Life will knock you on your ass sometimes. Out of the blue, on a sunny day, suddenly there you are—leveled by whatever it is. Getting back up is a struggle. It takes time and it hurts and it’s scary and even from your knees with bleary eyes it’s easy to see that the life you’re coming back to isn’t the same one you went down in.
Macular degeneration was one of those for me–completely unexpectable—TKO. Going (hopefully very) slowly blind was nowhere near my list of things to watch out for. I went down hard and stayed down awhile–angry, sad, depressed, desperate. Now, I’m working my way through those things (for neither the first time, nor the last) and back to my feet in a new life.
A life that brings with it a whole new way of eating, some serious sunglasses, a wealth of anxiety about vision loss, a lifetime of follow-up appointments, and the knowledge that my future includes someday losing my central vision and, with it, a good deal of my independence.
But it’s worth it.
I love it here.
There’s horses and whiskey and margaritas. I love laughing and lipstick and guiding my babies as they grow. I love the woods and the mountains, misty mornings, and wild thunderstorms. Music, poetry, snow-melt river water running through my hair, and warm sun on my skin.
My man, my friends, and my family are funny as all Hell and have kept me company, laughing or crying, through every nightmare I’ve ever had to face.
And I’m fascinated by the strange muddle of humanity I’m part of—clashing and connecting, messily growing into what we’ll all be and do.
Life’s wellspring of treasures is as infinite as our capacity to endure it’s horrors. And when I’m having trouble finding my feet in the darkest dark I keep at it, not because I have to or need to or should or can but, because I want to;
A couple of weeks ago I had a routine eye appointment and got some bad news about my eyes. I have serious signs of dry, macular degeneration in both eyes. Macular degeneration . . . sucks. I am way too young for it and have none of the risk factors, but the bottom line is, it’s likely I’ll be legally blind within 10 years. There is no cure or real treatment and no way to know how fast or slow it will go, just diet adjustments and vitamins that can sometimes slow the progression.
This news was overwhelming. I had and still have moments of suffocating anxiety about losing my independence and not being able to fully take care of my children/keep them safe. I am sometimes crushed under the weight of the knowledge that a day will come when I’m not able to clearly see their faces as they grow into adults, not able to see my daughter’s art, and not able to read or knit or drive . . .
Along with those dark thoughts, I’ve also noticed that every vein on every leaf, every grit in the cement sidewalk, every facet of the frost on every blade of grass, every hair on my horses, every minute detail of my surroundings has become a tiny miracle to me. I don’t try to see every little thing, but since that appointment, I just do.
The week before last was hard. I wasn’t hungry, I wanted to cry all the time, everyone was sick, and in the midst of the bare minimum I had to do to keep everyone alive and clean and fed, I had to plow through having the future I’ve always imagined would be mine ripped away in an instant and try to wrap my mind around what’s coming instead. To stay sane, I found myself mentally putting things in categories as I moved through my day: “Things I can Still do Once I lose my Central Vision, Things I can’t Do Anymore Once I Lose my Central Vision, and Things I can Still do with Some Form of Help Once I Lose my Central Vision.” I imagined how things will need to be moved around so I can do as much as possible for as long as possible. I set a schedule of never pausing during the day (lest I not be able to get back up and continue) and breaking down at night after everyone was in bed, and quickly exhausted myself on every level.
But this past week, after forcing a few good night’s sleeps on myself and while deep breathing through a mini-panic attack about it all, the realization came that right now I’m in the early stage and my vision is still correctable to 20/20. I can still do and see all the things. No doubt, there are dark days ahead, but now is not the time to grieve, now is the time to savor.
Going with my man for his first flying lesson and watching his eyes light up with pure, unadulterated glee when he turned the key and the engine fired up, taking my little horse for some play time in the round pen, making time to get back to my (rather long) reading list, and soaking up the sight of my children in a way I don’t think I could have when I assumed my vision would always be clear: these are the things I am focusing on (literally and figuratively, lol) now.
I’m not quite to the end of my thirties yet, but I think they’ve been about learning how to live on even when the living gets tough. Not to just keep breathing and eating, but to keep living–cherishing, enjoying, hoping, and holding my heart open even when it hurts.
When I started this decade, my initial response to pain of any kind was to close off and do everything in my power to not feel that pain again. But now I’m eight years in and it’s become pretty clear that if I keep that up, I’ll end up living alone in my bedroom under the covers for the rest of my life. This past week, I feel like I’ve cracked an incredible cheat-code for life–how to choose to truly live in the moment.
I want to close this with two things:
One, living in the moment is not natural. We worry about the future because we are aware that if we don’t make good decisions in the present, our future might suck or just plain never happen. Living in the moment is a skill to be honed, not just how to get in the moment and stay there awhile, but when to live in the moment at all.
It’s important to take precious time and allow yourself to project possible futures, sift through information that might shift your course for the better, or close your eyes for a visit to the past to avoid repeating mistakes. For me, especially right now, I know that if I’m ever going to make it to acceptance of this situation, I have to stop savoring the moment sometimes and let the full weight of the fear, anger, sadness, and inevitability of it all move through me. If I don’t, they’ll steal my joy slowly but surely from the inside. Still, this isn’t something I intuitively know how to do, I’m figuring it out as I go and practicing.
Two, I’m okay. Obviously, this isn’t how I wanted life to go, but it would take so much more than this to ruin it. I have too many good people, too many good animals, too much love, too much humor, and too much to look forward to (whether I get to actually see it or not) for this to keep me down.
So here’s to 38–letting go of what was, savoring and accepting what is, and setting course for a beautiful what will be.
I’ve decided not to fall this year Not to leap forward into the unknown with an open soul as I have always done.
There’s this anger inside I’ve been shushing this fire inside I’ve been banking.
And Fall has come with her chill breezes her crisp apple snap expecting that I will rake the words she’s brought with her into piles on the page and play as I have always done.
But I’ve been watching the way the woods catch fire . . . Every leaf on every tree burning bright until there’s nothing left and they flutter away like so much ash.
Yet the tree is not dead.
I don’t want to die or become someone or something else.
I just . . . don’t want to think anymore. Or plan or rest or try or ponder or wish. I’m tired of insecurity and this pervading sense of uncertainty. I’m tired of hoping despite disappointment tired of working through it as I have always done.
Of everything and everyone especially myself. Nothing helps. I’ve tried it all. Except letting go. Which I have maybe never done.
So, this time I’ll take the words in burning hands no tidy piles no time for play I’ll take the fire from the tree and let it fly through me instead of watering it down I’m going to feed it these feelings And watch them burn Until it all flutters away like so much ash . . .
It might have been the incessant rain or the murder of crows gathering in the dead oak outside my window. It might have been the dying flowers in their pretty vase or even the candles—flickering their last at the ends of their wicks. Whatever it was, I found myself at the gate. Unlike Heaven, there’s no keeper. This gate is unlocked and you can come whenever you please, though it pleases no one to come here.
I tuck my heart close, lest I lose it, and set my shield down; having been here before, I know there will be no protecting myself from what I find. Next, I tuck my shoes and soul beneath it’s weight, comforted that they’ll have some shelter from the elements while I’m away. Whatever else you do, never bring your soul here—this is no place for the divine.
When all is as it should be, I step through and begin my descent. Down, down over eons of rot that squelch between my toes. Down, down through hallways of bones and teeth where I somehow know which belong to those I’ve loved. Down, down where moonlight can’t go. Down, down where the rain is full of salt and never stops. Down, down until the path levels out and turns to the broken dreams of the living. Only then do I know I have arrived in the Underworld.
It isn’t Hell, if such a place exists. Hell is for souls and there are no souls here. Just the end. The end of whoever it was you were in the middle of loving. The end of yourself as you were when they lived. The end of all you knew and all you didn’t. The end–where all that holds physical form loses it to water and worms.
Now that I’m here, I crinkle my brow the same way I do when I’ve just entered a room and already forgotten why. After all, I already gathered up the remains of my loves and left them here months ago. I stand at the exact place I stopped then and try to remember to no avail. Finally turning with a shrug to retrace my steps to the gate which leads right back to my life as I left it . . . it’s only then I realize my mistake.
I left the wrong way last time–returning to life as I left it—surrounded by empty spaces where love used to be. I let go of their bodies but held on tight to the emptiness they left behind. Turning back toward the dark unknown, I shudder. I want to go back to the gate: back to my shoes and my soul and my shield, back to familiar, if empty, spaces.
But I don’t.
I know I came for this—the sixth stage of grief. The one that comes after you find your way through your worst nightmares to acceptance. It took me a while. Acceptance cost me and I had to gather up fresh courage for this:
There’s new love, new adventure, new wisdom that await on the other side of all you go through when you grieve. More than enough to fill the empty spaces to overflowing. But if you want it, you can’t go back the way you know.
To reach the sixth stage is to set down your shield. It’s all heart. It’s running barefoot through the Underworld, soaked in the tears of everyone ever, in a darkness too deep for moonlight. It’s feeling the sickening squelch of eons of rot between your toes and pushing forward, knowing that if you keep going, you’ll love again and get hurt again . . . and again and again until your teeth and bones join the others here.
And it’s worth it.
It’s worth it.
So I run. Heart wide open through all I’ve loved and lost before. I run barefoot through darkness as deep black as a crow’s feather with nothing but hope to guide me forward. Until I’m falling down, down into a deep, slow river. Cool, fresh water rinses the tears of everyone ever from my hair and washes the rot of eons from my feet. I close my eyes and float on my back, not warm or cold, not happy or sad, and not marking the moment moonlight creeps in–slowly turning blackest black into gray and gray into silver, until the sun rises–shifting silver into the pale gold of a new day.
I’m tired of feeling sad. I’m also tired of waiting for the next boot to drop. If you’ve been reading awhile or know me personally, you know the past four years have been some of the hardest of my life. But what I’m noticing now is that a lot good things are happening to and around me and instead of feeling happy or excited I just feel afraid of what’s going to happen next to take it all away. To be fair, when a lot of extremely terrible things happen, these feelings make sense. But when nothing terrible is happening, these feelings become a choice.
A few months ago, I made the decision to stop and promptly failed a lot of times. My most recent effort, was writing out a bucket list of things that would make me feel good to do. But when I was finished and read it over, I didn’t feel good, I just felt tired and anxious. Thankfully, sometimes the first, second, twelfth, or even twentieth failure leads us into the next possibility. And the possibility born out of that, most recent, failure is . . . well, it’s working.
Instead of a list of things to do, I made a list of things I want to feel. I edited it until every word hit right and when I was finished, I had a feeling I was onto something.
My Bucket List with a Twist:
Silly Awestruck Proud Satisfied Helpful Beautiful Determined Connected Strong Known Loved Intrepid Happy Rested Content Butterflies Successful The Good Kind of Tired Optimistic Fun
So much of life we have no control over. Things happen to us and feelings rise up that have to be felt. But just about every day there’s some point when we get to choose. We can say yes or no to being around certain people, we can say yes or no to doing that thing, eating that food, how much sleep we’re going to get, or what to do that day, and we know before we do it how it’s likely to make us feel. This bucket list is about those moments and consciously choosing people and things that make me feel good.
Right after I got my list written, I made a trip to one of the most important places (because it holds some of the most important people) in my life. And for the first time in a long time, I let myself completely enjoy and give over to each moment without a thought to the future, without getting hung up in the past, and without anxiety over whether or not I’d be accepted/acceptable, or how it could all go wrong. Instead, I focused on each opportunity to feel good, then took it, and savored it.
Ladies and gentlemen, the initial results are in and . . .
. . . yeah, I’m definitely on to something. : )
So, I’m going to keep heading down this path awhile and see what shakes out. Sometimes, I’ll do a full post, sometimes just pictures tagged with words from my list and #bucketlistwithatwist. If you want to make your own list and join me, I would love that! If not, that’s cool too. This one is really just about me shifting myself back toward the relentless optimist I’ve been most of my life. : )
I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been all up in my feelins lately. Last week was both the heavenly birthday of one of the best men I’ll ever have the privilege to know and the anniversary of my dog Why?lee’s last day in my arms. I tried all day to write something beautiful about Kerry and the past four years of sad and how his death snapped whatever I was using inside myself to hold all my grief at bay, sending me on a two year pilgrimage that has only just now come full circle.
He brought me home. Not just back West for our epic and insane road trip last summer to the Eagle Caps (because let’s be real, I’ll always be a Rocky Mountains girl at heart), but back home inside myself–which is the most important place to feel at home because as Kerry’s widow, Doneva says, “You can run anywhere you like, but you have to take yourself with you!”
But I wrote and rewrote a thousand words and none of it was good enough. So I put away my laptop, went outside, and played with my horses knowing that was the best kind of tribute to Kerry anyway. Then, I helped my man put the kids to bed and, as we’ve starting doing every year on Kerry’s birthday, we built a campfire out back, raised glasses of whiskey in his honor, and shared a cigar while we walked down memory lane. And when we went to bed, I felt better. The right words will come when they come; they always do.
When I was trying to decide where to go next with the Lipstick Letters, I was torn between Memory, Perception, and Intuition. I was heavily leaning toward Memory for a long time, but even though I drafted several Memory posts in my head, none of them made it to paper.
Then, a few weeks ago, I went on a weekend alone to rest and sort it out. It was in that long, deep, lovely silence it became clear that my intuition had something to say.
I fought it. I was so sure it was going to say stuff like, “Get off your @$$ and handle your messy life.” But no. When I finally caved in, late afternoon on my first, full day alone, all I heard was, “Girl, you’re tired. Have a good sleep and we’ll talk in the morning.”
I slept from around four that afternoon until seven thirty, got up, had a snack, brushed my teeth and slept from eight until the next morning. And when I woke up, I could hear myself. I could hear myself so clearly it was impossible to deny how much I had pushed my intuition aside to survive wave after wave of grief in the midst of new motherhood.
I listened. And I learned.
My intuition is kind. Instead of being salty about being shoved down and ignored repeatedly for literal years, it was gracious and proud of me for slogging through, giving my kids everything I had to give, and making it to a place where I was strong enough again to go back and start working through that series of terrible losses.
Driving home, I promised to keep listening and act accordingly as much as possible over the following month. And I did!
I reached out when I felt like reaching out. I rested when I felt like I needed rest. And on days when my grief came knocking, I let it in and sat with it awhile instead of pretending I didn’t know it was there. I set a new boundary with my kids to ensure I get at least a couple of hours to cook or clean or lay down or fold laundry without interference each day.
I let my mind wander back through some choices I’d made over the past several years (another task I’d been avoiding) only to find that so much of what I’ve said, done, not said, and not done, was me in survival-mode. A mode I kept trying to get out of only to have another tragedy toss me back in.
Each whisper I tended to, I felt a little more of the weight of mistakes, the weight of difficult choices, the weight of loss, the weight of guilt, the weight of pressure to do and be more fall away. And even then, my intuition did not tell me to get out there and start rebuilding a new life out of the rubble of the unfinished one I’d semi-started here . . .
It told me to keep writing and sharing, to go get a hair cut, and to remove the gross, old wallpaper in the hallway. So. Yeah. Here we are. : )
I’m trying hard to avoid making these letters about advice. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my twenties and thirties, it’s just how much I don’t know.) But I have to say, if you’ve been shushing that inner voice out of fear of what it’ll say, then like me, you might be mistaking your thoughts for your intuition.
My thoughts can be anxious, angry, self-deprecating, and flat out cruel. My intuition is always loving, always tender, always gracious, and not just toward me, but toward everyone else as well. So much so, that nowadays when I’m confused about which is which, that’s my go-to way of telling them apart.
Bottom line? I’m beginning to trust myself and my inner knowing again. And it feels really really good.
My heart is still in pajamas. My grief hasn’t finished her morning coffee. My soul is not washed. Yet, my intuition is saying, “Now.” So here I am with my lipstick on.
I hadn’t planned to start with Intuition. It’s such a bold red. If I could have chosen any shade, I would have picked a much more muted, quiet color. A color that better reflects how I feel about myself and my life right now.
I had these letters all mapped out. I spent a year putting each lipstick word/color in order and planning the themes so I could show in each post how I came to this tidy piece of wisdom: Pain and loss are always the ultimate cost of loving and they are always worth it. Love is where all the good stuff is–the joy, the community, the laughter, the growth, the forgiveness, the strength.
But I never wrote any of it. And I should have recognized my intuition in that writer’s block.
Instead, I kept trying, kept seeking, kept shifting, and kept to myself. I started throwing out bags full of stuff we don’t want or need. I started cleaning out dark spaces inside and out. I started taking a knitting class with other women who say “fuck” a lot while they knit. I started making room for myself in my life again. And somewhere in the midst of it all–the things I was doing and not doing, I realized that maybe that tidy advice I thought was the end, is actually the beginning.
Now that I know the devastation of losing those I love, how do I knock down the walls that pain has led me to build between myself and others? How do I stay soft when hardening up dulls the hurt? How do I push through my fear and hold my hands out again knowing how it stings when they get slapped instead of held? It’s terrifying and anxiety producing to think about racing out into the world with my heart wide open and my soul on my sleeve. It’s one thing to have learned the lesson, it’s something else entirely to live it.
Yet I know that’s exactly what I have to do if I want more happiness, connection, fun, and satisfaction with my life and I do. I want those things so badly it aches. Maybe the Lipstick Letters are not meant to be about the what. Maybe they’re meant to be about the how.
With that trajectory in mind, I’ve thrown out the plans I had and maps I made. Actually doing this process instead of just thinking and writing about it scares me, but it’s also exciting and has me feeling the same thrill of inspiration I felt the first time I opened a box of fifteen lipsticks on Christmas morning back in 2020.
I’m missing something and my intuition is telling me it’s right on the other side of myself. So ready or not, here I go . . .
If you want to read previous Lipstick Letters, click here!
If you want to hear me read this one, click play below: