The tenderness of pain itself

I didn’t have the best Easter I’ve ever had.  On Saturday afternoon I began feeling sick, a nausea that intermittently escalated and ebbed.  By 7 I was in bed with a fever, trying hard not to throw up.  Sunday I woke up feeling somewhat better, though I remained vaguely carsick all day long.  This made me short with the children and with Matt in the morning, barking at them when I felt frustrated, annoyed at myself that I could not avoid this behavior.  Everything felt frayed and difficult by 8:30 in the morning.

At church, ease floated down to rest on my shoulders.  Sitting there, in a place that has held so much of my history – my sister’s marriage, both Grace and Whit’s christenings (each, actually, on Easter weekend)  – I exhaled.  I sang the songs I know by heart, their lyrics rising from some deep, hidden reservoir of memory, from the years at St. Paul’s Girls’ School.  My eyes filled with tears as I remembered the three grandparents I have lost, particularly Nana, my maternal grandmother, who always cherished Easter above all holidays.  I sank deep into the familiar cadence of the prayers before communion.  I felt gladness enter my heart, and in its wake, gratitude.

But as soon as we left the church, into the almost startling brightness of the day, into the sudden full-bloom of spring, the grace I’d felt in the pew sloughed off and my agitation rose to the surface again.  I felt nauseous, I felt tired, I felt cranky.  We had a lovely egg hunt at my parents’ house, with both my godsister and her family and my cousin and her boyfriend.  And then we had a relaxed, comfortable lunch at our house, my father and mother full of fascinating stories and observations from the trip to Jerusalem from which they just returned yesterday.

The day was nothing short of delightful, with only a couple of whiny kid moments to mar its gleam.  And I felt the person – the mother, wife, daughter – I want to be floating in the room, sometimes within reach, sometimes not.  The presence and peace that I grasp for so clumsily was just in my palm and then jerked away again, replaced by an unease of the soul that manifests as physical discomfort.

After lunch my nausea rose up in my throat again, threatening, and I climbed back into bed.  I felt demoralized, frustrated: after so many years, after so much trying, how can I still stumble, fall back into these traps, these old ways of being?  Didn’t I just write, a few days ago, that the black emotions can blow through, like a squall, and still leave me with the memory of a beautiful day?  I know what this agitation is about, I think: it is hiding, it is refusing to stare into the sun.  It is my attempt to evade the pain that is an inextricable part of truly engaging in my life.

But oh, what irony there is in this, I see now.  The pain I feel in knowing how much I’ve missed, in realizing how much these avoidance behaviors have cost me is so much keener than the pain of looking my life in the eye.  I know this as well as I know my own name.  Many days now, like last week, I can acknowledge the irritation that comes as regularly as a tide, and let it pass.  On Easter I could not: I got tangled in it.

“Healing,” Pema Chodron reminds us, “can be found in the tenderness of pain itself.” I read this last Easter, on Katrina Kenison’s gorgeous blog, and the words returned to me today.  The pain of living my life, of accepting the passage of time, of embracing my own wounded heart: these are the kinds of pain that Pema speaks of.  The awful, toxic pain of regret, however, carries no tenderness.  There is no healing in avoidance, in the way I felt for big swaths of Easter Sunday.

What is Easter if not the day of renewal, rebirth, resurrection?  Yes, I squandered a lot of it being crabby and irritable and short-tempered.  Yes, I drove myself to sobs alone in my room thinking: I will never have another Easter egg hunt when Grace is 8 and Whit is 6.  I don’t know exactly why I felt this way on Easter, a day I’ve always loved deeply.  I know that instead of attacking myself for this waste, lying in the dark, crying, as my stomach roiled as though I’m at sea in a storm, I should instead embrace what Easter means, believe in the return of my peace.  I am trying.

15 thoughts on “The tenderness of pain itself”

  1. While I commend your efforts and self-awareness I want to let you off the hook as a friend. Physical pain transforms us, and it should. We become people we don’t recognize, unable to control our emotions and behavior at times. Perhaps I am rationalizing but I think that it’s just fine to be less than perfect on any given day. Easter holds no religious significance to me, but I think it’s asking too much of yourself as a wife, mother, friend, PERSON that being sick shouldn’t affect your day.

    You did your best to salvage what you could from the day, but in the end I personally don’t feel you should feel badly about your behavior. You do the best you can, and sickness is out of your control. You may have regret that the day couldn’t be idyllic as you wanted, but there is no guilt.

    Teaching our children that holding emotions inside all the time isn’t healthy can also be a lesson in maturity for them, even at that young age. I think as mothers we sometimes strive too hard and are mentally too hard on ourselves. I hope you are feeling better soon. xo

  2. I hope you are feeling better! It is amazing how much you still do, and do fro others, even when you feel sick.

  3. Holidays can be so challenging due to the inherent pressure that comes from knowing there is only one for each year of your children’s lives. And when there is illness or physical pain added to the mix, it’s near impossible to carve out space for acceptance and tolerance. It’s just a tall order! I hope you are feeling better, Lindsey, and that your week is more peaceful than your weekend.

  4. No one ever said waking up was easy. It’s not. Not even for you…

    I had the same sort of day yesterday. The only thing that helped was being kind to myself. I hope you will try that.

    You are so good, Lindsey. Be good to yourself. Be nice to my friend.

    Please and thank you.


  5. Wow — something in this post really struck a nerve in me, as I’ve been thinking about it for an hour now. So please forgive what will be kind of a blunt comment here — it is meant with love, and perhaps I’m just trying to forcefully get it into my own head…

    The state of grace isn’t just about living with joy, but also about accepting pain with equanimity… Its not just embracing the divine in the everyday, but also about embracing the imperfect and the ugly.

    Your post felt so harsh and unforgiving of your own imperfection that it made me sad. And it reminded me of your post on the fear of failure, as it seemed that somehow the pursuit of grace had twisted into labeling it a failure when you don’t feel you achieved it perfectly.

    What if for just one week (always the strategy I use on myself when something I’m trying seems absurd) rather than focus on embracing the good, tender, ephemeral moments, you instead focused on embracing and accepting every time you felt impatient or unsatisfied or anxious or short tempered — if you could embrace each of those rather than pushing them away. What do you think that might feel like?

    Hope you’re feeling better today…

  6. Oh, Emily, thank you!!
    I clearly misconveyed what I meant to say – I’m very aware of the ugly and bad stuff – and the sad too – I’m totally open to those things and accept that they are part of a fully-lived life. What I meant to say is the aggravation & irritation I experienced I think are ways of AVOIDING those bad and hard things – so that is what I dislike, as a behavior. I hope that makes sense and am so grateful for this thoughtful comment. 

  7. I can’t remember exactly how I found your blog, just last week. Maybe through a writing site on facebook and linked to land on your blog. I have read several pages, but tried not to devour it, but savor it. Because your words are like that – words to savor. I rarely have found writing that expresses how I feel so well, even my own. I wanted to send you a message instantly last week , but I was so dumbfounded by how feelings I have were expressed perfectly by you, that I thought I would sound like a stalker. Hopefully I am tempering that now, but after reading this post today, I had to comment. I, too, had these feelings yesterday and was frustrated at myself when I couldn’t keep these at bay. Your description, ” And I felt the person – the mother, wife, daughter – I want to be floating in the room, sometimes within reach, sometimes not.” was so spot on – that I didn’t even realize that’s how I was feeling, much less able to express.

    Thank you for writing, for sharing. Thank you for putting your experience out there; when I see others feeling the way I do, it helps to validate and therefore judge myself less, and move on faster. To recognize the feelings, and know that someone else has had them, helps to normalize and move on. Rather than pretending those feelings aren’t there and fighting them.

    Thank you.

  8. I’m trying to understand. Please be patient with me while I ask – because asking questions is so often about clearing the clouds in my own life, right?

    Is it that you are – when aggravated, afraid to feel…what, exactly. Or, what is it you are avoiding? It sounds like you think you were sick BECAUSE you were avoiding something. What would your life look like if you didn’t avoid it?

    And, what would it look like if, when you weren’t feeling good you simply let everyone continue on and you took really good care of yourself?

    I see clearly how these are the questions I need to ask myself so if they don’t resonate for you…ignore them. And thanks for the space so I could ask me.

  9. Still thinking about your post. I posted something on my blog, if you can call it that, for the first time in a couple of years because of this post. I hope today is easier for you.

  10. It’s hard to feel joyful and hopeful. . . when you don’t. . . just because the day prescribes it. . . sometimes it shows up late!

  11. You and that woman you want to be are one and the same. I know that feeling so well – that feeling of her hovering just beyond my reach. But you are perfect just as you are – you are reaching, living, loving just as you need to. We are spiritual beings having a human experience and that irritation is part of it, as is the peace you felt in church and the joy that stops you in your tracks multiple times a day. Trust yourself in all your gorgeous imperfection. You are exactly where you need to be.

  12. Do you know what I thought as I read this post? How easy it is to cut *other* people slack and how hard it is to do it for ourselves. You were SICK, honey. Nobody is at their best, or even near-best, when they are sick. And personally, I think nausea puts us (or at least, me) at our very worst. I am sure your children and husband and anyone/everyone else understood and cut you the necessary slack, even when you couldn’t excuse yourself. Don’t take your measure when you’re at your weakest–none of us fares well then. Measure yourself on your best days and occasionally, go as easy on yourself on your worst days as you would go on any other friend. Feel better soon.

  13. My heart’s leaping out to you Lindsey. I love the way you took what was hard about the day and transformed it, in your own inimitable way, into grace and beauty. And I so appreciated the memory jog to my own Easter last year. Which seems so long ago. Thank you, my friend, for remembering what I’d forgotten. xxox

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