Wednesday, November 23, 2016

5 Reminders for Holiday Grieving

“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
Leo Tolstoy

I have not shared a Thanksgiving meal with my mother in over three years. She passed away in January of 2014, and during her last Thanksgiving, I was snowed in three hours away in my house in Syracuse awaiting the birth of my daughter, Sophie. During my last Christmas with my mother she was too ill to get off the couch. Since my mother's death, I have struggled greatly with the holidays, and the entire winter season altogether. Last summer my family's house burned down, and we lost nearly everything inside. This was the home I spent my entire life making memories in. This was where we crammed our enormous family for Thanksgiving meals, and decorated the Christmas tree, and watched Frosty the Snowman, and ate popcorn out of a giant orange bowl that was melted on one side because our family is accident-prone and we never throw things away. I never imagined a life where we wouldn't share holidays in that home, and I especially couldn't imagine celebrating a single holiday without my mother.
A time that is meant to be joyous and warm has crusted over with a thin layer of ice. I realize I am not the only person who has experienced loss. The holidays can be a painful mix of happiness and misery for many of us. But I remind myself what it means to be grateful. I remind myself that tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and where there is pain there is also much beauty. If you have lost someone you love, here are five reminders to help guide you through a difficult holiday season.
1. Let Yourself Feel.
Don't suppress the pain. It's real and it's important and it's a healthy part of the very long healing process. The world moves quickly, especially during the holidays. As we're left feeling all of the empty spaces where our loved ones once celebrated with us, our grief is often mixed with guilt or worry that after all this time, we shouldn't still be feeling so hurt. Let yourself feel. Whether you lost your loved one a year ago, five years ago, or twenty five years ago, some things will always hurt, and that's okay. You're allowed to take as much time as you need. I love hard, and I experience loss even harder. For me, the grieving process feels as though it will never end. Losing someone we care about tends to split us open, and that isn't a quick or easy experience to recover from. Let yourself heal in your own time, and don't push away the pain.

2.Let the Good Memories Outweigh the Bad Ones.
The freshest memories of my mother are the most difficult to bear. She was extremely ill, bed-ridden, weak, and constantly in pain. But that's how I saw her during our last holiday season together. I don't try to erase those memories, because I do feel they're important. However, I think it's more important to recall the great memories, and let them outweigh the bad ones. Think of the meals together and the inside jokes. Think of the laughter. Think of the cooking accidents that weren't funny when they happened but now seem hilarious. Think of the music. Think of the warmth. No, I can't erase those dark images of my dying mother, but I can focus my energy on all the light she brought to every other holiday I've ever experienced.
3. Remember You Aren't Alone.
Everyone grieves in his or her own way, but that doesn't mean you're alone in your grief. Some days are going to be more difficult. I think about my mother every single day. But some days I am triggered by something as simple as hearing a particular Christmas song or tasting a specific food, and suddenly I'm weeping in my office or sobbing on my way home from work. I never reach out to people, because I assume they don't understand. But they do. We all experience loss. We all need someone to be there for us when the pain comes crashing back. Let yourself open up to friends or family who are going through or who have gone through the grieving process. Even if the loss isn't the same, it's always difficult. You aren't alone in this.

4. Be Grateful.
Sometimes it's too frustrating, too difficult to be grateful. Sometimes I want to scream profanities into the sky and sob until I lose eyesight. It's important to let the pain wash over you, but don't drown in it. I have to remind myself about how fortunate I am that I had twenty five full, beautiful, wonderful years with my mother. Not everyone gets to experience the life I was able to live with her, and I will never take that for granted. I'm also grateful that my mother had the chance to meet my daughter before she passed away, even if it was only for a brief time. I had always hoped my children would grow up to build a strong relationship with my mother, and it was not easy to accept the fact that it would never happen. But in her last days she got to meet two of her brand new grandchildren, Sophie and her cousin Brooklynn. She got to hold them and talk to them and kiss their cheeks. I'm absolutely thankful for that. I'm also thankful for the house we grew up in. It was more painful than I could ever describe to watch it burn to nothing that night. But some families spend their whole lives traveling from house to house. Some people don't even have a home. I'm grateful for twenty seven years of memories around that one dining room table or in that one living room. There is so much to be sad about, but there is so much more to be grateful for. Don't lose sight of all that is left.
5. It Will Be Okay.
I don't know when, but I know it will be okay. When I found out about my mother's death, I had to put down the phone and immediately tend to my crying infant. I had to manage life and death all at once. I had responsibilities. But it reminded me that as painful as it is, life goes on. The baby needs fed. I need to get dressed and go out into the world and accomplish things. I need to pay bills and make decisions and move forward. To heal, we must do these things. We must try our hardest to live without the ones we've lost, even though it feels impossible. Even though it feels wrong. We don't forget about them. By moving on, we aren't disrespecting their memory or showing we no longer care. We will always care. Eventually we realize that it will all be okay. We will always miss them, but we will get through this.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why I Choose to Be Happy

“Happiness depends upon ourselves." --Aristotle

          I have spent most of my life obsessed with photographs—looking at old photos, taking photos, collaging photos, and over-posting photos on social media (sorry, friends). I have learned a lot from careful observation of the photographs I’ve taken or collected throughout my life. One of the most difficult photos for me to analyze is one of my mother, which was taken just a few weeks before she died. In this image she wears a knit hat to hide her bald scalp, and her fragile body, dressed in blue and pink pajamas, is propped against the back of her couch while she holds my newborn daughter, Sophie. Sophie is sleeping, and my mother has the biggest grin I had seen through all of her illness. She was ecstatic to be holding that baby.

                This photograph somehow warms my heart and tears it open all at once. Despite the conflict in emotion that this photograph produces, I keep it on my desk at work to remind me of the two most important pieces of my life: my mother, and my motherhood. It is one of the only images I have of them both together.

My mother and Sophie.
                A few days ago, as I was sitting at my desk distracted by memories of my mother, I stared at this photo for the majority of the afternoon. “How could she look so happy?” I asked myself, remembering how nauseous she felt that day, how weak she was, how much pain was radiating through her body at that exact moment. She knew she could die any day, yet she was genuinely elated to simply hold her granddaughter. I studied my mother’s smile in this photograph, and realized that happiness isn’t something that happens to us. Happiness doesn’t come from our circumstances or even our loved ones. It comes from ourselves.

                My mother loved that baby from the moment I told her I was pregnant. She loved her until the last time she said goodbye, as I held Sophie’s car seat to the couch because my mother couldn’t sit up that day. In that photograph, my mother knew that terrible things were happening to her, but she decided to be happy anyway. That is why she didn’t talk about the progression of her illness, or why she never told us how much time she had left. That is why she concealed the pain.

                I learned a lot from this photograph of my mother, or really from my mother herself. The past few years of my life have been littered with numerous unfortunate events, between the passing of deeply loved ones, to fire and destruction, and even depression, among other personal struggles. But I won’t wait for good things to come to me. I won’t wait for others to bestow happiness upon me or become frustrated if they never do. Happiness is an inside job, and I want to love myself and encourage myself and build myself up enough that I’ll create my own. To expect happiness from something or someone else is to choose misery, and misery is a contagious disease. Happiness just feels good. It inspires people to promote kindness and goodness. It produces story and adventure. It soothes and heals.

                So, I have made the conscious decision to be happy. I am not delusional enough to believe my life is or will ever be perfect. I have my struggles and pain—we all do. But I refuse to let those things define me. I will not sink into the negative space of anger, fear, sadness, and regret. I want to learn and discover and encounter and explore and create. I want to love and respect myself deeply. I want to photograph and write about everything. I want to find new sensations and taste the best parts of life. I want to stop worrying about what I can’t do, and focus on what I can. I want to be inquisitive and inspirational. I want to be happy. I choose to be happy

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Heart-to-Heart on Disease Prevention

"The past does not define you. The present does." -Jillian Michaels

                I grew up eating healthy, farm fresh foods, while also eating prepackaged, highly processed foods, because my family lived on a farm, but we didn’t have a lot of money. We often had fresh corn on the cob and green beans on our dinner plates, but Ramen Noodles and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese were staples during the summer months when we were out of school. I am not ashamed of any aspect of my childhood, because our bellies were always full, our beds were warm, and we were happy. Now, I am a grown woman sharing in the responsibility of the content of my own family’s dinner plates. I have complete control over my own diet now. I have started to change many of my eating habits over the past couple of years. The problem is, my three favorite foods are
cheeseburgers, tacos, and fried chicken.
                I try not to eat these foods often. But, their greasy deliciousness is calling my name, and due to my love for this kind of menu, so is heart disease. I have found through observation and a bit of research that my family genes aren’t exactly heart-healthy. There is a long history of disease on both sides of my family, including cancer, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, just to name a few.
                I met with my doctor after I had my daughter and expressed my serious concerns about my rapid weight gain during pregnancy as well as my family history. She reminded me that our genes are only half of it, and the choices we make as individuals have a drastic effect on our health. I may be at a higher risk for obesity or heart disease based on my DNA, but if I make healthy choices, I can give myself a better chance at not developing one of those diseases.
                Heart disease isn’t just a concern for me simply because it is in my family. It is a threat to many women in the United States. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, coronary heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the United States. One in four women will die of heart disease in the U.S. If I have any reason to eat healthy and exercise, these statistics are on the top of the list.
                Several factors contribute to coronary heart disease, including smoking and secondhand smoke, high amounts of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood, high blood pressure, high amounts of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance or diabetes, and blood vessel inflammation. So, those cheeseburgers I love so much, if consumed too frequently, could potentially kill me (and so could your cigarettes through secondhand smoke, so please don’t give me that look when I ask you not to blow your equally disgusting habit in my face).
                What can you do to prevent heart disease? Adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately for me, that means I must put *down* the cheeseburger.
                 Eat fruits and vegetables. The less junk food you consume, the more you realize how delicious fruits and vegetables are, and you’ll never go back to eating chips and cookies regularly, because they will just make your body feel awful anyway. Eat foods that are low in added sugars and sodium. Stay away from saturated fats, trans fatty acids, and refined grains. 

                Stay physically active! This is one of the best ways to keep your heart and lungs healthy. Even moderate exercise will improve your health, so get moving! Walk, run, dance, swim, lift weights, play sports. Just move! I even noticed that once I started using a Fitbit I changed the way I did everything throughout the day. Now I choose the stairs instead of the elevator. I park farther away from my office to add extra steps. I take a walk around campus on my lunch break when I get a chance. Sometimes when I don't feel like hitting the gym, I look at my steps for the day, and if I'm unsatisfied with the number, I will go just to get that number up. It has really changed my mindset, and the only thing I am doing is paying closer attention to how many steps I take each day.
If you’re a smoker, quit smoking. I know this is easier said than done, but try to make it a priority. Talk to your doctor. Save your own life. I am sure you have heard it countless times from a million people. That is because we are genuinely concerned.  I watched the most important person in my life die an excruciating death at the age of fifty, and it’s likely that her lifetime struggle of being unable to quit smoking may have contributed to her illness. It was terrifying for her and it was soul crushing for everyone she knew to watch her suffer in that way. Trust me, you don’t want to die that way.

Whether you’re eighty seven or twenty seven, it’s important to be conscious of your heart health. One in four deaths as a result of heart disease is a huge statistic, and honestly pretty frightening. The greasy cheeseburger might satisfy a need I think I have at this moment, but later I’ll regret every juicy bite if I am not careful. It doesn’t mean I should never eat a cheeseburger or taco again, but I need to make healthier choices each day overall. I would rather live a long, fulfilling life than base my happiness on today’s artery clogging cravings. This is one of the many reasons I have made the decision to get healthy. What are you doing to be heart healthy?

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Heart, Lung,and Blood Institute. October, 2015.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Falling Forward: A Lesson in Balance Yoga

"You may never know what results come from your action. But if you do nothing, there will be no result." -Gandhi

                I love yoga, but for years I have been too cowardly to join the intimate space that is Main Street Yoga in Mansfield. I went to beginner’s yoga with my sister before I moved out of the area, and it was such a wonderful experience. But, at the time, I would never have imagined myself doing it without my sister or a friend. Several years have passed since that time, and much has changed. Now that I’m back in Mansfield again, I decided to dive back into the yoga scene head first.
                Main Street Yoga offers an annual 30 Days of Yoga Challenge, and I wanted in. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to commit to all thirty days with my schedule, so I chose a weekday that fit my routine and started weekly yoga instead. I chose Thursdays, which happened to be Balance Yoga this month. I assumed it would be a bit challenging, but I decided to suck it up and go for it. I do love a good challenge.
Dancer Pose.
                The first thought that came to me as I unraveled my sky blue yoga mat with the word Believe scrolled across the top, was that I may have been foolish to start this now, during challenge month, and on the night of what Kathleen had just warned me was for the most difficult poses in yoga. “Prepare to fall,” the flyer on the door cautioned me. But I stayed and I greeted the woman behind me who was advanced in her yoga practice. She and Kathleen discussed headstands as my fellow classmates shuffled into the room. If I wasn’t intimidated initially, I certainly was after seeing how effortlessly they both swung their feet into the air and held a headstand as if it were the casual way they watched television at night in their homes. I pretended to stretch or something. The room filled.
                Kathleen began the class by having us do a particular flow that the other women had been doing in the challenge for the previous three days, and that I wasn’t yet used to. Mountain pose, arms up, deep breath, forward fold, downward dog (ouch, my arms!), plank pose (very ouch!), cobra pose, back into downward dog, walk to center, and start again. My mind screamed “wait for me”, but I pretended as if I had been doing it all along with the other women. I felt embarrassed, although nobody was looking at me. They were focused on their own centers. I needed to figure that part out still.
                We tried several balance poses, and some were a struggle, but doable for me. Others were not so doable for me. I stumbled. I fell. Sometimes I couldn’t physically lift my body into the pose (like crow pose for example, which will continue to be my enemy for quite a while, I’m sure).
Crow Pose.
                If I had done this exact class ten years ago, I would have given up, humiliated at my failed efforts. But I came back the following week, prepared to fall a few more times and hoping to learn something new about my body. In the third week of Balance Yoga, we found partners and attempted poses as a team. Fortunately, I knew my partner from college and we were comfortable together. We laughed and enjoyed the challenge. Toward the end, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “We may have failed at this.” She reminded me that we tried our best, so we couldn’t have failed. She was right.
                The old Ashley wouldn’t have tried this class alone. She definitely would not have continued in this class, unable to do many of the poses and aware of how silly she looked attempting them. The old Ashley would have given up. That would have been failure. But the person I am trying to be now wants challenge. I want to climb on top of *difficult* and press my heels into it. I want to show *difficult* that I’m not afraid of it. I can feel my body fighting to get better. I can feel my muscles aching after each class and my forehead sweating. I can feel myself finding balance in more than one way, and even if I stumble or struggle, at least I’ve tried, and I’ll continue to try until I get better.
                Today will be the last day of my first month of yoga. I plan to return in May. I feel myself improving and getting stronger, and although it is a very little bit of improvement, it’s there. Instead of shutting down and saying “I can’t do this,” as I would have done in the past, I’m going to tell myself that I can and I am doing this. In a few years, I hope to have tackled crow pose, and maybe I’ll even be the one doing headstands with the experienced yogis in the front of the room. Until then, all I can do is try my best.