It’s not difficult for my mood to tumble this time of year. It’s dark in Alaska for much of the day. My energy dips just as my work chaos soars. And then there are upcoming social functions associated with the holidays that I loathe given my crowd-averse nature.
But I’ve made a point of penciling in times of gratitude in my day to day life. I wake up ten minutes early each day to give thanks, and in doing so, realized how much I appreciate the surprise sources.
Case in point: I am naturally drawn to darker topics, so after much consideration, I decided to piece together the life and death of Muriel Pfeil, who died in 1976 in Anchorage. The story is everything I write about already: domestic violence, international child abduction, the works. The trouble is I don’t know her family or friends.
I got a couple of names through a friend of mine. Two lovely women who have been friends for sixty-plus years were gracious enough to take me to a Thanksgiving party hosted by the Alaskan Pioneers yesterday to do some digging around.
Yes, I actually signed up to hang out with a group of strangers and socialize.
Two hours later, I felt like a part of a great new supportive family. I’d been tentative when it began. ”I’m thinking about writing the story of…” but with the encouragement of my dear hostesses, I left with many new contacts and a greater conviction. I’m not thinking of writing the story of Muriel Pfeil. I am in the process of writing about Muriel Pfeil. And I so appreciate the support and enthusiasm of my new friends.
There are always the typical things I’m grateful for, like my wonderful daughters. They’re happy (mostly). They’re healthy. They’re working. I even managed to get one of them to move out of the house. I’m grateful for my kittens. My extended family and friends. My work. My health. My volunteer work.
But I’ve scaled back on some things and it’s given me time for a bit more rest, and for writing workshops and coaching. I have created space again.
Thanksgiving is here. What are you thankful for?
I’m always thankful to connect with you here.
PS– I learned that A Girl’s Guide to Travelling Alone by Gemma Thompson is now available on Amazon. I’m pleased to have my essay titled Healing included.
What do you think you will be doing on your 50th birthday? Or if you are 50 or older, what did you do on that big day?
Traditionally, I spend birthdays reflecting on what I’ve accomplished over the past year.
I stayed away from that this year. I’ve let so much of my identity become wrapped up in what I get done on my list that on days where I don’t, I get anxious.
The truth is, we’re not owed any time, and 50 is a respectable age to have survived. And if you’d asked me at 20 what I’d be doing at 50, I’m not so sure I would have thought my 50-year-old self would be doing as well as I am indeed doing.
Would I have known that I’d have two lovely adult daughter who helped break the tradition of my family’s early marriage and no education?
Could I have guessed I would have finished college myself and secured a fulfilling job with people I enjoy working with?
Might I have imagined at 20 that the friends I met in grade school would be with me as I reached the half-decade mark?
Yes, in some ways, my life turned out much better than I dared have hoped.
So yesterday, I threw myself a fairly impromptu party with my best girlfriends. I grabbed a cake at Costco, and we all met on a Sunday afternoon at 3 at a downtown bungalow.
It was magical. And instead of focusing on what I want to accomplish for the next year, I thought instead about how pleased I am to have solid connections. It’s been my friends who’ve helped raise me so that I was fit for a family.
If I have a hope for the future, it is this: I hope for my daughters that they too can have long-lasting positive friendships. And I hope for me that I remember to take the bull by the horns and go for the things I want so much.
Like writing. Love. Like travel.
50 is a wonderful milestone. What are your ideas for making fifty nifty?
That’s what I thought when I met my friend, Mike Dominoski.
I met him in the dorm cafeteria at Western Washington University in the fall of 1982. You could tell he was fun by how he held himself. Wearing a pinstriped, button up shirt with grey parachute pants and a matching fedora covering his curly brown hair, Mike had a nose that can only be described as a Karl Malden knockoff. (For those of you who are too young to know who Karl Malden is, click the link.) And he seemed so very comfortable in his own skin.
I went to college thanks to decent grades and a decent interest rate on student loans. Born of two high school dropouts, there wasn’t a lot of role- modeling or planning for a higher education.
Mike, on the other hand, seemed to ooze money. After we became friends, he was the first to offer to pay for pizza. Coffee? Mike bought a round for all of us. He must be loaded, I thought.
He explained it simply. “I was born with a lot of health problems, and no one expected me to live, so I’ve inherited a lot of money at different times.”
Score! All I could think was how great it must be to go on vacations. Buy a new car. Go to college perhaps debt-free. (I know none of this to be true about my friend, but these were my youthful assumptions.)
Of course, back then my young mind just processed Mike’s words in relation to what I’d never experienced. I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like to have a life that began with incurable and debilitating medical issues. That all became clear with time.
What I could see was that although Mike’s scoliosis made him look and walk differently, he was never self-conscious. Mike loved performing. He did air band at talent-shows (known as lip-syncing to other people’s music today). Every day, Mike happily escorted my roommate Erin and I to meals, studied with us, and showered us with attention. He went to church with us, and always impressed me with his abiding faith, which was much more about unconditional love and compassion than excluding others who were different or didn’t follow the rules.
When Mike inherited a caboodle of money two years after we met, he asked me to go to Switzerland with him (“I’ll pay!”) to visit a mutual friend attending college there. I said no. I thought he should invest his money for the future, and I wanted no part of the indebtedness I would feel if he gifted me with such a luxury.
Did he invest or save his money? Absolutely not. And within a year, it was all gone.
This worried me endlessly. Where would Mike live? What if he couldn’t work some day? What if bad opportunists took advantage of him? Mike seemed unconcerned, but I worried enough for the both of us.
Given that he was a few years older than me, Mike finished college sooner. We said our tearful goodbyes after I turned twenty, quit school, and found my real dad through a lawyer.I moved back to Alaska. Mike couldn’t find work with his degree in marine biology, and settle for one as an elevator man in Seattle while I married the first man who showed interest in me in Alaska and had two daughters in rapid succession.
It’s funny, the things that you remember later. Most of us in college felt we would definitely meet someone to love us and settle down with. Mike hoped for love, but had no air of entitlement about it. Love wasn’t a definite.
We stayed in sporadic contact. These were the pre-Facebook, pre-cell phone days, after all. The days when a husband bent on controlling his wife’s social interactions were made easy by the absence of technology.
After my husband tried to wring the air out of my neck, Mike let me and the girls stay with him for a few days in Seattle. And then the matters of life separated me from my buddy. I became consumed in legal matters, my daughters’ eventual abduction, and finishing college.
Mike’s issues were at least as critical. After serving as a missionary in Kenya, he landed a teaching job in the Dominican Republic. He suffered many health setbacks and professional disappointments, but he kept pushing forward.
When we communicated by written letter or occasional phone call, I tried not to ask whether or not he’d met a woman. Mike was at times discouraged, but always funny, and always sure of one thing. “I think God has a plan for me,” he would say with conviction. I couldn’t help but believe him.
It was New Years of 2012 when I last saw Mike during a long layover I had in Seattle. We’d connected through Facebook, and he was recently married at fifty years of age. Mike and his bride picked me up in his pick-up truck. One of the doors was smashed in his truck, forcing us to all cram in on one side. Mike was unemployed and looking for work. I would have been crushed at the setbacks. Mike never looked happier. And as always, he was making jokes about his job loss on Facebook.
A beloved teaching job would come after a forced move across the state. But love had arrived, and Mike and his wife lived out loud, recording their joy in their Facebook posts, taking endless selfies, and making the most of every opportunity to demonstrate love.
Mike passed away when I was out-of-town last weekend. Cancerous tumors had ravaged his already challenged body, but he didn’t die alone. Mike was surrounded by his loving wife, and honored by the many students whose lives he touched. And since he lived keenly aware of his vulnerabilities, Mike may be one of the few people I’ve ever known to celebrate each day, playing practical jokes, savoring a good cup of coffee, and generously offering love to his friends and family.
What a lucky man he was. He knew from the beginning what most of us learn towards our ending:
Life is short, and we are all living on borrowed time, so be brave! Be uninhibited! And be thankful.
Faith is an anchor. It should connect us to one another and to God. Not divide us or exclude.
Love is a gift, not an entitlement. It is to be celebrated, and even shared.
Today, the world is a little less funny without my buddy Mike in it. But his is an easy life to celebrate, and he will never be forgotten.
I wake up and give thanks every morning before I start my day.
I live intentionally, setting goals for each season that cover the different priorities in my life—family, volunteerism, fitness, financial, professional, and creative.
I redirect my negative self-talk when I notice it, a technique I learned when facilitating support groups for battered women in the early 90’s since often abused women repeat the insults to themselves long after their turbulent relationship has ended.
Once in a while, I even watch the Oprah Super-soul Sunday on OWN.
But let something that really means a lot to me happen, and I’m a hot mess.
For instance, I spend a lot of my post-work time writing. Writing this blog. Writing my novel. Re-writing my novel with my writing coach, Brooke Warner.Weeping over my unpublished memoir. And sending out the occasional query for my children’s picture book.
When I’m not writing, I feel guilty for doing too little on social media. I should be reviewing authors on Goodreads. Posting my blog on Linked In. Getting a Twitter account and tweeting.
Don’t get me wrong; I love writing, but in the last six months, it’s been a noose around my neck.
Then I checked my email yesterday and found this:
I hope you’re well and enjoying the summer!
I just wanted to drop you a line to say that we LOVED your piece and would love to include it in our book!
We’re just finalising the running order then will get stuck into production, so are hoping to publish late summer.
All we need from you now is a bio. Each writer will have a bio at the start of their piece. I’ve popped an example down below. Feel free to promote anything you like, a website, blog, charity etc.
We’re so excited that our book is finally taking shape and getting ready to publish!
Thanks again, (for your submission and patience!) and have a lovely evening.
So finally, I’m having just a wee bit of success! And do you know what I thought?
What’s wrong with these people? Didn’t they read my story?
So much for positive. When it comes to writing, I’m reduced to being the new kid in junior high all over again. It’s not pretty, and it certainly isn’t inspiring or positive.
A grieving mother finds hope and healing as she donates her daughter’s organs. The author has a gift for slowly recounting scenes until you feel as if you too were there. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so hard.
“If I’m ever a burden, I’ll just blow my brains out.” Famous last words from author Ariel Gore’s ailing mother, whose complicated life with her daughter morphed into a complicated death for her daughter.
Life is better with a book to idle with. What are you reading?
I’m in Italy this week, spending time with a cherished friend.
Have you ever been the beneficiary of uncommon kindness from a random stranger?
There is something special about going through a brutal time and finding that you have guardian angels who pop up out of nowhere. Such was the case for me in 1995 when I found myself alone in Greece without two dimes to rub together, looking for my abducted daughters. On my first trip to Greece after they were kidnapped, I met with a lawyer I had retained there. Two young women attorneys worked in his office, and after our initial meeting, they invited me to lunch with them. They weren’t involved with my case. They were not being paid. They simply extended their hospitality, and they were only too happy to practice their English skills. One of the women, Popi, inquired about my living arrangements while in Greece. When I told her I was staying at a hostel, she piped up. “It is settled, then. You will come stay with me in my spare bedroom.” And I did. At the time, I had long been a motherless child, and was now a childless mother. Popi’s nurturing presence was medicinal to me. She taught me to read and speak Greek after work, something that would come in handy since my daughters no longer spoke English. Popi took me on outings with her friends, and when my lawyers quit my case temporarily due to non-payment by me and due to the fact that I second-guessed them constantly, Popi stood in the line of fire with them to help me find a private investigator. In turn, her job was threatened.
What do you say to someone who has done so much and asked for nothing in return?
Thank you, Popi. I said I would never forget you, and I have not.
We’ve all faced hard times and have been the recipient of uncommon grace.
Who in your life has stepped up to help you?
With luck, I’ll post next week. Otherwise, I’ll return to you at the end of the month. Take care.
What are the top three things you’re most proud of from 2013?
I like reflecting on these each New Year rather than to make commitments to achieve new goals.
My top three sources of pride in 2013?
This was a first for me, given that I didn’t meet most of them until I was an adult. I will treasure the memories. 2. My adult daughters and I have transitioned from merely tolerating sharing space in the house to becoming a team again, no small feat for three outspoken females. We’ve learned to bicker less and support one another more effectively. I’m not hoping we’ll live together forever, but at the moment, I wouldn’t change a thing if I could. Boomerang kids may be underrated.
3. I created time for writing.
Writing classes, writing retreats, writing articles, working with an editor on my books, and being faithful to this blog. And I’m happy to say that it’s paid off. I hear from you, either in comments or in daily visits, at a good clip now. My top three posts of 2013 were
I took a few comp days off work to savor the colors and smells of autumn. My plan was to return to a teeny cabin in Seward to write and relax before the first snowfall.
I envisioned this.
And then I woke up.
Snow continues to fall on this 23rd day of September in Anchorage, and is accumulating in great quantities, and not far behind comes the bitter cold and constant darkness that marks Alaska’s winters. It will be May before Alaskans can leave their homes with simple shoes and a thin overcoat again.
I have lived in Alaska for more than 44 years of my life. You’d think I’d get used to it, right?
Sadly, I do not. Seasonal Affective Disorder pulls me in like it does so many others, and by April, I hardly recognize my darker personality. Sleepless. Sluggish. Snappish.
Fortunately, I’ve found a few things that have helped.
1) I become deliberate about what I watch on television and read.
For example, right now, I’m reading The Paris Wife, a well-written novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. It’s a dreary read, and had I known winter was making an early arrival, I’d have started with Justin Halpern’s I Suck at Girls. Much funnier. And I re-read my favorite post on zenhabits.org called Gett Off Your Butt: 16 ways to get motivated when you’re in a slump.
2) I exercise outdoors.
I’m no marathon runner, but getting my heartrate up while ingesting a little vitamin D is my best antidepressant.
3) I stay connected.
It’s so counter-intuitive when I’m low and want to shut myself off from humans. But being with friends, family, being with my blogging community is critical to pushing through the funk.
This week, I saw a fabulous movie I just had to share with you, and I realized it’s been awhile since we’ve swapped favorite movies and recent reads
My Top 3 Movies
April is Autism Awareness Month, and I saw The Story of Luke at a local theater honoring that fact . Please Netflix this movie if it isn’t showing at a theater near you. What a joy. It’s a fictional account of a young autistic man whose guardian dies, leaving him to fend for himself in a world that didn’t embrace his quirks.
West of Memphis was a long yet perfect documentary about the West Memphis Three juveniles arrested and convicted of murdering three little boys in 1993, and how Arkansas handled finding all evidence to the contrary.
Silver Linings Playbook. What can I say? The main character reminds me of my oldest daughter. This is a funny and compassionate movie with some heavyweight actors.
My Top Three Recent Books
I confess, I love a depressing memoir, and I think my love of women’s memoirs about dead husbands may have been replaced by divorce memoirs.
My good intentions to be a supportive mother, reliable worker, and consistent volunteer has has dealt a crushing blow to my rest and relaxation time.
I knew I was in trouble when friend of mine asked me to get together, and then rescheduled four times. It would be irritating at best when I’m less overwhelmed. Now tired and cranky, I told him precisely what was on my mind (bad idea!). It wasn’t one of my prouder moments.
“You really need to take time to stop and smell the roses,” another friend advised me. Truthfully, I don’t even like roses. I live life by to-do lists. Relaxation doesn’t come easy to me, so I looked up some ideas from two of my favorite blogs.
Then I took Friday off work, making it a four-day weekend for myself, and made a different kind of list.
Read overdue library book Yoshiko and the Foreigner by Mimi Otey
Have dinner/see a play with Ruth
Finish implementing edits to manuscript.
Something magical happened after I accomplished #1. I spontaneously spoke to strangers while running errands. I even smiled at one or two of them.
I had a good cry after #2. What a tender story.
I fell back asleep at the play with Ruth, but dinner was a delightful rockfish made with a coffee sauce.
Somewhere, sandwiched between the fun, I went to pick my youngest daughter up from her dental appointment. I brought my Kindle, and settled in to read when I heard a familiar voice. “Is that you?”
It was my old boss from the battered women’s shelter I worked at 20 years ago. “How are your girls?”
When people I haven’t seen in a long time ask about my girls, it’s not a benign, just- making-conversation sort of a deal. They’re often stifling tears, remembering the profound loss they felt when my daughters were kidnapped.
Over the next many minutes, she and I filled in more than a decade of gaps. Our dentist joined us, adding in his own sad memories of the two year ordeal. It was likely the most bittersweet reunion that lobby had ever seen.
I came home, ready to re-write. Editor Karlyn Thayer recently passed away before she received my final seventy pages, and I’ve felt uneasy about working with anyone else.
But I felt differently now. Writing became joyful again. I reached the spot in the story in which the courts in Greece ruled against me, and I counted the cost of either leaving my daughters behind forever or finding an alternate route home, sneaking put of Greece and through Turkey.
The risks were obvious. But the idea of not trying was unthinkable. I thought about meeting my father for the first time, only to learn that the years apart had created a gap that could never be bridged. I thought about the life I had led before the girls were born, living in response to what everyone else around me wanted and needed. I thought about the hopes I had for my daughters, and the promise I had made to keep them safe. And I thought about how many people across the globe had joined my efforts to bring them back home.
These amounted to more than enough reasons to act in faith and trust in a miracle.
There you have it. A little more room for sleep and a bit more time for fun helped me remember what a miracle I’ve been given.