On Transformation and Second Chances

By Laura JenkinsDSC_8429lowres

My memory is pretty sketchy, but I do know this: I had childhood friends that collected things. I don’t really remember what they collected; I just recall being more than a little envious that I didn’t have a “thing” when my friends were amassing hordes of, say, angels, or dolphins or Coca-Cola memorabilia. You don’t just pull a “thing” out of thin air (or at least that didn’t seem right to me.) It has to mean something, and I suppose that the truth is, for a large portion of my life I wasn’t awake to such things.

And then I went through a profound loss. Several, in fact.

butterfly4The most earth shattering was the end of my 25-year marriage. I spent years and years trying to salvage things, but eventually I had to admit defeat. Throw in the towel. It felt like the biggest failure of my life, and even though deep down I knew that it wasn’t all up to me, I was bent over with grief and shame. There was fallout from that situation that’s way too long to go in to here, but I can say that it involved profound financial ruin and chronic fear and self doubt. Around the same time, my mother got ovarian cancer. My father got prostate cancer. I started completely over at age 44, financially speaking, which involved re-enrolling in college and switching careers. I carried so much defeat over the fact that I was middle-aged and everything I’d worked for had seemingly gone up in smoke. I was way behind the curve in terms of where I was certain I should be. I felt helpless to lessen the pain of my children, who were reeling as a result of the obliteration of our family. I fractured my ankle twice in four months, and had to wear a freaking boot for more weeks than I can remember (I refused to sit in the “handicapped” section when my oldest daughter graduated from college, because the vantage point wasn’t good for photos. As a result, I scooted up the stadium stairs on my butt while everyone watched and probably wondered what the hell I was doing.) I left the neighborhood I had lived in for 25 years, my beloved neighbors, my longtime home, and ended up moving four times in four years. I was experiencing empty nest. My children were graduating from high school and college. One of my daughters got married. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the church I was attending, which caused me to wrestle with spiritual issues of epic proportions.

And I was pissed.

Was there even ONE area of my life that could remain familiar and constant?

Apparently not.

I had psychic whiplash from all of the changes in my life. It was death after death after death… or so it seemed. Life, as I knew it, had died.

butterfly1On my 45th birthday two of my children and a dear friend came over, and we made margaritas and fajitas. I have no recollection of how the conversation turned to tattoos, but the next thing I knew I was at the tattoo parlor. And somehow, I finally knew beyond any doubt what my “thing” was: butterflies. What better symbol of hope for someone who has suffered profound loss? Butterflies tell a story of death and rebirth. Butterflies say, “What I thought was the end was really the beginning.” I couldn’t see even one frame of what my new life was going to look like, but I decided to believe that it would be good, so much so, that I got a butterfly indelibly inked on my ribcage (and one of my girls got the same tattoo in the same place, which will forever be special to me.)

So the rest of the story is for another blog post, but the Cliff Notes version is that I did experience profound renewal, and so far it’s been more wonderful than I’d ever imagined. That doesn’t negate the losses by any means, and for the record I’m still climbing out of that rubble in many ways. Like a butterfly, I’ve emerged from it all––stronger, more colorful, and (here’s the kicker) sometimes I feel like I can fly.

butterfly2

But.

When I was in the cocoon, when I was in the dark and felt smothered by the grief that was wound tightly around me, it was a massive temptation to prematurely cut my way out of the silky envelope that was transforming me. I wanted certainty. I wanted to get on with my life. I wanted to just pick some butterfly colors, paint myself, and — by god if I had to hobble away, I was prepared to do so. I was like the disillusioned teen standing by the side of the road with a sign that says, “Anywhere but here.” I am loath to cite an overused reverse pop-psych quote, but I think it really does apply here: “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Of course when you’re sitting there, you’re beside yourself with the fear that you’ll never be okay again. But you will. Contrary to all the voices in my head, the only thing I had to do was surrender and wait. And though the dust has cleared enough for me to have a little bit of faith in that process, I still wrestle with surrendering and waiting every single day of my life.

butterfly3Last month, I got the opportunity to take one of our granddaughters to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in Houston. These creatures continue to inspire me in so many ways. If you’re someone who happens to be looking for hope, read up on butterflies. The parallels between your journey and theirs might just blow your mind.

Post Script: Today I was reminded of how very little I thought I contributed to my children’s comfort and healing when our family blew up. And then I thought of the song my oldest daughter, Amy, wrote for me on my 50th birthday — a mere six years later. I was so shocked at how they perceived it vs. how I thought it went down. So I thought I’d share it here. It’s not a great recording… I made her put it down in Garage Band before she left town on my birthday. But if you listen closely you’ll be able to make out the words (headphones help.)

liftoff

By Laura Jenkins
 

And so the skirmish began. There I was, heckling myself on the way to the bathroom at three a.m., groggy, feeling like I was on the front line without any weapons. It was two weeks before Christmas and I was headlong into the food and drink revelry. Chips and queso! Wine and cheese! French fries! Candies and desserts! I just kept saying yes to all the decadence. It was heavenly until I spontaneously touched my belly in the middle of the night and realized that I’d have to wear yoga pants until I shed enough layers to button my jeans again. In years past, that realization would’ve sent me on a bonafide hunger strike. Today, however, I simply thrash myself with contempt and disgust. In some twisted way, I consider that an improvement.

I suppose just being aware of the mental guerilla warfare is progress, because for most of my 52 years I’ve lived with intense self-censure. And it’s not just food-related. I can berate myself for being human—things like letting someone down, saying something stupid, or being imperfect in the slightest way. I’ve spent massive amounts of energy judging and censoring myself, and it’s finally dawning on me how incredibly poisonous that shit is.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an idea for a personal psychological experiment: “What if I gave up self-criticism and self-judgment for one week? What if I accepted myself unconditionally, regardless of my performance or appearance?”

DSC_2133I know, it sounds far-fetched. But I made a halfhearted commitment to try it. What would happen if I told myself that it was okay that I’m in a career transition again in my early fifties, that I’m not a failure because I haven’t had the steady, one-track 30-year career that others have had (and are getting ready to retire from)? What if I didn’t judge my workout at the gym as “lame” and instead told myself that I was pretty bitchin’ for even showing up? What if I let myself off the hook for the food I had to throw out of my refrigerator last week, or my failure to adequately communicate with a group of people I’m supposedly leading?

Though I’m only 31 months in to my fifties, I’m realizing that one of the biggest benefits of this decade is that I’m less inclined to take peoples’ crap and more likely to let the small stuff go. Great. Now I just need to learn how to quit taking my own crap. On any given day, at any given time, regardless of how I look on the outside, there’s a good chance I’m saying to myself, “Go to jail! Go directly to jail! Do not pass Go; do not collect $200.” I need to remember to stash some of those yellow “get out of jail free” cards next time I play Monopoly. That way I could walk to the mirror and hold one up when I’m hating on myself. (You think I’m kidding, don’t you?)

In my twenties and thirties I thought I had all the time in the world, and I was fixated on doing things “right.” In my forties I started accepting that I wasn’t going to live forever. And now that I’m in my fifties, I want to stretch out in my own skin more than ever, and embrace what I think I was put here to do. But one glance at the clock confirms that I’d better get busy. I’ve buried my grandmother, my mother, and my ex-husband. I’m getting membership offers from AARP. My oldest granddaughter just lost her first tooth. Clearly, I don’t have as much time as I thought I did.

It’s said that the forties are the old age of youth, and the fifties are the youth of old age. Being on the whippersnapper end of the senior spectrum means that most of us are still young and healthy enough to be solidly in the game.

And that, for me, is the $64k question: what does it mean to be in the game, and what am I waiting for? My circumstances are probably never going to be more ideal to do what’s in my heart to do.

So where to begin?

Somehow I think that my self-compassion experiment is a good first step. I can temporarily stop bullying myself, knowing that I can always go back to it if I decide that charity isn’t working for me.

So here’s to lightening our loads and flying higher while we still can. Here’s to discovering—as my yoga teacher would say—the balance between effort and ease, an equilibrium that empowers us to give up on the life we thought we were supposed to live, and zealously living the one that’s right in front of us.

 Screw caution and fear. I’m ready to do this.