Pen and Moon

from the writing nook of Theresa Jarosz Alberti

Month: November 2014

Divorce Lesson #5

Technically, this Thanksgiving was the dreaded First Holiday. Maybe next year will be more drastically different since our living situation will have changed and we’ll be further down this road, but this year, with all the divorce-talk, the holiday has certainly had a different feel.

I’m a planner, a list-maker, a researcher. I like to figure things out, sometimes to my detriment, but often it is a strength. So weeks ago, as I saw Thanksgiving looming, I knew it would in some ways *be* different, and I wanted to make it even *more* different. Which brings me to lessons I learned this year as I did so…

 

Divorce Lesson #5: Thanksgiving—Changing It Up

 

For many years, I’ve been the Holiday Queen, as so many women tend to be in our society. I’ve taken on the majority of the planning and preparations (with some help, here and there), especially since I haven’t been working a paid 9-5 job. I don’t go all-out Martha Stewart, but there’s still a lot to do for holidays, if you try to do them at all traditionally.

Me and my kids!

Me and my kids!

We’ve hosted Thanksgiving at our house for many years, mostly Bob’s relatives and a friend of mine joining our family. Preparations for me have involved planning out the meal and logistics, making to-do lists, looking up recipes, shopping at several stores, contacting guests about details, cleaning (and getting family members to help with it), and cooking, cooking, cooking. [To be noted: this is pretty standard for a lot of women in this country.] Some guests would help out and bring food items, but I did the majority of the cooking– I would often whip up 8-10 dishes over a 3-day period. Now, I like to cook and do a lot of it from scratch and I get a sense of satisfaction from it, but it is A. Lot. Of. Work. And I really didn’t think about it at the time, but directing and producing this wonderful feast was often to my detriment. I’d be driven, anxious and merciless as a task-master to myself (and admittedly, sometimes to my family). I needed to Get Shit Done, so I did it, no matter what.

I would get family members to help with some aspects when I could, but this was My Show. I was the leader and my family waited for me to tell them what to do. I barely noticed that I was quietly stuffing down my resentment as I chopped the stale bread for the stuffing, seeing them have plenty of time for sitting, relaxing, computer time while I was constantly on my feet.

Weeks ago, raw and heart-sore, I determined that this year was going to be different. As Shakespeare said (and Maud Hart Lovelace quoted in her wonderful book Emily of Deep Valley): “Muster your wits, (and) stand in your own defense.” One thing this big change in my life was teaching me was all the ways I have continued to act and behave that have been to my own detriment, often for the betterment of others. We mothers and care takers often do this, trained by the customary roles of society. We do it without thinking too much about it.

{Let me pause for a moment to say that I’m not criticizing anyone else’s choices in doing or not doing what they do for the holidays. I’m writing about my own choices and realizations, and the lessons I’m learning as I go.}

I re-examined how holidays feel for me, how stressed out and panicky I get, how long the to-do lists are, how I often dread it all. And with my life falling apart in front of me, I stood up in my own mind and told myself, “I’m not doing it like that anymore. No way.” And then I went about figuring out how I could change it so it worked for me.

After thinking, discussing it with close family members and making some decisions, I wrote a letter to everyone coming to Thanksgiving. I still wanted to have it at our place, for continuity, and to see if I could make it different. In the letter, I asked everyone over the age of 18 to make/bring something to contribute to the feast— each of my kids, Bob, etc. I said that I would make the turkey and gravy, cranberry relish, a pumpkin cheesecake and I’d provide the beverages. I gave a list of traditional dishes that people could make to add to the feast, or if they wanted, they could do something totally different. I didn’t care. And then I mentioned I was planning to go on a walk after dinner—this is something I’d always wanted to do after the big meal, but had shoved to the back of my mind because I felt constrained by how the day usually goes and what I felt were other people’s desires or expectations. This year, I was putting it out there, and if anyone wanted to join me, that would be great, but if not, I was fine going on my own. Anyone else could stay back and relax, watch TV, play games, whatever.

I didn’t put this in the letter, but told my close family I would also be doing minimal prepping, cleaning and freaking out, that I wanted them to chip in more on their own (I put ideas on a list on the fridge) and I planned to sit down and have time to relax during the day.

Despite any trepidation I had in speaking up about these changes, my requests were met with enthusiasm. Nobody minded any of it. Suddenly I had a holiday I could look forward to, despite life changes, knowing I was going to be making things different on my own terms, and in a way that took care of me.

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Dante wearing onion goggles

And… I’m happy to report it all worked! I was so glad that I had put a limit on what I was going to do (I’d really had to pull myself back from not doing more than what I listed above). It really opened up space in my mind and my day, and made it all a more pleasurable experience for me. AND I noticed that there was a different feel for everyone else too, in stepping up to add to the feast, a sense of pride maybe? Gennie made a huge pot of mashed potatoes, Bob made enough hot buttered rum mix to feed an army (mixed with coffee = really good!), Dante made red velvet onion rings that unfortunately didn’t work out, but he experimented a lot and had fun with it, and Leo and Amanda brought a yummy new version of green bean casserole made with bacon, cheddar and sour cream. Others brought Brussels sprouts, salad, pies, rolls, and lots of appetizers.

Onion rings not quite to his satisfaction

Onion rings not quite to his satisfaction

Despite the fact that it was 10 degrees and bitterly cold outside, I went on my walk, joined by a hearty few. When they were ready to go back, I took a swing around the block by myself, stopping and listening to the stillness of nobody-else-in-the-city, just me breathing in the cold night air. It was a magical moment, knowing I had stepped up and done it, turned the holiday into something new for myself.

It reminded me of a few lines from another Maud Hart Lovelace book (indulge me—I grew up reading her books and she’s a favorite), Betsy’s Wedding. In the book, newlyweds Betsy and Joe are confronted with a challenging change to their routine. They are torn up about it until Joe remembers a story from the Bible where the patriarch Jacob gets into a tussle with an angel. In figuring things out, Joe comments that they need to wrestle with this new challenge to make it something better, like Jacob did with the angel. Joe explained, “Jacob took a grip on him and said, ‘I will not let the go, except though bless me.’” Betsy responds, “Well, we won’t let this job go until it blesses you!”

I guess that’s what I’m trying to do. In this whole big scary-but-sometimes-exciting, grief-filled-but-sometimes-happy, lonely-but-sometimes-more-connected-than-ever Time, and all the little challenges that are coming up as I go: I want to not let any of it go until it blesses me. I may have to work to figure out how I can transform things to make it bless me, but I’m willing to do it. I may still break down and collapse along the way, but I’ll get up and keep going, thanks to my inner drive, and to all the support you’ve been generously sending my way (love and  grateful-thanks!). Transformation is hard, but from what I’m hearing, it’s worth it.

It worked for Thanksgiving, and now I’ll see what I can do about Christmas. Ideas are welcome! Start the wrestling now! 🙂

 

**Want to catch up? You can read previous Divorce Lessons  by clicking on the titles:

Divorce Lesson #1: Stay in the Present Moment

Divorce Lesson #2: Love Is All Around

Divorce Lesson #3:  The Freedom in Hopelessness

Divorce Lesson #4:  Do It Your Own Way

**To get email updates on upcoming blog posts, please subscribe in the sidebar, or scroll down to the dark area at the bottom.

 

Divorce Lesson #4

The last several days have felt like something is calming down inside me. After many weeks of only a few days between waves of utter despair, this has been a nice, unexpected turn for me. Some of you may know from my Facebook post that I had a really rough day last Monday. Through all the support I received, more discussions with Bob, and my own journaling/processing, it all helped me to crawl up on another shore. I can’t predict where I’ll be next week, but for now, there is a softness and a relief.

One theme has been emerging for me, first poking its head up tentatively, and now becoming stronger as the weeks go by. When thinking about what I might write about next, this topic stood up, waving its hand wildly, and as I jotted down some notes, it practically wrote itself. So this brings me to the next lesson I’ve been learning in this process. As usual, I think it relates to more than just a divorce situation. I hope it can help others, as it has been helping me.

 

Divorce Lesson #4:  Do It Your Own Way

I know this is awful (and I’m sorry to subject you to it), but one of the first things that came to mind was an old Burger King commercial from the 70s, with the jingle “Have It Your Way.” If you want a refresher, or weren’t born yet, you can see its horribleness here, if you so desire.

One thing I do like about this silly commercial is that it introduced the idea that it’s okay for you, the customer, to decide and ask for what you want. At the time I think this was pretty revolutionary (in a small “r” way)– it was not just tolerated that you could make special requests, but encouraged. This was going to be your burger, so ask for what you want. It won’t upset us.

For me, I’ve found this whole process of breaking up a marriage to be a very confusing time. Beyond the impact of all the emotional stuff, I’m having an amazing amount of contact with a whole ton of people, which has been new for me. People have responded to me, offering support, hugs, love, Facebook comments and messages, emails, offers, gifts, phone conversations, in-person meetings, and more. I am so, so lucky, and it has helped me immensely, to survive and keep taking the next little step forward.

I’ve also been the recipient—and Bob as well—of a lot of empathy, advice, warnings, recommendations…people sharing their own experience, information, and resources. I have appreciated every bit of this, no matter what people have shared, because it helps me in my desire to know more about this Foreign Land of Divorce. I want to learn and be informed and take multiple ideas into consideration. So I thank everyone who has shared with me.

But what I’m also learning is that there is no One Right Way to do this. Everybody has a different story. And there seems to be an idea floating out there in society of how divorces typically go—mean, hurtful, contentious breakups that leave people resentful, wounded and scarred. I do know people who have had these kinds of divorces. And that seems to be the widely accepted stereotype. I’ve had so many people give me a rueful smile when I say we’re trying to do this in a positive, healing way– one doctor shook her head and she didn’t think it could be done. She’s not the only one.

13090378881428542770path-mdWhen Bob first mentioned divorce, he right away presented the idea of trying to do this our own way and make it a positive ending of our marriage. In my first few hours of devastation with this news, I couldn’t sleep at all and I started to do what I gravitate towards—researching and finding out about something. At first I didn’t even know what to research, but then, grasping at straws, I remembered hearing months ago about Gwyneth Paltrow and something about Conscious Uncoupling as she was breaking up with Chris Martin. She was raked over the coals for her statement about ending her marriage in a positive way, and I had shrugged when I’d heard this, thinking it surely didn’t apply to me. In my first hours of deep despair, this popped into my head as the only time I’d ever heard about a positive divorce. So I Googled it.

I came across therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas’ online workshop called “Conscious Uncoupling: a 5-Week Program to Release the Trauma of a Breakup, Reclaim Your Power and Reinvent Your Life.” After listening to the free introductory session and talking to Bob, I signed up for it—I was impressed with her method of taking the breakup as a time to deal with current feelings/issues and look back to the old core wounds and patterns that brought you to this place in your life. It’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and heal the ways that have kept you stuck, so you can move forward in life and not repeat it over again. It was a lifeline of hope to me, and Bob said he’d be willing to work through it too.

Another step on the path to doing it my own way has been for me to learn to stand in my own defense. As a person who struggled with low self-esteem for a lot of my life, I am happy to say that through much self-exploration and effort (you can ask me how someday), I have really started to notice a shift in the last 6 months. The negative voice in my head that was always berating me has shifted to a kind, strong and encouraging one most of the time. My great worries about what other people think of me have slowly lessened as I care more about what I think. I really noticed this when recently when I had a series of very upsetting and hurtful conversations with a professional I’ve worked with for 15 years. Ever since the divorce was announced, she said things about me and portrayed my behavior and actions in a way that felt attacking, and I completely disagreed. I know myself, and this portrayal did not fit. Something inside me stood up and said “NO!” I defended myself and decided to end the relationship. I felt strong and empowered in doing this.

I am coming a long way around to it, but all this is to say that I really feel strong enough to start making decisions based on what’s good for me, what’s good for Bob, what’s good for our family, and our future relationship. I’m not trying to be arrogant and think I know everything. This is new and confusing territory, and I am trying to be as full of awareness and honesty with myself as I can. I’m examining choices and decisions I’m making, and really trying to think through my motives, needs, and desires to determine if I’m heading toward healing, hurting myself, or in denial. I’m really in touch with my feelings and using them as a guide, more than I’ve ever been able to before in my life. And I may not always be making the best decision concerning this or that, but I’m trusting that if I’ve taken a wrong move, I can figure it out and correct.

Road in Iceland

Road in Iceland

Bob and I are working through this together, and while we’re listening to what we’re hearing from others (be it professionals or friends), we’re choosing what we think is best for us—actually, a series of smaller choices that keep leading us forward. We aren’t perfect, we may be wrong, and we may end up regretting some aspects of how we’ve handled things. Right now we can’t know. We’re doing our best, and trying to be true to ourselves as individuals and with each other in this new, more-independent togetherness.

So, our process may look strange to you. We’ve already had some of that kind of feedback, and that’s okay. We can’t afford to worry about displeasing anyone else outside of our own close little family, because the stakes are pretty high for us. We need to do our best for us, and we need to Do It Our Own Way.

We both hope to come through this whole process better than we were before in so many ways, though that’s sometimes still hard for me to see. It often still hurts. But I’m seeing a lot of growth and strength in myself. I have hope. We are a work in progress. I sincerely hope you will be a part of the crowd that is rooting for us to succeed in the best way possible. Somehow, I know you already are.

 

**Want to catch up? You can read Divorce Lesson #1, Lesson #2, and Lesson #3 by clicking on the titles.

**To get email updates on upcoming blog posts, please subscribe in the sidebar, or scroll down to the dark area at the bottom.

{Photos not credited are in the public domain.}

And Now for Something Completely Different

Today I’m taking a break from the Subject of the Month to write about something new. Just shortly after My Life Changed Big-Time, I threw caution to the wind and decided to sign up for an improv class. Improv comedy has always intrigued me– I’ve gone to many performances over the years, I know a lot of people who do it, AND it scares the SH*% out of me. I’m not a person who feels comfortable doing public speaking. Even speaking one-on-one with a person who is a little bit intimidating can make my mind blank out, and I’ll have no idea what I was going to say.

I’m a writer, so communicating on paper comes completely naturally to me. The words flow, and I can free-write a la Natalie Goldberg til the cows come home (which is actually a bit improvisational, writing whatever comes to mind with no editing, and my mind and pen have no trouble with that). But I still remember the complete and utter panic I felt the night before teaching classes on National Novel Writing Month with my friend Sherri at The Loft. I knew my subject matter really well, but I was practically paralyzed and adrenalized with fear before and during the class.

uncle-sam

I want YOU… to sign up for improv

So, when the Community Ed catalog showed up in my mail box, of course I signed up for an improv class! (Okay, logic is not always my strong suit.) Actually, I was inspired by a few things. I’ve been taking a great water aerobics class at the YWCA for a few years, and one delightfully funny woman in her 60s has told me about the improv classes she takes. She has such a joie de vivre and makes our class-time more fun with her brand of silliness. When she’d mention her improv to me, I’d be intrigued but scared out of my mind by the idea. Yet, something in me knew that it might help me with my speaking anxiety. It might help me be more comfortable in my own skin.

Then, after my husband’s crushing announcement, I needed something to grab onto. I wanted something different, something within my control to do, something life-changing in a way that *I* wanted it to be. My life was changing in ways I didn’t want it to, so this would be mine. And I also signed up just simply for the fact that it scared me so much. I have let fear rule and ruin my life for too long. I didn’t want that anymore. So, heart in hand, I signed up.

Going to the first class a few weeks ago was pretty intimidating. I had no idea what to expect, or how we’d learn improv. I was afraid of screwing up, looking foolish, being bad at it. But our young teacher was SO enthusiastic, so happy to be teaching us, and so eager to teach us some basic concepts that fear soon receded.

We played games, silly games to loosen up and warm up.   The 20 of us stood in a circle and were encouraged to jump into the center at random, do some little movement with some sound, and then everyone else would shout “Yes!” and copy the movement. Totally wacky, and soon it became easy to jump into the center because we were all “looking stupid” together. It was PLAY… in a way that grownups don’t often allow themselves to do.

It's okay to be a little corny

It’s okay to be a little corny

We were also learning about acceptance and agreement: one of the concepts in improv is to accept what your partners are doing and go with it. You might have had an idea for a different way for a scene to go, but it’s important to respond to what is actually happening, and go from there. (Hey, this sounds a lot like Divorce Lesson #1: Stay in the Present Moment!)

One of the most freeing aspects of improv for me has been learning to be okay with failure. Most of us in the class are complete beginners, and so, when playing our games, there’ll be moments where someone messes up, and I watch others expressing through their faces and body language the chagrin of failing, even at a silly task in a game. Our teacher constantly reminds us that failure doesn’t matter, it’s okay, we’re all going to mess up, and we need to let go of any emotional stigma around it. We’re here to look stupid and have fun, she tells us. We’re going to blank out. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay. She’s had us play a few games that are purposely designed to get us used to failure. In one, we stand in a circle and throw an imaginary ball to someone across the room. The person receiving must not catch the ball– no matter what, it will drop to the ground. The receiver has to pick it up, and the rest of us applaud and cheer the fact that they missed it, and then they toss it to someone else who will likewise fail. It was practice, and we all got into dropping/missing the ball in creative ways. Failure became funny and acceptable.

I’m sure that a lot of people grow up with a stigma about failure or looking foolish. It’s human. I think I got a triple dose of perfectionism growing up, though, interpreting the emotional chaos in my family to mean that I needed to look, act and BE perfect to attempt to have some control over what was going on. I took my perfectionism pretty seriously. Bob reminds me that when I was finishing up my degree at St. Kate’s, I would have panic attacks about failing my classes when I was actually getting all As. In my early 20s, when I made the scandalous decision to all of a sudden move to Colorado to live with a guy, one of my cousins said, “I can’t believe Perfect Theresa is doing something like this.” I had a reputation.

So putting down my shield of perfectionism and getting permission—even encouragement—to fail is rather new for me. And freeing! Really? I can fail and everything will be okay? And I can have fun doing it? Wow.

Sure, I still squirm when we’re doing a mini-skit and my mind grasps for something to say. I wish I could be funnier, like some of my classmates naturally are. But then I try to remind myself that I’ve only been doing this for a month, and my goal is to feel more comfortable in speaking publicly, to just be able to be myself without fear. This is gonna take time, and that’s okay. I’m learning, and I’m proud of myself for doing something scary.

I’m delighted to say that I now look forward to improv class. It’s playful and silly and fun. I feel a little closer to the spontaneous and lively kid I once was. I know it will be $50 well-spent, to start walking down this road of peeling away more layers of false protection, learning to use my voice, learning there’s one thing I can never fail at:  Just Being Me.

funny-cat-sleeping-wallpaper

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{Photos not credited are in the public doman.}

Divorce Lesson #3

(In case you missed them, you can read Divorce Lesson #1 and Divorce Lesson #2 by clicking on the titles here.)

Spirals. I’ve decided it’s spirals. I’d been comparing the last 6 weeks since Bob asked for a divorce to a roller coaster ride of emotions—devastating lows, the rush of adrenaline and fear, unexpected highs. But a roller coaster implies a short turbulent ride that will end abruptly, and I know that won’t happen. Instead, I’m now thinking about the curvy flow of spirals, emotions circling again and again, but never quite to the same place as the last time. My emotional labyrinth. There is still raw heartbreak, grief, relief, peace, joy, but it shifts each time around.

What surprises me is that while I’m having some of the saddest, darkest lows of my life, I’m being touched by some of the happiest moments too. As I wrote about in my last post, people have been reaching out to me in droves with such kindness and love. And because I’m so broken open right now, I have no choice but to soak it in, to be astonished by the miracles occurring every day, to allow my heart to be soothed.

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In the last two weeks since I wrote, there have indeed been some very dark times for me. As Bob and I process things and discuss what’s going on, I’ve plunged many times into a weepy, snotty abyss. I should’ve bought shares in a tissue company long ago. This last week, one of our conversations ended up being particularly devastating to me… even though we were saying a lot of the same things to each other that we’ve said before (that spiral again). For me, the difference was that this time, I finally heard his words and let them sink in:

We were going to get a divorce, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

At that moment, I finally gave up all hope.

Which leads me to the somewhat paradoxical lesson I learned…

 

Divorce Lesson #3: The Freedom in Hopelessness

 

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In that moment of realization, in accepting the finality of his words, I felt like I was staring Death in the face. There was nothing I could do, this was going to happen. I sunk to the absolute bottom, howling in my pain. You see, I know I’d been clinging to some fragments of hope—and I know that’s understandable, given the situation. I’m sure it’s the Bargaining Stage of Griefmaybe if I change enough, say the right things, look pretty enough, clean the house more, show that I’m losing weight, maybe he’ll change his mind. It was even little things, like if I wear these earrings or this shirt, put on some lipstick or perfume, maybe he wouldn’t want to leave. It was magical thinking. I don’t blame myself for it, I needed to do it to get through, but it kept me living in a bubble of hope. It kept me trying to please him all the time… which was one of the problems in our relationship.

photo by Bob Alberti

photo by Bob Alberti

Even as I reeled from this painful acceptance, moments later, I discovered my first glimpse of freedom. Suffice it to say, Bob did something I didn’t like, a behavior he’s done many times in the decades we’ve been together, something that irked me time and again and which I held my tongue about, not wanting to hear his reaction. I didn’t even have time to think the words that would later become my mantra—I just reacted immediately. “That has been bugging me for years and years. I can’t stand it. It’s rude. Cut it out.”   He stopped, listened, and acknowledged it. I’d said it, finally, after so long.

This divorce is going to happen no matter what, and there’s nothing I can do or say to change it.

The freedom in my new mantra is that, at the bottom of hopelessness, I get to give up Trying. I get to examine every people-pleasing action or thought in my head—especially the Bob-pleasing ones—and decide if it actually pleases me. Me! Is this what I want? Why am I doing this? Knowing it’s not going to ever change anything, is this what I really want to do? To wear? To be like?

Of course, there’s a lot of pain that goes along with this realization too. I am now looking at my life and my future in a totally different way, and waves of grief will come at me as I think about how will I do this (fill in the blank) when I’m divorced, what will this (blank) be like? It’s a new reality, scary and unknown. And this is where I have to keep coming back to the Present Moment (Divorce Lesson #1).

photo by Bob Alberti

photo by Bob Alberti

But days have passed and I’ve spiraled around again to a sense of peace at the moment, to remembering the love around me (Divorce Lesson #2). This idea of hopelessness and the freedom of it is still rather new to me. But I know that these new questions I’m asking myself are good ones, questions worth taking the time to think about. Why am I doing this? Is this what I want? What’s good for me? I think starting to look for these answers will lead me on a better path in this journey. I can already feel the hope in that.

 

**To get email updates on upcoming blog posts, please subscribe in the sidebar, or scroll down to the dark area at the bottom.

{Photos not credited are in the public doman.}

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