Set Alight

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I mean . . . I just . . . My life. This past year.

How far I’ve come. How much I’ve grown. How much still lies ahead.

None of this happened overnight—or just in the last 12 months. I’ve been charting my course forward and upward long before then. Before the split. Observing. Experiencing. Feeling. Processing. On the surface, all of that looks passive. But so much has been going on inside. So much. I did my damndest to hide my struggles for far too long. Hiding was the hardest part.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

When I felt like my words were failing me a few years ago, it was this quote that helped turn me around. The songbird necklace that rests on my collarbone reminds me of this every day. My words need not be right—or even in response to anything; but what’s inside is, indeed, worthy of being shared.

This past year has been all about sharing. Twenty-eight heartfelt blog posts. A hundred conversations with dear friends and kind acquaintances. A face no longer hesitant to showing a range of emotion. This lack of resistance in my head and my heart is all the proof I need to realize that I’m doing something right.

“The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be . . .
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in ” 
—Anthem, Leonard Cohen

I stopped aiming for perfection and started embracing uncertainty after my life cracked open last year. I finally got out of my own way and let in a whoosh of light. Airing out my “broken-ness” was way out of my comfort zone, but I knew, somehow, that this willingness to expose my vulnerability also held the key to my transformation. The opportunity to share my stumbles has made me feel more alive, more connected, more a part of something than ever before.

I’m so grateful for it all.

My life. This past year. I’ve zig-zagged all over the country, explored a new continent, and summited mountains. I learned a little more about heartbreak and a lot more about love. I debunked old beliefs. I found support. I’ve been transfixed by live music. I’ve sailed away on beautiful boats. I twirled around a museum in a floor-length evening gown. I’ve made new friends. I’ve strengthened existing friendships. I painted tulips with a two-year-old and whispered my hopes to a newborn. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve surprised myself. And I’ve only just begun . . .

Soundtrack: “Sea Legs” by the Shins

Sounds Like Hallelujah

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My fingers were immediately drawn to the pink eraser that a St. Mark’s school girl had carefully stood up in the corner of the pencil tray in the hollow of her desk. It wasn’t one of those rectangular salmon-colored erasers with the sloped ends that felt grainy to the touch; no, this one was oval, ballet slipper colored, and powdery smooth like my Cabbage Patch Kid’s cheek. And while my CCD teacher stood at the front of the room telling us third-graders a story about the Tower of Babel, I slipped that eraser into my hand—and then into the arch of my Top-Sider shoe.

From first through eleventh grade, I sat through these weekly religious ed classes—distracted, bored, and tuned out. All those stories of fear, of wrath, of shame and helplessness sat uneasily within me.  Nothing about it felt good—or believable—to me. While the formality and the top-down belief system of organized religion doesn’t work for me, you can’t stand on a yoga mat and bring your palms together time and again without feeling something come over (and overcome) you. What 20 years on the mat has taught me is this: I believe in me.

It has taken me decades to get to this place. Decades. For much of my life, I compared myself—my trajectory, my possessions, and my talents—to you. The “yous” I know and the ones I don’t. Those old feelings of fear and shame still sat uneasily within me. I tried shake off this pattern by telling myself to “fake it ’til I make it” or to “just do it,” but none of that worked. I couldn’t believe in the artificial me, nor could I continue believing that my life was in any way inferior—just because I hadn’t followed certain conventions. Doing so felt toxic, inside and out.

I don’t believe in placing blame. Not on my lineage. Not on my ex. Not on society. And not on me. All of life is just a learning opportunity. There is no arrival. There is no “making it”—even now, living with my boyfriend. Some might see this milestone as a “hooray, we made it.” And, indeed, it is good. So good. But I have to keep reminding myself that this, too, is a lesson. It’s just that not all lessons need to come with tears or heartache or feeling lost or second-rate. It is possible to vulnerable and emotionally wide open with a big, authentic smile across your face. So, that’s what I’m doing—because I believe in me.

All along, I’ve had a vision of what I wanted my “happily ever after” to look like. But I hit the off switch on that vision ages ago—and had thought that I’d come to peace with that decision. No so. Now, here I am playing that vision over and over again in my head and my heart, treating it like a coming attraction to a blockbuster movie. I’m waking up to my own dreams.

Letting go of expectations has been a big part of my journey these last 10.5 months—and gathering the courage embrace uncertainty is the outcome of years of introspection, both on the yoga mat and with a notebook and pen in hand. But in the process of letting go of expectations, I’ve remained steadfast to my vision.

I believe we should all have a dream for ourselves. A big and beautiful dream. Let it play out like a scene in a breathtaking movie. Play it a million times over, until you memorize every word, bat of an eyelash, and knowing smile. Smell it, taste it, feel it. Let it lull you to sleep. Let it greet you in the morning. Let it get you through those quiet, lonely moments and accompany you when times are good. Let it because you have nothing left to lose. Let it because you have everything to gain. Let it because this is your one, precious life and making it epic is your soul’s mission.

Let your life be everything you’ve ever dreamed of—and surprise yourself when it’s even more than you imagined. Trust it will happen, even when reality seems to be telling you otherwise. And don’t take any part of it for granted as that vision comes to life.

That’s what I choose to believe.

Soundtrack: “Sounds Like Hallelujah” by the Head and the Heart

Kinda Nervous to Say So

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It happened one Sunday, a month or so after our first date. We had fallen asleep and I was the first to wake. I rolled over and he stirred. “Hey, you,” I said in a whispery voice.

He smiled and replied, “I love you, too.”

I felt myself gasp.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. OMG, no! He thinks I said “I love you.” Hey you. I love you. Okay, I can see that. Crap! And while I do feel things are moving in that direction, it’s too soon. Plus, I’ve still got all these hang-ups around the L word that I’m trying to shake. My confidence is fast growing, but when it comes to saying it first, I hereby declare NOT IT.

I needed to handle this blunder fast. I couldn’t leave those three words—words my soul had been craving for so long—hanging. I didn’t want to embarrass him, nor did I want to pretend that’s what I had said.

So I smiled and I spoke. “I do love you.” The words came out feeling heavy on my tongue; I hoped all of my hopes that they felt breezy to his ear. “But what I actually said was, ‘hey, you.’”

We laughed, both feeling a little embarrassed and a little relieved. I further lightened the moment with a “Well, then!”

He responded with “I guess it is a little soon for that, right?” Then we swept it aside and carried on with simply being smitten.

That day, I finally learned there doesn’t need to be a dramatic build-up to get to the point where you are comfortable saying “I love you” to one another. In my last long relationship, after a few months in, I said it first. His response (which was not the one that ends with “too”) scared me—and scarred me—from using it ever again. The words he spoke in that moment were indeed heartfelt. But they were also a form of rejection. Rejection that I willfully accepted.

Loving someone, as we all know, is about so much more than saying I love you. And just to be clear, my ex and I showed love to one another in countless ways. But at the end of the day, I’m all about the classic gestures.

Over the years with him, I kept waiting for an apex moment, for an “I love you” to be spoken. That moment never happened—yet there it sat at the forefront of my mind, on the tip of my tongue, and on the surface of my flesh. I waited and waited. Finally, when I could wait no more for our relationship to be what it couldn’t, we broke apart.

That awfully long silence has come to an end. It started in the new year with my resolution to say more yeses in my life. Yes to myself. Yes to letting others in. Yes to possibility—and to potential. Yes to letting go of old haunts. Yes to living an epic life. Yes to being the master of my destiny and the pilot of my soul. Yes to love.

Now, still in the dawn of a new relationship, I express myself and my affections freely—and so does he. It took us a little more time to get there, but now it just feels right. As it should. As it is meant to. As I had forgotten it could be . . .

Soundtrack: “I Think I’m in Love” by Beck

Smile Like You Mean It

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Smiling used to feel like pulling on a pair of jeans fresh out of the wash. It was physical and occasionally uncomfortable. Necessary for assimilation. Prone to fading. If I went about my day without a smile on my face, I felt naked in the eyes of others. So, putting on a smile came to be as much of a normal part of my routine as getting dressed every morning.

I look at pictures of me over the years and I can tell when my smile was genuine and when it was not. Lift corners of mouth, expose teeth, turn on the light switch behind my eyes . . . and hold. My conjured smile was easier than reflecting what was percolating in the depths of my mind. My conjured smile was a shield.

Then, one day, things started to change. The process of smiling began to feel natural (and not, in fact, a process at all). The fit was just right, the fabric felt softer than I remembered, and the desire to flaunt it felt genuine. My smile was no longer a dress-up accessory; it was a reflection of my outlook on life. And life was good. Even when it was hard. Even when it was hazy. Even when I had more questions than answers.

I look at current pictures of me and I love what I see. My face is relaxed. My eyes sparkle with sincerity and joy. I look—and I feel—happy, healthy, alive. That feeling swells tenfold when friends and acquaintances tell me how they’ve noticed the shift in me. The ripple effect of an honest-go-goodness smile is profound.

Happiness is an inside job. The company I keep, the hobbies and activities I tend to, the career I pursue—these are all external influences. Lovely ones, mind you—but the smile on my face these days is illuminated by something much deeper. It’s illuminated by the knowledge and understanding that, ultimately, I am the keeper of the flame.

The smile on my face these days is, first and foremost, for me. And because it comes from a place of authenticity, it is effortless to share.

Soundtrack: “Smile Like You Mean It” by the Killers

Time to Believe in What You Know

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Back in high school, I had exactly one driving lesson with my father. It was a barren, bright morning in the vacant lot of a nearby state park. I learned quickly that I did not have a knack for making that big ol’ Buick smoothly stop and go. Apparently, despite there being two pedals on the floor–and us drivers (and wannabe drivers) having two feet–I wasn’t allowed to use them at the same time. This was a fact that boggled my 15-and-three-quarters-old brain.

Still, I drove around the parking lot that way–left foot stop, right foot go. It an unpleasant experience all around. Jerky and stressful and confusing for us both. Being that my feet were largely hidden in the wheel well, I continued with this approach, even after being told otherwise. Not only did two pedals and two feet seem like it should be a given, the stop-go-stop-go technique felt like the safer option to me.

Eventually, I enrolled in driver’s ed and learned the right way to get around. But it took me a while to shed that instinct to tap the brake at the littlest flicker of concern. Now I could retrace the last 30-plus years of my life and probably point out hundreds of instances of me tapping the metaphorical brakes. Or I could just fast-forward to the latest and most relevant one: moving forward in my personal life.

I’m all for minding the signs and paying attention to the signals–literally and metaphorically. But I can feel that old instinct to hover my foot over the brake, to insert little halts when unnecessary, creeping in–just as life starts to get a little more unexpected. A little more interesting. Riding the brake is a fear-based action. Sure, it may seem wise at first, but it’s no way to smoothly move forward.

There’s a time and a place for caution and there’s a time and a place for letting go of the restraints. I’ve decided to let go of the restraints.

In the days following my breakup, I replaced the family photo on my desk at work with this quote:

“Step into uncertainty–today and a little bit every day. That is how an epic life is lived.”

At first these words served a bit of a fake-it-’til-you-make-it purpose. But after a few weeks of reading and rereading these words, I believed them. I embodied them. I began to welcome the mystery that lay ahead. And now–that feeling of being smack-dab in the middle of a Choose Your Own Adventure book is the most alive I’ve felt in a long, long time.

I haven’t a clue what next turn of the page has in store for me, but I can tell you it’s an exhilarating way to be living my life right now. It reminds me of the long, winding road that led to my old neighborhood back where I lived in those early days of driving. It dipped and curved endlessly and erratically, like the scalloped edges of Valentine made by a child. Once I became comfortable behind the wheel, there was nothing I loved more than touring all of that road’s curves, never really knowing what lay around the next bend but trusting myself to handle it all with grace. Without obsessing over the brake.

In a moment today when my head and my heart were having a bit of a private debate over the brake metaphor, I came across this piece on the HBR blog: How to Have a Year That Counts. Its simple, elegant reminders to (1) start with your dreams, (2) walk toward the fire, (3) venture beyond certainty, and (4) let life happen were all the confirmation I needed that yes, it is time to get out of my head and experience life outside of my comfort zone. It’s time to take my foot off the brake. That’s where my story will start to get interesting . . .

Soundtrack: “Shine” by Alexi Murdoch