L is for Letting Go (and Hot Lava)

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began

                        –Mary Oliver

Hello, Dear Readers. This week has certainly been one full of lessons on Letting Go. It’s funny—as I make my way through the alphabet, ever so slowly, I have realized that each blog presents itself when it’s time. And not before.

So many things have converged in the past week, from family shit to online dating adventures, to the possibility of moving, to health concerns (not mine). As we emerge from this pandemic, like so many light-deprived moles crawling out of our long dark tunnels, blinking at the bright sun and shrinking from the intense heat (seriously, it was over 100 degrees here last weekend—that is not normal), we can only hope that the future is better, but it has not been a stellar re-entry back into the world.

The first lesson in Letting Go has to be that life is not going “back to normal.” What was before lockdown last March will not be returning. We have to let go of a “return to normal” and adjust to moving forward into something new. A friend invited me to a movie this week, at a theater. Inside. I’m not ready yet. And from the looks of the news headlines—shootings, forest fires, climate change havoc, declining vaccination rates, increased political polarization—it seems we should all just continue staying home. There needs to be a global Letting Go of the status quo. We cannot go on like this. I have no answers. Just a sense that if we don’t let go of what was, we will not be able to move forward, collectively.

On a more personal level, I have decided it is time to Let Go of my house. I put it on the market a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have a set plan yet. I just know that I’ve been in this house for 23 years, it has served me well, and now I no longer need it. When I was a kid, our family moved around a lot—I went to four different high schools—and when I landed in Bellingham 40 years ago to attend college,  I immediately put down deep roots. Maybe I didn’t even decide so much as just instinctually grounded myself here. I needed the continuity. But now, that need has subsided. It’s time for adventure. It’s time for me.

I spend my weeks urging clients to take care of themselves, reminding them that no one benefits if they aren’t getting their own needs met, that we can’t fill up others if our own wells are dry. Occasionally I remember to heed my own advice. But Letting Go of my home has repercussions beyond just me. My adult kids have feelings about me selling. Of course they do. I understand. My parents divorced and sold their home 20 some years ago, evoking all kinds of feelings of loss for me. I’ve had to Let Go of an intense urge to take care of my girls and to “do better” by them. But, Letting Go also means letting go of the past, of old wounds, of old habits, of old feelings that keep me trapped. Keeping my house is not going to heal the wounds I felt 20 years ago.

Letting Go means no longer being a place of refuge for others, and at times, I feel guilty for closing that door, but if not now, when? This house has been a refuge, a sanctuary, and now it feels more like a burden, a weight, an unnecessary commitment. Too much for me. I can’t wait. Some days, I am pursued by the specter of Alzheimer’s—it got my mom by 65 (in retrospect, it seems to have started there). She’s been robbed of her final decades—I cannot wait for it to get me too. I have to Let Go and Get Going into my own future.

Letting Go of my home also opens up a new range of possibilities—a life on the road, of Airbnbs in cities that call to me, of the possibilities of meeting people beyond the confines of this state, of opening myself, my life, my world up to more, bigger, different. Letting Go of what I thought work and the future held and embracing uncertainty.

When I work with clients who want to move forward but can’t seem to let go of what feels secure, I use a metaphor of the monkey bars. Remember hanging there, suspended over the “hot lava” your best friend breathing down your neck behind you, urging you to let go of the back rung in order to swing forward? The fear of falling, the knowledge if you didn’t let go, you’d eventually succumb to gravity and fall to the ground and be consumed by the metaphorical lava or crocodiles?

So, you took a deep breath, summoned your courage, and Let Go. Into the unknown, flying unsupported for one terrifying moment, the specter of death, of failure, of pain fleeting, until your hand met the cold, smooth metal and you were again safe. Ready to do it again, and again until you reached the end. Triumphant.

you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

-Mary Oliver, from Dream Work

G is for Grace

I am a huge proponent of grace—granting it, receiving it, asking for it . . . holding someone new with an open palm, adopting a stance of curiosity and inquiry.

I used to have a silver bracelet that had Grace engraved on it—I bought it as a reminder when I was in IT support, to remind myself that not everyone was comfortable with technology and to arrive as a helper, not as a scold or know-it-all. I attempt to take the same approach as a counselor, subscribing to Carl Rogers’ approach of “unconditional positive regard.” Making no judgments, being accepting and supportive.

The bracelet got lost somewhere in the past five years, perhaps because I no longer need the reminder, the granting of grace coming more naturally now. It’s a testament to neuroplasticity—we truly can rewire the connections in our brains when we practice, when we work on getting those neurons to fire together.

My favorite beach to be washed up on

Grace is helpful, perhaps even necessary, when getting to know a new person, especially when online dating. We all arrive here, washed up on the shores of Zoosk and Match and Bumble and Tinder, refugees from a sunken ship, tossed and thrashed by the latest relationship storm. Some of us have been here a while—we’ve made our huts and gathered our coconuts, surveyed the landscape and spelled out SOS in the sand with whatever we could find. Others of us have just arrived, storm-tossed and disoriented, wondering what happened, still reeling, shaking the water from our ears and the sand from our eyes.

Getting to know another complex human being within the parameters of online dating seems nearly impossible at times. All of the intricate details of our lives distilled down to “likes” and “interests,” a few carefully curated photos, and 500 words. We are all putting ourselves out there, but not our whole selves, only the parts we’ve deemed good enough. Good enough to attract another. Good enough that we don’t scare anyone away, good enough that we manifest another good enough person.

So, when we “meet” i.e. send a heart, initiate a conversation, we do so carefully, continuing to put that best self forward, bolstering the good, diminishing the less than optimal parts of ourselves. We can’t do that forever though. At some point, we have to get real. We have to admit that of course we do actually watch television, sometimes for hours on end. We don’t always eat “clean” (whatever that means), and yes, we were athletes, hikers, bikers, kayakers, travelers at some point in our lives, but maybe that’s all been a bit ago.

We say we’ve been in therapy, that we’ve been over our ex, that we have done our work—and all that is so great. Sometimes we forget that we continue to be works in progress. Thus, grace.

Grace for the broken parts, grace for the half-truths, grace for the “I’m still figuring this part out,” grace for the ongoing relationship with the ex . . . grace for the extra weight we carry since hitting menopause. Grace for the getting to know you process. Grace for our journeys.

And then we can decide. How does this person show up?

Most importantly, do they afford me the same grace?

F is for Fear, Fantasy, and Failure

What keeps us in something longer than we know is good for us? Friends, I know so many smart, educated, brilliant women who have stayed in relationships far longer than warranted, far longer than was safe, physically, emotionally.

The reasons we stay are as varied as our individual lives, but I would posit that we stay because we are afraid to fail, terrified to admit we haven’t lived up to the cultural fantasy of what marriage and family should be.

I know that fear ruled many of my relationships, one set of fears put me there and another set kept me in them beyond the “best by” date.

I’ve found myself explaining my past a lot lately—funny how potential partners want to know what happened, really, that a gem such as myself should suddenly be single and available now (LOL, I really crack myself up).

What drove me to settle down at 23 and become a parent before I turned 30? Fear. Fantasy.

How did it come to be that I put my need to be loved above my children’s needs in my next relationship? Fear. Fantasy.

How, pray tell, does a 58-year-old still grocery shop and eat like a five-year-old with a credit card? Fear. Fantasy. Seriously.

Dates, even phone dates, have so many questions. And rightly so. We all have arrived in this same space, these boxes on the internet where we are all putting our very best hiking-boot-clad feet forward, vying for the last Fine woman out there. Trying to remember what landed us here and worrying that the others all have the exact same traumas and baggage, fearful we will miss the obvious warning signs.

We are afraid, or at least I know I am. Of one another. Of scammers. Of being alone into our dotages. Of more disappointment. Of being hurt yet again.

We believe the fantasy is possible (and we should, we have to). I desperately want to believe. We want someone to wrap ourselves around on a lazy Sunday morning. Someone to smooth our hair from our foreheads when we struggle, someone to tell us it is okay, that we are okay. That it’s going to be okay.

Humans are wired for connection. We do better in relationships than we do alone. Studies show, that just like children can best self-regulate when a parent functions as a secure base, so do adults in solid relationships. But it takes more than fantasy to create relationships that allow us to flourish. It takes a belief in ourselves as deserving.

Just another suburban soccer mom

I settled down at 23 because I was afraid my parents would never accept me if I wasn’t as “normal” (i.e. as close to heteronormative, though in 1986 that was not a thing) as possible. How better to convince them with than a wife, a nice house, a good job (well, speaking of fantasies), and a couple of kids? It worked, too, btw.

I believed the fantasy that I could live as less than authentically myself in order to fit in. And boy, I gave it a good run.

Fear drove me into my next relationship as well. Fear of so many things, but mostly fear of never finding happiness again after losing custody of my children. I was so afraid I’d miss out on their lives that I failed to notice entire bouquets of red flags. And fantasy kept me there—the fantasy that I could sublimate my needs indefinitely in order to create an illusion of success and happiness. I did that well, too.

And it wasn’t all bad. I have my girls—the reasons I kept on keeping on through it all. I had some fun. We threw some epic parties. I made terrific friends along the way—I found my people, and my people helped me find my way.

I learned I am okay exactly how I am. I was okay before the pandemic. I am emerging from it intact. If I come out of it with a partner, so be it. If I don’t, that’s okay too, because I am Fine. Better than fine. Fabulous.

D is for Do Overs and Deal Breakers (and perhaps a peek at Dumped)

Like any good writer, I want to rewrite everything as soon as I put it up. And so it has been with the previous three blog posts. Were I to do them again, they might look something like this:

B is for Body (we go into dating with the bod we have, not the bod we wish we had, and certainly not the 35-year-old body I had last time I dated, 22 years ago. This time it’s different!)

A is for Age (or I’m old enough to date a 70-year-old? When did that happen? Maybe 70 really is the new 50.)

C is for Compassion and Curiosity (both necessary tools for this adventure, both as lenses through which to see ourselves and those we encounter. What drives us? How difficult have our journeys been to this point?)

So, that’s part of the Do Over part of Do Overs, Deal Breakers, and Dumped. Maybe I’ll start over again with A on May 1 and see how far I get.

Onto Deal Breakers. Turns out dogs and kids weren’t deal breakers. Who knew? Last year was chock full of surprises that way. But what might a deal breaker be? Where do I draw my boundaries?

One of my aforementioned BFFs (see A is for Alcohol) has been at this far longer than I and had a few words for me at the outset: “Write down your non-negotiables up front. Know what they are and screen for them right away.” Her non-negotiables? They had to have been married before, and any potential dates have to live within 25 minutes of her house. She doesn’t want to waste time traveling, which seemed reasonable. She also suggested I screen for age.

Those parameters, applied to lesbians in this county, left me with exactly no matches. And besides, how does Has to Have Been Married work with lesbians, anyway? We couldn’t get married until 2015. And many of us were together with our partners for so long we were essentially married. So, that couldn’t be one of my deal breakers. To my BFF, never being married signaled a certain type of inflexibility. I don’t think it is the same in the lesbian world.

And granted, Second Date, she of the sexy hybrid, had lived in town for many years and weirdly, our paths had not crossed until we met on Match.com. We had maybe two people we knew in common. But otherwise, slim pickings here. So, distance could not be a factor. I dialed that option wide open: Portland, Seattle, Eastern Washington maybe.

As for age . . . well. My preferences skew north. Anyone who knows me knows that. I am technically a Baby Boomer (I should probably say that quietly these days), albeit a boomer with no pension who may not ever see a social security check or Medicare coverage, so sit down millennials. I just was born about ten years too late. I spent my early relationship with a woman 12 years my senior and became very comfortable with her friends who were even older. It’s my comfort zone, and I find myself attracted to older women. I’ve decided to lean into it.

Life is just too damn short for arbitrary lines in the sand. We can’t protect ourselves from heartbreak and search for love at the same time. We can’t. The two are mutually exclusive.

So what IS a non-negotiable for me? Addiction. Sedentary lifestyle. Lack of self-awareness. Inflexibility. An inability to turn toward the other with kindness. The Gottmans have a great article on the need to turn toward our intimate partners, to move to rather than away from. The ability to make connection with our partners/spouses helps love last.

I got dumped rather unexpectedly and unceremoniously in January. It hurt. I recovered. Life goes on. Love will return. If we let it.

C is for Certainty. And Choice

Things of which I was certain prior to embarking on this dating adventure: 

Absolutely no pets. I swiped left (or whatever direction meant No Thank You) on so many lesbians with dogs. Do you have any idea how limiting is was to be dog unfriendly? Lesbians and dogs are like macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly. And then I fell for a woman with a dog.

I was also certain that children under 25 were a definite No. If they’re launched by 25, chances are they won’t boomerang back to the basement. But like with the dogs, I wasn’t really up for the maintenance–the walking, the feeding, the cleaning up after. The responsibility. Been there. Done that. But then I fell for someone who had a kid (sort of).

How can you not love that face?

And then there was the whole coffee thing. I declared to anyone who inquired that I had two very good reasons for not wanting to be in a relationship: “I am 100% not interested in learning how to make someone else’s coffee.“ At this time. (Sorry, can’t tell you the other reason on a public blog).

The only certainty is change, Dear Ones.

It’s something of a mantra for me. Change and choice. If we can’t or are unwilling to change or if we forget that it is okay to make a change, we risk missing out on so much.

If we constantly brace for change, fear it, work to avoid it, all of our energy goes into staying the same. We can’t learn or grow. Our windows of tolerance for new experiences shrink rather than expand.

How do we learn that we have to stick with a choice? Who taught us that we can’t try a new direction if our current course isn’t working for us?

Like many of our ineffective adult behaviors, this one also likely began in childhood. Can you hear it Dear Reader? Can you hear your parents telling you “you signed up to play the tuba, sweetie. You have to give it a chance”? “You can’t stay home sick today, the team is depending on you. Suck it up and show up.” “You said you’d go to the dance with Johnny. You can’t back out now.”

We learn in childhood to distrust our own guts and go along to get along. Sometimes disagreeing can be dangerous. So we learn to put our own feelings aside to make others more comfortable. And, once we recognize that we do it, we can in fact make a choice to change.

We have such power in choice, when we slow down to recognize that we can choose our responses or our paths. I could have bailed upon learning about the dog or the kid or the kid’s sister. Turns out I chose to check it out, to turn toward those things instead of away. I loved the dog (and I know he loved me), and the kids were pretty great too.

I learned to make her coffee. In fact, I still have a bag of medium roast in the freezer.

Me? I like it dark. Of that, I am certain.