“The most important of all creatures are the winged. For they are the nearest to the Heavens and are not bound to the Earth. As are the four-legged or little crawling people…they see everything that happens on the Earth.” – Black Elk
Sometimes I imagine I’m a bird.
I always start my flight soaring over snow-capped mountains, then diving down toward roaring rivers and emerald green forests. I continue my imaginary flight through not-so barren deserts, and eventually, over oceans until I only have miles of blue above and below me. I continue to flight into the night, when I glide underneath twinkling stars.
I keep flying.
Over the plains and fields until I reach suburbs and cities. I look down. I see children playing at the park…and black teens getting shot in the street. As I stop to rest on windowsills, I see families gathered around tables eating dinner…and I see men hitting their wives. I fly past hospital windows and see babies being born…then over cemeteries, I watch parents burying their child.
I feel love and hate, joy and sadness, anger and peace. How could a world so beautiful be so ugly? And how could so much love exist with so much pain?
I’d rather be too much for someone else than not enough for myself
.Over the years, I’ve discovered the only way for me not to be enough is to not stand up for what I believe in, to not use my voice, and to ignore the quirky, goofy, and brave light inside of me. And yes, often that leads me to being too much for others, which seems to be even more true for men (it always great when I have my opinions, until it is in opposition to his). I’m am 100% fine with that, because I am a “fucking ray of sunshine.”
2020 has been a hard year for everyone. With COVID, the world and our sense of normalcy were shaken. Some of us lost loved ones to the virus. All of us had our lives changed. If we were lucky enough to keep our jobs, we still couldn’t go out as we normally did. Weddings were delayed, holidays missed, goodbyes went unsaid, and hugs became a novelty.
We grieved what was lost. Sometimes things we did not appreciate before. Other areas of life continued on, both the pain and the joy.
While this blog shares my personal relationship with grief this year, I write this with the thought that others grieving may find something in my words. Hope, discovery, a sense of connection…I’m not sure, but if you’re reading this, I thank you for sharing in part of my story
As a human being walking this earth, I’ve had some experience with grief at various degrees. Additionally, as a mental health therapist, I have had a little training in helping others experiencing grief. I learned the well-known 5 Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) by the brilliant Elizabeth Kubler Ross and then watched the videos of Martin Prechtel’s speech, Grief and Praise. If you haven’t yet seen those videos, I highly suggest you do. In short, Prechtel’s belief is that on the other side of grief is gratitude. It is only if we’ve experienced love or joy that we experience the deep sadness of having lost someone or something. Or, better said in the words of David Kessler (Kubler’s protege) “You don’t have to experience grief, but you can only avoid it by avoiding love. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined.” In hindsight, we count our blessings and find gratitude for our sorrow.
On a rational level, Martin’s speech was easy for me to accept and understand. Of course, the challenge is always putting theory into practice. In 2020, there was no escaping hardship and loss, with my only choice being going through. But could I find light in the dark, the rainbow after the storm, and thanks through my tears?
During spring and early summer, I shared many of the same fears and sorrows as most of my friends and acquaintances. Financially, I was worried. I had two part-time, self-employed jobs, both threatened by instability. At Easter time, I was sad that I couldn’t go see my family in Ohio, where both my mom and older sister, Amanda, were battling cancer. In June, I felt the absence of my dad’s yearly trip to Colorado to visit me, my twin sister, and his grand-dog. Then in August, while camping in the mountains, I got the call that the doctors could do no more for my older sister.
Just a few days after getting “the call”, me, my twin sister (Sandi) and my dog (Pacer) were packed up and headed to Ohio. We had 3 precious and sacred weeks with Amanda before she passed on September 3rd.
I remember waking up the morning after Amanda passed. I had gone to sleep in the same bed as Sandi and my dog, like we had with Amanda when we were little, waiting for Santa or the Easter Bunny to come. We opened our eyes at nearly the same time, and in seconds our tears were spilling onto the pillows. Sandi opened the bedroom door so Pacer could sit with my dad at the kitchen table downstairs. Then she laid back down and held my hand, neither of us ready to get up and face the reality of what we had lost.
And while I shared this grief with family, it was sharp, acute, a knife slicing through my heart. An intimate relationship had been severed. My older sister, in physical form, was no longer on the earth to walk through life’s challenges with me.
Weeks and months later, the grief still comes in waves. Within a moment, it feels like my breath has been taken away. Being a therapist, I know my only option is to feel it or let it build and consume me later. Sometimes that’s all it is, a moment of intense pain before it passes. At other times, the tide moves back slower. I need time to let the tears fall in order to let the pain pass.
In fall, I return back home in Colorado to smoke. First from one fire, then suddenly, from several. Neighbors down the canyon are losing their homes. In town, we all had our bags packed. Then it was our turn to go, as the East Troublesome Fire roars over the Continental Divide and burns through Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the mornings, I would hop online, checking to see if the fire consumed homes and businesses of friends in my community. I breathed sighs of relief for my neighbors and said prayers for those in nearby towns who had not been so lucky.
Again, I’m filled with sadness, though this time it is a collective grief. It’s not as sharp, but I feel its heaviness. I share the fear and pain of my neighbors, my fellow mountain-dwellers. While I am feeling more than just my own emotions, there is some comfort knowing that I’m sharing these feelings with hundreds of others.
I broke up with a boyfriend in June. Without getting into the details, I’ll simply say it was rather abrupt and many strings were left loose. By the middle of fall, I was in a more reflective state, ready to have the conversation that should have been had months earlier. We sat down on my favorite rock outside my house, Pacer often poking with her snout to get between us. Each of us spoke our truths, both acknowledging the how and whys our lives didn’t, and couldn’t, fit together as we continued our journeys. Knowing the brevity of life, I decided to tell him a harder truth. That I had loved him. Him, ever cautious, maybe too cautious, with words told me he thought he did and still loved me too. These are the words that ripped all my wounds back open, though I didn’t understand it at first.
I knew he meant what he said, as at the core of his being, he is love. But I knew he didn’t love me how I wanted to be loved: fiercely, wildly, unapologetically. I cried for what seemed like the better half of the next 24 hours. I wanted to text Amanda, and I knew I couldn’t, so I cried more. Slowly, as I let the waves pass, I started to see a little clearer. I realized wounds not only from the year were re-opened, but childhood wounds, wounds from my parent’s divorce and never feeling like I was enough. I heard the questions from voices that I thought had quenched* and healed from: “Am I loveable?” “Am I worthy of love?”
*As a therapist, both from my own experience and those of my clients, I know these voices and stories that we thought were done with still like to pop their head up from time to time, often from new angles, just to make sure we really understood the lesson.
That evening, as I was headed back up the canyon with Pacer, the pain started to recede slightly. Almost with my normal reserve, I was able to sing-a-long with Miley Cyrus:
“She got her hair pulled back ’cause the sweat’s drippin’ off of her face (her face)
Said it ain’t so bad if I wanna make a couple mistakes
You should know right now that I never stay put in one place
Forever and ever, no more (no more)
The midnight sky is the road I’m takin’
Head high up in the clouds
I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone, oh no
I don’t need to be loved by you (by you)”
Pacer was resting in the back seat. I had just seen my twin and her boyfriend. I had talked to my dad and texted my mom. A friend had bought me flowers. I had all the love I needed, and I reminded myself of all things I loved about me too, coming up with another: a strong will, that will never let me settle for anything but what is right and true. Going through the pain allowed me to open back up to the love and beauty I already had in my life.
“Yet the heart itself cannot actually break, for its very nature is soft and open. What breaks open when we see things as they are is the protective shell of ego-identity we have built around ourselves in order to avoid feeling pain. When the heart breaks out of this shell, we feel quite raw and vulnerable. Yet this is also the beginning of feeling real compassion for ourselves and others.” -John Welwood
I’ve only lived in Estes Park for a little over two years, but even in my list of complaints, I’ve come to love the community and all the people in it. I’ve witnessed so many acts of kindness, sometimes being on the receiving end, and a neighborly love that I’ve never experienced in other places. As for the Rocky Mountain National Park, the more I explored its mountains and lakes, the more RMNP became part of me, leaving imprints on my soul. I nearly cried when I watched the aerial shot of the burned area, my heart weeping for the trees and the animals who called the spaces home.
Eventually, I rode my bike down to Glen Haven, taking a closer look at the charred, black trees from the Cameron Peak Fire (the largest wildfire in the state’s history, although the East Troublesome fire wasn’t far behind when it exploded in size overnight). “I’ve hiked that ridge.” I thought to myself. “I know those trees. I know what they feel like. Now, I feel like them too. Black and charred.” But if I know anything about Mother Nature, with time, space, and the right resources, She will heal. And I will too. Neither of us will be the same. Nor would I want to be. But grow, we shall.
I miss my older sister every day. At night, I’ll often watch a slideshow of her pictures. I cry and smile at the same time. So many wonderful memories! I hear “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Hey, Soul Sister”, two of her favorite songs, on the radio, and I know she is watching over me. My life would be so different if I hadn’t had her in my life. Would I have had the courage to fly?
My heart is open. Vulnerable.
“I will be brave,” I think to myself.
I write Amanda another letter.
I can’t promise you much, except that I will live until I die.
Despite the threat of wildfires and floods, I will continue to live in the mountains,
because this is where my soul soars. I will do my best to be a steward of the land, even if my actions seem insignificant. I will continue to put my heart on the line, in all relationships, because life without love is not alive. So I’ll keep my armor off. To give, to receive. And just like I was your little ray of sunshine, I’ll do my best to be that for all other beings, even when darkness threatens to consume me. I will scream in anger and dance in joy. I will laugh until I cry. I will run through pain until I reach the stars. Amanda, for you, I will live.
It’s almost winter now. My grief isn’t exactly one of those friends I want to excitedly embrace once we get a COVID vaccine, but I do open up to it. Nor do I wish pain on anyone, I just hope others allow themselves to lean into their grief when it comes. For it will come, to any living being walking this earth who is brave enough to love. I am also not an expert on grief. I still haven’t found meaning in my sister’s death. Is that even possible when someone dies so young? What I do know is that I have some power to create meaning for myself, a choice on how I will let it define me. And still, though I can’t explain it in words, I know that somehow, I am a better person for having faced the storm. That I am both softer and stronger. I realize that I cannot understand the vibrancy of life unless I accept all of my emotions.
In the morning, I watch the sun’s pink light creep up the mountains.
“Life is beautiful…even when it’s not.” -Amanda Rose Nypaver (1984-2020)
Everyday, as a woman* in this society, is a fight. A fight not to be put in a box, a box of shoulds telling me how to look and act. At 32, most days I win. Some days I don’t.
* I do want to acknowledge that gender identity and not conforming to the “shoulds” for all people, at various levels, whether acknowledged or not, is a challenge.
At a young age, it was clear to me what gender was valued more. I decided that on the outside, I would lean into my masculine side. But then I was questioned. Why won’t she wear a dress? Or wear her hair down? It was a confusing world, wanting to trap me. Eventually, this led to “She’s so skinny.”
I learned to be a chameleon in different social situation, with different men. I have lost boyfriends from feeling like I don’t fit in enough, and others for refusing to.
It actually wasn’t until I started running (or more specifically, running as my primary activity, for I’ve always run) that I started leaning into my feminine side. I switched my knee-length basketball shorts for much shorter running shorts, baggy t-shirts for ones more form-fitting. I still think either style is perfectly fine, but for me, this was a form of acceptance to another side of me. The powerful feminine.
I won’t say that I have always used running as a form of positive body image, but I will say it has allowed me to become free.
At present, my style can change day to day.
Often I wear tights that say some semblance of “I am an athlete” and “I like to be comfortable”
Other days I’ll wear flowing skirts, showing off my femininity and part of my hippie side.
Somedays I’ll wear my pants from Prana that say “I’m outdoorsy” and “I’m eco-friendly.”
Then, I’ll wear my ripped jeans that say “I am a badass. And I know it.”
But regardless of what I wear, I can be any version of me.
I can wear a skirt and be strong and vocal. I can wear my tights and tanks that show off my muscles, but still be soft.
Somedays I brush my hair, other days I don’t. Actually, I can’t remember the last time I had my hair cut. Usually, I forgo the hair straightener I once used almost daily.
On days where I go in to work, I might use a little bronzer and eye shadow in addition to my daily mascara. Sometimes I’ll go bare.
I may choose to say that I am a woman, but I am not definable. At least not by anyone’s measures except my own. I will not be boxed.
Once in awhile, this all wears me down. But more often than not, this is a fuel to my fire. A burning to be free, to set a path for others to do the same.
And so, I keep fighting the good fight*.
*I fully recognize the biblical meaning of this quote. I believe this is exactly what it means.
My twin sister, Sandi, is staying the night so I let Amanda know its time. She has to start thinking about moving. Just a few days ago, one of us could help her move to the bathroom. Now its better if two of us are there.
First she doesn’t move, gently dozing off again. Eventually, she wakes and calculates her breath, preparing to swing her legs off the couch. After each big move, she, we, take a few minutes to just breathe.
Its time to move off the couch and to the chair. She grabs the handles and I grab her waist, worried that I’ll break a rib. I can feel them all. I wheel the chair to the bathroom, while Sandi make sure the oxygen tube doesn’t get caught on anything. I’ve now had some practice wheeling this chair, so I pass the maneuver ability test with flying colors.
When she gains the strength to walk to the toilet I spot her from the front, Sandi at the back. She reaches the toilet, one of us pulls down her pants, revealing the tattoos she thought my mom would never see.
We let her sit for awhile, somewhere between 10 to 20 minutes…time is easily lost.
She calls us back in. We stand, pull, flush.
That morning we had tried something new. Going from the toilet, to the stationary chair in her bathroom, then scooting across the linoleum back to the walker/chair. It’s now a little harder than it was that morning, but we do it.
A few more minutes here.
Sandi stands behind her, rubbing the bones of her shoulders. I take her hands and she asks me to count.
I count like its a god-damn prayer.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Over and over, until she has caught her breath and the panic subsides.
We wheel back to the “living” area, just short of the couch. Sandi is again at her back. I move towards one hand so my dad can take the other.
I begin to pray again.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Its an effort to focus, not to skip over 7. I look at my dad, rubbing my sister’s arm. His eyes are sad. Lost. He has already lost his dad as a teen, and later on his youngest brother to leukemia. He tells Amanda that she is doing amazing.
We wheel her back to the couch, again taking a few more minutes to breathe before the final move. My dad and I have traded sides, traded the skeletal hands we hold. Sandi is still at her back.
I imagine our deceased loved ones behind us, their hands on our shoulders, as we hold on to Amanda. Uncle Ronnie, still 29 and glowing, between Dad and Sandi. Aunt Barb, 57 when she passed from cancer, standing between me and Sandi. Our grandparents behind them, dogs from our younger years at our feet, except Sophie-Soph, who is of course on Amanda’s lap. These are the one’s that Amanda knows will be waiting for her.
I’m not sure if I actually feel their presence or not, but the image helps me anyway.
Amanda makes her move to the couch, light as a feather, collapsing onto the cushions.
We cheer, but Amanda still needs to get her oxygen level back up.
When she smiles and accuses Sandi of conspiring with my mom via text, I know I’ll be able to get some sleep tonight.
I say “Sweet Dreams” before I leave.
Amanda passed away peacefully a week later, sometime before 12:30am on September 3rd. The night she passed, I was sleeping feet away from her on the bottom “L” part of her couch, my mom perpendicular to me, and Sandi on the floor. Her medical bed beeped as it often did… we had never really figured it out. My mom got up first to turn it off and then said “Girls, you better come quick, I don’t think she’s breathing.” I jumped up, ran to her side to check for a pulse in her wrist, then feeling her chest for a heart beat. There was none. I collapsed to my knees next to her. I believe it was Sandi who made the first sound. That sound you hear someone make only when they realize the world they once knew is now shattered. We gathered around her bed and sobbed. I held Amanda’s hand for what felt like a second and forever (most likely around 45 minutes). When my dad came and I watched him start to cry, I held his hand with my free hand, reaching across Amanda’s body. My mom rubbed my back, re-assuring me and Sandi, and herself, that Amanda was no longer in pain, and that somehow, without her, we would “be okay.”
Denial & Survival
Some psychology experts say that denial is a coping mechanism. When facing death of a loved one, I have found that it actually more resembles a survival mechanism, placed somewhere in the in-betweens of fight, flight, and freeze.
If the tears didn’t stop, how would my family and I have found the energy to take care of my dying sister/daughter? It’s not that we believed she would live, as hard as we all hoped and prayed for a miracle, our minds just couldn’t go there. We had to keeping on living in a seemingly impossible situation: my parents watching the body of their eldest daughter fail her, my twin and I bearing witness to the fragility of our sister, just 4 years older, barely 36.
We flipped through photo albums of a lively, young child, holding on to memories rather than reality for just a while longer.
When I was younger, I thought sacred referred to something “holy”- something having to do with the Catholic God or Jesus, belonging to a set of rules or conditions.
Later, I believed the sacred could only be found in the natural world. High up on majestic mountaintops, deep in hidden valleys and canyons, spaces largely untouched by human hands. I still feel peace in those places, and maybe they are sacred. But it has been being with my older sister as she transitions from this world that I have truly found the sacred.
Sacred is not a thing, but a moment in time.
Moments that have literally brought me to my knees.
Kneeling before my sister and rubbing her legs as she tries to catch her breath after a trip to the bathroom.
Waking up at 3am and her asking me to take her hands. I crawl over to her on the couch, again on my knees as I grab both her hands and help her sit upright.
Watching my dad cry as he reads his birthday card from her, and she manages to conjure up enough strength and consciousness to help us sing “Happy Birthday”.
The nurse leaves, for the last time, and my mom, always so “midwestern tough” and steady, turns to me in tears and asks “what are we going to do [without her]?” as we embrace.
I don’t know what we are going to do.
At 4am, sitting around my sister’s bed with my twin and my mom. Watching my mom tell her first born that she fought really hard, that she is loved, and it’s okay to go.
The next night, being feet away from my sister as her soul passes. A family on its knees.
Later, getting into bed with my twin sister and my dog. Hours later, waking up from the peaceful land of nothingness and back to the reality of what we lost, the tears coming immediately. Not wanting to move and face the day without our big sister, we hold hands and try to drift back to sleep for a few more hours.
At the funeral home, watching my mom and dad, divorced for over 20 years and not speaking for most of that time, hug in front of the coffin with my mom uttering “Oh Bob, I never thought it would come to this.”
The tears mixed in with the laughter as we danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling” at lunch after the ceremony, a song my sister had not long ago danced to after what we thought was her last chemo session.
But all that is over now. It’s not September 13th, 10 days after her passing. I’m flying back to Colorado and I ask myself “where is the sacred now?”
The only answer I can come up with is that maybe, maybe, it’s somewhere in the space making up the open wound in my heart.
“Life is beautiful…even when it’s not.” -Amanda Rose Nypaver
I don’t think my twin sister Sandi would mind me saying (and would agree with) that our older sister Amanda has always been the best writer out of the three of us. For Christmas 2019, me and Sandi received Train (the band) t-shirts and wine from Save Me, San Francisco Wine Co. Following those gifts, we received the most special gift: acrostic poems by Amanda using Train songs “Drops of Jupiter” & “Hey Soul Sister”. I hope you as much strength and inspiration from the poems as we have.
Determined to be more than just survivors of life, we
Reach for a ray of sunshine in the darkness, and
Out pours strength from those here and gone who love us most.
Peace will find us in our weakest moments and help us
Sail across the sun.
Overcoming our obstacles, we reach the top of the mountain, free and
Journeys of 1,000 miles start with a single step forward, and we find
Unwaivering support from all that surrounds us. but we still
Pray we can live up to and fulfill all expectations.
In times of both turmoil and
Explore what both amazes and humbles us, ultimately
Realizing not all who wander are lost!
Merry Christmas Ray!
All My Love,
*Neither me or Amanda could remember how I came up with the nickname “T”, though I’ve been using it for at least 20 years.
Hope is rejoicing in times of suffering, for we know
Everything happens for a reason.
You still find yourself asking God “Why?”, but are you really ready for His answer?
Savor the unanwered prayers, for they don’t belong in our stories,
Our paths are discovered as we look to the sky for guidance.
Under the stars we can even find light in the darkness, and we remember
Life is beautiful, even when it isn’t.
Strength, our saving grace, is a state of mind,
Inspired by those who love us and those who came before us that left too soon.
Side by side, we can conquer anything,
Tomorrow is not always promised, so today we must live!
Embrace the little things that bring you joy, for someday you will
On Friday, August 7th my twin sister and I were both in different places, camping and exploring the mountains. When reaching cell service in our separate place, we received a text from our older sister, Amanda (36), that we needed to call her together. We both knew what this meant, she has been battling cancer for the past 2.5 years. I was able to largely distract myself until we managed to meet in the middle at the Mineral Belt Trailhead in Leadville, CO. We called, and Amanda told us in a raspy voice due to the cancer affecting her vocal cords, that it was “time for her to be with Aunt Barb and Uncle Ronny” (relatives that both passed away from cancer, who have always held very deep places in our hearts.). All 3 of us were weeping, so we hung up, and Sandi and I slid down from the bumper of the car to the ground, where we sat, crumbled, and wept at the feet of Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert.
These pieces were written in the aftermath of the news and (currently) while taking care of Amanda. At this moment, I sit next to her as she uses her nebulizer to help her breathing. Otherwise, she is doing “well” right now…still able to eat (requesting blizzards from DQ), still able to smile. If you’re reading this, I ask that you send energy, prayers, etc to the Universe, Mother Earth, God or Whatever/Whomever, first if a miracle is possible, and if not, that she has a smooth transition from this life and into the arms and paws of family and friends who have already made the journey to Somewhere Else.
If A Girl Cries Alone
You know the quote “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well I wonder if a girl cries alone in the trees, does she make a sound? Is anyone listening?
I’d like to think so. The earth soaking up her tears. The trees offering their strength. Chipmunks offering their comfort. The flowers offering their beauty. Mother Earth softy saying “You are not alone.”
The smoke from the wildfires are a perfect metaphor for how I’m feeling. I’m in a haze. I’m not sure if I don’t know what’s real…or if I’m just lost. Meanwhile, the trees keep burning. And while the trees turn to ashes, no hole will be left deeper than the one left in me.
It’s like I wear a giant “S” on my chest
No, not like Hester’s “A”.
My “S” stands for SAD.
I imagine everyone staring at me, saying
“That’s the SAD girl over there
Don’t get too close
She’ll infect you with her sadness”
But I don’t want to pass it on
I just want a shoulder to lean on
A hand to help me up
Just a bit of light
To enter into my open wound.
The Holy Fucks
I’m not a big user of curse words, although I’m not against them. Mainly, I use “fuck” for emphasis when I’m really upset about something. It wasn’t until I found out that my 36 years young sister was dying that I started putting “holy” before the word. During the times I couldn’t stand because the pain was too great*, when she asked my mom “did hospice say when I was going to die?”, and especially when she gave my cousin’s little girls Winnie the Pooh blankets and said she’ll always watch over them. This is when the “fucks” became “holy”.
*A professor of my defined sacred as “that which brings us to our knees.” I’ve been to some beautiful places, waterfalls, mountaintops, deep inside canyons, and never have I ever been brought to my knees so much as during this time. Which, perhaps mean the most sacred thing in the world is our love for others.
These are the holy fucks.
“Holy fuck, why is this allowed to happen?”
“Holy fuck, if there’s a God or something greater out there, you better be with us right now.”
“Holy fuck, how can one person hold this much love and this much pain?”
“Holy fuck, this is too much.”
“Holy fuck, how am I going go on after she leaves?”
At least once a week, I’ll cry over Pacer.The tears are from the purest Love I know. They symbolize both my deepest gratitude for being blessed to have the best companion I could ever want, and an even deeper grief knowing one day she will most likely leave this Earth before me. (I’ve cried every time I have thought of, written, and edited that line.) The funny thing is that I know she loves me just the same.She just doesn’t seem to share my sorrow.It’s like she knows, or at least more truly believes, something I don’t.Sometimes I swear I can see the Universe through her eyes.
One of my only hopes when I leave this world is that I can fully encompass so much Love.
God is Love.Dog is Love.
I am by no means an expert in the history of language, but I can with almost 100% certainty say that it is no coincidence that God spelled backwards is Dog.If only the religions of the world recognized that, there would be no shortage of compassion.
A little more on our Love story:
When my then boyfriend and I (we adopted her together) went to pick up Pacer (in Asheboro, NC), I was just about as nervous as I was excited—pretty much how I am going on any mountain adventure.
That little squirt was such a beautiful little determined sass-ball from the start.She tripped my boyfriend walking up to the car, puked in my lap on the drive home, and had us chasing her around the yard from the start.
When me and that first boyfriend split (I guess we can call him her Dad), it was never a question of whom she’d go with.I would’ve stayed in that relationship if I had to, even though we had exhausted all options of working things out.I’m pretty sure he and I both cried when I left.Pacer probably licked my tears.But did she know that we were leaving for good?
Pacer has been with me through several other relationships after that, like the one boy I fell in love with, hard and fast, but between The Pill* that left me with panic attacks, navigating a transition back to being a student, and a whole lot of insecurities, we couldn’t make it work.I’m not sure how much I cried on mine and Pacer’s trip to Cloud Peak Wilderness in Wyoming (I may have still been in denial), but she remained my constant companion through the very literal highs and lows.
*I am by no means against The Pill or any other method of birth control.For me they just didn’t work.And for any guy reading this, go you for wearing a condom and taking part of the responsibility off your partner.
Then there was the relationship that ended with a boyfriend coming home drunk and angry, her body under mine in hopes that I could protect her from some of the yelling.She never judged me for not leaving sooner and instead gave comfort by simply laying next to me (plus some incessant pawing and licking) not as I cried from heartbreak but the absurdity of it all.Then off to the mountains we went again, seeking healing in the San Juans, her never leaving my side even when not happy with my route decisions.(She has, however, learned to demand rest days.)
The last boyfriend, whom we both adored, maybe loved, but only Pacer could ever say.Except my internal warning system has never been able to turn off of high alert from the last one.I can’t tell you if the system was accurate or faulty, only that when I felt my throat constrict and the weight in my chest that I was already trapped in a mix of fight and flight.All my body could tell me was enough.Even on those lonely nights hoping for a text or a “like” on Facebook, Pacer just curled up beside me on the couch (unless she got bored with me ignoring her for the computer, and put herself to bed.)
True Love is unconditional.We’ve never needed words because we could always attune to the other’s presence.Or maybe spirit?Pacer is my ultimate Love story.
I laugh because that certainly isn’t to stay our story has been perfect or easy.I still can’t say I’ve totally forgave myself for some of the training tools (ex. e-collar) I used on her as a puppy (instructed by professionals) or some of the mountains I’ve taken her up when she was clearly not happy with me by the end.And I can still see her little body running through our old house with the veggie burgers I made for dinner locked in her jaw.Even more so, Pacer has made my life more challenging.I can’t be away from home for more than 8 hours (maybe 9, but then I feel guilty), I can’t travel unless Sandi can watch her or I can afford to put her in boarding with a trainer who is used to working with reactive dogs, and I carefully consider each trail we can go on safely.Then there’s the constant worry.Like right now, her first few steps on her hind leg are tentative, and then she’s fine.Should we do an easy hike tomorrow, or should we abandon ship (or rather, our camping trip) and head home?Nevertheless, all of that is second.Effortlessly, she slid into my life as my number one priority.I never regret anything I haven’t been able to do because of her.Because her laying next to me is worth so much more than anything else.
I probably should add…it’s not to say I don’t love some of the humans in my life to the Nth degree.It’s just that we humans often come with conditions and stories of what Love should be, which makes it harder.Pacer just is Love. (At least to those who know her.For those of who don’t—well my friend told me that Pacer has the bite that I don’t always have when I should.)Together we just ARE.
Maybe Pacer, and all dogs, have been put into this world to teach humans what Love is.
In many ways, Pacer and I are wild, stubborn or determined (depending on your perspective), and tamed only in the sense that I am Hers and She is mine.
Black Lives Matter, changing the names of Fourteeners that were named after men who led massacres on Native American tribes, changing the names of sports teams that may reflect derogatory connotations of Native Americans, gun laws, how to deal with COVID-19… It seems like everyone has an opinion and are happy to share that opinion on social media, often in not-so-nice ways. I often wonder why I keep my Facebook account, or at least unfriend everyone besides my sister and Esther the Wonder Pig.
We live in the day and age of opinions, which is a form of freedom of speech. And, while the quote “opinions are like a**holes, everyone has one”, has truth to it, I don’t agree with the implication that opinions are always bad. Some can be useful sources of information and having different perspectives on things is important for any person, and any nation, that wants to develop and grow. More so, I believe that when we voice our opinions to a public audience, we also have a responsibility to share an informed opinion. For example, if you don’t like when an athlete kneels during the National Anthem, at least research why he did it. If you still disagree with the action after doing your homework, that’s totally fine, just don’t make your own false conclusions without that knowledge. If you don’t agree about a professional sports team or high school changing their team/mascot because of possible racist assiociations, at least research the history of the name and also allow the minority group to express their freedom of speech. (It’s fascinating to me how many white people say they “worry” about losing their freedom of speech, but are happy to deny that freedom to others.) Politics are tricky, because often what is reported on television news channels are tiny clips of what someone said and/or taken out of context, OR are also opinion-based rather than fact-based (which I don’t always find as useful from my news sources…so maybe the key is to at least know that the TV news channel you’re watching is biased one way or the other). Along those lines, we also want to avoid rabbit holes and creating fallacies. As an example, I’ll use a snippet of a conversation with a friend discussing the Cleveland Indians considering changing their name, after conferring with the Native American community. My opinion was that this seemed reasonable, given that an estimated 100 million Native Americans were massacred during the colonization of this country and still live under oppressive guidelines. Her reply was something like “so then should we all go back to Europe?” At least from my knowledge base, I have found zero evidence to support the theory that all white people would be either willing or forced to go back to Europe.
Okay, so I’ve laid out some ways on how not to give an opinion (based on my opinion), so how does one give a good opinion? If you go back and review a few of my examples in the above paragraph, you’ll see I included a few links which hopefully shows that I did some research to support my opinion. That doesn’t mean you have to be an expert to give an opinion or always use citations (obviously, I did not use APA guidelines in this blog post), it just means you should put in a little work, and then be open (more on this in a bit) if someone supports an opinion different than yours with a better source. We also want to give our opinions some thought before sharing, which may include some self-reflection. This might mean a few minutes, a few days, or even longer. Remember, just because a social media post is there in your feed now that you have to comment right at this second.
I’m going to add onto this point by also adding: think for yourself and avoid meme-logic*. There are some really creative and witty memes out there. I won’t lie and say I’ve never shared one on my Facebook page. The issue with these memes, however, is that the one liners may sound really good, but they stop us from thinking issues through, and we want to use that amazing brain of yours. “Think for yourself” sounds like a “duh” statement, but unfortunately, many people were not taught how to do that. For most of our lives, teachers, religious leaders, and parents have told us what to think, not how to think. Sure, we may have learned some critical thinking in math class, but we really should have been using those skills in history and English class (I was lucky enough to have a few good English teachers in high school, whom I didn’t appreciate as much at the time).
You also want to be in control of your emotions. I have to laugh at this one a little bit, as various men have attacked me who are clearly not in control of their emotions and unfortunately, we then don’t get to engage in an intellectual conversation. Some (mainly men) would think that because I am a woman and an empath, that I might be too emotional. It is true that I do feel intensely, but more so it means that I have 1) the ability to put myself in another’s shoes 2) I am highly attuned to the energy and environment around me and 3) I can use my emotions as sources of information.
Point 3 is the key here. Emotions are valuable sources of information and need to be felt, but we want to manage how they are expressed. For instance, I may feel angry because I have heard about an injustice. How do I want to direct the energy of my anger? I may do some writing, a physical activity, or talk to a friend, (and yes, maybe some crying) but then I put my energy into researching the topic more. I then use that anger as a source of courage to voice my opinion. BUT, while emotions always provide accurate information to how we are feeling, they don’t always provide us with logical answers to why we are feeling the way we are feeling. Let’s say I’m feeling angry because someone voices a different opinion than mine on a post I made. They may have even done it in a calm and informative way, and yet I still feel attacked. I could say “Well, I’m angry because this person attacked (disagreed) with me, so they’re the jerk.” Or, I could take a step back and do some honest self-reflection. I might realize that when someone disagrees with me, it triggers this story in my head that “I’m just not smart” and “I’ll never be good enough” and so I either shut down or attack in reply. A little more on that last bit later, but for now remember that you have control in how you channel your emotions to make an effective opinion.
To paraphrase a little bit, intent matters. Do you want to prove you’re right, or do you want to share a perspective? Like many others, I’ve have to be mindful of stepping up to a false pedestal and believing my opinion is to “inform and educate*”. I’m not always right, and if I keep a wall up that doesn’t allow for other voices, then I’m acting on my own insecurities that will prevent any attainment of additional knowledge and wisdom. Instead, I’ve tried to shift the intent of my opinions to “offer a different perspective”. The other side of this coin is to “be open to other perspectives”, which includes using some empathy to see the other’s side. This does NOT mean you have to agree with them, it just means you have to listen and be open.
*If you are an expert or have truly done your homework, then this may be an okay intention.
To reiterate one more time, be brave enough to be wrong. I’ve been wrong plenty of times…I think a few years ago I posted an anti-vaccine article, and a friend (a professor knowledgeable in reading research studies) kindly but sternly pointed out the article was based on bad study (and I have hence very much changed my opinion). Even more recently (sadly) I told a friend that I thought every American should have the opportunity to see Mt. Rushmore…and I knew nothing about the history of the land. (When I saw it, I think I at least knew George Washington had slaves, but every teacher brushed it off because “everyone had slaves”.) (If you do go to visit Mt. Rushmore, at least visit the Crazy Horse Memorial as well). Being open-minded*, which I consider the opposite of being ignorant/ignoring other sources of information, and listening to the voices of others means you are willing to grow and be a better, smarter human.
(After Black Hills 100 in 2013, my then boyfriend and I went to visit Mount Rushmore. At the time, I had no idea that the land I was standing on was sacred that had been promised to the Sioux. The sign seems to be leaving “just a LITTLE” bit of history out.)
Before I move on to raising your tolerance for dealing with negative people/ negative comments, let me remind you that you should first “do your own work.” Know what your own insecurities are and what triggers you. Know how you tend to respond in these situations. Start working on changing anything that you want to improve on. Again, this takes a willingness to be uncomfortable, which is also a key if we want to stand up the things we believe in.
[Here’s a little bit more on the topic with a passage from Robin DeAngelo in her book White Fragility: “Consequently, if we whites want to interrupt this system, we have to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in whatever reactions we have-anger, defensiveness, self-pity, and so forth-in a given cross-racial encounter without first reflection on what is driving our reactions and how they will affect other people.” See her book for more great tips on how to give and receive different opinions.]
Alright, now I get to utilize my undergrad degree in social science and my master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling to do some theorizing!
When I get annoyed/frustrated/angry/etc with someone who is commenting on my opinion who clearly just wants to argue, criticize, and just be mean, it helps me to lower my own annoyance by considering their humanness.
One of my theories is based on upbringing. Let’s say someone grew up in a chaotic home and when things were quiet, that meant something bad was going to happen/had happened (Mom was about to blow/Dad left home again). In adulthood, they live by the line “if things are going too well, that means something bad is going to happen”. In that case, chaos may actually feel comfortable for someone, and they may look for ways to create it (even if they don’t necessarily believe what they are saying). On the other hand, another person may have grown up in a home where things were relatively quiet and arguments were scary. This is probably the case for a good amount of us, if we consider divorce rates of baby boomers. “Mom and dad fought and they got a divorce.” Arguments feel unsafe, which is why many people will work up the courage to voice their opinion one time, get a negative comment, and then disappear from the conversation.
Following this are the stories we create based on things that have happened to us as kids. In some way, I work with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or narrative therapy with all my counseling clients because we all come with what I call “fictional stories” or made-up stories based on negative past experiences in childhood. “I’m not enough.” “I’m too much.” “I’m just not smart.” “I’m not worthy.” “I can’t trust anyone.” Then there’s the guilt and shame piece. This has been said many times before, but we live in a society that tells us mistakes and failures are bad. Mistakes and failures mean we are stupid and bad people (“I am bad.” “I am a failure.”) rather than opportunities to learn and grow. On top of that, I’m working with the “power myth”, that power means dominance. That type of power is based in fear and is laced with the stories above. True power is the ability to influence and be influenced (paraphrased from a lecture by Dewy Freeman). Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re working with when working with in conversation with negative-acting people and negative comments. Instead, we’re working with a need to be right, which almost automatically invokes defense mechanisms (denial, projection, repression, displacement, sublimation, etc) because no one wants to deal with the pain and weight of not feeling worthy or smart. This gets a little complicated here, because the person is always enough, worthy, and yes smart. But because they haven’t truly worked through their fictional story, they actually believe their non-fiction story of worthiness, so they’re protecting a false identity, or a shell, that is very fragile. (Hopefully that made sense!)
I say this all not to give you a comeback (“you’re just in denial because…” I promise, that won’t go over well) but to give you some understanding. Most of the time, when others attack, they’re not actually attacking you. When someone is in full-on defense mode, they’re not going to hear you, no matter how calm and informed your opinion is. This is where you save your energy and move on.
The last and probably obvious note to all this is that social media discussions very rarely lead to the changing of anyone’s mind. This doesn’t mean don’t share your opinion or leave a comment when someone is being unjust, just be mindful of where you put your energy. When change does happen, it’s most often through true human connection (albeit, I recognize that’s difficult during a pandemic), which is facilitated by honest listening.
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” -Stephen R. Covey
I was going to give one more opinion with a reflective listening example, but this blog post went on a little bit longer than I expected and I promised Pacer we’d go for a walk like an hour ago, so instead I’ll leave you with one more quote, a favorite of mine:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. –Victor Frankl
I hope no one reading this knows what it’s like to have your freedom of speech taken away, but I know many of us have, even if not outright. I hope that we all invoke our freedom to listen. I hope that all of us enact our most foundational freedom, to choose your attitude and go forth to make the world a little smarter, a little more empathetic, and at the very least a little brighter.