and energy consumption is having real, material consequences that everyone can see. Will we recognize our wasteful habits and evolve accordingly? How will we adapt to climate change and it’s implications? What will happen to the people in areas that do have more extreme temperatures when the power goes out? And for those of us with a roof over our heads and food in the cooler- will we learn to appreciate the quiet and prepare our businesses for the darkness?

Mourning My Old Self

The part about grief that no one seems to mention.

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I originally started this blog with the intent and hope that I could help someone – really anyone at all – navigate through topics that often times go unspoken about in society as a whole, but are usually discussed frequently among women. Amongst ourselves. Maybe not always literally behind closed doors, but certainly in close quarters, for fear of unprovoked judgment or lack of acceptance. Because what’s worse than being all alone? Standing separate when you know you’re not alone. Close enough to touch each others experiences, empathetic beings we are. But all too used to the silence, for fear of disrupting our own lives, not to mention the lives of our loved ones, with the truth.

I found that when I searched for guidance or relatable content about everything from female entrepreneurship’s connections with marriage to trauma and grief impacting society’s expectations of women, my deep internet excavations usually came up with nothing. But not for lack of experiences. And not for lack of trying.

If my years spent behind literal closed doors with hundreds of women has taught me anything, it’s to share. Because sometimes a simple word or two can reach a heart in a way to remind you of yourself. Not a simple “You’re not alone” but a more complex “I see you, and I actually hear you. And while my experience may not be the same. I give you permission to tell me your darkest thoughts, because I see myself in you.” Some of the most profound moments in my life have been moments like these, and my goal here is to take some of those talks and make the ideas more public. Make close quarters a bit wider. Easier to breathe in.

I’ve found myself contemplating grief more frequently in the last few days than I have in a long while. Mulling over one tiny thing that changed my life for the better about a year ago. I was listening to a podcast or interview with Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard graduate, billionaire, author, and COO of Facebook. She was talking about her newest book Option B, a how-to guide on grief that she wrote shortly after her husband Dave Goldberg died tragically and unexpectedly while on vacation in Mexico. I then read the book. And while I appreciate the tools Sandberg presents us to assist others and understand grief in ourselves, the book (in my opinion) and it’s usefulness went overshadowed by one point she made in her interview. Without dwelling on whether it was positive or negative, Sandberg articulated in a matter-of-fact way that no, she will never go back to how she was before, and no, it will never be as easy for her to be happy again. And that’s okay.

I had never heard anyone admit that before, and until that moment had assumed that I was broken and incapable of putting myself back together. Years of popular doctrine – “Time heals all,” “Give it time,” suggests the harsh and unrealistic “truth” that somehow after enough time passes, we magically transform back into our old selves, pre-trauma and loss, healed by time and it’s infinite wisdom. If years later we haven’t become our old selves again, the grief can double as we mourn for who we used to be and dwell on the failure we feel as we reach for the past, and our old selves, unsuccessfully.

Although no one has told me directly that I’m “not the same” I have and still feel the pressure from those around me to finally just get over my past and be happy. Because the world keeps turning, and I think well-intentioned loved ones have to hope that I can be happy again. For everyone’s sake. That expectation is difficult not to crumble beneath, and comes from preconceived notions of who I was. And to be fair, even if they don’t know it, they must mourn for the way it was too.

I’m not spontaneous; I’m no longer even minutely care-free. But I’m more empathetic, analytical, and specific. It takes extra effort to make me laugh – the post traumatic stress rears its head with anxiety, bouts of depression, frustration, anger, and anti-social tendencies. But I’m more creative and driven to be artistic. I’m comfortable with solitude and the clarity that brings. I have an arguably unhealthy obsession with time, and cram as much as I can into each day because of how little we have left. My tolerance for most things is low while my expectations for things and those close to me can be unrealistically high. But I’m more productive and fulfilled, and usually I can encourage others toward the same. My self-esteem suffers. Every action is an effort on most days. Put one foot in front of the other. But my vulnerability led me to trust my husband to take care of me when I can’t do it myself, a characteristic completely absent in me before.

Try not to think every movement through. Like Tom Hanks says in Sleepless in Seattle:

“I’m gonna get out of bed every morning … breathe in and out all day long. Then after a while, I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out.”

Just because I remembered how to breathe doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near being my old self. And in that moment, hearing Sheryl Sandberg say those words, for the first time in six years I felt okay, because someone else had shared. I felt like I could stop mourning my old self and stop wishing I could be that girl again. Because I will never be her again. I can move forward, different and changed. Ultimately better if I allow myself to be, but never the same. Instead of carrying around the guilt I feel daily for not living up to that great expectation to “just be happy,” I can work on my new self. Let before go. Stop comparing myself to her. And once I do that for myself, maybe those around me can recognize that too. Expecting me to be anyone other than who I am now, is unrealistic and self-damaging.

Time does not heal all. Some tragedies, some trauma, some grief will change you forever. How you use that change is largely up to you, and out of that change can come immense goodness. I am simultaneously the happiest I’ve ever been in my life and absolutely the most grateful while recognizing that I have to try harder than I ever have in my life to be that happy. Because it may never come as easily again.

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Photo: Amber Ferriman Photography