28: My Obituary

Only about ten people knew it was my wedding day.  Noel and I decided on a surprise wedding before we even got engaged.  After being a total bitchy basket case the first go-around, I was on the lookout for the best way to do things better.  How do I make sure that we have the experience we want without feeling pressure to do things a certain way?  The idea of eloping didn’t appeal to us.  Having the people we love around was too important.  A few days after Noel’s dad was hospitalized, I pitched the idea and held my breath.  “I love the way your mind works,” he said, and then went to sleep.  Over the next few days we talked more about how this would work.  How do we get people there if they don’t know it’s a wedding?  What are the things that are important to us?  Can we afford to do this in less than three months?  Is it even possible to find a venue?

A few weeks later we were officially engaged and sprung into action planning our wedding and our strategy for keeping the whole thing secret.  Ten weeks goes by quickly so we didn’t have a lot of time to be engaged, which was just fine with me.  The business of getting married, thinking about finances, working out logistics, running all the errands people typically have months to do…all crammed into ten weeks.  All the while, Noel’s dad’s illness was progressing and each week was a reminder of how uncertain we all were about how much time he had left.  One thing I hadn’t considered when I convinced Noel to do a surprise wedding was that when no one knows, there is no one to offload things on.  The time was stressful to be sure.  It didn’t help that things were tense with my sister.  She was going through some tough stuff and despite living with us, there was more distance between us than we’d ever had as adults.

The morning of our wedding Noel and I woke up together on the futon serving as our bed.  He went off to start wedding day tasks.  I headed to yoga.  On the way out the door I hastily texted my sister (who was in on the wedding secret of course) “I’d really like some berries and some eggs when I get home please.  Can you help me out with that?”  “Yeah,” she said apathetically.  Great, the one request I have as a bride and I’m going to end up doing that too, I thought.

As I put on my jacket and socks after the yoga class, I checked my phone.  “Look at this dress I got just for your party” one friend had texted with a picture of a full length sequined gown.  “So excited to see you tonight” said another friend.  I drove the five minutes home on the verge of tears.  I walked into the house and there on the table was my bathrobe folded next to a plate of meticulously arranged berries, a giant toy diamond ring sat on top of the robe.  I just burst into tears.  The most genuine and grateful tears of my whole life.  All of these people, doing things for me because they cared, on a day they didn’t even know was my wedding day.

This is the third week of Advent.  After a week of hope, and then a week of love, this week is about joy.  Catch up on previous posts for the first and second weeks’ posts here:

26: Arrival of Hope,

27: Daddy Issues

Summer 2015, I was in Minneapolis for the weekend.  I visited a UU church and to this day the sermon is the most memorable I’ve ever heard.  The topic: joy.  Specifically what makes joy different than happiness.  “Joy,” the minister said, “is a visceral spiritual reaction to deep connection.”  Happiness can be experienced in isolation.  It is in the mind.  If we were on a desert island with a funny movie we could be happy.   Joy is only possible through connection.  It is felt in the gut and soul.  Happiness interrupts pain, but joy encompasses it.  “Joy is grief turned inside out,” she went on.  Think of that feeling you get when you look at a person you love so much and simultaneously think about the pain of losing them.  Softening to create the connection that forms joy ultimately means the grief of deep loss when that connection comes to an end for whatever reason.  But the depth and experience of joy makes it worth the difficulty of losing it.

I am in a discussion group at church.  The group is intended to foster deep listening  and sharing about spiritual topics.  We get the topic a month ahead of time along with readings, activities and questions to consider.  Last month the topic was “memory.”  One of the activities was to speak with people you are close with to ask them what three memories they would share at your funeral.  I thought of a number of people to ask, most of whom I don’t see very often but remain a very important part of my life.  So I sent an out-of-the-blue text to some of my favorite people to see what I’d get back.  I should not be surprised with how in stride my friends took a random text about memories for my funeral, but I was.

Here were some of my favorite responses:

I can’t remember the bar we went to for drink the very first time, but I remember the scene perfectly. We sat on a high top in a corner of the bar. You had short hair and a huge smile. We talked about life. Your accepting and understanding led me to talking all about crazy things from my past. It was weird how much it felt like we were lifelong friends. I don’t know why that memory is so vivid. But I can still feel that warmth and closeness with you. It never went away.

Your raw emotion. You seem determined to feel emotions whether good or bad, like it’s a part of life that you relish. I find that really admirable, especially your ability to control your emotions while still feeling them.

When we broke into the pool to go skinny dipping. I’d never done anything like that before and was so scared we’d get caught but you had this way of pushing my boundaries and making me try new things (that wouldn’t hurt me if course). And it was exhilarating!!

Just always there: we’ve talked about this before, but your mantra is that you show up. I remember you saying to me “it’s what we do, show up.” I think of that often and try to live my own life that way. Showing up.

When you randomly sat down and made me take of my headphones while I was working hard in the lunch room. Ha!  You are fearless. And you genuinely care about people and their stories. It’s one of my favorite things about you. You are willing to take chances that many other people aren’t.

There were so many responses.  Ultimately I categorized them so I could find patterns: connection, emotional openness/sharing, FUN!, inspiration, showing up.  The assignment asked us to consider what others would take away from our life if we took our last breath today.  I was comforted to know that the things I try to prioritize in these relationships seems to be working.  In the end I decided the best way to share these takeaways with my group was to write my obituary.

The Life and Memory of Katie Kegel

Katie Beth Kegel’s life ended on (date).  Katie’s affinity for thoughtful writing and her need to be in control has culminated in a self-written obituary. 

Katie’s life cannot be defined by labels: daughter, sister, wife, lawyer, athlete.  It also cannot be defined by qualities: intense, energetic, persistent, intimidating, over achiever, leader.  These words cannot capture the fullness and complexity of a life so defined by intention.

Katie lived her life to tell the stories.  Through her work, stories of people who have done terrible things and had terrible things done to them.  Dotting the chapters of her life with the long, arduous journey to physical and professional achievements.   But most importantly the stories of shared memories with the people she cared most about. 

Katie will be remembered for the connections she made.  Whether friend-at-first sight or succumbing to her persistence, you saw something special in her and she saw it right back.  There was an energy; you were special, someone she had to know, because you were like her or maybe completely unlike her, but whatever you were, you were interesting with a story all of your own, a story she needed to intersect with her own.

Early and often Katie showed you who she was.  Whether clumsy or effortless the rainbow of her emotions shone bright for all to see, her thoughts and feelings never a secret, but instead poured out in her words or her touch or her laughter.  Her strength captivated you but her softness kept you there. 

It kept you there because she was there. Physically.  Her motto “just show up” guided everything about the way she spent her time.  Just show up for people, however big or small.  For one never knows which of life’s events will be life changing.  And she wanted to be there, for all of your life’s wonderful and terrible changes.  Just as she pulled you willingly or unwillingly into the adventure of her life replete with drinking or dancing or nudity or costumes, so she asked to join you on the adventure of yours.  She challenged you and was challenged by you and wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Her relationships were not easy because life is not easy.  But life certainly can be fun and Katie found all of the crackpot ways to make things fun.  “Wanna come do this with me?” she’d say out of the blue. Yes, just say yes most learned.  It was always worth it.

All those intersections of lives wove a fabric of armor.  A fabric strong enough to withstand time and distance and hardships.  Break ups, break downs, years long breaks in conversation were no matter because when the time came to be together again it was as if nothing changed. 

And now something will change.  Katie is not here to lead the charge, have the ideas, or make that phone call. The stories are what you must share.  SHOW up.  SHARE the stories.  Be brave.  Be vulnerable.  Big or small, sharing creates connection, a connection that honors what you most loved. 

The stories…the stories you created together are what Katie thought about until her last breath.  Her stories will live on through you, and what an honor for her story to be woven in with yours for all of time.

In the end, it won’t be about the accomplishments.  The things that are defining my life are the people in it.  “Surely joy is the condition of life,” Henry David Thoreau wrote.  Indeed sir.  Indeed.

26: Arrival of Hope

My mom went all out for Christmas decorating at our house.  Practically every horizontal surface had fiberglass angel hair covering small twinkle lights with the nativity and snowmen and other Christmas figurines.  Sparkly snowflakes hung in the picture window framed by more twinkle lights.  Vases would be filled with special holiday silk flowers and shiny beads and, of course, even more twinkle lights.  Every light fixture in the house could be off and there was this softly colored glow that felt warm and special.

Keeping the Christ in Christmas was always very important to her.  We attended church every Sunday so it was easy to incorporate the traditions we saw there into our home.  Every year one of the earliest signs of Christmas, often even before the tree or the twinkle lights, was the Advent wreath on our kitchen table.  Four Sundays before Christmas the church put up their huge Advent wreath, three purple candles and a pink candle in a wreath of evergreens, and we put out our Advent wreath at home, the four colored candles often left over from year to year in a modest and very used brass candle circle.  The first week just one purple candle was lit.  The second week a second purple candle was lit.  The third week the pink candle was added and the fourth week the fourth and final purple.  Every night at dinner the candle(s) would be lit.

Similarly, at the beginning of the month a colorful poster board Advent calendar would be nailed into the wood panel wall behind our kitchen table.  Our parents had to be at work very early in the morning so it was usually quite a chore to get us out of bed and down to breakfast.  But during Advent, my sister and I took turns opening the tiny numbered doors each day.  The years we had an Advent calendar with little chocolates behind the numbered doors were the best, but even when there was no chocolate there was a teeny tiny picture that got better and better as the days counted down.

If someone had quizzed us about what Advent was or why we had these traditions, I suppose I would have said something like “it’s the countdown to Baby Jesus being born.”  Obviously, I know now that the tradition and symbolism go much deeper than that.  I fell away from the church before taking care to learn the deeper meanings and since my beliefs are different now, I won’t even try to talk intelligently about what those meanings are.  Generally, Advent is a time of preparation and planning but patience for the goodness to come.

So much of what I love about Christmas is about the traditions, the things you do every single year.  When I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a place that does not have a single doctrinal (i.e. biblical) foundation and openly welcomes atheists I just assumed that many of the traditions I became accustomed to in that were based in my church would never be a part of my adult life.  Color me surprised to listen to a sermon last December all about the tradition of the Advent wreath and the importance of incorporating this, or something like it, into your family’s rituals.

December is the darkest month and as Christians are waiting for the birth of God’s s-o-n, those who are not of this faith are waiting in anticipation for the s-u-n to come back.  The candles can symbolize light triumphing over darkness.  They can also symbolize the cardinal directions or the elements of earth, air, fire, and water all acting in tandem with each other to create balance in our world.  In the Christian tradition, the candles represent: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Focusing on one of these each week serves as a check in an often ties into a gratitude practice and that’s what I am going to do to honor the Advent tradition this year.

Week 1: Hope.  Hope is a funny thing.  I am notoriously impatient so hope has always felt more like dark desperate terror-filled demands than some magical beacon of light out there in the distance somewhere.  My sense is that the only difference between desperation and hope is the fear of powerlessness.  Hope is something you want or a vision you have that you aspire to, though you are perfectly happy with what you have now and would be happy even if that vision never comes to be.  Desperation is the fear that you won’t reach that vision, and that life will be somehow less than because of it.  I have lived my life largely in desperation.  The things I do, I do because I don’t know or don’t like what life looks like if I don’t.

What’s the antidote?  Acceptance I suppose.  Accepting one’s powerlessness.  Giving up control.  I’ve written how 2018 has been a difficult year, and it has.  Dealing with the hope, and then the expectation, of having a baby.  There was a turning point midway through the year.  I’d picked a fight with Noel for not doing everything I thought he could do to pull his weight.  I realized immediately after that this exact fight was precisely what I had always said in my mind I wouldn’t let happen.  I’m not the person who wants a child for having a child’s sake: I want a child that is the product of a strong, loving, healthy relationship.  We had to do things differently.  We are still figuring out that balance of trying but not trying and all the while not losing the essence of what makes us us.  I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time.  Things feel easier.  The things I need to do to try for baby are the things I don’t mind doing that are now just part of the routine.  Physically and mentally I feel great.  Acupuncture, herbs, whole foods, more sleep, less stress, more restorative activity, it’s all working to keep me feeling strong and fit.  And most of all, I don’t feel alone in this.  I have a partner and people who care about me who have been wonderful.  So, yes, I want the vision of my future to come true but that can’t be all of my hope.  My hope must rest in the refuge of all that is good now.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

-T.S. Eliot, Wait Without Hope

I will not see this month of darkness and waiting as something to merely get through.  I will accept the darkness and fight against my impatience to accept this time of rest and introspection.  Without winter’s blustery cold, the warmth of the summer sun would not feel so sweet.  Perhaps the hope I’ve place in my vision of the future falls woefully short of what is really meant to be.  Afterall, Adventus means arrival.

 

2: A hug, a nap, or a cookie?

Listening to a jam band play Katy Perry’s “Pendulum” was never how I pictured my Sundays.  Which is why it astounds me every week how serendipitous Sunday services at a UU church are.   

Balance.  The supposed key to everything I’m supposed to be doing right now.  Yoga, meditation, Buddhism…the key to it all is bringing your world into balance.  

Just yesterday I was sitting in my regular Saturday group at the local Shambhala center and we were supposed to be talking about the chapter for the week in The Lost Art of Good Conversation by Sakyong Mipham which was about topics of conversation.  Immediately the discussion was on a tangent about Oscar movies and the award show, a fact I shouldn’t have been surprised about given that someone often starts talking politics or current events.  A woman who used to live in L.A. who could have been all in the Oscar A-list crowd but purposefully chose to stay out, used that tidbit to transition into her distress about what to do for her teenage daughter who was recently diagnosed with autism.  Before coming to the center that morning she had seen a Facebook friend’s blog, some very successful local man, who shared an interview where apparently every time the interviewer asked for the story behind his success by bringing up difficult turning points, the man avoided the question and said he was blessed.  It sounded like a guy who was burying feelings and struggle with success if you ask me, but for her it was inspiring.  “How can I take advantage of opportunities better?” she posited to the group, which led to tense cross talk with a man who grumbled that Buddhism doesn’t give a hoot about financial opportunities, that’s what business school is for.  From there several others jumped in to give advice (which we aren’t supposed to be doing) but finally…we made it around to a man who suggested that maybe instead of doing more for her daughter, the woman needed to “do less”.  There were knowing sighs and head nods.  Do. Less.

A woman I’d never seen before choked up will telling about one of her do-less moments.   An “awe” moment she called it, where everything in the universe just lined up perfectly at the perfect time.  In the middle of a trip in the Cascades, she sat down for a moment of quiet to read a book by her favorite Beatnik author and there it was, a quote that said exactly what she needed it to.  And the entry, dated July 9.  The same day she was reading it.  Head nods, head nods, head nods.  

What are these awe moments and why do some people have awe moments they can easily call up?  Why don’t I?  It’s because of what that man said.  Some people do less.  They created the space and were aware enough to recognize those moments when they come up.  

What does this have to do with Katy Perry and a sermon at a Unitarian church?  In the quest to live the life we think we must with all of our obligations and aspirations, what about living the life we want?  How do we balance future with present? How do we let go with this idea that there is one right way to get to the one best place we are trying to go so we can slow down and live this moment of the journey fully?  The truth is, there are a thousand ways the future could turn out, and none are objectively better than the others.  The very best we can do is the best in this present moment.  

What is the balm we need to soothe us in this very moment, she asked?  I immediately thought of something someone said to me recently.  She’d heard a mother say to her screaming child “do you need a hug, a nap, or a cookie?”  How profound she’d thought, and then I thought.  Even now, about 98% of life’s distress could be fixed with a little tenderness from someone we care about, some rest, or something comforting to eat.  Magic.  

So, as I move into the second week of the luteal phase in the seventh month we’re “trying” I have so many questions in my head.  Did switching to Gwyneth Paltrow’s natural make up and natural soap make up for that trip my husband took in the middle of our fertile week? Does the fact that his 8 month old niece screams every time I try to play with her mean I don’t have good motherly instincts?  Should I have insisted on seeing my acupuncturist before AND after that vacation she took?  Do I really want the life I’m watching in (Amazon Prime’s) Catastrophe?  I ask myself, what is the balm I need in this moment? I am on the couch with belly full of hot chocolate and meatballs, snuggled close to my flannel-shirted sleeping husband.  Because sometimes you need a hug, a nap, AND a goddamn cookie.