Last Sunday as I layered up for my long run, I was grumbly about going outside in the cold, dark of February’s 6AM. I had to remind myself one of my goals for the new year is to take the time to recognize all that has been given to me. Part of where this new goal comes from is my dad. He has been working to shift the way he and my mom talk about things they want to change. Instead of saying “I want” they are trying to focus on “I have.” I have been working on developing this mindset. It is not that I don’t still want, but often, when I am focusing on the want I overlook what I already have.
So, instead of being grumpy about going outside and my want to stay inside, I took time to be thankful for the clothing that keeps me safe from the elements and a group of friends that can make a seven-miler feel like a girl’s night out. There is so much I can miss because I am too focused on what is missing. After the run, both Holly and Melissa hugged me goodbye. Such a simple act of thankfulness. The group of girls I run with are my rocks. Our friendship and the miles together have helped me not distance myself, but run closer to myself with each mile.
So many January 1sts, I start the new year by setting a goal to change something about the way I live my life. This year is not any different; however, this year, the change is not something I want to remove (stress, pounds, debt), but instead what I want to add: a genuine appreciation for the people who make my life what it is. I would not be who I am without each of their influences. Since we lost Josh, I have lost a number of friends – some of whom I have forced out of my life, others who have chosen to leave. However, the friendships that remain are that much stronger because we have experienced life together. When I reached out to my friend Karissa to see if she would mind if I included her name in this post, she responded “I don’t mind at all, sweetheart. I’d be honored – being a part of your story makes me a lucky lady.” There is something amazing about recognizing we are each a part of another person’s story. I am thankful for each page we write together and know she, and her family, will continue to be a part of my story.
This January, I attended a book club for Joy Harjo’s poetry collection “How We Became Human” hosted by my Aunt Lee and Uncle Bill. My Aunt LeeAnn and I share a love of poetry and literature. I selected to read a passage from pages xix-xx of the introduction where Harjo acknowledges how poetry came into her life. After reading the section, I shared with the group that I truly feel all of us are writers, but in order to tell our stories we need to find our voice and the right audience. One of the participants expressed her disagreement indicating she didn’t think everyone is a writer, but she does believe everyone has a story. I think we are both right for one can not exist without the other. There are so many stories that we write, but not all of them are we able to tell; yet, that doesn’t make our story any less real.
I consider each of the characters who has helped shape my narrative and there are too many to name each by name; however, the past few months I have been writing this post in my head, on my phone, on bar napkins, on my lesson plans, wherever I have been when I have been thankful. The sections that follow are fragmented moments, but each provides a necessary snapshot of my search for grace.
My friend Bridgett makes a conscious effort to tell people in her life how much she appreciates them. Not even realizing it, her acknowledgement of thankfulness has been passed to me. One day this week, as she left my office, I told her how much I appreciate her only to realize that what I had said was typically her line and that perhaps it was something I should say to her more often. She leads her life and her classroom by example. I am thankful for her friendship and guidance.
My friend Jenny and I became friends during our pregnancies. She worked with Courtney and we met at a Christmas party a few months before Josh and her daughter, Aubrey, were born. We assumed our friendship would continue to grow over the years as we watched our children grow up together. Instead, it has grown out of our commitment to honor the time we have together. Jenny shared with me a mindset of recognizing when we say yes to something we also say no to something else. For example, we choose to have dinner with a friend and in doing so we miss dinner with our family. Holding this mindset doesn’t mean you never meet up with friends, it just asks you to recognize where you are choosing to spend your time. Similar to the want/have mindset shift, I am thankful for this mindset that asks me to reflect on the people who are in my life and to help me prioritize the way I spend my time. I have multiple friends like Jenny, who whenever they call or text, we make it a point to carve out time for one another.
One afternoon this week, a woman walked by my office in a way that caused me to look up from my desk. She was wearing a long, red, wool jacket, walked with purpose, and had a way about her that invited others to interact. I have no idea who this woman is, but in a few fleeting moments she reminded me of my friend Glenda. I took a minute out of my day to pause and appreciate my friendship. I was embarrassed reflecting on how long it had been since I had reached out to Glenda. So, I stopped using all the excuses I typically use and sent her a message. Glenda is one of the friends I do not want to let slip out of my life, and perhaps this woman’s presence was the jolt to my memory of her importance. When I needed a friend, Glenda opened her heart and her home to me. She literally gave me a key to her home and said I could come or go as often, or as seldom, as I needed for as long as I needed. She did so without judgement or expectation. She reminded me none of us are alone. There are friends who will not only support us, but will be a testimony to our strength instead of our fall.
Often I forget to be thankful for the storms I have weathered. The moments where I could have sunk, and instead, because of the people in my life, I remain afloat. After not being selected as a jury member for an assault case, Courtney told me that I am the “perfect storm” to not be selected. When I brought this up to my writing group, my friend Lacy reminded me that each of us is weathering our own storm. She is a courageous woman who reflects daily on how and why she makes the life decisions she does. I am encouraged knowing Emma may one day have her as a teacher, but am thankful for Lacy’s reminder that it is up to me to also model this bravery for my daughter. I alone choose how much of the storm will break my sails and what of it will continue to steer me on course.
The courses our lives take often feel like they are not where we want to be. I heard the other day on the radio a comparison to our life’s moments of suffering to a demolition day when remodeling. The speaker acknowledged that our lives can feel broken, destroyed, or “demolished;” yet, through these hardships our lives can also be remade. As I have mentioned before, I tend to lack grace when someone mentions that my life is now better as a result of the loss of my son. However, I am working to accept that I am a new version of myself after Josh’s death.
Two years ago, our family suffered multiple losses in a brief period of time. Since these losses, my friendships with family members have been strengthened. These are women I have known, or have rather known me, my entire life. Specifically, my friendships with my cousins Becky and Kristen have been renewed. These women have each lost in ways most can not imagine, and each is on her own search for grace in grief. We do not compare our grief, instead we support one another on our journey. Each of these women, and their families, is courageous. We openly discuss that grief takes many forms; and often, it approaches us when we are unarmed against its strength. They are also not afraid of being vulnerable and reaching out for help when sadness can feel so overwhelming. I cherish these lifelong friendships that were originated by our genetics and now have been strengthened through our experiences.
As a carrier of the ATP7A gene mutation, my connections with the women on my mother’s side of the family hold a new level of empathy. My grandparents lost a child before Menkes had been “discovered” and I regret never openly visiting with my grandma about our losses. I was fortunate to not only know, but also spend extended time with all four of my grandparents. Frequently, my decisions reflect the love and stubbornness I learned from each of them. I very distinctly remember one day as a child playing cribbage with my Grandpa Ecker and mentioning how much I loved playing cards. In doing so I thought I would win his favor; he was an avid card player; but, he quickly reminded me that playing cards was an activity, and love should be reserved for people. Each time I think about a love of something, I am reminded of his words.
Towards the end of my Grandpa Ecker’s life, he did not recognize me. If he did, there was no verbal expression. My mom is who helped me realize my expectation for Grandpa to know me was simply that, my expectation, and if I could be content (even if I could not be happy) to spend time in his presence, my visits would be more beneficial and less agitating to my grandpa. Even then, my mom was able to coach me into the mindset of thankfulness instead of my need or want. As my parents age, I try to model this same mindset and focus on each moment we share. I want my family to know me, but perhaps, I need to be content knowing my family. The love we share can not be taken from us.
This Friday was Valentine’s Day. As a high school teacher, I often finish the day with an annoyance of adolescent displays of love; yet, I also know there is some authenticity to their thankfulness. Daily, I am thankful for the love Courtney and I share as well as what each of us adds to the other’s story. Our marriage is not perfect, but we work hard and are honest about where we are. When one of us feels the other one pushing away, we stop, reflect and hold onto each other.
This year, we spent Valentine’s curled up on the couch watching Emma’s adoption video. The evening originated with Emma’s request (or more of a two year old demand) to watch the videos of her “‘doption.” As we viewed the video clip that my Aunt Cheryl recorded, we caught new pieces of the story that we had previously missed. It was a beautiful day in the same way weddings and birth stories, in spite of flaws, are nothing but perfect in reflection.
For the past week, I have been visiting with the English 1 students about fixed vs growth mindset. I am consistently impressed by the diverse voices in my classroom who argue both for a need for growth, but also for the fixed ideologies we need to be successful. I am thankful for my students, even the tough ones. They push me to be a better version of myself and to constantly question the status quo of my profession.
One of my friends, Marianne, recently retired from a successful teaching career. This past weekend, she shared with me her collection of resources. She is a mentor who continues to shape what and how I teach. Part of what she shared with me is a gallery walk of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. One of the excerpts we read discusses fog and the role of truth in our writing. As a class, we discussed the allusive nature of fog. How when you are in it, you are never sure if you are headed in the right direction so you just keep moving forward. Using Marianne’s resources, I asked the College Writing students to extend the war metaphor by applying it to moments when they have experienced conflict. The students composed raw, real, stories of struggle. Each story is as unique as the individual who composed it. We also discussed how specifically with pieces for publication, once something is published it no longer belongs to the author, but instead our words now belong to our readers. There is risk in publishing our stories, but with risk also comes a chance for growth. While writing our stories, like walking through fog, we can often do nothing but continue moving.
Joy Harjo writes in her introduction to How We Become Human the advice poetry gave her ”You need to learn how to listen, you need grace, you need to learn how to speak” (xix). Her words give me strength to continue to listen to the voices that surround me. My sister Emily recently shared that she is trying to remind herself that not everything is about us. She said when she is struggling and sharing her story, she needs to remember to also listen to the stories of people around her. She not only listens, but makes an active effort to ask. My sister, like my mom, is an influence of grace.
There is much suffering
but also gifts of joy, hope,
resilience, courage and love.
Each of us has struggle
Each of us has a story
I have much to be thankful for
I am learning to listen
Yesterday, I again layered up for a long run thankful for another day to be able to search for grace. Thank you for being a part of my story.