This is the type of love letter you write to your ex boyfriend but never send. You do it because your therapist suggests it but also because you’re desperate to free your now broken heart from the grip he’s had on it since your third date. Back when your heart was whole, and tender and full of hope. Back when you were that way, too.
The word I used most in 2018 was “fuck.” It showed up frequently in text messages, typically in response to something unwelcome or tragic or uncomfortable from someone in my family or one of my friends. Sometimes it was a personal disclosure, usually bad news or a call for help. Other times it was a screen shot from twitter about the latest judicial crisis or threat to democracy. Always, it triggered the same sensation. A nauseous twinge in the pit of my stomach. A tension in the back of my neck. My body would get tight, all over, the familiar sensation of the only way I know to manage sadness and grief and bad news.
To close up and hold on tight.
It started on Valentine’s day. My mom and I were waiting for a table at our favorite ice cream shop when I answered a solemn phone call from my best friend, Amy. Her niece was in the hospital again. She’d been hospitalized on and off since I known her, more than 20 years now. Usually she landed there so the doctors and strong antibiotics could combat an infection or help her gain weight. Occasionally she’d be there as a precaution, especially in response to concerning results from a breathing test. She’d been in the hospital a few months earlier, staying just a few rooms away from Amy’s husband who I visited more than once. I never made it to see Sierra, and by the time I heard the painful trepidation in Amy’s voice on February 14th, I couldn’t remember why I didn’t. My reasons for doing and not doing everything are so real, and important and defensible.
Until they aren’t.
The next day I’m in my car in a parking lot in Santa Rosa visiting one of my stores. I’m leading a conference call when Amy’s husband tries to get a hold of me. I listen to his voicemail in the three minutes before I have to show up at a big meeting with the store manager and one of our key partners. There’s no space to cry or melt down or even call Kevin back to hear the voice of someone else who is scared and confused and heartbroken. I put away my phone and try to feel my breath. I shake away the tears.
Close up and hold on tight.
After the meeting I get on the freeway. I’m over a hundred miles from home and at this time of day it’s close to a four hour trip. I call Kevin to talk over the details of his message. As I listen to the ring tone on speakerphone, I pray that somehow the news has changed.
I’m not really spiritual but I always pray in a crisis.
I drive straight to the hospital because Sierra isn’t expected to make it through the night. Her room is private, but crowded. Friends and relatives I recognize from two decades of fourth of July parties and photo shoots before high school dances are awkwardly lingering, or anxiously trying to make themselves useful, or quietly hiding out on their phones. It was an awful, but beautiful scene. Somber and joyful and scary, all at once.
Amy looked like I felt. Times twenty. I could see past the softness in her face to the weight of the emotion she was holding back behind it. I tried to be present. And open. And present again. I tried to both soak up and add to the overwhelming feeling of unconditional love, all around us.
Sierra lived for more than six weeks after that. She died on a Friday afternoon, the second day of the major league baseball season, on her younger sister’s 21st birthday. That night I drove my nephew Harvey home from the hospital in Amy’s car, all by myself. I looked back at him in his car seat at every stop light. I watched the minutes until our arrival tick down on Google maps. I prayed, over and over again, that he be kept safe.
“We’re gonna make it, Harvey. Hold on tight.”
Sierra’s death was the worst of the worst of a terrible year. It was also the first of many opportunities life gave me to reflect on how I was living, and feeling, and being. The lessons of her death were the lessons of her life and everything that came after it.
The lessons that are and were the same ones I’m always learning.
The weeks I spent visiting Sierra in the hospital reminded me of how special and unique she is. It stirred up grateful memories of the summer she changed my life at Camp Have-a-lot-of-fun. That summer I confronted my limitations as a leader, especially my willingness and ability to lead through inclusion, to invite and incentivize belonging, and to be accessible and inspiring for a broad range of strengths and personality types. Being close to her again reconnected me to the importance of listening and curiosity, of paying attention to the details of how other people think and feel and interpret the world. I spent an entire afternoon by her hospital bed listening to her personal thesis on comic book characters. I remember feeling both in awe of her brilliance and humbled by her courage but also disappointed in the ways I hadn’t made space for her in my life for years.
This year I struggled immensely with my own sense of belonging. I wondered where I fit personally in a peer group now mostly comprised of mothers to small kids. I wondered how to tactfully action feedback from my professional peers about “taking up too much space” without sacrificing my authentic voice or surrendering my aspiration for a world where all women take up as much space as they damn well please.
I felt, for the first time in five years, a sense of regret and sadness about leaving my career as a lawyer for all the fun I’ve had at lululemon.
My word of the year this year was “courage.” It was both a theme and a declaration. It was a source of accountability in moments where I wanted to say no and stay home and hide out until the anxiety subsided. Courage dragged me out of bed and out of my own head and reminded me over and over again that the anxiety never subsides, anyway.
There were moments of paralyzing fear and worry, like the night I drove my mom to the emergency room after her major surgery. Within seconds of our arrival at the check-in window, she disappeared behind a heavy, swinging door. She was immediately hooked up to an EKG machine and I was left alone in a cold waiting room, terrified and alone. I flashed on my life without my mom in it and wondered whether it was even worth living. I made mental phone calls to my brother and my dad and my nom’s close friends. I was half way through my call list, in tears, when I was summoned to meet her. We spent a couple of more hours waiting on hastily delivered feedback and opinions and too-long-delayed test results. I felt only partial relief. The prospect of being without her haunted me for weeks.
There were moments of incredible triumph. Like the top of a 9km bicycle climb to a cresting view of the Adriatic sea in Croatia. My sweaty skin tingled with the touch of the warm breeze. I felt every beat of my heart as it slowed to its normal, steady pace. I took deep breaths to calm the fatigue but also to remind myself to cherish every second of this incredible feeling of personal accomplishment and freedom.
I took risks as an activist and explored my boundaries in speaking my truth and sharing my story and expressing my values and beliefs. I talked to hundreds of strangers on their doorsteps about who we are and what we stand for and why their vote matters. I got up close and personal with the irrepressible threat of a democracy from our friends and neighbors continuing to watch Fox news.
I re-engaged with social justice, a mostly messy journey that required me to examine patterns of language and behavior I’d ignored for years. I remembered the inescapable and ongoing tension that comes with a commitment to intersectional feminism and dismantling white supremacy. I connected to a group of supportive, visionary white women who helped both navigate and sustain my commitment.
I cried more this year than any year I can remember. I cried alone in my car and out loud to my mom. I cried at the end of Crazy Rich Asians thinking about my college boyfriend and the defiant, multi-cultural life we almost had together. More times than I’d like to admit, I cried from my couch watching cable news. I cried to my boss and with my best friend and the day after the November election, I got choked up on a video call in front of my team. I wept uncontrollably from the stiff, uncomfortable, single bed in an airport hotel room watching the European CNN station cover child separation in the U.S.
All of the crying left me wondering if this was a particularly challenging year or if the arc of my adulthood bends towards more heartbreak and loss and sadness. I’ve considered whether my tears are an unavoidable consequence of getting older, or a symptom of global chaos, or hopefully a benefit of so many years of personal development work related to my vulnerability.
Regardless, I’m embracing the opportunity to cultivate more joy in every moment its available. To focus on it and amplify it and not let it be silenced and suffocated by the volume and weight of the joyless.
My hopes and dreams for the coming year are to be more present, more socially engaged and to actively seek out relationships with more humans, face to face. I will practice more yoga, and put down my phone more often, and be brave and bold in my decisions and actions. I will hold space for others and write things that are meaningful and do more to make the world better for everyone.
I will remember what it feels like to lose people so I can hold on tighter to the ones I haven’t lost.
Sending you lots of love and purpose and resilience in 2019.