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Strong

I sat down to write yesterday. I had been writing more in my journal in the last couple weeks, and reading more too. Steadily stacking gratitude day by day had me feeling less worried and more hopeful. Changing the lens made the picture seem brighter. I wanted to share what had me feeling better. I’d planned on describing some of the moments of synchronicity popping up everywhere in my life over the last month. Signs from the universe. Proof of God’s hand in my life, ushering me along, pointing the way. Examples of unrelated moments that felt deeply related. Like one of those pointillism pictures made up of tiny dots that together form a complete image, only it wasn’t a picture I was seeing as I connected the dots, it was a message. The same message said in different ways, “Make yourself strong”. Don’t focus on the problem. Focus on the solution. This lesson a familiar one. Often signs and messages we pick up feel that way- like a reminder of something we already know.  One such moment came as I watched an episode of Super Soul Sunday with Michael Bernard Beckwith, he talked about the questions we ask ourselves and the energy our questions carry.  He explained that low vibration questions lead to low vibration results. Examples include:  Why me? How did this happen? Will I ever stop struggling?  He suggested that instead we ask higher vibration questions like, “If this situation were to last forever, what quality must I cultivate that would give me peace of mind?” When I heard him say this time stood still. For a fraction of a second all of the unrelated but related moments made sense. Together they were telling me that I would need strength. I would need to make myself strong for everything to be ok. No matter what.  

Yesterday as I sat down to write this piece; an article on synchronicity, and the magic moments that exist, reminding us what we might already know but have forgotten, something else poured out of me…. Thick, dense, white-hot fear. A whole bucket load of it. I sat and wept and wrote. My typing so fast and so feverish, my breath matching its beat. When it was done I took one long deep breath, as though a weight had been lifted off my chest, “what the fuck just happened”, I said out loud. I’d been feeling better. I was less afraid. I was inspired to share my new insights. I heard the universe’s message. What was this sludge that I’d just vomited all over the page?  I can’t share this. Not now. This was not what I wanted to write about. “Oh yes but it was”, a voice in my head answered back so quickly that it shuts me up. This was not the voice that had been carrying on in my head. “What if…” I hover over the keys now as I contemplate finishing the sentence. I can’t…  I have to…  “What if she dies?”. I choke on the sob that escapes me. No, the voice I heard was not the voice of fear. This was love. All love. And she wasn’t done with me. Sometimes love is soft and sweet, but sometimes she is insistant and steady.  Sometimes she shuts you up with her truth.  She wanted me to know that I had misunderstood. “You are ALREADY strong.”  Ah…  I possess the quality, I just need to cultivate it. I am not weak. I had the strength within me all along. 

I didn’t write the piece I’d set out to write.  I wrote the piece that needed to be written; the one I needed to read. Tomorrow my mom goes in for surgery to remove two nodules from her lower left lung. Something I have avoided talking about with most people most of the time. Something I told myself I would only really write about once she was cancer-free. She is my everything. And maybe that sounds dramatic, and childish, but it doesn’t make it any less true. All of the love I give away she has poured into me. The fear of what might happen is thick, and dense and white-hot. I’d been sure I’d be burned if I let it escape, and worse yet, that my fear might magnify hers. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want any of it. What I hadn’t understood was that sharing it would lessen its grip over me. Fear only wins when we are alone with it. I am not alone. I am already strong. So is she. Letting all of this poison spill out of me didn’t free it, it freed me. 

Pray with me.  

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Fuck ALS

This year, after the 2nd Annual Deanapolooza, friends and readers asked if I would write another article like An Evening with a Soul, written last year after the event. I laughed, and shrugged it off. The truth was, I couldn’t. I write to work through, inspire, and uplift, and I just felt so incredibly sad… That evening, after the concert, my husband and I sat talking about the night, the people we saw, and our friend Dean. While Pete had seen him since, I had not since last summer. Like so many others in attendance, I was overcome when Dean took to the stage, joined by his brother PJ, and wife Paula to say their thank yous, and hand out door prizes. The air went out of me, and it seemed like a while before I took another breath. I turned to the friends I’d been standing with, who stood looking serious despite the humour Dean’s brother tried to inject into his monologue. Our eyes wet, as though there was a communal lump building in our collective throat. Don’t cry, I told myself in vain as the tears rolled down my cheeks. We watched as Paula folded her arms around Dean, their bond like a separate entity in the room. Whether for balance, or emotional support, the two stood intertwined. I knew that look, I thought to myself. While I don’t know ALS the way that Dean and Paula, and their loved ones know it, I do know that look… The way her eyes tracked him, and watched his every move, her protectiveness, and the warmth in every touch. Dean is not the only one affected by the disease. She suffers right along with him, the way we do when someone we love is affected. The way I did with Dad. The way we all did.

Following the concert I did not write as I had last year just 24hrs after attending. I told myself, they don’t need my sadness. What right do I have to feel sad anyway, when they have shown such courage. They just need people to be. Be normal. Be supportive. Be themselves.

Last year, this time, I prepared to say goodbye to my father. It will be a year this Friday that he’s gone. I miss him so much, and in the weeks leading up to Deenapolooza I’d been a quiet mess, trying not to let my grief show. After all, how long can a person go on being sad, and why was I feeling like I was losing him all over again as the first anniversary drew near? After the concert that night I thought about Dean. I thought about Dad too… Why is it that we grieve even before someone has gone? I remember going through this with dad, and someone close to me saying, love now, grieve later. That night when I got home, I thought about feeling alive, and how much I had to be grateful for, “STOP whining, and live your life!”, I scolded myself. I had been so down thinking about Dad, so sad for Dean and Paula. I have a life to live. I am here, and so is Dean. Don’t grieve him, I thought. Don’t be sad for him. He is with us, in the land of the living, where his wife can still wrap her arms around him, and his children can still kiss his sweet face. Don’t be sad for yourself either, you wake up each day and get to live and love another 24hrs. You get to see your babies grow, and seasons change. Dad would want me to see the incredible gift that that is. He would want me to feel what I feel while never losing sight of the silver lining around every cloud. “All we ever have is today”, he’d say. I imagine Dean and Paula also understand this better than anybody. And so, I sat with my conclusions, but thought best still not to write. “Write when you are moved to write”, a little voice in my head nudged.

On July 1st there was another 2nd annual: The West Island Pond Hockey Tournament. The event brought together 100 hockey players, all connected to Dean in some way. Hot shots, superstars, and men who played the game in their youth, laced them up to raise money for a cause that has rocked a community. Having grown up a rink rat, with hockey still a huge part of my life, there is something unique about this day, and this tournament. A success, not just because of the money raised, or the scholarship that has now been born out of the tournament. Nor can the day’s success be solely attributed to generous sponsors, or the countless dedicated volunteers that made the day run seamlessly. No, the shining star last year, and this year, is the heartbeat of the arena as it fills with players, volunteers, supporters, parents, grandparents, wives, sisters, brothers, cousins, and friends to play a game, cheer on the teams, have a bite, raise a glass, and share a laugh. Not because we are sad for Dean, Paula or their families. But because of them. Because life is worth raising a glass to, and because making time to catch up with old friends is everything. The highlight for me was watching all of the children laughing, and chasing each other around, looking up at their fathers, uncles and brothers towering over them in skates. It was seeing my 8 year old daughter sending papa a text after we got home to tell him how very proud she was of what he, and the team of organizers had accomplished. The success of the concert, and the tournament lies in our coming together, and feeling together. It lies in connection.

Last year Dean played in the tournament. He walked around, and said his hellos, thanking people for participating. This year he did not play, nor could he speak, but his presence rang out over the laughter and banter that filled the noisy arena. He is still here, living, breathing, smiling and thanking people with warm embraces, and that twinkle in his eye. This year his son dressed in his place, bursting with pride as he took to the ice with the big boys.

As I left the arena, tired kids in tow, Dean attempted to blow me a kiss, locking eyes, exchanging words without uttering a sound. His message heard, mine too I believe, “Good to see you old friend. Take good care”. I did not leave the WIPHT sad. I left with a full heart. I left telling myself that events like these are important. Not just because of the money they raise, but because they bring us together, reminding us that we are never truly alone.

In the two and a half years my father lived with cancer, I hated when well meaning people would tell me not to give up, or let my dad give up, as though our opponent, the big C, could be outfought or outsmarted if we played the game right. It bothered me because I thought, what a message to send to someone fighting for their life. What a thing to say to a person who knows better than anyone else how precious each moment is, and who despite his tenacity, and positive attitude continued to decline. My father did not lose his battle with cancer. He was not beaten down by a more powerful adversary. His spirit won. He was more of a champion in his final days than any famous boxing champ he’d long since admired. And so, I didn’t want to write some syropy, fight the good fight article. No one needs to tell a person in the fight to fight. The more I thought about this, the angrier I became. Sometimes all we can do is feel, and I felt I had something I wanted to say about what I was feeling, I just couldn’t find the words. That is, until I sat looking through pictures posted on the tournament’s Facebook page. One photograph, out of over 200 struck a deep chord with me. I had yet to write a single word, but looking at this picture of Dean, and his father in-law I knew. Turning to Pete, I said, “I’m gonna write an article, and I’m gonna use this picture.” He looked over at me, interested in which picture I was referring to. “I’m gonna call it Fuck ALS.” He nodded a heavy nod. “Perfect”, he said, emotion quietly washing over his strong face. No disease will ever win over your spirit Dean. No disease will ever be the victor over the bond you share with your wife, children, family, and friends. Nothing will ever win out over the love you give, and receive. While the disease may be everything, it is also nothing, just like my father was so much more than his cancer. You are so much more than a man affected by ALS. So here it is, an article inspired by an image that made me laugh out loud, and cry at the same time of two men flipping the bird. Fuck ALS. It does not hold a candle to you Dean Stock.

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10 Minutes

I remember back in grad school when I’d have a ton of reading to do for a class, and I’d pick up a book at Chapters that I’d been eyeing for weeks. I’d take 10 minutes, read a page or two, then leave it to collect dust on my nightstand. For a while it would make me feel better, sitting there reminding me that I liked to read, escaping into a book, and feeding my soul. Slowly though, it would begin to look like clutter, as I realized I wasn’t going to make time to read for pleasure at all. How could I? I’d been avoiding tackling the pile of articles sitting on my desk, and so reading something just because I wanted to really was NOT an option. If you’re gonna read, read the work, I’d silently lecture myself. Don’t waste time reading something that doesn’t serve you. Ha! How crazy to see these words on the screen, slapping me hard in the face, as though I hadn’t written them myself. I’m the friggin How of Happy lady. I teach people how to put their joy first, making all the things that need doing more manageable, yet I couldn’t, and sometimes still can’t, see the point of doing something purely for pleasure, when there are other things that need doing. How can you forget what you already know? With me, it’s not so much forgetting, as it is selectively remembering. You see, there are two levels of avoidance. Procrastination is when we avoid the work, and replace it with something we’d rather do. The second, more destructive level, and one that I am intimately familiar with, is when we are truly stuck, and end up avoiding the work, AND the pleasure, depriving ourselves from feeling good, and blocking our innate ability to get unstuck.

A while back, I decided finally to write my story. Our story. The story that lives and breathes within me, and that has already been written in so many ways, needing only to be scribed. I began collecting pieces of data, and sorting through stuff that I had, that I knew I wanted to include in my book. I met with a mentor, a best selling author, turned friend, to discuss how she might help me on my book writing journey. For the first time, I publicly announced that I was going to write a book. It felt so good, real, and right. I believed that making my commitment known would be like putting it out there into the universe, activating the law of attraction, and lending energy to this deep wish I’d held onto for so long. Well, that’s not quite how it turned out.… It made my book homework, and my blog that dusty thing that sits on my nightstand. The result? I avoided both entirely.

This morning, in my stuckness, I opened a message from Carolyn, the mentor, turned friend. She was congratulating me on some recent press, speaking events, and workshops I’d done. I replied that yes, my “side-hustle” was picking up steam, but now the task was to figure how to make time for writing amidst the success. “You’ll know when the time is right, she replied, “It’s all unfolding exactly as it should. Could be you have other writing to do first to support the side hustle…” I didn’t understand right away what she meant. I launched into my grad school analogy of skipping blog writing out of guilt of not doing my book writing homework. She suggested I write it all down. My frustrations, how I was feeling, encouraging me to write for me. She challenged me to set a goal of just 10 minutes of writing a day, to get back into the flow, and to reconnect with my joy. “Find your WHY. The HOW will find you”, she said. She reminded me of my deep desire to connect, and how impactful some of my work had been, telling me I’d inspired her with my words! Her encouragement came at the perfect time, and felt like a great big hug.

So here I sit, writing this article, determined to give my mentor’s advise a try . I set the timer on my phone, committing to just 10 minutes. “Reconnect with your why Shannon”, I whispered to myself. The timer rings, and I keep writing, and writing… With every click of the keys, I come alive. I cannot avoid the things that make me happy, or only make space for them when all the other boxes are checked. In just 10 minutes I am reminded of all of this. Reminded that I write to feel good, and that when I feel bad, this is my answer. This is what makes me come alive.

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AT THE SAME TIME

The last time I was here, we learned that you had cancer… We heard the doctor tell us how sorry she was. We understood that disease was running through you. The last time I was here, I held Marisol on my lap, just one year old. You were happy that she was here to lighten the mood, and to remind us of the good that was still there. You were grateful that I was here to hold mom’s hand, to help brace her for the news that would change our lives, and eventually take yours.

It’s three years ago that I sat in this same waiting room, and eight months since you had to go. I miss you dad, more than I ever knew I could. Filled with so much pain and love, at the same time. Makes me think of that conversation we had in palliative care, about a week before you passed away. A beautiful moment shared together just you and I. “I am both the happiest, and saddest I’ve ever been, at the same time” you said. You knew time was running out. The look we exchanged as your words floated there, lingering longer than words normally do; a look of complete understanding. A perfect connection between two hearts. Moments like that engraved in my heart. We were both so vulnerable, and so purely open to the gut-wrenching exchange we had in that moment. You’d been praying each night for just one more day. One more day, to make one more memory, and have one more conversation like the one we were having.

I am so thankful to have had almost two and a half years from your diagnosis. I am so thankful for our month in palliative care. I am so thankful for the opportunity to share every unspoken truth I ever wanted to share with you. What a gift. I miss you dad. More than I thought possible, and more than I let others see most of the time.

Today I’m here with mom. She’s ok dad. But you know that already. I know you are here with her. I know you are with me too. Despite this deep knowing, and how close you still feel, you also feel so far away. Your diagnosis, disease and departure transformed me, as hard things do. More than anything, I now fully understand how one can be happy and sad simultaneously. I’m leaning into that dad. I recognize the light within the darkness. It’s there, it’s always there. I’m making space for the joy that lives alongside the grief. I am learning to treat my sadness with the same respect; to welcome it in the same way, because I will always choose remembering you, and missing you over letting these vivid memories go. So I will make room for the pain, and the happiness that live together within me. I understand completely that when I resist the hard parts, and gulp down that lump in my throat, that I make it harder than it needs to be.

The last time I was here I put on a brave face. I stood by you, and fought back tears. Today I let them flow. They are tears of gratitude, for the news mom heard today is good. It too has the power to transform me, as good things also do. I am breathing into the lump in my throat. I am making room for the joy and the sadness at the same time. At the same time…

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It was you. 

Four years ago today you came along. We’d waited, and prayed for you for a long time. We’d lost and cried three times over before things finally stuck. It had been a complicated 9 months with weekly appointments, and special medication to keep mama from contracting. Those first 20 weeks were ripe with worry. Would we lose you too? Was there something wrong with mama? Could we have another baby? That day you met us, every question was answered. All of the sadness, and disappointment, worry and strain vanished like a fog lifting in the morning sun. It was you. We were waiting for you. I had no time to prepare or worry in the minutes before your birth. We’d worn out our worry stores in the years and months leading up to your arrival. A labor that started at 5:57am ended with one push at 7:55am just 5 minutes after we left our car running, doors open, in front of the emergency entrance at the wrong  

 hospital with no time to make it downtown. No scrubs, or introductions, you came into the room as the nurses peeled off my winter coat. Your father white, and weeping could have used the same shot they gave me for shock. You were here. You, who we weren’t sure we’d ever meet. You who’d bring such gratitude for the way things turned out, and who would continue to teach me daily about being thankful for every twist and turn on the road we travel together. Every test, procedure, and minute I’d spent feeling oh so broken gone. It didn’t matter anymore. We’d been waiting for you. We don’t always know why things go as they do, why life throws us the curve balls it does, or why struggle may be part of the path, but when we hang on, and keep the faith, somehow everything works itself out. This was never more true than with you. I love you my sweet love. Thank you for taking your time to come to us, and for then being in such a hurry to join our family. In your words this morning, “Of course I came fast mama. I wanted to meet you.” I wanted to meet you too my love, and I’m so glad I did.  

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Here and Now

I hadn’t been to a class since dad entered palliative care back in June. After he passed, I let go of yoga, pushed back at writing, and withdrew from the world for a while. I didn’t feel like doing much of anything, so I gave myself time. Time to grieve. Time to disconnect. I figured I was being kind to myself, and gentle with my broken heart. Basically, I let myself off the hook. Initially this felt like the right thing to do. An act of care, I told myself. No doing anything I didn’t want to do. For a while it felt good to let go. A short while… While my instinct has always been to disconnect when I feel bad, I’ve learned in recent years that this only magnifies the darkness, and the feelings of separation associated with it. I always feel worse when I hide. In the last few months, more than ever before in my life, I have realized two truths: That it will always be up to me. Up to me to do the things that I know make me feel better, OR don’t, and choose to move in the other direction. Which brings me to the second thing that I’ve learned in the 4 months since my dad passed away: Sometimes I choose to be unhappy. This realization is a tough pill to swallow. I was choosing (daily) to stay unhappy. Now I know, there will be some of you reading this thinking, my God Shannon of course you were unhappy.  You need to give yourself time. Yes I did need to, and I still do, and I probably always will. But in letting myself off the hook, I also let go of joy. I can’t do that. I can’t do that because I care too much about my life. I care too much about my marriage, and my relationships to disengage. I can’t do that because I have two little people that look to me every day to see how freely they get to be joyful. They have felt the sting of my grief. They have seen the depths of my sorrow. Whether I smiled, or I cried, children see through the crap we tell ourselves, and the walls we build around our pain. Not only was my choice to disconnect hurting me, but it also distanced me from the people that mattered most. Sadness infects, and divides unless you allow yourself to be joined. While I took comfort in leaning on my siblings, husband, friends and loved ones, and in sharing my heartache with my mom, my children were a different story. It was ok that they saw me grieve. It was ok that they shared their sadness too. But I did not want them joining me in letting go of joy. I wanted, and needed them to just be, free from whatever I might be feeling.

A few weeks ago I went back to yoga for the first time in 4 months. I started meditating again, and began mapping out next steps. Steps in the direction of reigniting my joy. Steps towards happy. I am not sure I can properly convey here what a difference these intentional commitments have made, but I will say that now more than ever, I recognize the power of choice. I fought back tears at the end of that first day back. Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, newly oiled, I could move again. My body freed from the rigidity that had encased me, my heart restarted by the deep breaths I’d consciously breathed in. I felt as though I’d forgotten to breathe, really breathe, since that day in July when he took his last breath.  I hadn’t wanted to sit in the present moment. I had not been willing, or ready to anchor myself in the here and now. Yes I needed time. Yes I needed to give myself permission to pull away, but what I understood at the end of class that day, was that re-engaging in my life was the only way to truly save it.

My teacher talked about the importance of grounding in yoga. When we root, planting ourselves firmly in the moment, connecting with the earth, we are somehow afforded more flexibility, and greater reach. “We root, so that we can rise”, she said, a lump rising in my throat, as the beauty and applicability of her comment sunk in. I’d prayed for some comfort, and searched for relief, but I was only moving away from the answer that God had put at my feet. I’d been reliving July, and June, and every day leading backwards to that date in March of 2013, when the word cancer became a part of our vernacular. The answer that would ease my suffering did not reside in the past, nor did it belong to the future.   The peace that I’d yearned for, that I’d seen in my father’s eyes before they closed for the last time, is experienced only when we can let the past fall away, and the future wait for us. Sweet comfort found only when we are rooted in the here and now.

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An Evening with a Soul

Last night 600 friends and family came together for a cause. The hope:  To raise funds for a high school friend living with ALS, diagnosed in his 30’s, married, with three children. An e-mail invite went out in March to friends old and new.  With no other promotion, or social media buzz, the event was sold out, with a waiting list to boot.  Last night I saw people I had not seen in 20 years. Last night a community came together. The way friends greeted each other, the hugs that lingered as reunion hugs do, you could not help but notice the energy in the room.  There was an electricity in the air, and a soul to the evening.  A party with a purpose.  

Listening to our friend, his wife, and brother who mc’ed the evening, and seeing their family and closest friends, weaving laughter and joy into what might otherwise be a solemn conversation, was evidence of the resilience of the human spirit. Life is made up of it all- the good, the bad, and the ugly. The lows and the highs, and the challenges we face are but part of the road we each travel.  Somehow the harder parts put into laser focus what is most essential.  Magnifying what matters, and sustaining us in those darker moments.  A life turned on its head, hard not to be struck by the family’s positive attitude, and their grace. To be able to talk, and laugh, and engage…  My hope is that for a moment, their burden felt a little less weighty.  That maybe, just maybe, the isolation of a diagnosis and a disease was overthrown by the joining of so many hearts.
Last night was not a sad event. It was a celebration. A celebration of a life so precious, and so important to all of the lives it’s connected to. A celebration of a community that did not need to be sold on showing up for a friend and his loved ones. A reminder to live in the moment.  A lesson worth repeating that happiness is not a destination, but rather found in ordinary moments along the way.  It is not tied to the meeting of personal or professional goals.  It is not found in things, in success, or in status. It is found in connection.  It is found in the people who stand by your side when it counts. It is found in the comfort that only our loved ones can bring. It is seen in our children’s eyes, and our spouses smile. It is felt in our parents’ pride, and in their love. It is experienced in reuniting with friends, and in sharing a laugh.  It was found last night in the coming together of a community, for a party with a purpose, and an evening with a soul.
Thank you to Dean, Paula and P.J, and the rest of the family for reminding us all of what really matters.

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