A great king presented his wise men with a puzzle, “Find me something that will make me happy when I am sad and sad when I am happy.” His wise men replied, “This too shall pass.”
Friday night, 5 PM. The crowd grew via a flurry of text messages and toddler shouts across the playground, “Stanley? 6ish?” A pile of kids like puppies, tripping down hallways and squealing with laughter. All us parents, just around a corner, stretching out then snapping back like taffy as we grabbed dinners and beers and ending at a long banquet table, piled with takeout containers and sippy cups, and filled with lazy conversations, whispers about work and love and shared jokes as the kids ran around and around and around. One of the Dads used his opera-trained voice to announce ‘Guys…every Friday right?!’ I heard the whisper in my head “I’m so rich, I’m so rich and I don’t mean money.”
This too shall pass.
Friday night, 10 PM. Crash. The shock protects you. It only allows you to know so much. I run to my husband, roll him over, blood and teeth everywhere. I sink into autopilot, reassuring and distant. Get the ice pack, touch his head, comfort and dial phone. Tell the 911 operator where I am, where I am again, find another phone, text friend and friend and friend, who can watch my child. Who can watch my child while I drive behind the ambulance, while I count my breaths and will traffic to stop and start each phone conversation with “we’re all alive.” All from a distance, from a place of control and the only moments the world spins out, the only moments I swear I can feel the Earth rotating off balance are when I hear him say “I don’t….I don’t remember…..I don’t know what I do….I don’t remember this day.”
This too shall pass
Pema Chodron says that one of the most important teachings from her mentor was simply, “It’s no big deal.” To hold with lightness, with equanimity** all things. Tara Brach repeats “And when I learned I was the ocean, I no longer feared the waves.”
This too shall pass
So the days lengthen. I begin a cycle of single parenting, driving to doctors’ appointments, and waiting till they’re both in bed to cry. I dig deep into the self-care lessons I teach each day.
Step 1: Ground yourself so you don’t fly away
Literally, ground yourself in the Earth. Become supremely centered in this finite moment. When I began to feel my breath shorten, my heart run away, my mind spin to the horrible imagined futures, I stopped. I held my own hands, put my face in cold water, and said in my head and out loud “My name is Kerry. Today is Sunday. I am in my house in Denver. I am safe. My loved ones are safe. My name is Kerry. Today is Sunday”….and on and on till the surf of my breath slowed and my shoulder knots unraveled.
Step 2: Don’t be ambitious, buy the tater tots.
I caught myself midway through a frantic grocery trip, concocting elaborate homemade meals in my head, all organic, veggie heavy, kid friendly and soft enough for someone with a broken face to eat. My eyes were aching from exhaustion and I heard an old friend’s sage advice on the art of single parenting, “Don’t be ambitious.” Don’t be ambitious, Kerry. Just get through today. I bought a big bag of tater tots, a pile of fruit, and grinning wildly, called it a day. Lower your standards, ease your expectations, and get through the day. Wildly overachieve at being adequate, that is the gold standard in times of turmoil.
Step 3: Everything’s not fine, ask for help.
A few days in, I said to my mentor, “He has another appointment…maybe oral surgery…and I’m booked all day….he can’t drive and I just…he can take an Uber…it’ll be fine…it’s fine.” She looked at me sideways, “It’s fine? Is it fine to you?” No, it wasn’t. I couldn’t do it all and I didn’t want to look at that, I didn’t want to admit it or how much it hurt. I wanted my normal routine back, wanted to try to be useful in my regular-day-job ways….and yet I didn’t want my husband to be alone either. My mentor said “Stop, Kerry. Ask for help.” Yes, I could come up with lots of reasons not to, it was a weekday, everyone was working, didn’t want to be a bother and on and on. And then I thought about how alone I felt at night. And how desperately I wanted to be given an assignment when my friends were in pain, to help in some small concrete way. So I sent the mass email to each kind soul who asked how they could help. And yes, he got a personal ride home with a friend, and yes, it was so much better than ‘fine.’
Step 4: Be a good friend to yourself
When things are hardest, when you feel lost and bereft, ask yourself ‘What would I say to a dear friend who was in the same predicament?’ You probably wouldn’t say ‘buckle down, chin up, stop complaining, and keep on.’ Ah ha. But what do we say to ourselves? I tell myself ‘I’m fine’ instead of saying ‘this is hard’, I tell myself to be quiet instead of ‘tell me more, what is hard right now? What feels worst?’ and then I never even open up the possibility of offering myself the same comfort that would inevitably come if a dear friend told me where and how it hurt.
So I am trying. With the same miserable two steps forward one step back veering progress of us all. But there are small moments of grace, moments where I can pause, recognize that this is hard, look at it with love and curiosity, then offer comfort. Sometimes it’s a scoop of Sweet Cow, sometimes it’s repeating the phrase from my best friend ‘I’m your biggest fan’, and sometimes it’s just watching it all swim around my head and remind myself ‘this is right now, this isn’t forever.’
** Tatramajjhattata, the Pali word for equanimity, is translated loosely and literally “to stand in the middle of all of this.” To watch the winds of praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute, the hold steady in peace of both the instant and the infinite.
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