Look Up Now

A childhood friend of mine passed away nearly two weeks ago.

I found out that she wasn’t doing well only a week and a half prior. One minute, I was having sushi with a friend I went to graduate school with, ranting about our perpetual existential crises and life stresses, and the next, I was on the phone with my cousin, hearing the heartbreaking news on the other end of the line. After battling a life-threatening illness for three years, her body couldn’t take it anymore. My friend, Danielle, was losing the fight. Suddenly, the ranting and raving that took place only minutes before dissipated; reality struck me like a gust of cold wind that shook me to the core.

Only 11 days passed between that phone call saying she was in the hospital, and the message I got saying she had passed, and yet, time seemed to stand still between those days, as if preparing me for the gut-wrenching feeling of being paralyzed by grief.

Young death is an unfathomable tragedy that often reminds you of the brevity of life. It’s sudden, and it’s swift, and it shakes you so deeply, and with such force, that you can’t help but feel profoundly betrayed by the world that’s supposed to keep you safe and let you grow old with the people you love.

It was a rainy Tuesday morning when she passed away. The universe often works in mysterious ways, doesn’t it? That day for me was a fog. It was coasting through a short work day, and going for a drive, cursing the sky above, asking What’s the point? What’s the point in all of this? She didn’t ask for this. It was repeating to myself over and over again, She was only 27. She was only 27. She was only 27. It was somehow ending up at the grocery store with no list or plan in mind. It was walking down each aisle, angry at all of the people filling their carts with the proper fixings for a Thanksgiving meal. It was the desperate feeling of wanting everyone around me to stop what they were doing and feel even a fraction of what I was feeling. It was praying for a familiar face to come up to me and say I get it, I get it. I miss her too. This sucks so much. It’s not fair. It’ll never be fair.

It was being surrounded by strangers who couldn’t possibly know what my favorite memories are. They don’t know about the elementary school pool parties, or sneaking in bouts of laughter between getting in trouble for torturing your old neighbor together. They don’t know about the sleepovers in middle school, or the time you finally felt like you were growing up when your parents trusted you enough to go to let you go to the mall alone. They don’t know about how Ruby Tuesdays became your tradition because that was the first restaurant you spent your hard earned cash that you made at your minimum wage paying jobs at. They don’t remember what it was like to get dressed up in matching fuzzy sweaters and Kangol bucket hats (both of which I am eternally grateful faded out of style) just to take funny pictures that will forever be a part of me. They don’t know about the nights when it was just you, your cousin, and your friend, and how those quiet moments between deep breaths and tears and wishes made for the future and promises that we’d all be friends forever, laying on a blanket, talking over cups of hot chocolate, were some of the most profound moments of your life. They don’t know that those are the moments that you will hold onto when the grief gets bigger and the anniversary of her death gets further away.

And they don’t know how much you are kicking yourself over and over again for somehow allowing the last conversation that ever passed your lips between the two of you to be about hanging out soon. Soon is a concept I’ve become all too well acquainted with. I’ll get to it soon. I’ll call them back soon. Let’s hang out soon. Sometimes, soon never does come.

. . .

The holidays are trailing behind in the wake of her death. The twinkling lights and Christmas carols flowing through the airwaves are an indicator that it’s supposed to be the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year, and yet the older I get, the more it feels like the Busiest Time of The Year.

This year, it feels like the Coldest Time of The Year.

The holiday season always seems to creep in, taking with it the magic of what it once used to mean. August, September, and October have notoriously been hard for me – a season of big change and crippling transition, sending me straight into a time of year that is supposed to be met with gratitude, and warmth, and cider, and reflections of Remember When?

Instead, the end of November is a less-than-subtle reminder of the things we have left to do. Did I buy everything I needed to for Christmas? Did I sent out my cards? Will the gifts I order come in time? Did I miss any parties? Do I have time to finish all of the goals I made for myself for the year in the next 31 days?

In the midst of what is supposed to be a magical time of year, it’s hard to remember to enjoy it. To stop, to breathe, and to look up. To feel the crisp air and be enveloped by the scent of peppermint. To watch those twinkling lights with the same mesmerized glow you did as a kid. To feel and express gratitude. To just be present and have that be enough.

This holiday season is a hard one. It seems that these days, all of the people in my life are hurting in some capacity. Hearts are broken all around me, even when outside our windows, there’s twinkling lights, and smiling snowmen, and kids in their bedrooms making wishes to Santa, all with hopeful hearts.

The reality in my world is this: people around me are hurting. People in my life are waking up every morning and putting on their best smile just to get through the day. People are scrambling to figure out if they can afford food, or water, or their electric bill. Christmas gifts are the last things on their mind. People get sick. People get sick so suddenly and so quickly and without so much as a warning. People pass away, even during the most magical time of the year. People forget you. They’ll forget how much of you was a part of them; you’ll see them and be reminded by a bright flash of the past of how much it all meant then, but it’ll be taken from you so quickly like you never even mattered. They’ll whisper words and promises to keep in touch, to stay friends, but they’re empty, and hopeless, and weightless.

The recurring theme in my life is one that is prominent this holiday season: stop romanticizing being busy. Stop glorifying exhaustion. Stop utilizing being busy as a symbol of status, when really, it’s a barrier and a wall built to keep you from your own reality. Spreading yourself thin isn’t admirable, in fact, that’s probably the reason I’ve been sick for over two months. Stop burning yourself into the ground for the sake of making sure that your schedule is filled up, leaving very little room to sleep, and rest, and relax.

Things happen when you’re busy. People you love get sick, and you aren’t able to be with them when they have important doctors appointments. You aren’t able to sit with them while they talk about how scared they are. You aren’t able to tell them that you’re scared too. People get hospitalized and you can’t swing missing work to go see them. People pass away and you kick yourself for never getting a chance to follow through with your unmade plans. You make empty promises of future plans with people, but you don’t always follow through. Because you’re busy. And sometimes, being busy has an expiration date.

So many people, myself included, wear busyness like a crown of honor – like we are deserving of some reward for the bags under our eyes, the exhaustion that weighs us down, and the stress that is undoubtedly affecting our health. The truth is: busyness is an illness. Busyness keeps us from facing reality. Busyness keeps us from showing up for people. Busyness keeps us from showing up for ourselves.

. . .

There is confusion and guilt that lingers in the weeks following Danielle’s death. There’s questioning how there are people existing in what seems to be happy little bubbles, so consumed by the hustle and bustle of the holidays, thriving, it seems, in a world that glorifies trivialities. There’s the constant ebb and flow of the stages of grief. Today, it’s anger at how unaware everyone seems to be at the profound loss the world just experience. There’s perspective — a lightning bolt, an electric shock, a drop of cold water on a hot day — a reminder that there are so many more important and grave things going on in the world, and that sometimes, all of the extra stuff just doesn’t matter when there are hearts broken all over.

Have you ever taken the time to genuinely look up at the night sky? We are so, so small compared to the world above us. We are tiny grains of sand — just specs of matter. Years from now, none of the extra stuff we do will mean anything. It won’t matter if we worked a 70 hour work week every year for 40 years. It won’t matter if we lost sleep over deadlines, and time frames, and progress notes left undone. It won’t matter if we hit the ground running every morning, just to come home with our gas light on E every night. It won’t matter if we dedicate our lives to cultivating a life we dreamed up, but never really living it. What will matter is heart and truth. Were you there for people? Did you show up when you were needed? Did you listen? Did you love? Did you pay attention to the people who needed you, but never asked? Did you ask for help? Did you listen to your body when it told you to slow down, take a deep breath, and be where your feet are?

Most of my life has been spent with my head straight, eyes forward. I’ve known what I’ve wanted of life for a long time, and I’ve done nothing but work tirelessly at building it from the ground up. I am dedicated, I am hard working, and I am relentless in my fight to get what I want — but these days, it’s kicking me in the ass. These days are a constant reminder that if you don’t look up every once in awhile, you’re going to miss a hell of a lot.

Sitting at the services for my friend Danielle, I noticed everyone looking up. Everyone was looking at the person we came to honor. The room was full of people who knew her in some capacity, and loved her as tremendously as the next person in the room. It was in those quiet moments, between sniffles and tears, that I realized only do we ever look up when we are forced — when there is something to look up for. When we are reminded of how very fragile and precious life is. When we are reminded of how quickly it can be taken from us.

Have you ever sat at a table surrounded by people you love and thought to yourself that this is what life is about? Christmas carols humming in the background, kids playing with toys downstairs, and a gentle buzz from the homemade spiked cider filling the air. And in those moments, you realize how full your heart is, how good this life is. I want to capture those moments. Preserve them. Remember to seek them every once in awhile. Because when you are too busy, you don’t have time to appreciate the good life, and the good people that are right there in front of you.

This month was a big, bold, painful reminder for me to start looking up. And what I would do to go back and live a life that didn’t require these kinds of life-altering reminders. Don’t be so busy that you need something this big, or this bold, or this painful to tell you to look up. Look up because life is too short to keep your eyes down. Look up because the world around you needs you — the people you love need you. Look up now.

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Confession: I am not a gymnast.

Gymnastics has always been one of my favorite sports to watch, and I’m not sure many people know this about me. As a kid, I idolized the Olympic gymnasts. There was always something incredibly mesmerizing about watching kids my age fly fluidly across bars, decorated in twists and turns, and somersault their way into a backwards bend on a beam with precision and grace. I always dreamt of becoming one of them. I always wanted to be the girl in the black leotard, hair pulled back tightly in a neat bun, gliding across a beam. I wanted to be the girl who tackled life the same way a gymnast tackled a floor routine: with precision and grace and above all, balance.

Today is my 27th birthday, and all I’ve got is this vague confession about everything I never became: I am not a gymnast.

– –

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to convince myself to meet you here in the very same place I swore over and over again I would never leave. This whole thing somehow changed for me in the years since I started it. My thoughts on your screen are symbolic, really. Like that local coffee shop you won’t dare walk past in fear that just the smell of their dark roast will bring you to your knees and back to the time when you almost made him stay. Or the dimly lit ocean side road where you sat with him outside on that cold March night and realized that this would never work out. That that road and that street light and his sullen wave in your rear view mirror were the last you’d see of him. Or the gas station that you conveniently skip past, even when you’re chugging along the highway, running on E, because it’s a reminder of a night you want so badly to forget. When his smile lit up the crisp summer night and his hand was on your knee, and you knew that you were falling — that somehow, this would be good, until suddenly, it wasn’t.

It’s been awhile. It’s been awhile since I gathered up the courage to will myself to come face to face with the thoughts in my head and put them down onto this screen. Because once they’re out, once they escape that secret spot in my head and flow through my hands and onto your screens, they’re concrete. And what else do I have to keep for myself if everything that’s spanning the universe in my mind is written out for you to read?

But today, on my 27th birthday, I gathered the energy and the courage and the will to stand up and raise my little white flag and tell you that I never became that girl. I never became the gymnast. I never became the girl who tackled life with precision, grace, and balance, and I’m okay with that.

– –

Here’s what 26 was like for me:

26 was me, standing in that black leotard, hair pulled back in a bun, walking on a balance beam, gleaming with pride as I tip-toed across, collecting medal after medal. 26 was me, gliding through my routine, but feeling a little off kilter. 26 was me, trying my hardest against the wind — trying my hardest to learn balance. I spent most of the year walking that beam with the same determination of a toddler taking her first steps.

No one ever warns you. No one ever gives you a heads up and fills you in on this whole growing up thing. And it’s funny isn’t it? You get a book detailing What to Expect When You’re Expecting. You get inundated with syllabi at the beginning of the semester outlining what is to come in the upcoming 15 weeks. You are given pages of instructions describing specifically how to piece together Ikea furniture, and yet we are all faced with one universal truth: we eventually all will have to grow up, and there is no book, syllabus, or list of instructions that tell you what to expect, what to anticipate, or which turn to take.

You don’t know how badly I wish someone could have grabbed me by the shoulders and looked at me in the eyes and just told me that 26 sometimes feels a little like being 16 all over again. That you’ll sometimes feel incredibly small and unimportant, despite being surrounded by so many people who love you. That you’ll often feel misunderstood, no matter how many ways you put it or how many words you use to describe it. That you’ll go toe-to-toe with your parents and just like that, they somehow forget that their child is an adult. Because no matter how old you are, you will always be their baby. That you’ll still struggle with relationships. both romantic and not, and showing up, and deciding between how tightly you should hang on and when it’s time to let go.

26 genuinely felt a little bit like 16 did. And I’m sure if I went around the room and asked how many of you are dying to take a time machine all the way back to the age of 16, I would see idle hands stirring in your laps.

The last year of my life was as much about advancement and progression as it was about stagnation and loneliness and feeling a little bit of loss of control. It was as much about success and accomplishment and getting what I worked so very hard for, as much as it was about feeling run down and broken and tired.

26 was supposed to be it for me, though I’m not quite sure what it really means. Did it mean transition after transition, the closing of an era, and the birth of new chapters? Did it mean saying bye to people, letting go of familiarity, closing the door on the past, finishing my Master’s, diving headfirst into my career, and the continual shift in my orbit?

I’ll be honest: 26 was all of those things.

I’m not sure really what I expected. Nothing changed. There was no loud crash. No confetti. No marching band parading around me. Nothing that marked the end of an era and the beginning of the next chapter. There was dinner and margaritas and waking up the next morning to go to work. Business as usual. 

Nothing changed, and yet everything did.

And I was waiting for it. I was waiting for the bright lights and loud noises. I was waiting for something I could touch or taste or see. The change was there — it was almost tangible. I was sucker punched by it, but I didn’t see it. I couldn’t touch it. Believe me though, when I tell you, I felt it. And it swallowed me whole.

I wish someone could have told me that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel isn’t actually as bright as it seems. I wish someone told me that you can reach all the destinations you pinned on your road trip map, and sometimes, it’s still not enough. Sometimes, you throw your hands out in front of you to steady yourself, but you still lose balance. You still get tossed along the shore.

I wish someone could have told me that the grass is always greener no matter where you water it.

I’ll be honest. I have nearly everything I worked so hard for in the last three years. And my God, if life was only about the accumulation of things, I would be on top of the world. Everyone thinks it’s about the stuff. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s never about the stuff. I can fill a little glass home with all of the things that I’ve earned: a degree, a certification, a license, a diploma, a job. And trust me when I say: all the stuff is not enough.

– –

The last couple months of 26 were about giving myself permission to be human.

There were so many nights I wanted to kick myself for going home and crashing. For sitting in the eye of a storm that shouldn’t have existed. For getting defensive when people told me how lucky I was to even land a job before graduation, how they would switch spots with me in a heartbeat. For feeling selfish and ungrateful because on paper, I got what I wanted. I got what I worked hard for.

But I’m only human. I’m allowed to go home and let the night swallow me up. I’m allowed to struggle with both success and failure. I’m allowed to feel hurt. I’m allowed to be frustrated. I’m allowed to want more. I’m allowed to be human. And this is a reminder that you are too.

– –

There’s going to be a day when I forget about all of this. There’s going to come a point in my life, maybe many years down the road, when I look back on this last year and all of the mountains I climbed, and valleys I lived in, and laugh at myself for ever being so dramatic. There’s going to be a point when I look back and remind myself that despite the ever-present feeling of losing balance, it wasn’t all that bad. I knew next to nothing about anything in life, but I still did it, and survived it all in the end.

26 taught me there is so much more to this here life thing than adding a bullet point to your resume, or a comma to your salary, or a new mailing address, or an extra diploma to hang up. 26 taught me that life is less about the precision it takes to become a gymnast, and more about balance and grace and determination. It’s not about hitting that routine perfectly; it’s about getting up and doing the damn walk, no matter how strong those gusts of wind are.

I can’t predict what 27 will be about.

And maybe that’s the beauty of life. Maybe 27 will be the start of something new as I really assimilate, for the first time, into this new role in this big ol’ world we live in. Maybe I’ll spend the next year figuring out what the hell any of that even means. Maybe 27 will be scary and magical and exciting and difficult and fun and surprising.

And maybe, if I’m lucky, with a little faith in my own balance, 27 will be all of those things and so much more.