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Lessons Learned: 2013 Edition


This year, I slow danced to the rhythm of two eulogies and shimmied into black lace dresses and bow-topped heels.

I passed easy on the Interstate and headed straight for arduous. I dipped my knees into rough carpet when being new felt like a curse.

It was hard. It was painful. It was unexpected almost every week.

Nobody sashayed up to me with a roadmap and said, “You are here. Where do you want to be?” I had to ask myself that question: Where did I want to be?

Happy. I wanted to be happy.

The weight of loss will drown you if you let it. Sorrow will envelop you. Wonder will destroy you.

He might’ve come storming into my kitchen with a shy apology and laugh thick with missing me, but he never did. She might have learned to smile under dull streetlamps but she hasn’t. They might’ve stopped pushing piles of guilt my way for moving too far from home but they haven’t.

I had to step outside and grab onto my own little slice of happiness. I had to build a life that felt good inside first, then outside.

I lost a lot. I don’t know if we think we’ll win just because we want it badly enough, but we don’t. We were set up to find the things we most fear losing, and then, eventually, setting them free.

Last October, I shared 32 lessons from 2012. And then, as so often happens, my life unraveled dramatically in November and December. I spent Thanksgiving giving thanks to timing. Because if you’re going to lose somebody you once loved like fresh cut grass and mint chocolate chip ice cream, it’s better you’re with family. It’s better to have a warm fleece blanket and pay-per-view and frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles.

It doesn’t hurt any less. But the loneliness is not just yours.

In these last months, I’ve learned so much. So in honor of last October’s tradition, here is the 2013 edition:

  1. Surprise yourself every day by taking well-deserved risks. The risk is in doing what frightens you. The reward is in realizing it wasn’t quite so deserving of your fear.
  2. If you want to make a change, make it. Don’t wait for someone else to take your hand and pull you forward. Do it today and commit to it wholly. I spent too many months wavering over major decisions that, once I jumped, didn’t feel so major.
  3. Justify your time only to yourself. If you have to tell your friends and family why you do what you do, either they don’t understand or you need to reevaluate your decisions.
  4. Hold close old friends. You will stretch your heart across this country like a canvas. And it won’t always feel good. But when you find your feet in front of familiar territory, remember how to say hello and embrace the people you’ve always loved. They’re waiting for your hand on their doorknob, even if they haven’t said so.
  5. Balance your life. It’s not easy. There is no guidebook. You’ll wonder if you’re doing it right. But with any luck, you’ll get better at it each year. Find time for work and play and don’t worry about one in the midst of another. Get to that point and treasure it.

What has 2013 taught you?

There is no impending catastrophe. There is just you, sitting in a room and worrying incessantly.

caught in a downpour - drenched

caught in an unexpected downpour on the way to the dining hall

Sometimes, I think the world’s going to implode. But then I remember that I live with two science majors who, in the event of a catastrophe, would give me a little more advanced notice.

Stress is my best friend. I cling to it the way other people cling to stress reliever techniques like exercising or listening to music. I let it envelop me and define me and mark my day like invisible ink written up and down my arms.

Perhaps I should’ve been a character in Harry Potter. He had invisible ink and half of the wizarding world conspiring to kill him. And he turned out ok, right?

My real best friend—the living, breathing one—gave me some of the most sound advice a couple of weeks ago for handling stress.

And I listen to her. The girl’s working 30some hours a week, practicing for two separate plays, casting/directing another scene and is enrolled full-time at a community college that, oh yeah, is 30 minutes from her house. If anyone handles stress well, it’s her.

“Let yourself stress about anything you want for 30 minutes,” she told me.

At first, I thought that was a little odd. Who actually condones stressing for half an hour? That can’t be good. Imagine the hole I could work myself into in such a short time.

Then, when she explained, I felt a little better about the idea.

“You give yourself half an hour and that’s it,” she said. “Then you can’t stress for the rest of the day.”

Half an hour for all the stuff writhing inside me? All of a sudden, 30 minutes wasn’t long enough for me to drown myself with deadlines and expectations.

But it’s perfect. It’s perfect because stress makes us go crazy over the things we cannot control. I cannot stop the unexpected from cropping up. I cannot stop someone else from not holding up his or her end of a bargain. There will always be a small moment in which, despite my best efforts, I fall short.

And letting my mood and my day and my whole life revolve around all the minor unexpected twists and turns will only make me feel like I’m

carrying around an anvil on my back.

Instead, I’ll take 30 minutes to write it out. To get worked up or angry or frustrated or irritated or whatever I want to feel. But as soon as those 30 minutes are up, it’s a good day again.

Yesterday started off raining. By noon, the sun was out. That’s the sort of day we should come to expect. But only if we stop freaking out long enough to realize the rain’s not falling anymore and the world’s not imploding.

There is no impending catastrophe. There is just you, sitting in a room and worrying incessantly.

You taught an antsy group of girls in leotards how to one person can change the world.

day 11 – a deceased person you wish you could talk to

Dear Mr. Dave,

We both knew this letter was coming. As I’m sure most anyone who knows me did. The easiest part was deciding to write to you. The hardest part? What to say.

When I look back at my thirteen-year-old self, cataloging the series of events that encapsulate the last seven years of my life, I can’t imagine it without your influence. How did I go from spending 20 hours a week with someone to having trouble remembering his voice?

The worst part of grieving is watching it slip away. Watching the person slip away, as you grow farther and farther away from That Girl You Were When They Were Still Alive.

Now, I look back and wonder if she would be happy with who I’ve become. If you would be.

You were the first person I lost whose death really shook me up. Challenged my faith in God, gymnastics, and myself. In the cold winter that followed, I gave up on myself and let the voices in my head override yours.

How do you justify taking someone away, removing them from the hearts of thousands of people across the globe?

After I calmed down on Thursday and drove my car back onto the road, I continued to focus on driving, but occasionally slipped back to the past. With each passing ambulance, each car accident, I was transported back to that cold December afternoon, standing in line at practice, shivering. Knowing with each whispered phone call that something had gone terribly wrong. Then, though, I couldn’t yet imagine the worst.

The words black ice freak me out. My heart rate skyrockets and I have to reassure myself that thinking something doesn’t make it happen. That I have met my car spinning out on I-81 quota for the year (twice).

And then I remember how much you’ve done for me. How much you’ve taught a group of antsy girls in leotards, too energized to stand still and listen. Too young to appreciate the lesson that transcended the sport.

You taught us to believe in ourselves, to be better people. You taught us to compartmentalize, to focus on one thing at a time. You taught us how our love can change the world by showing us how yours already did.

As we sat huddled in a packed funeral home, staring up at those older than us reading testimonies of a life cut much too short, we learned you had already changed hundreds of lives. That you were passionate about just about everything — coaching, your wife, and the sport of gymnastics.

We cried for days straight, leaning on each other for support. In part, we feared we had lost someone so great we couldn’t even yet comprehend it. And when all was said and done, we shared your love and lessons with the world.