Right before I met my husband, his father died. I recently asked him how often he thinks of his dad, they were quite close.
He answered, “Now and then. Every week maybe? If something comes up. Something that reminds me of him.”
I was taken aback by the lack of agency and urgency in his answer. It was surprisingly nonchalant. Granted, I’ve never lost a parent— I’m extremely fortunate that I still have three grandparents alive and sharp as ever—but I imagine I would have guilt if I didn’t readily stop and reflect about a departed parent at least once a day, twice. . . I don’t know. But, surely I would force the reflection, no? And feel guilty if I didn’t?
So I asked my husband about that, gently. Not to judge, but out of curiosity. “Do you feel bad if you don’t think of him more often? That you don’t make yourself?”
He thought about it for a minute. “No. But you know, I feel him. In things I do. He’s affected me, what I care about, what I do, how I love and think. He’s with me every day in who I am, whether I think of him or not.”
He shrugged and moved on. That was that.
He made me consider forced reflections and how important they’ve become in our society. We all must stop and reflect, it’s very important, doesn’t it feel like everyone says that? Whether it’s holding a candle for those lost or returning to memories at a certain time of year, we commemorate and reflect. Forced reflections—no, perhaps intentional is a better word—intentional reflections for people we’ve lost, things we’ve done, things that have happened to us. Bold choices, life-changing events. It’s everywhere. We are advised to think back, reflect and most of all hold on to memories lest we lose ourselves as we lose them.
But does there come a point where such organized mindfulness is no longer useful?
As a society, we hold on to things, set dates, remind each other. And occasionally, we stop and reflect communally, drawing strength and fraternity in each other. I love all aspects of this because it brings all of us into something bigger than ourselves. But does the same approach apply to individual memories and thoughts? Should my husband feel bad that he doesn’t think about his father more often? That he doesn’t make time for thoughts about him?
I’m a strain of individual who sets alarms and calendar invites to remember things. To set aside time for reflection, whether it is honoring, contemplating, or forgiving. Over the past few years, early April has been a major, planned reflection point. It is when I started something that would change my life. I stop and reflect on my undertaking of hiking the Appalachian Trail. What wanting to do it—and actually doing it—meant. And I reflect on life afterwards.
In 2014, I wrote about it, here, including:
Two years ago, I started a walkabout on the Appalachian Trail. I began in Georgia, looped up to Maine, and finished in Virginia. I walked a distance that would stretch between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Two years ago, I hugged my husband like I wanted to pull him into me and take him too. He didn’t come but he sent all the love I could possibly carry—it was my compulsion to do this, not his.
I had quit my job, and this was in my head. I couldn’t get rid of it. I couldn’t not do it. It was a calling, a vocation. It became part of me and part of who I was before I even started walking. . .
I continued to talk about my experience, a little bit, and finally settled on the main pointe, which was addressing the single hardest part of the Trail. Why I needed to answer that, I don’t know. Perhaps to give some sense of accomplishment. “Hiking a trail” wasn’t specific enough, I needed to find the particularly hard thing and feel good about accomplishing that.
Except, as I wrote, I realized I hadn’t yet emerged from the shadow of the hardest part. I was knee-deep in it:
I knew this anniversary was coming, so I’ve forced the thought process. And one emerged, but it’s inchoate (and will have echoes of catharsis, I apologize). Now, however, after two years, I can definitively name the hardest part of the journey. Without doubt. The hardest thing about hiking the Appalachian Trail is living in a world where I’m no longer hiking the Appalachian Trail.
And there it was. That point of reflection, to find a kinship, a deeper understanding, to force an epiphany or deeper feeling. It was cathartic, informative, and thoughtful. I wrote it, posted it, and, come April 2015, I repeated the process.
In 2015, I revisited the Trail and its meaning, but rather than dancing around the details, I bee-lined to the “reflection and self-discovery” part, drawing these conclusions:
Two major changes happened in my life because of the Appalachian Trail and its aftermath:
1. I changed my profession to something not predicated on accomplishment, achievement, or casual updates to people I don’t know. I write. Yes—I write. I love the process, the craft. I could write in a vacuum, with no audience; I’d be eternally happy. I just do it for the love of it. Sure, I’d love to be good, and I work very hard at it. But even if I’m not good and never will be published, I love the craft. The words.
2. I now accept my long-existing mental illness as a mental illness, something to cope with and treat. Not something to outrun, outfox, or outdo.
These decisions have many implications, none of them easy or fast. When you’ve been doing certain things the same way for a generation, they are hard to change. It takes admitting that you were wrong—a fragility I couldn’t handle.
Wow. A veritable treasure trove of experience, mine for the excavating and processing. I’d be back next year, too.
In the twelve months that followed, I also wrote. Every day, posted every week, forced on improving, learning the craft, studying, and living out my ambition. In short, I said I had a career, then I made it so. I also reflected and changed my life because of mental illness, told my friends about it, my family, what to expect, what I need, and even shifted my priorities to better take care of myself and, in that way, got myself back.
Today, it’s time again! Time to dig into that pit of the unconscious and excavate the pieces of my past and current self.
Problem is. . . I can’t find it. Did I move it? Did it get covered up? Where did it go? I’m really trying, no stone unturned, digging and digging, but it’s just not there.
Maybe it’s just gone. Maybe it was only there when I needed it, and now, I don’t. Maybe it doesn’t have to be something I go back to every year.
Maybe I don’t need to think about the Trail or what I got from it because I am what I got from it. I thought about and absorbed the impact, stopped holding it in my hand for reflection and just, ate it instead, or something. Now it’s settled down in a heavy spot right between my liver and pancreas (is there space there?), and I carry it always without thinking about it. Like a tiny stitch for those I’ve loved and lost, including versions of myself. Would my husband say the same thing about his dad? No, because like his father, he’s extremely literal and doesn’t like metaphors, certainly not ones about body parts and pancreases. Which warms my heart.
We were going to bed last night, our cats up to their usual shenanigans bringing us every toy in the house—and even some things that aren’t toys—in a tireless effort to get us to stay up and play. One of them carried in a pen, they love pens. My husband picked it up.
“Oh El, look! This was a pen from a hotel in Lviv, Ukraine. Cool, huh?” I nodded, it was cool. Even the cats seemed curious, though they probably just wanted their toy thrown in a spirited manner. “I have a thing with hotel pens,” he continued.
“I know you do, babe,” I said and looked at the pen.
“My Dad did that, too. Collected hotel pens.” I nodded.
There he was, there they both were.
These big, huge things happen in our lives, happen to us. Don’t forget anything or anyone. But don’t worry if you don’t revisit them as much as you think you should.
Especially if you allowed them to form who you are in the first place.
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