Two Years Later

It was two years ago today. Two years ago that I found him. Two years ago that everything changed.

Last year on this day, I did not stop to grieve. Although in fairness, I hadn’t really ever stopped grieving. I was still in the middle of that every-single-day-every-single-minute pain, even as I was working toward building a new future. I was still out in the middle of that fight with myself, determined to find a way to stay above water and somehow forge a new life.

I also just really didn’t want to talk about it. I thought that, of all days, this was the one I didn’t want to give any attention. I’d think about celebrating him on his birthday. On my wedding anniversary. On any day but this day. Any day but the one that wrecked us all to our bones. Those other days passed, though, and for the most part, I stayed silent on those days, too.

But this year, everything is different. Maybe it’s because I’m not as angry. Because I’m somehow finding some peace, at least most days. Because I am finally moving past so much of the fury and blinding pain that I can start to focus on who he was, and not just what he did.

It’s a hard transition, though. The last two years of my life have been defined by widowhood. Every single decision I’ve made has been a direct result of the fact that my husband died.

When I first moved to Wisconsin, I found myself always having to answer questions like “So did you leave someone special behind in Iowa?” and “What made you decide to move to a state where you don’t know anyone?” These were casual questions, but they did not have easy answers. It was always an internal battle of what to say, how much to say, and whether or not I could bear the look on their faces when I explained that I was a widow. And then, trying to find some way to nicely say “Well, yes, it was horrible. But I’m okay now. Except I’m not. Well, I mean, I sort of am. I mean, I’m trying. I think I might be eventually. Maybe.”

Over and over and over again.

Yet somehow, in the midst of a battle between mind-numbing grief and the strength of my heart, I built that life I was so determined to create. My job ended up being a perfect fit, and I love my city – I work in the heart of Big Ten country, surrounded by sports, seemingly endless gluten-free food options, and two lakefronts. The friendships I’ve built are beyond comparison. From my very first friend, the one who took me out to lunch during my first week in Madison and simply said, “So do you want to be outside-of-work friends, too?” to my very best friend, the one who has seen me through tears and anger along with laughter and joy. They are both strong and true friends that I am proud to stand beside.

And yes, I did fall in love again. Our relationship is strong. He is kind and intelligent. Talented beyond measure. Unafraid of silliness. Slow to anger, quick to laugh. Willing to dance during joyful times and cry during difficult ones.

My life, it seems, is quite good indeed. I have created a new chapter.

So it’s interesting, then, that on this particular two-year anniversary, the pain of remembering feels stronger than ever. I’m learning that grief is this long, tricky spiraly thing. I’m also learning that the process of going through it may never be complete.

Perhaps it hurts so much because I have come so far forward. The further I get from everything that happened, the easier it is to see it all clearly, and to see the finality of it all. And this where I get stuck. Stuck between living the legacy of his love and the aftermath of his death.

I am so very tired of remembering his death. I want to remember his life. Because before there were two years of pain, there were ten years of love.

I have wanted, since that very first moment two years ago, to use my words to craft a eulogy. To tell everyone what a good man he was. How he spent his professional career building up others – first those with mental and physical disabilities, and then those with substance abuse issues. I want to talk about his love for NASCAR and baseball, and to make people understand the heartbreak he went through every time the Hawkeyes lost. I want people to understand how deep his faith was, and how I’m hopeful, even in the moments before his death, that he still felt that faith come alive. I want to talk about inside jokes from college full of folic acid and garden gnomes. I want to talk about pirates and fishing and freezers full of deer meat and the first time he saw the ocean.

I want to tell his stories. About that one time in North Carolina when he tried to swim out to a boat in the ocean because it had his favorite NASCAR driver’s logo on it. About the time we took our niece to the zoo. About the way he liked to dig in the sand, saying he was searching for buried treasure. About how during the Iowa flooding in 2008, he was on campus every night filling bags of sand, trying to save the university he loved from the rising water. About how complete he finally seemed the day we brought our Beagle, Gracie, home from the breeder. About the time he proposed at sunrise on one of the prettiest beaches in the world, and I was so excited that I screamed “Oh my God!” to everyone who could hear, and actually missed hearing the most important question he’d ever asked me. These are the stories I want to remember today.

But these are not the only stories I have.

Because as I try to honor his life, I can’t ignore that I live in a world where I deal with his death every day. I live in a world where every time I have to fill out demographic information, I check this weird box marked “widowed.” I live in a world with a dog who still whimpers when she hears his name spoken aloud. I live in a world where images of guns (and they’re everywhere) conjure images of his dead body in my mind. I live in a world where news of the latest mass shooting makes me understand not only how the survivors feel, but what they had to see. These are not the stories I want to remember today. But they are ones I live every day.

And so I remain, stuck in this in-between land of fond memories and painful ones, of remembering who he was with great love and remembering what he did with great pain.

But I am trying. I don’t yet know the way out of this in-between place. But I know that every day, I move closer to peace.

I know that if I could go back to the beginning, to that day when he asked me to marry him, I’d still say yes, even if you told me it would end like this. Because the ten years of love were worth it.

His life taught me the value of serving others, the importance of faith, the necessity of puppies, and above all, the endurance of love, even in difficult times.

His death made me understand my own strength – both of my heart and of my faith. It made me understand the sheer importance of getting up every day just to experience what life has to bring. It made me understand that I am worth it – that we are all worth it. That a world of possibility exists, if only we can somehow take hold and enjoy the ride.

It was, so sadly, the act of taking his life that caused me to realize the value of my own.

And so, here I am. This is where I’d normally wrap up my blog post with something inspirational, probably in pink text, letting you know that above all, I’m doing well and that my life these days is full of pink sparkles and glitter.

I don’t have those kinds of words today, and pink sparkles and glitter live only in my craft room. Today is a day of grieving, and I will treat it as such.

And so I can leave you only with this: the knowledge that every day, I wake up in this brand new place that is not so new anymore, simply trying to live the best life I can for as long as I can. Trying to live a life of love and joy, but allowing myself to feel pain and sorrow when it makes sense.

This is my life. A life I love, a life changed forever by the life – and death – of the man I dearly loved.

And today, I simply miss him.

When it’s (not) all my fault

So. Five months have gone by since my last post. I was actually planning to take this blog down, convinced my vision had changed, not so sure I needed it anymore. So what have I been doing? Living my story. I am still figuring things out here in Wisconsin, but the dust seems to be settling, and for the first time in almost two years, I have a routine again. A great job with amazing co-workers. Real friends. A kickball team. And yes, even a new romantic relationship. Wisconsin has surpassed my expectations, and life here is better than I imagined it could be.

But there has been a cost, and it’s been a steep one.

I’ve mentioned before that not everyone has agreed with my decisions. That some felt I was running away. That it was too soon for me to be involved romantically again (after a year and a half).  That I should stay in Iowa. That I should stay in grief.

For the most part, these voices were a minority. But the fact that they came from people I loved so deeply has been an unbearable pain, nearly as significant as the loss of my husband.

I tried to convince myself their opinion didn’t matter. I kept pushing forward. I kept following my heart. I thanked God every day for the friends who were sticking by me, cheering me on. And it worked well, for a time.

But then, well, that thing happened, and everything kind of fell apart. Just a couple of weeks ago, very publicly, I was accused of failing to prevent my husband’s suicide. More privately, I was told that my husband’s suicide was a direct result of the fact that I failed to be present when it happened. In short, I was told that it was all my fault.

All my fault.

And just like that, it was like it had just happened yesterday. And all of the pain that had begun to feel so far away rushed up to the surface.

I remember it all. I remember the screaming. I remember the keening from deep within me, and not knowing such sounds could come from my mouth. I remember my legs giving out so many times, as I would simply fall to the floor, unable to comprehend how any of this would ever be okay.

I remember what it looked like when I found him. I remember calling 911. My driveway filled with police cars. I remember hearing the officer making the call for his parents to be notified.

I remember realizing I was a widow at 31 years old.

I remember planning a funeral for the man that, 48 hours before, I had been planning to have a child with.

Mostly, though, I remember that for quite some time, I lost my desire to do anything at all. I remember everyone telling me how strong I was, but how I’d never felt so weak in my entire life.

Every. Single. Thing. I’d ever cared about or hoped for was gone. I woke up exhausted every day from crying in my sleep. I somehow got myself back to work, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. My heart wasn’t in anything anymore.

I tried. I tried so hard that I lied about it. Because I couldn’t take the constant sympathy, the constant barrage of people wanting to know that I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I was never going to be okay.

It was five months before I found a day without tears. It would be several more before that could happen two days in a row.

But I also remember fighting. Going to a counselor – twice a week for quite some time, weekly for almost a year – ready to do the work. Ready to heal.

Because even though I didn’t know how I could possibly find my way again, I had to believe it was possible. The only thing more terrifying than how I was feeling was the idea that I’d have to feel that way for the rest of my life.

And so I fought. SO hard. I mean, you just have no idea. For the better part of two years, I walked around feeling like I had my fists up and a sword drawn. I could not relax. I could not give in. I would survive. I had to survive.

And very, very slowly, I did. I went on dates (long before I was really ready). I left my job in search of bigger things. I painted rooms. I stepped out of my comfort zone, because I had no choice. I reclaimed my home, just in time to realize I needed to sell my home and move on. I stopped going on dates. I searched for jobs nationwide. I thought about the kind of place I wanted to live in. And at just the right time and in just the right way, I found myself headed to Wisconsin. I landed a job at one of the best universities in the nation. I found real friends who have supported me and cared for me, before and after finding out about my past. I began to relax my fists and holster my metaphorical sword. With the pieces of my life more in place, I took my chance on a few more dates. I fell in love again. And every single day, I have proof that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Which is precisely why the naysaying hurts so much. The idea that I ran away? The idea that I’ve forgotten?

I could not possibly forget. The events of the past 20 months have left me with scars I will carry for the rest of my life. The pain was unspeakable and unimaginable. And of course it was. I put on my brave face out of necessity. But please remember that I lost my husband in the worst way possible. And that I found him, shot to death by his own hand.

I will never forget.

And when I am told it’s all my fault? I don’t just feel blame for the fact that he’s gone. I feel blame for all that his death did to me – what it did to so many people. For the aftermath that is still felt by so many.

I did not know that after all of this time, after all of this healing, that it would ever be possible to feel that wounded again. I was wrong. I cried in my sleep again. I felt it all again. I lived it all again.

For the record, I do not blame myself for my husband’s death. My husband was a victim of suicide. I firmly believe that. There are no words to describe how much I wish he would have asked for help. That he would have let someone know that he was hurting. But he didn’t. He chose to carry his burden alone. He was a victim of suicide, but he was also the perpetrator. It is a hard thing to accept, to be certain. But that does not change that it is true.

Despite knowing this, I’ve been carrying the extra weight of this accusation around for the last several weeks. Trying to find my strength again. Learning that I must live with the fact that there are individuals who place blame on my shoulders – and that there will likely be nothing I can do to lift that burden. Resigning myself to the fact my relationships with people I once dearly loved have ended. Grieving once again, in a very different way, for the loss of those who meant everything.

And so, once again, I find myself here, fingers on laptop keys, relying on the only thing I know that always seems to help, which is speaking out. Pretending everything is fine never quite worked out for me. At least I figured that out much more quickly this time around.

I think, though, that this may just be a part of the grief process that I didn’t know about before. That every once in a while, for the rest of my life, maybe it’s just going to jump up and bite me, catching me unaware in a time when everything seems to have fallen into place.

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay to be reminded of what I’m made of. We are all tested in the life, forced to endure things we shouldn’t have to face. And in many cases, those are battles we must fight alone. I have learned that the hard way. I remember it every day. But I have come out on top before, and I will come out on top again.

So I go forward. Knowing I already possess the strength to stand, and ready to continue loving the life I fought so hard to build for myself. Knowing that loss can wound me, and it can scar me, but it cannot break me.

Thankful that once again, even when darkness surrounds me, I remain determined to shine.

Where I’ve been. Where I’m going. And why it took me so long to tell you about it.

A little more than four months ago, I headed to Kansas City by myself for four days. I went because I needed to learn to trust myself. To make peace with my past. To understand where I’d been, where I wanted to go, and the fact that I could trust myself to get there.

I had started blogging just a month or so before my trip, and the blog became an outlet to share everything I’d been feeling and everything I was learning since my husband committed suicide. My hope was to inspire others to live their best lives regardless of circumstances – and I was humbled to receive emails that let me know many of you were doing just that.

Since sharing that trip with you, I’ve been mostly silent, save for one post marking the anniversary of my marriage proposal. Months have passed. Much has happened. And finally, for the first time in quite a while, I’m ready to tell you about it.

Simply put, Kansas City was a game-changer. I learned so much, so quickly. I had done so much healing and discovered this great big world of possibility. Kansas City felt like a giant blank slate on which I could write my new story. And then I went home. Where I discovered there was very little waiting for me. I had created a home full of positivity in the wake of despair. I had come to terms with everything that had happened. I had healed. But it was time to let go.

And so I made a decision to leave Iowa behind. To go back to work. To embrace and fully live the great big wide world that I now knew was waiting for me.

I cast a wide net and began looking for jobs across the nation, excluding my home state of Iowa. Applications were sent to more than 15 states. I didn’t know where I was going, only that it was time. Eventually it was down to two states, and then just one. And in the end, it wasn’t too far from home after all. I embraced my love of all things Big Ten and headed to Badger Country. (And within a week, I was at a football game. Naturally.)

Camprandall

I trusted that the right door would open at the right time. It did.

There’s a lot to say about that process. About believing that everything can work out and watching things fall into place. About choosing to uproot all that you have ever known and loved in favor of something that could be even better. And those blog posts are yet to come.

But for today, I simply needed to write again. To let you know that I’m doing what I set out to do. Every day as I walk across campus, I still can’t quite believe I’m here. I live in Wisconsin, where three weeks ago, I only knew two people. And today, I know at least forty. A handful of which –
one in particular – I believe may become lasting friends.

I eat lunch outside with new co-workers. I play kickball once a week. I tailgate and wear red and white. I go for long walks. I do cartwheels in the street. I notice the details. And I am genuinely happier than I have been in a very long time. And I am absolutely stronger than I have ever been in this lifetime.

I tell you these things not to brag. It’s not about the fact that my life is turning out to be quite awesome. It’s about the fact that life, for all of us, can be quite awesome. That wherever you are right now, no matter how bad things may be or how dark things can seem – you are not stuck.

We never have to be stuck. There is always a choice.

 A few weeks after my husband died, I realized that the worst day of my life was over. More than a year after my husband died, I realize that the best day of my life is yet to come.

I loved being a wife. I had hoped to be a mother. I had a life I loved and a future all planned out accordingly. But that world ended. I could choose to sit down and let that loss consume me, or I could choose to stand up and begin again.

Everyone grieves differently, and not everyone has approved or agreed with the decisions I’ve made. And a few of my most treasured relationships have suffered because of that. But at the end of the day, I believe in my heart that the best way to honor the memory of my husband is to live the most beautiful and adventurous life I know how to live.

So please, wherever you are at today, don’t give up. Know that beyond those tears, a whole world is waiting. Tell someone how you feel. Take that class you’ve always wanted to take. Get up off the sofa. Live your brave life – even when it’s scary and crazy and terrifying and hurts like hell.

The single most important thing I’ve learned in the past year and a half is that the human spirit is a bold and magical thing. We are far braver and tougher than we can comprehend. We can endure far more than we believe. And we can rise above even the deepest heartbreak.

Isn’t that what we’re all here to do, anyway? To experience all that life can bring us, and love the heck out of those we encounter along the way? What more could we possibly hope for?

I am still living my story. And sometimes, in those moments, I need to pause and reflect before I am ready to share. There is much I still have to learn and I know there is so much good yet to come, because I see it forming, little by little, with every new day.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude as I begin to watch my new life take shape. I am so thankful that I decided to take the risk, pack up my things, and chase down the life that was calling for me. And at least for now, I’ve found my brave, beautiful life right here in Wisconsin. Don’t be afraid to go find yours.

When it sneaks up on you

It’s been a while. I’ve had a lot going on. After I returned
to Kansas City, I realized I had big choices to make about my future and where
I’m headed from here. And as I lost myself in that process, I found that the
writing simply wasn’t coming as quickly as it did when I first launched the
blog. At first, that worried me. But as more days went by, I decided it was
really okay.

Life is full of ups and downs, as is writing. I needed to wait until I had
something new to say.

But then, I had one of those days. Well, if I’m being
honest, I had two of those days.

I launched this blog with a pledge to be truthful. I was
real about a lot of the pain I’d already gone through. And since then, I’ve
spent a lot of time telling you about how I’m moving forward and how I work to
emerge from darkness.

It’s absolutely the truth when I tell you that I’m in a good
place these days. A few days ago, a friend told me she’d never seen me this
confident in my entire life. And that’s real.

Every once in a while, though? A day – or two – can still
just really suck.

I woke up Sunday morning after spending two days with one of my favorite women
in the world. We had long talks, hit the town, watched our dogs play, and had
an all-around wonderful time. I said goodbye feeling the happiest I’d been
since my Kansas City adventure.

Then it started to creep up on me. I was watching the
Indianapolis 500 – a tradition I’ve had since childhood, but one I’d come to
share with my late husband during our years together. It was my first time
watching an auto racing event since he passed away last summer. As I watched
his favorite driver take the win, it felt like everything had come full circle.
I was okay. Or so I thought.

I prepared to move on with my day. But then, all of a
sudden, it was hours and half a day later. And I was stuck on that damn couch
again. So I decided to try once more, and I headed to the movie theater at 10pm
to catch a film by myself. I hadn’t done anything alone since Kansas City, and
it was a much-needed reminder that I can, in fact, be my own best company.

After a day of fighting, I went to bed feeling strong. And woke up on Memorial Day
feeling utterly and terribly alone.

I made some phone calls. I probably sounded fine in all of
them, though in reality, I stayed in bed until at least 1pm – something that
hadn’t happened a single time since the day my husband died.

I finally staggered myself up around 3:30 and gave those 3
rules a shot. Shower. Clothes. The store to pick up some essentials. My mood
picked up a bit. Until I went to leave the store, and the cashier asked, “Have
any big plans tonight with friends or family?” Well, no. Thanks for the
reminder.

I hit Facebook, which I learned long ago is the worst thing
to do when you’re feeling isolated – especially on a holiday.

I honestly can’t tell you how I spent the next few hours. I
drifted in and out of sleep and sadness, unable to explain why this fog had
chosen to descend on me today.

Then my head
remembered what my heart had been feeling for the past two days.
My husband
proposed on Memorial Day weekend.

I wasn’t prepared for this one. I survived the first wedding
anniversary without him. His birthday. Valentine’s Day. But this, the
anniversary of the date when our lives together really began? I didn’t see it
coming. I hadn’t made any plans to distract me, the way I had when I took my
nieces to American Girl Place on my anniversary, or headed to a neighbor’s
Christmas party on his birthday. I was just alone.

And just like that, for the first time in many, many months,
I found myself on the floor crying once again.

That’s the funny thing about grief, especially after a great
loss. Sometimes, when you least expect it, it hits you in the face and reminds
you that you’re human and that this
journey is not linear
.

I probably should’ve seen this one coming. But honestly? The fact that I didn’t shows me how far
I’ve truly come. 
I’ve been so
wrapped up simply in the stuff of life – making choices for my future, spending
time with friends, and simply just living
– that until it arrived, the significance of the date on the calendar just
hadn’t crossed my mind.

So I wept.

But as I’ve learned so many times before, the thing about
crying on the floor is that sooner or later, you’ve got to get up – even if you
don’t have a Beagle who will give you a bath of puppy kisses until your tears
stop.

And so, even though it took much, much longer than it had in
quite a while, I got up. I made dinner at 9:30 pm. I watched a few episodes of How I Met Your Mother. Texted a couple
of friends. And finished this blog post at 2:10 am.

Proving, once again, that
it’s never too late in the day – or the journey – to get up and try again.

Here’s to getting
back on track.

Kansas City, Day Four: Everything falls into place

My final day in Kansas City presented me with a unique
challenge. Because I’d originally planned to drive home that morning, I had no scheduled destinations for the day. After checking out my options online and
flipping through the “Visit KC” guide I’d grabbed in my hotel library, I
decided to head to the Kansas City Zoo.

GorillaI wandered the two miles of trails at the zoo slowly and
deliberately. I took time to notice the details. The colors on the bird’s
feathers. The petals on a flower. I stared into a gorilla’s eyes for a while,
wondering what he was thinking.

My heart broke for species so endangered only a few of them remain. I took a ride on the sky tram and sat for a while by a lake.

And as I walked and as I noticed, I was overcome by all of
the emotion of the past four days – and of the past year. I sat down at a
picnic table and pulled out my journal and a pen. I started to write. And I
didn’t stop for two hours. And by the time I was done, I felt an inspiring mix
of peace and possibility.

Lake
Feeling lighter than I’d felt in a year – or perhaps even
longer – I headed back to Kauffman Stadium, where the sun was shining. There would be no rain out tonight. I revisited the Royals Hall of Fame, and made my way to my seat. Glove in hand and fully decked out in new Royals gear I’d picked up the
day before, I sat down to watch the game. And it was like all was right in the
world. There were so many memories here. I could hear my mother screaming for
Willie Wilson like she was still sitting next to me. I could still picture the
fireworks in the sky – the first ones I remember seeing. The crown scoreboard, the fountains in the outfield – everything was as it should be.

Stadium
And for the first time since my husband died, but maybe,
really, for the first time ever, I
felt whole. Healed. And fearless.

During my four days in Kansas City, I fell in love with the
city again. But more than anything, I fell in love with the woman I became as I
walked these streets. Unstoppable. Ready to take on new challenges and responsibility.
Ready to grow. I realize that my life truly can be anything I want it to be. And where I go from here is entirely up to me.

I am the girl from Kansas City. And Annapolis. And Wheaton. And
Iowa City.

I am the girl who sang on the rocks. The toddler who broke
her arm falling out of a high chair while dancing. The girl who wanted a Mickey
Mouse balloon more than anything. The girl who played softball and ran cross
country. The girl who invented a radio station with her childhood best friend. The
girl who played guitar and wrote a musical. The girl who moved to Iowa and became
a Hawkeye.

I am the woman who is moving forward. Who can travel alone to a city and have a marvelous time. Who has accepted all
that her life has been, and who has fallen in love with all that her life can
be.

I do not know what tomorrow holds.

But wherever this journey takes me, there will be no holding
back. There will be dancing in public and laughing hysterically. There will be
adventure and spontaneity. There will be honesty and forgiveness. There will be
unadulterated joy and raw, serious pain. And I don’t intend to miss a minute of
any of it.

Because I am strong. I am unashamed. I am beautiful.

I am the girl who sings on the rocks. And I am ready.

Writing

Kansas City, Day Three: Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

After two days of exploring some of the best Kansas City had
to offer, it was time to visit my childhood stomping grounds.

My first stop was the apartment complex I lived in from
kindergarten through second grade. One of my earliest – and most precious –
childhood memories takes place here. The apartments used to have these ponds
throughout the grounds, surrounded by giant rocks. As a child, I’d climb on the
rocks and sing at the top of my lungs. My “set” usually included hits from Annie and The Sound of Music, with a little early Madonna & Tiffany
thrown in for good measure. The older residents of the complex would sit on
their balconies, watching me and applauding, and I was on top of the world.

As I got out of the car, it was like re-entering a scene
from so far back in my mind. The whole thing felt so surreal. I remembered
seeing this place from my own eyes, not from photographs the way so many
childhood memories are recalled. This had been one of my happiest homes.

Then, there they were – my singing rocks. Unchanged, just
waiting for me to return 25 years later. They seemed smaller now. I remembered
them being so large, so high – I was always afraid I would fall. This time, my
footing was sure. I climbed the rock. And yes, I sang. Because the child inside
me was aching for an encore. And because the woman I am today still had
something to sing about.

Braveontherocks
I walked across the complex as showtunes continued to play
in my mind. It was all so familiar. I grew up all over this country, but had
never, until now, had the chance to re-visit a childhood home. An old man came
outside to feed a 1-legged duck. I was surprised to find that old men still
live there. It was like he was frozen in time, that nameless resident.

Ontheplayground

My next stop was my old elementary school. I arrived with
Madonna’s song “This Used to Be My Playground” playing in my head, even though,
well, I know it wasn’t really my
playground. Surely after 25 years, the equipment would have changed. No matter.
I snapped a photo holding my old yearbook from kindergarten. I took a turn on the swings. But
then – and I almost missed them – I caught sight of those bars. Three metal
bars, all in a row, for flipping and swinging and probably even chin-ups. Those
bars were still standing, still taunting me after all these years. I’d always
longed to be able to really flip around on them, because even though I had no
technical skills, I was a gymnast at heart.

As it turns out, at 32, I still have no technical skills. It
seems I’ll never conquer those bars, but I
have conquered far greater things, and that’s what really matters.

My final stop was the first house I’d lived in as a child in
Kansas City, from ages 2 to 4. I recognized it instantly, but I believe more
from photographs than from my heart. The new owners were flying a flag outside
for the University of Kansas, which made everything seem right somehow.

As I drove away from the places I’d called home, I took the
time to really notice my surroundings and take in all of the places I’d
remembered. A piece of me was still here – would always be here – and this
place had left its mark on me, way back then, and most certainly today. It made
me wonder. Where is my home, really? Back here in Kansas City? In the empty
house that waits for my return in Iowa? Or is home, for me, something bigger
than just a city? I wonder what this means for my future, and I don’t yet have
the answers.

I split the rest of my day between the Nelson-Atkins Museum
of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art. When I see beautiful art, it
somehow connects me to that place in my soul that tells me what I’m really
longing for, what is deep inside. It makes me understand how I am human and life
is so fleeting. I viewed paintings from the 1400s. A mummy from before Christ.What am I going to leave behind?

I spent hours in the galleries, walking miles in the
process. I felt so peaceful, so calm. Yet so full of life. Because I still have
so much to do. I must stop wasting days because I have so much life to live and
I want to fill every moment with joy and color and words. I sense that
something big is coming, but I don’t know quite what it is yet.

Artmuseum
As I head back to the hotel and reflect on the day, I
realize that something significant has happened. The “old me” and the “new me”
have converged. We are one and the same. I am just Ally. I have learned lessons.
I have been battle scarred. I have been through hell and back. I have grown so
much – but I am no longer certain I have changed at all. I still climb rocks. I
still burst into song. I still throw my hands out and smile. I still believe
that life can be magical and a pond can be an audience. And old Ally was tough,
too. She didn’t have all the skills she needed and she made some wrong turns.
But she gained knowledge from her mistakes, and she survived. And here she is
today. Here I am today. I was the little
girl who sang on the rocks. And I still am.

Coming up: My final day in Kansas City. I head to the zoo, finally see the Royals play, and for the first time in nearly a year, I feel like life makes sense again.

Kansas City, Day Two: I am not a Cubs fan

It started by sleeping later than I’d planned. I was going
to be late. Late for what? This was
my trip. My rules. So I changed the itinerary. And it was ok.

I headed to the Hallmark Visitor’s Center, which contains a
museum of all things Hallmark and celebrates this history of the company that
cares enough to send the very best. As a person who’s fascinated by card-making
and postcards, the entire center was amazing to me. I loved seeing how Hallmark
grew from a man with a dream to the awesome company it is today.

And yes, I had WAY too much fun with the video screen that
puts various Hallmark crowns on your head and then emails the photos to you.
Over and over and over.

Crowncollage
Then, after spending a somewhat ridiculous amount of time in what I nicknamed “the
crying booths” – booths containing video screens that played sappy Hallmark
commercials on repeat, I headed over to Hallmark Live, to meet the creators of
hoops&yoyo.

Now, if you’re not familiar with hoops&yoyo, you really
should be! These inspiring, silly characters never fail to bring me a smile,
even on sad days. Check out their video message just for you:

At Hallmark Live, the creators of my very favorite animated duo
were on site to chat about their creative process and sign autographs. I loved meeting
them. I let them know how much hoops&yoyo had made me smile during the past
year, and that it had been a hard one. I shared a little of my story. I got a
little emotional. And I think they did, too. The thing is, us creative types –
writers, artists, musicians – we create something hoping it will make a
difference, and we put it out there. But we just never know how it’s going to
impact someone. So I really just loved the chance to say “thank you” for
creating such happy, wonderful characters that had brought me so many smiles.

Hoopsyoyo

From Hallmark, I headed to Union Station, and then on to the
Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. But then, just like
that, it was time to head to my favorite and most-anticipated destination of
the trip: Kauffman Stadium.

Though I’d been in Kansas City for two days now, the stadium
was the first time I encountered a place I truly remembered. As soon as I saw
it from the highway, I just started crying. Even though it was slightly rainy,
I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Every time an employee asked “How are
you” I replied with this giant smile, “I’m amazing! Thank you!”

RoyalsI’d arrived early to explore the stadium. I headed first to
the Royals Hall of Fame, now part of the stadium. I saw George Brett’s bat from
his 3,000th hit. The ‘85 world series trophy. And a vintage
memorabilia case holding a 1985 duffle bag – the exact same one that’s hanging
from a hook in my closet right now. “Oh my gosh, I have that bag!” I exclaimed to
jealous looks from all around.

I headed to the stadium shop – because naturally, I’m going
to need to stock up on Royals gear before I head back to Iowa. As I walked
through the store, surrounded by all that blue & white, and overwhelmed by
childhood memories, I suddenly burst out “Oh, my God! I’m not a Cubs fan!” A
few people laughed, and many just looked at me strangely.

Because here’s the thing. When people ask me about my
favorite team, I’ve always said, “The Chicago Cubs. And the Royals, too, you
know, from when I was a kid.” And when people ask which one I’d cheer for in a
Cubs-Royals world series, I laugh it off and refuse to pick – because seriously?
Like that would ever happen. But as
much as I love Wrigley Field and the Cubs, I realized, after all this time, that
the Royals truly are first in my heart. My childhood heroes were George Brett
and Bret Saberhagen. All of my first memories of sports – of cheering, of
fireworks, of what it means to love to win – were here in this very stadium. I
have been an avid sports fan for my entire life – and it all started by being a
Royals fan first.

Even though I have a seat just 13 rows from the field, I
walk up the spiral walkway to the upper deck. I loved running up the walkway as
a child, and I was still just trying to take it all in. Even more than hour
after I’d arrived, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face. A staff member takes a
photo of me with the stadium in the background.

Stadium
And then I see it. Right there on the scoreboard. The game
has been cancelled for rain. It had been misting all day, but they kept saying
the game would go on as planned, so I’d held out hope. But here was the kicker.
The game had been postponed until Sunday night. And I was supposed to be
driving home on Sunday morning.

I head back to my hotel. I am nearly shaking. I don’t like
it when things don’t go according to plan. And I have no one here to talk me
through this. No one to tell me what to do. I mean, we’re talking about the
woman who typically struggles making simple purchase decisions without running
them by someone else. But this was exactly
why I was here.
To stand on my own feet and know I can make decisions and
face the world on my own.

I do a gut check. I decide that I didn’t drive for five
hours to NOT see the Royals play. I am going to stay. I go to the hotel office,
I call Camp Bow Wow, where my dog is spending the weekend. Arrangements are
made, and the plans are changed. But I’m exhausted from the process.

I make a decision to call the one friend who knows I am
here. I am not going to ask her advice and I’m not going to overanalyze. But I
would like, quite simply, just to talk to my friend.

I’d been learning things like crazy for two days. How to be
better at talking to strangers. To ask for help taking photos. To ask questions
instead of wander around afraid. To make decisions about rained out games. To
tell a man I’ve never met that he looks great when trying on a Royals jacket.
My confidence is soaring. I’m SO going to make it. I’ve totally got this.

But it was in this moment that I also realized how important
relationships really are. And I was so, so glad that my friend had my back, and
she was there to listen and chat when I needed her. Yes, I’m going to live this
brave new life on my own terms.
But it’s all about discovering a balance. I
don’t intend to live a life alone and I have no intention of cutting people out
of my life. Going to Kansas City was about taking off the training wheels. I
needed to find out that my bike wasn’t going to fall over when I rode down the
hill alone. That said, I sure I am glad for the people riding along the trail
with me.

Tomorrow: Day Three – I visit my childhood homes, my
elementary school playground, and contemplate where my life is going from here.
 

My super-secret Kansas City adventure: Day One

Just shy of three weeks ago, I made a big decision. It was
on the heels of my “Oh, crap. Now what?” post, in which I talked a lot about
the fact that I haven’t been great about trusting myself.

I decided I needed proof – evidence that I was going to be
just fine. That I really could do
anything I wanted. So I decided to remove myself from my comfort zone and learn
that I really could stand on my own two feet. Make decisions. Make memories.
And finally trust that I am the strong woman I believe myself to be. And removing myself from my comfort zone
meant removing myself from my city.

So last Thursday, I embarked on a super-secret road trip.
Gone were the days of running a decision by half of my family and my 18 closest
friends. I told only one person where I was headed, and only because I believed
it was necessary in order for the trip to be a safe, smart decision. But just
like that, I was off – headed for a 4-day, learning-to-trust-myself trip to
Kansas City.

Why KC? I lived there as a young girl. It’s where I fell in
love with sports. And music. And I hadn’t been back since 1989, despite my many
conversations about wishing to return to Royals Stadium. After all these years,
It was time to go back. And I was off.

Bon Jovi and Taylor Swift kept me company on the 5-hour
drive, though the hours didn’t seem to take as long as they should have. Sure,
I’ve done things by myself before. Gone to movies. Even sporting events. But
traveled alone? To a mostly unfamiliar city? This was totally new territory.

But from the moment I saw the skyline, I knew something was
right. I totally HAD this. All of the things I’d been worrying about for months
suddenly seemed so, so small. I was in KANSAS CITY. I mean, if could drive to Kansas City and have this
adventure, have this amazing time, without anyone else, is there anything I
couldn’t do?? I mean, really?

My first stop was the College Basketball Experience – home
of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, along with several unique exhibits on
the history of the game. But the best part? The full-size, NCAA-official court,
just waiting for me and a basketball.

Basketball
My eyes lit up when I saw that court. Short of high school
PE, I’ve never shot hoops anywhere but my own driveway. And I got to shoot on
THIS court. THIS COURT! Regulation, tournament-style awesome. I love winning
the game in my head when I play in the driveway, but it wasn’t so hard to
imagine that it was real now. Oh, and by the way, those lines on the court are
MUCH farther from the basket than they look on television – ALL of them. Free
throw line? Miles away. Three pointers? Forget about it.

In the museum’s interactive challenges, I finally had the
chance to make that buzzer beating shot, while a recorded announcer questioned
whether or not I could. But when I finally sunk it, the crowd cheered, and it
was pretty freaking amazing. 60-second free throw challenge? I got 4. Not very
many, but not so bad for a girl who’s been shooting for only a few weeks.

After a couple hours of basketball, it was time to face the
music – literally. Who knew the Grammy Awards had a museum in the same building
as the CBE? Not me, but when I discovered it while leaving, I knew I had to go
inside. I played an electric piano, tried my hand at heavy metal “screamo”
music, and checked out the Beastie Boys’ classic video “Fight for Your Right to
Party.” I remixed a classic Whitney Houston track. I saw Michael Jackson’s
Thriller jacket, as well as costumes worn on the Grammy stage by Cee-Lo Green,
Justin Bieber, and Rihanna. Plus – Ray Charles’ grammy. The actual award.
Seriously.

And yes, there was a light up dance floor where you could
shake your groove to Michael Jackson. And if you’re wondering whether or not I
hit the floor by myself, even though people were watching, and let it all out,
well, yes. Of course I did.

Dancefloor
Dinner time. I had no real plan or schedule for my evening
meal, but ended up finding my way to the Crayola Café at Crayola Kansas City.

 
Crayola1

This exists. EVERYONE gets placemats to color and crayons.
It’s pretty much the happiest restaurant ever. I’d actually never eaten by
myself at a “real” restaurant. I was struck by the silence that’s usually
filled with conversation when waiting for your meal. Luckily, I had my placemat
and crayons as a distraction.

Crayola2After eating, I explored the rest of Crayola Kansas City,
including the store and their fun exhibits. And then I saw them – right there
by the door. As a kid, I’d always wanted one of those giant crayon piggy banks.
But I mean, does anyone really ever
buy those? Um, yes. As it turns out, they do. (I’m still figuring out where to
put it in my house.)

I drove to the hotel. When I crossed the state line into
Kansas, I burst into tears. It was like I was finally home. I didn’t know
Kansas was home – I’ve never really been able to claim anywhere as my hometown,
because we moved so much growing up. But suddenly, all was right with the world
again. Everything was as it should be.

As I drifted off to sleep, I realized something. In general,
I spend a lot of time talking about “the girl I used to be.” But what if,
underneath it all, underneath the past mistakes and the old pain – what if that
little girl was still inside? The one who loves her Kansas City sports teams,
wants a Crayola bank, and still thinks it’s awesome to dance to Michael Jackson?
What if I’m not so far from the old me
after all? What if little Ally has just been waiting for her cue? Waiting for
her time to know it was really okay to shine?

What if, indeed. It was something to think about, and
something that would continue to be on my mind – and heart – for the next four
days as I explored the city I once called home.

And that, my friends, was just the first day.

On the blog tomorrow: Day 2, including my trip to see
the Royals play ball for the first time since I was a kid, an encounter with
animated characters that pretty much rocked my socks, and learning to roll with
the punches when things don’t go as planned.

Changing the rules

Sometimes, you just have to change the rules as you go. This is true in life, and it appears it's also true in the world of blog giveaways.

Since I posted my happy bookmark giveaway, the blog has had hundreds of visitors. And yet, the post is just sitting with 4 comments.

In general, I've noticed that after each post, I tend to get a quite a flood of private emails and messages, but very few public comments. The same has been true of my last post. Many of you took the time to contact me privately about the message it contained – but again, very few comments. Though I was discouraged, I kept telling myself that it didn't really mean that you didn't like the post – but I still couldn't help but feel a little bit sad.

Until I heard from a friend today. He's one of those friends that just tells it like it is – always with love, but he doesn't hold back. And if he thinks you're missing the boat somewhere, he's going to go ahead and tell you. His point was basically this – the stuff I'm talking about here on Determined to Shine? It's hard stuff. It took me months to be ready to speak out. And while I have been so happy to hear from so many of you about how it's helping you in your own journey, I have to remember that you might not all be ready to talk about it – especially in a public forum.

So, I'm going to change the rules. I'm still super excited to share these bookmarks with you. But I'm opening the giveaway to ALL of you. Everyone who has subscribed, commented, sent me a personal email, "liked" a post on Facebook, or just said "way to go" in person. If you have been part of the positive energy that is coming into my life – and the lives of others – you're in. I'm compiling a list and will indeed draw names on Tuesday. And I'll contact those three individuals privately to see if they'd like a bookmark. But I will not publicly post those names here, to respect the privacy of those individuals.

To those of you who have taken the time to comment, or to email me, please know that your support and love has blown me away. I've learned that I'm not nearly as alone I once perceived myself to be. And to those of you who have been reading every post, but haven't said a word? Know that I'm here for you, too.  And even if I never hear from you, please know that I'm in your corner, cheering for you every step of the way.

We are not meant to live in darkness. Shine.