J A N U A R Y

 My year began on a low-key note with my friend Amelia while watching all of “Making a Murderer” with as few breaks as possible. The entire endeavor took us two days, eight cups of tea, and four meals ordered from our favorite restaurants. The first night we ordered thai food and as soon as it arrived we promptly cracked open our takeout containers, dousing each dish in sriracha until they both turned a shade of creamy red. We were eager to break in Amelia’s new-to-her vintage couch, which is a mix of velvety green and blue and takes up the length of her living room wall so we could both lay full extended, her head at my knees, and still see the television. After propping ourselves up on throw pillows and snuggling in warm blankets with a very cozy and happy Holly (my dog) curled up between us, she pressed play. The opening sequence started to roll and Amelia said, “I’ve been dreaming about this.” I replied, “Having two people on your couch?” She answered, “Well, no. Having you on my couch.” And suddenly I realized the next two days would be spent in most valuable way: investing in a meaningful friendship. I couldn’t imagine a better way to start 2016 (even if we were angrily shouting at a television most of the time).

I knew that focusing on personal growth this year would require uncomfortable moments, making difficult decisions, and pushing myself out of what I once considered a safety net, but I foolishly believed that I would have control over it all. I’ve always struggled with bouts of unexplainable negative emotions, but learned to remedy them by reading an inspiring quote, making a phone call, eating a snack, or taking a nap. If one or all of these couldn’t snap me back into positivity, I would be forced to resort to my least favorite healing agent: time. I had hoped that by living intentionally this year I would strengthen my logic enough that these bouts of unwarranted emotion would simply cease to exist. That was proven wrong almost immediately when I woke up on a Wednesday in the beginning of January to an intense feeling of sadness, hurt, and loss, and I wasn’t even sure what it was all about. I laid in bed that morning with negativity painfully radiating through my body, and I was angry at myself for feeling that way, confused as where it was stemming from, and frustrated that it was even happening in the first place. I found myself asking “Haven’t I evolved beyond these unwarranted emotions yet? Isn’t this what living with purpose and intention is all about – creating control?” Ha! Let me tell you a little something about control: it is either clenched tightly in my fist or leaping from my open palm into another’s unworthy hands, and it’s very, very rare that you will find it anywhere else when I’m around. It’s become increasingly clear to me that I have to adjust my all-or-nothing relationship with control and accept that it’s not mine to cling to or give away. Control is an illusion and the only way to live healthfully is to accept an attitude of surrender.

I’ve had moments of strength in surrender, and this is when I tend to be most inspired to write. I’m beginning to realize that the things I talk about the most are also the things I struggle with the most simply because they are on my mind and create enough conflict that they give me writing material. So don’t be fooled, my friends. If it seems I am a surrender superstar because I talk about it a lot, that is not the case.  That being said, I wrote a blog post back in 2013 called “Get Empty”. It describes a sequence of movements in yoga and the necessity to expel all of my breath in order to gracefully land a forward leap. The instructor often uses these words to direct us, “Raise toes, breathe in. Bend knees, breathe out. Get empty. Go for it. Jump light.” In using this as a metaphor for life, I know now that sometimes a state of “emptiness” serves as a launching point to propel myself forward gracefully.  Whether something in my life needs to be willingly released or is actually taken from me, I try to look at it as one of those last bits of breath that has to be expelled in order for me to leap steadily – and lightly. And if I allow myself to feel light and unencumbered when dealing with loss, it makes it easier to allow myself to confidently let go in the future. And while I know that some things simply cannot be remedied this way, i.e. unexpected death, it has greatly helped me ease out of negative relationships, feelings of uncertainly about my career path, and even absorbing unexpected expenses. It’s all emptiness, space that I had reserved, and have the opportunity to fill again with something better. I take in the knowledge that what I once had was not meant for me, and now am free to go find something that is.

A major hurdle in getting empty is being brutally honest and willing to dig a little deeper than I’ve ever gone before, owning up to my shortcomings and allowing myself to feel things I typically bury. We all have our own ways of suppressing unwanted feelings and filling scary emptiness, and oftentimes it begins to takes on the form of addiction. While we are all aware of the more obvious addictions, alcoholism, smoking, gambling, etc, I’ve beginning to come to terms with my biggest addiction: affection. Affection is a very, very misleading thing and while it is often portrayed as something noble, I am quick to let it consume me. As a woman who has spent a considerable amount of time learning about my strengths, individuality, and value, I desire so much to have that reflected back at me through someone who sees it as well. I use others as a mirror to show me something that I already know, but when it turns out to be an illusion (as it often does), I feel shattered and full of doubt. I am tired of allowing false affection to affect my sense of self.

If you struggle with believing in your inherent worth, let me say this to you: You are valuable whether or not someone else can see it. Another person’s inability to recognize your light, power, and love has absolutely nothing to do with you, it has to do with them, and you either need to be with someone who deeply appreciates the unique beauty of who you are or you need to be alone. Remain open to someone who can love you as well as you love yourself, and if you don’t love yourself, well - then you better work on that first. But whatever you do, don’t waste your precious energy on anyone you have to prove your worth to. As Joy Wilson of Joy the Baker once said, “You are not the kind of girl who settles. Keep not settling.” Please, please, please keep not settling.

In the original The Year of the Work email, I disclosed the fact that I am divorced. Yes, I am 28 years old, was married for six years, and have been divorced for two. This experience in my life has, as you can imagine, shaped me greatly, and it may be a recurring theme in my letters as I feel it is what truly spurred my quest for wholeheartedness. However, I am only going to touch on it very briefly in this letter. While I was separated, I lived at my parent’s house for nearly six months. I spent most of my free afternoons sitting at the beige speckled island in the kitchen as my mom prepared dinner or perched on the countertop in the laundry room while she folded clothes. We talked about my relationship, my childhood, being a woman, friendships. We laughed a lot and cried sometimes, too, and my appreciation for my mother, her wisdom, and her story grew incredibly deep during this time. It was rare that I didn’t ask her for advice, and I almost always took what she had to say to heart.

I distinctly remember one morning she and I were in her navy blue jeep with the music off, talking about the usual subjects and she told me that I would never find someone who loved me as much as my husband loved me, to which I responded, “I know.” And I did – I did know. And it was debilitating. My fear of future regret kept me from making a decision that, deep down, I knew I had already made. While I do believe that my Ex felt strong love for me, he was unable to meet me in a place where our love was being given and received freely. There was a disconnect between us, and it was neither of our faults, it just didn’t work. I had a constant underlying feeling of unsettledness and couldn’t move beyond the nagging inner voice that told me I wasn’t being truly seen. It wasn’t until much later when I was able to put words to describe that feeling …when I finally was able to distinguish between being loved a lot and being loved well. It’s the age-old story of quality over quantity, and I truly believe it can be applied to relationship and friendship. This year I am striving to love well and recognize those in my life who love me well. It’s not about loving more – it’s about loving better.

I’ve spent this month considering the relationships in my life and actively choosing which ones to pursue and which to let go of (most of these were hanging by a thread that I was the only one holding on to anyway), narrowing down my social circle in order to invest in specific people. So that brings me back to the subject of getting empty: I don’t want to fill my time with people who don’t make me feel loved, seen, or valued. That’s not to say I won’t get coffee with someone I’m not on a soul level with, but I can say that I know who my team is. I know who to call when I’m struggling, and who won’t judge or condemn me because of decisions I’ve made. I’m letting go of the network, and making space for the support system. I’m reserving time for the important people in my life, and giving myself permission to spend an entire day on their couch, because I’m finally realizing who I want to love better … and who is capable of loving me well in return.

Thank you again for being a part of The Year of the Work, and thank you for being an active participant in your life, which, as it turns out, is voluntary. You are my kind of person.

All my love,
Kayley

 

F E B R U A R Y

Looking back on my personal journey it is often difficult to pinpoint exact moments that molded who I am today, but there are specific defining moments that will always stand out in my memory. I consider the time I spent in Michigan for the holidays this past year to be one of those defining moments. The few weeks prior to my Los Angeles departure, I was a walking shell of a person. I was heartbroken, directionless, depressed, and barely eating. I would call my mom in grief and desperation and her advice was simply to hold on until I got home, and then I could have a breakdown. She gave me permission in advance to spend two weeks in bed, drowning in my own despair with no judgment falling upon me. Looking forward to this felt like some odd paradise in waiting… and for the time being, my only job was to hold on. It was more difficult than it sounds. The weeks before my scheduled flight ticked by so slowly that I swore I was aware of each passing second, but then the day of my departure finally, finally came. I left my little house in LA at my usual bedtime, and after a long night of flight delays, Holly and I landed on the ground in an unseasonably warm Grand Rapids the morning of December 16. 

I stood behind the sliding glass doors at passenger pick-up with two suitcases, a backpack, and Holly in her travel carrier, scanning the distance for the first glimpse of my dad’s car. The minutes I spent waiting felt as lengthy as the preceding time spent in Los Angeles, and my last bit of resilience had completely broken when my parents pulled up to the curb. It was as if every single moment of weakness I tucked away during those weeks of “holding on” tumbled out the instant my mom and dad opened their car doors to help me with my luggage. I distinctly remember the effort I had to exert in order to complete the simple act of climbing into the back seat, and before we drove away, I pulled the seatbelt around me, a crumpled mess of shattered hopes, tears, and airplane residue. My mom turned around to get a good look at me and said, “You look like someone just beat you up.”

Rather than spending my entire holiday vacation in bed as I expected, I cultivated a recovery mission. Over the first few days, I worked on getting back to the version of myself that was able to perform basic human functions (i.e. eat, sleep, laugh), but the goal I set for my time at home was far larger than that. I wanted to leave Grand Rapids with a new plan, with something I could focus on in Los Angeles that would give me a renewed sense of purpose and bring me to a place where I was living a wholehearted life again. Most nights I would retire to my bedroom early, but wouldn’t succumb to sleep until late. I reveled in the fact that I enjoyed being in my own company again. With Holly sound asleep at the foot of the bed, I would click mindlessly through social media, scroll through my favorite Tumblrs, and find myself down many rabbit holes on YouTube. One night, I started watching old clips from the Oprah show, which led to digging around on Oprah’s website, eventually directing me to Brené Brown’s blog, where I discovered an interview with Brené as the interviewer and Oprah as the interviewee. By this time it was 2am and I was far too high on inspiration to sleep.

Midway through the interview, Brené asked, “Shame has two tapes. Never good enough. And who do you think you are? When you’re getting ready to do something brave in your life, what is the shame gremlin message that you have to be cautious about?” and Oprah’s answer was the latter. Hearing her experience of living with the “who do you think you are?” message being a black woman in Mississippi and working in public television triggered something in me. I felt like I was learning from her story rather than relating to it, and it was in this moment that I discovered how deeply I struggle with the “never good enough” message. “Never good enough” is a perception of mine that infiltrates most aspects of my life like onions overpower the rest of a salad. I know now that I have to keep my eye out for the never-good-enoughs and pick around them when I think about myself and my dreams. Without this constant awareness, I fall victim to making decisions based on this grossly false story I’ve come to believe, and ultimately hold myself back from living a brave, impactful life.

I spent the month of February swimming upstream against the strong “never good enough” current that first became apparent to me that night in December. While I expected that I would feel a strong sense of accomplishment in producing the first The Year of the Work letter, I actually found that I was full of self-criticism throughout the entire process. Each typo, poor folding job, or off-centered address threw me into a tangled web of doubt, unworthiness, and shame. I questioned my ability to produce twelve months worth of good content, whether or not my experiences are valuable enough to share, and if I’m a skilled enough writer to be engaging in this project in the first place. It wasn’t until I started getting responses that I was able to re-record the nasty tape that was playing in my head from questioning myself to trusting myself. This month I am accepting that my “never good enough” message is a sort of dysmorphia, and I am working diligently to silence it.

While I don’t know which of these “Shame Tapes” you’re hearing, I hope that my experience with the never-enough triggers something in you the way that Oprah’s who-do-you-think-you-are did for me. If you are able to admit that you struggle with feeling like you’re never enough, you’ve already made progress on challenging that belief because, as with most things, the first step is admitting that you have a problem. If you are full of self-doubt and tell yourself that you aren’t capable of leading an extraordinary, wholehearted life, you have a

problem. And I beg you, please don’t be afraid of the phrase “extraordinary, wholehearted life”. Some of the most extraordinary, wholehearted livers I know are stay-at-home moms or are working desk jobs. You don’t have to be Brené Brown or Oprah to believe that you are enough. You simply have to feel a sense of purpose and confidently know you are contributing to that purpose, whether it be your job, your family, your friendships, a hobby, a volunteer project, etc. This alone will begin to change the attitude you hold about yourself and what you have to offer. This is what my December recovery mission was all about: establishing a sense of purpose … I just happened to unearth the “never good enough” in the process.

One of the dangers of believing the never-enough story is that it not only greatly affects you, but also those in your life. I touched on inherent worth in the January letter, and this is a means of expanding on that. When you believe you are enough, your relationships will change because you will more confidently and openly share your story, opinions, and goals. Once you believe that you are worthy, valuable, and whole, you will seek out people in your life who treat you that way, regardless of if you always see eye to eye. This self-trust and confidence allows room for deeper connection and more opportunity for growth, which benefits you and the people you choose to surround yourself with.

A major component of knowing you are enough is learning how to set and maintain personal boundaries. Google has a lot of suggestions when it comes to defining the term “personal boundaries” but according to liveboldandbloom.com, personal boundaries are “the physical, emotional, and mental limits we draw around ourselves to maintain balance and protect our bodies, minds, emotions, and time from the behavior and demands of others.” While I agree with this definition, I would also like to add that I think we must set personal boundaries to protect against the negative messages we tell ourselves. Moments of doubt are inevitable, but when you establish boundaries regarding what thoughts you will and won’t allow, you become keenly aware of when you’re being self-deprecating. The sooner you recognize the negative stories you tell yourself, the sooner you can work on reversing them and figuring out where they came from in the first place.

Sometimes the root of shame is a message you picked up as a child that you’ve been carrying around, sometimes it’s a person who doesn’t love you well, and sometimes it’s a societal norm that needs to be challenged. Whatever it is, once you recognize it, you can work on removing that doubt from your chosen beliefs about who you are and create a boundary to keep it out. Our experiences with one another greatly affect the way we view ourselves which is why maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationships with others is so important. But before you can do that confidently, you have to know what you can offer and what you deserve, and you must be adamant about it. You have to trust that you are enough, and know that your enough-ness doesn’t change based on what anyone else is doing or what they are telling you.

When it comes to maintaining personal boundaries in your relationships with others, please keep in mind that boundaries are different than walls. Boundaries are a constructive means of protecting yourself, your worth, and your beliefs, while still remaining open and giving. Boundaries are in place for your own health and for the health of those around you. Boundaries teach you when to say “no” and when to say “yes”, when to encourage relationships and also when to end them. Boundaries exist as a means of protection but they still allow space to share, grow, and commune with others. Walls are a barricade, and in the process of trying to keep others out, you will trap yourself inside, safe, but completely secluded and unable to live of a life of bravery, relationship, and vulnerability. Please don’t allow your boundaries to become walls.

If you are already living behind walls you are unable to tear down, I have a feeling you also struggle with the belief that you are not good enough and it’s holding you back from being open. I have a feeling that you are afraid if you let the walls down, someone will see the mess on the other side and they will leave. And maybe you’re right – maybe they will leave. And then maybe you will be forced to challenge all the not-enoughs that will be knocking down your door, but you will ultimately grow stronger as you defeat each of them. On the other hand, maybe someone will see the mess and choose to stay. Maybe with each fear, shortcoming, and vulnerability you share, a brick from the wall will disintegrate, and you will slowly free yourself. And throughout this painful process (yes, it’s going to suck), you will begin to recognize that your fears are likely universal fears, that you are worthy of love, and that you are enough. Then you can work on transforming those walls into boundaries.

The biggest reason for the circumstance that spurred my end of 2015 emotional meltdown was the Shame Tape stuck on repeat in my head. My self-doubt was greater than my personal boundaries. My “yes” and “no” were all muddled together and I had drawn no lines in my sand. I allowed myself to be completely infiltrated, compromising my sense of self and purpose, and I truly believe that occurred because I had yet to learn that I am enough. I am enough. You are enough. And believing this fact (yes, fact) is a foundation large enough to build an extraordinary, wholehearted life upon.

Happy belated Valentine’s Day. In case no one told you (or even if they did) you are beautiful, worthy, loved, and incredible. I hope you believe this truth and allow yourself to revel in it while protecting your value and shining on others. Just imagine if we all lived this way, like we are enough … just imagine all the good we will do.

All my love,
Kayley

 

M A R C H

Despite the fact that I grew up in the Christian faith, the Easter holiday was never something I strongly anticipated. My family’s Easter morning always began with a dramatic candy hunt between me and my siblings which typically ended in someone feeling frustrated that they were the last to find their Easter basket (and when I say “someone” I am referring to myself). Afterward, I would put on a pretty dress that was not suited for the winter weather we were still experiencing in Michigan, and go to church where I was forced to sit through the adult service. Singing hymns and listening to a message that didn’t include props or a projection screen felt like punishment as I had become accustomed to playing games and gossiping with my girlfriends in youth group. The remainder of the holiday looked like any other Sunday, except for the fact that sometimes my mom would prepare a ham and that delicious but horribly unhealthy “fruit” salad that is really just an excuse to eat copious amounts of sour cream and marshmallows. All in all, Easter was a poor man’s Christmas, and wasn’t enough to stir up a sense of excitement in me.

I can’t quite remember when my attitude changed, but somewhere in between my beliefs floundering, growing, and maturing, Easter became sacred and monumental to me. The Easter story is a tale of redemption and forgiveness, and these are two things I now cherish in my own life. Regardless of whether or not you believe, the hopeful theme of renewal is enough to inspire. It has been my experience that the most miraculous occurrences often follow tragedy, that life can follow death, and that even after the greatest periods of darkness, the light will come. I was reminded of this during a walk with Holly on Easter day. I took my usual route in an attempt to continue working on leash training (which isn’t going all that well to be honest) and in the midst of Holly tugging and me trying to remain patient, I noticed a bush that seemed to have transformed over night. It’s faded green leaves were suddenly vibrant and once spotty branches were now adorned with the type of dainty white flowers that exist simply so they can be tucked into the bouncy curls of a little girl. As I continued along the charming neighborhood streets I discovered more signs that the entire city had decided to bloom simultaneously: pink flowers wavered against a blue sky, yellow buds lined the sidewalk, and bundles of daisies grew up next to the neighbor’s trash bin. It was as if the earth was shouting messages of hope in the only way it knew how, announcing a reason to celebrate and believe in a brighter tomorrow. Easter had arrived.

When I started the The Year of the Work, I suspected that there may come a time when I would feel compelled to talk about things I had never talked about publicly before. I’ve never been one to keep my past a secret from those in my life but it’s not something I ever imagined I would be sharing with a large group of people I don’t know personally *insert nervous energy here*. The fact of the matter is, our mistakes shape us as much as our triumphs, and it would be impossible to tell you about where I am without telling you about where I’ve been. And it hasn’t all been pretty. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of but they have led me to a place that I am proud of. I’ll get to that part in a second, but first let me tell you about someone who has changed my life.

 A woman I greatly admire is memoirist, novelist, and essayist Cheryl Strayed. I first discovered her work through reading one of her quotes on Tumblr. I don’t remember which words of hers I read first, but whichever ones they were, they fit me like a second skin. They felt inspired, beautiful, and honest, and it was these words that instantly turned Cheryl Strayed into a woman I respect and aspire to be like. After reading through more of her writing online, I began to understand her story and was even more inspired. Lines like “I’m a free spirit who never had the balls to be free” and “how wild it was, to let it be” sunk into a deep, desperately thirsty part of me. This strong woman who had such incredible insight into life also had a heavy past, made some big mistakes, and hurt people she loved in the process. For the first time, certain parts of my story felt seen and understood. For the first time, I realized that rather than burying my past in shame, I could choose to forgive myself and turn my mistakes into a fuel that would propel my life forward.

In many stories there are two primary characters. There is a good guy, and there is a bad guy. And typically everyone wants the story to end happily for the good guy and horribly for the bad guy because that’s what they each deserve. This formula doesn’t just apply to fictional tales. We assign the “good guy vs. bad guy” labels in our day-to-day lives as well. When there is conflict, we are quick to place blame and make assumptions because it feels good to us. I was shocked to learn while reading Brené Brown’s Rising Strong that our brains actually chemically reward us when we make conclusions, regardless of whether they are accurate or not. Hearing this fact helped me make sense of the label I, and others, accepted through my divorce process. When I made the decision to leave, I accepted that I was the “bad guy”. And I was the bad guy because I was the one who cheated, and I was the one who no longer wanted to make things work.

It is not my intention to share this information as an explanation or a means of defending myself. I recognize that many of the choices I made during that period on my life were absolutely wrong. But I can say that my denial about how unhappy I was turned into a ticking time bomb. It was years before I was willing to acknowledge the issues in my marriage and when I finally brought up the idea of going to counseling, my ex husband told me that it was too expensive and unnecessary. What followed was a number of emotional affairs and two physical affairs (which didn’t go beyond kissing, but again, I’m not here to defend myself or attempt to dull my hurtful behavior). These actions are what directly caused the arguments that resulted in my decision to move out of our home; therefore creating a more tangible reason why things fell apart and ultimately making me the one to blame. (Side note: it is worth mentioning that this series of events helped my ex understand exactly how unhappy I was, and we did go to counseling at that time.)

Throughout our separation there are many other actions I took that I can’t proudly stand behind, most of which included alcohol, men, and feeling incredibly confused and desperately lost in my identity. With an odd feeling of indifference, I watched the life I had always strived for completely disintegrate. I wandered around blindly trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted and chose to ignore that I was reinforcing my “bad guy” label in the process. There were moments when I was directly confronted with this reality (like the time a girl I didn’t know screamed at me in a restaurant), but for the most part, it manifested in a general feeling of isolation and unworthiness … like I had slipped into Hester Prynne’s clothing and had a big red A displayed on my chest. I was unfriended on Facebook by close friends, given loud lectures in coffee shops about how God hates divorce, and gossiped about on the Internet by women I had never met. When I typed my own name into Google, the first thing that appeared in the dropdown menu was “Kayley Heeringa divorce”. I kept telling myself that I knew I would be the bad guy, and because I was prepared, it wasn’t allowed to hurt. Ignoring the hurt turned into numbness.

It wasn’t until after my move to Los Angeles that I confronted the poor decisions I had made and became determined to transform them into something valuable. The distance from the place where my life turned to chaos gave me an opportunity to rest and soften again. Being in a city where few people associated me with my mistakes allowed me to shed my callused “bad guy” skin and the recent years of my life began to sink in. During this time I realized that I was holding on to my story as bunch of puzzle pieces, and it was far too jumbled for me to hold all at once. The only way to carry it all was to assemble it into something that made sense, into a big picture that was clear enough to share.

 I am writing this to give you an example of where I’ve been. I cannot stress enough what forgiving yourself and having faith in your own redemption has the power to do. You know the cliché statement “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? I believe this can be true or false, and you are the one who gets to decide. On the other side of this dark time in my life was a commitment to self-improvement, and I fought to find myself in the light again. My refusal to allow my mistakes to disappear into my past is what led me to making sense and reason out of them. This is why discovering Cheryl Strayed meant so much to me. Hearing the story of a woman who went through infidelity, drug addiction, and reckless, hurtful behavior and is now using her experiences as a means of inspiring and motivating a huge audience, to me, is the ultimate tale of redemption.

“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t do anything different than I had done? … What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” - Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Maybe you’ve never had an affair, done drugs, or deeply hurt someone … but perhaps there is still something you need to forgive yourself for so you can rise again. The negative aspects of our stories are cumbersome and heavy and choosing to stuff them inside and carry them around will dramatically weigh you down. I’m not implying that a public proclamation of all your mistakes is in order, but perhaps a personal reckoning is. Perhaps a reflection on those things in your past that you aren’t proud of will help you to understand the part they play in your story. It’s a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly that have shaped who you are today, and if you haven’t made amends with it all, you are ignoring an opportunity to grow. And when you do the hard work of owning your story, you will uncover a deep self-love because you will be aware of all the effort it took to write it.

In my own life, if I had decided to wallow in regret or hide because of shame, I would be denying myself forgiveness and holding myself back from living in an honest, vulnerable, and impactful way. I have spent years “digging out the rot with my own hands” and still have so far to go, but I am incredibly proud of how far I’ve already come. Throughout the process of facing, owning, and reconciling my past mistakes, I have found a new understanding and grace for others because I’ve first extended it to myself. Learning to forgive is an ongoing journey and something I am confronted with on a daily basis, but each new forgiveness comes coupled with growth. I’ve never invested more time into anything than becoming who I am. It is the most precious thing I have.

I believe in the powerful themes of the Easter story, in redemption and forgiveness, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes in my own life and in the lives of others. I believe that we all can be made new again, and that we are our own catalysts in our transformation. You own your story and you can make it look however you want. Maybe you can’t change where you’ve been but you can decide where you want to go, and the most beautiful route is down a street surrounded with fresh, vibrant blooms that tell tales of growth, hope, and a life after death … a place where you treat your journey as something as reverent as it is.

All my love,
Kayley

 

APRIL

Summer 2010. Ex-husband and I are fighting about the business again. We’re each repeating the same messages in different words, only listening to what is coming out of our own mouths, and spinning our wheels until we are sunk axle deep – not going anywhere any time soon. The air is thick, suffocating, silent. Tensious storm clouds threaten to burst at any moment, showering us both in another argument, and I can’t stand it. I leave out the side door with the intention of finding peace at my parents’ for a few hours. Ex-husband follows me. We are standing in the driveway on a tree lined street that caught my eye the instant we first turned onto it, leading to the home where we started our life together, and I am begging him to give me space. I’m shouting. I rush to my car and slide inside, but he stands in the way of the door, continuing to repeat the same words. The ones that aren’t helping. The driver’s seat suddenly feels like a cage. The key is in the ignition, Ex-husband is in way of the door, the argument is filling the cabin. I panic. Suddenly I’m using my legs in an attempt to push him away from me. I’m thinking if I can just make him lose his footing enough to take a couple steps back, I can slam the drivers side shut, hit lock, and leave. Even if it’s just for an hour. Now the skirt on my sundress is up to my hipbones, and I’m pushing him with my hands and my feet. I’m wailing. I’m making a scene. Ex-husband stands calm, watching me unravel. The memory ends.

Other memories. We’re laughing, I think. There’s an inside joke somewhere. There are nights we eat Chipotle in the living room and watch movies but I don’t remember which ones I like the best or what it feels like to sit close. There is a freckle on his cheek, but I don’t recall when I first noticed it or if it’s on the right or the left. I can’t remember the smell of his cologne or what his expression looked like when love was visible on his face. But I can still hear the sound of his voice when he was angry at another driver. The way I felt when he was late. I can name his good intentions that went bad, the promises he didn’t keep, the excuses he made. The exact attitude he we was sitting in the night before I moved out … the one on the floor of the guest bedroom I had asked him not to enter. The new way he looked at me when he didn’t need me anymore. How differently he treated me when he found someone else to love.

Fall 2015. Performer and I haven’t slept for 35 hours. We met two nights ago, and that’s the only thing that matters to me right now. He’s fresh out of the shower and his wet hair is long on top, gray on the sides, and shrinking into waves as it dries. He’s shrouded in a scent I’ll recognize on strangers long after he’s gone. I’m wearing my chambray button down and black skinny jeans. My boots and socks are in the house and I can feel the breeze between my bare toes. I’m laying on the porch with the valley view, beneath the big palm that provides shade in the shape of its branches. An instrumental song is repeating but the world is paused. Performer is towering over me, one knee on each side of my hips, snapping one Instax photo after another, carefully setting them aside as they develop. The images appear. My smile. My jawline. His hand grazing my cheek. I’m beaming. We curl up like question marks, my entire backbody flush against his frontbody. Ours lips are still strangers, our hearts hold hands. The memory ends. 

Other memories. I’m watching my face in a mirror as we talk on the phone. My eyes are shifting back and forth in dread and my mouth is hanging open. I don’t know what just happened. I’m confused. Then, later, I’m crying about something and he doesn’t look like he wants to help. I keep thinking it might be over but it also might not be and I’m determined to reverse this horrible feeling that I can’t put words to. What was once a look of adoration turns to something that might be sympathy, but it’s hard to discern. I think I said something wrong or did something I shoudn’t have or, rather, didn’t do something I should have. It’s muddled and hazy. But this is on replay: I enter a room and his expression is ecstatic. His eyes widen, then soften – his smile is so wide it makes me nervous. I’m a good kind of scared, and everything feels new. He tells me my tranquil house feels like Eden and my anxious Holly is the weeds. We laugh. I memorize how quickly his eyelids move when he blinks, the sound of his steady breathing, the little flush in his cheeks when I say something that makes him proud to be with me. After a few glasses of wine he tells me he’s never been so happy – that his heart feels so light. We share stories and try not to fall asleep. Morning sun rays waterfall through the curtains, our limbs are tangled. I describe the way I’m feeling as the peaceful murmur that occurs between the breaking of waves. For possibly the first time, I am reveling in being present.

Winter 2015. I’m curled in the corner of the leather couch in my parents’ new house. I’m staring at the ornament on the Christmas tree that says “Joy”. Mom sees me and says, “Kayley, don’t let him ruin that for you.” I break down.

These are memories I have tucked away in the knees and elbows of my subconcious, waiting to tumble into the forefront of my mind at the subtlest trigger. I remember them each of these relationships completely differently, when in reality they probably weren’t. The first set of memories with Ex-husband is ridden with negative feelings while the positive ones are a bit fuzzy. The second set with Performer still feels like some sort of dream world where the birds are always chirping, despite the fact that it was actually an excruciating time for me. I now believe this is not due to the nature of the experiences, but the nature of who I was while I experienced them, and my level of presence and appreciation throughout them. I learned a fact this month that helped me understand why we remember things in the ways we do, whether they be overwhelmingly positive or negative, and the power to control our own joy.

April 2016. It’s another sunny, blue skies with fluffy white clouds day, and I’m in my car on my way to style hair for a wedding on the west side of Los Angeles. Traffic is easy this morning, and I’ve silenced my navigation so I can focus on another episode of Rob Bell’s podcast, The Robcast. He’s interviewing Catholic priest and inspirational speaker, Richard Rohr, who mentions a recent breakthrough in neuroscience. There is now data to show that negative experiences immediately imprint on our brains, but it takes 15 seconds of absorbing a positive experience in order to make a lasting neurological impression. “Game changer”, I say aloud to the empty passenger seat and repeatedly push the arrow that points to the left, rewinding the tape 15 seconds with each tap, so I can re-listen. I accidentally pass my destination. As I look for a break in the median so I can turn around, I wonder if I’m going to be late. The memory ends.

This little fact is enough to prove the importance of being present … of savoring joy. Looking back on the times when I went through life with joy blinders on and more recently once I’d become more intentional about acknowledging beautiful moments, I can see how dramatically different the memories I have from these experiences are. They were each filed in my brain under somewhat general, inaccurate labels, and it’s so clear to me now that this is due to my willingness to pay attention to joy.  

In my experience with Ex-husband, I was living so passively that the moments of goodness I never fully savored have evaporated over time. Alternatively, the first time I felt truly present in a relationship was with Performer, and the positive experience I had with him was seared into my brain. When our relationship ended, this feeling lingered as a sensation of missing, longing, and unwholeness. I began to believe that the immediate connection we experienced was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and found myself terrified I would always be striving after an elusive emotion I would never find again … unhealthfully pining for a person who caused me as much pain as he did happiness. My focus on joy and refusal to entertain any negative emotions almost created a dangerous high. I was like a dog with its head out the window soaking in each scent coming at me at 70 mph. It was intoxicating. It was overwhelming. It was disorienting and created a memory of an inaccurate dreamworld. My mom recognized this when she told me not to let him steal my joy. She saw that the euphoria I felt during that time was not directly associated to him, but something I already possessed that was coaxed to the surface little while – that it always belonged to me, and I had lost sight of it in the aftermath. I was attributing my joy to him and not giving myself enough credit.

 Something else this fact suggests is that we have an inherent tendency to fill our minds with negative experiences. I imagine this is most likely an animalistic survival tactic, a means of learning what actions not to repeat in the future i.e. don’t eat those red berries. Don’t touch that hot surface. Be afraid of that lion. But aside from learning these essential instincts, we are also immediately imprinting the little negative things that we don’t need to hold on to, which are so prevalent in the modern world i.e. the rude comment a coworker made. The person who cut you off in traffic. The argument with your spouse that is resolved now. What this means is that savoring beautiful moments isn’t only going to fill your mind with positivity, it means it’s giving you ammunition to fight against the constant barrage of negative imprints. Perhaps having a mind full of orchestral music and rainbows isn’t a natural instinct for humans and regarding that mentality as something to be achieved may not be realistic or even healthy. Sadness, pain, and anger is inevitable and it’s essential we allow ourselves those feelings – but alongside the space for those emotions needs to be room for peace, love, and joy, and that space is a lot harder to fill.

 So what does it take to create a balance of positive and negative imprints? Awareness. Pay attention because often times it’s acknowledging the little things that makes the greatest difference: laughter emitting from someone you love, a freshly organized drawer, a gust of wind that’s just the right temperature, new pajamas, the softness in your body just after a yoga class. In reality, it doesn’t take a major life change to experience an increase in joy, but we may trick ourselves into believing that’s the case because when we have new experiences our senses are heightened, and we naturally become more present and aware. In my experience with Performer, I felt present, joyful, and alive because I was so in tune with my life during that time. Every day was exciting, I was keenly aware in even the smallest moments, life felt interesting and vibrant. I’ve learned that I have more power to find pieces of this joy in the perceived mundane moments of life than I ever thought possible. In actuality, I don’t feel present, joyful, and alive. I AM present, joyful, and alive, and with the right amount of intention and awareness, it is within my power to feel that way at any stage of life. I am the master of my joy. The more I savor it, the more it thrives. And the more I seek it, perhaps the messages that my brain used to perceive as negative will begin to shift. I’ll more naturally find the good in the bad and the number of immediate negative imprints will begin to diminish, because I will subconsciously label fewer experiences as inherently negative.

Since I first heard the negative vs. positive imprinting fact, I’ve been quick to pick up on those moments when I feel joyful, and when I find them, I revel in them. I give myself a minimum of 15 seconds to absorb what I’m experiencing as fully as possible, knowing that I’m altering my brain by intentionally imprinting it with something other than negativity. This is a new element to my work this year – the work of filling my mind with enough joyful moments to create a weighty positivity that will balance the inevitable messages of self-doubt, uncomfortable memories, and failure – the work of filling my story with a deep sense of awareness, knowing that it will start to change the way I view my past, increase my gratitude in the present, and strengthen my confidence in the future. I’ve accepted my moments of negativity in a way I haven’t allowed previously, knowing that sadness, pain, and anger are a part of being human, and that experiencing those difficult emotions is okay because they are there to teach me something. But, more importantly, I’m moving forward knowingmy joy belongs to me and that it’s waiting to be savored. All I have to do is recognize it, give it a full 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … my brain will take it from there.

All my love,
Kayley

 

MAY

I have two numbers saved as favorites in my phone: one is a friend and the other is my mother. It was an early morning in May, and I was perched near the window of my favorite coffee shop devouring their delicious PB&J toast and Ethiopian drip. I tapped the star icon on my iPhone screen, selected one of my favorites, and listened patiently as the phone dialed ten digits and then began to ring. A vibrant voice exclaiming “Hi, baby!” came through the receiver so tangibly it sounded like it came from the stool next to me. Every time I hear my mom, my heart swells a little. I’ve listened to her talk since before I was born and now being “just a phone call away” often feels way too far. Sometimes I dial her with no agenda, but this day I had something specific to discuss. Someone once told me that to find your truest passion ask someone who knew you as a child what your interests were, to investigate what moved your soul before you were told who to be. I knew my mom would have answers about what I was like in the early years of my life, the age before I can remember.

 I could sense nostalgia and warmth as she described the baby she named Kayley; the toddler who loved to dress up and wear bows in her hair, the child who danced in the living room, read Shel Silverstein poems with her daddy, put herself down for naps, and happily played alone. Older brother would push her over in the bathtub and pour buckets of water on her head, but she was all smiles as the water streamed down her eyes. She always knew what she wanted and one year for Halloween, instead of saying “Trick or treat” she said “Gimme one.” Elementary age Kayley would spend whole afternoons recreating handmade versions of her favorite books; each word and picture copied with her own hands, the pages secured by staples. The beginning of Bambi made her cry so hard that mom had to console her and promise they’d never watch it again. She once sang “You Are My Sunshine” back to daddy with the line “You make me happy when eyes are hazel.” This led mom to believe that Kayley thought the original lyric went “when eyes are gray” because she always told Kayley that she had gray eyes. Mom never corrected her. She won an A-Z nature scavenger hunt at preschool because she thought that “acorn” was spelled “ecorn.” Older brother was furious but mom never corrected her. According to Kayley, an “umbrella” was an “ungorilla” and her prayers always started with “Our father who aren’t in heaven.” Mom never corrected her. Even though she always tried her hardest to be well-behaved, she couldn’t resist sneaking into the kitchen cabinet for Cheerios and one time she wandered off at Lake Michigan, nearly sending mom into a panic attack. Mom tends to tear up every time she talks about the terror she felt while searching for Kayley … and the image she couldn’t shake from her mind: an inner tube bobbing in the waves, her baby nowhere to be found.

 Upon saying “I miss you. I love you.” and hanging up the phone, I made bullet points of the personality traits included in the stories I heard. It felt like the outlines of the roots of my being were written on the page. This is my first layer: I am a feminine, independent, confident, content woman with a curious spirit, a tender, loving heart, and an affinity for words and stories. The rest of my layers are a mix of who I am, who I am expected to be, the influence of the world, and who I became in my attempt to navigate through it. These are the layers I am dissecting. It’s time to decide what belongs and what doesn’t; what knowledge is valuable and what I need to un-learn in order to find the truest beat of my heart; and what unique contribution I am intended to make in this life.

 After studying psychological archetypes and cultural myths, author Joseph Campbell is remembered for his life philosophy “follow your bliss.” He once said, “Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

 While I believe in striving for a life of meaning and community, I find the word “bliss” problematic when used to reference the end goal. Bliss is defined as “perfect happiness; great joy.” In reality, there are challenging moments even when living a life of purpose. Sometimes what we are meant to follow doesn’t feel like bliss at all; it feels more like a calling, a need, an urging. But I do believe that following your bliss is the first step; it’s where the journey begins, not ends. This is Step 1: Know what makes you feel happy. Follow your bliss.

 Early in her career, author Elizabeth Gilbert often talked about the concept of following our passion, but more recently developed a new philosophy she calls “follow your curiosity.” She once said, “The trick is to just follow your small moments of curiosity. It doesn’t take a massive effort. Just turn your head an inch. Pause for an instant. Respond to what has caught your attention. Look into it a bit … For me, a lifetime devoted to creativity is nothing but a scavenger hunt — where each successive clue is another tiny little hit of curiosity. Pick each one up, unfold it, see where it leads you next.”

 A weight lifted off me when I first heard this perspective. The idea of being diligent to my interests and bliss, of simply paying attention and investigating, felt refreshing and manageable. To me, it is more realistic than following bliss itself. It’s more sustainable. It’s about watching your bliss develop into something more, something with challenges, and then seeing if you want it to stick around even after it becomes something other than “perfect happiness.” Or perhaps you’ll discover you need to get curious about a different bliss, because goodness knows we have many things that inspire and excite us. This is Step 2: Investigate what makes you happy. Follow your curiosity.

 I spent the past few years of my life building and recreating. I dug to the core of my being and unearthed a version of myself that somewhere inside was still dancing in the living room with bows in her hair. After considerable time following my bliss and then following my curiosity, I developed into a woman bursting to contribute, but in need of a catalyst … a purpose I could name, that I could point to and say, “Yes. This.” This is what The Year of the Work has been for me. It’s my This. And my This is the final step. Diving into my purpose, what is important, and not necessarily what always makes me happy. This is Step 3: Follow your This.

 “And every day the world will drag you by the hand yelling, ‘This is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this! And each day it’s up to you to yank your hand back and say, ‘No. This is what’s important.’” – Ian Thomas

 The Year of the Work began as a romantic idea of writing letters, of warm community, of healing, persistence, and dedication. It quickly became much more than that and presented challenges I didn’t anticipate. There was the initial pressure to stay on top of emails, the financial resources necessary to purchase the materials, the willingness to sacrifice my time in order to write and stuff envelopes. But along with this came the burning intensity of knowing its importance … Of seeing the stack of letters on my coffee table and almost coming to tears realizing how this, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do with my time, money, and energy right now.

 Joseph Campbell was on to something when he mentioned that following your bliss creates opportunity and a powerful source of encouragement. In following your This, you will meet people with different “Thises” and they will inspire you just as much, if not more, than those with your same This. Once you find your This and are open to talking about it, not only doors, but windows, will open, and what we once perceived as walls will tumble down. Many of my close friends are pursuing dreams far different than mine, but it’s our mix of pursuits that allows us to motivate each other. The most inspiring conversations I’ve had have been with filmmakers, bloggers, photographers, designers, entrepreneurs, and comedians — people who have found their This. But the beauty of the search is that you don’t have to know exactly what your This is to be able to talk about it. Many of the most thought-provoking and investigatory conversations I’ve had have been with individuals who are still searching for their This, which can be a This in itself. In the podcast episode I mentioned in the April letter, Richard Rohr said to Rob Bell, “You can only talk about it to people who already kind of know,” and this struck me as something perfectly relevant to The Year of the Work. Whether or not you feel like you have your This all figured out, you took the step to join, and that means you already kind of know. You know your This is there and you are determined to find it, and that’s where the work comes in. Step 1: Follow your Bliss. Step 2: Follow your Curiosity. Step 3: Follow your This.

 This brings me back to my search to discover the essence of who I am, of exploring what I was like as a child. The blissful, curious Kayley searching for her This existed all along. I am still the little girl who broke the occasional rule, unknowingly extended grace to her brother, felt her emotions deeply, used words even when she didn’t know the right way to say them, and even decided to explore the beach … only to be found an hour later waddling along the shore with an inner tube still secured around her waist. I am still hungry, strong-willed, passionate, adventurous, excited by learning, and often impulsive. These qualities are rooted in me and have never been utilized so purposefully more than now, now that I’ve found my This.

But through the conversation with my mother I learned much more than facts about who I am. After our call ended, I made another important realization. The cooing in her tone of voice when she talks about her children sounds an awful lot like voices I’ve heard talking about their Thises. It dawned on me that my mother’s This was being a mother. And while she admits that sometimes she feels she didn’t always do the best job, and feels that in comparison to others’ lives, she didn’t do anything monumental, I can’t disagree more. Because my mother followed her This, she raised four unique children who each have an impact to make on the world. The truth is that even when following our This, we won’t get it all right. We won’t always discipline our children the correct way, we will send out a letter with some typos, have a bad meeting, or tell a joke that flops, but that’s why your This isn’t always your Bliss.

Even in our triumphs and failures, our Thises are there to propel us forward, to encourage us to keep yanking our hands back from the world saying, “No. This is what’s important.” I am grateful for those searching for and following their Thises. Particularly for my mother, who on Mother’s Day, never expects gifts or praise because being a mother is simply what she was meant to do with her life. Her moments of uncertainty about how to best execute her This and if her This was impactful enough serve as examples of how our Thises are often coupled with shame, doubt, and messages of unworthiness and inadequacy. Overcoming these triggers requires diligence, and I can think of at least five people my mother has molded and inspired because she persistently followed her This. My mother’s dedication to the craft of motherhood and her appreciation of purposeful living is rooted within me, and even after she is gone I will carry it and pass it along to those I love. She has accomplished something infinitely impactful. This is the power of following your THIS.

All my love,
Kayley

 

JUNE

June 13 began as most of my days do: in the same seat at the same coffee shop eating the same not-so-nutritious breakfast of PB&J and daily drip coffee.  I intentionally showed up early to journal before taking my position behind a desk at the local Cardio Barre. And I was in the process of packing: Keys, check. Notebook, check. Pen, seriously, if I lose one more pen… Phone, check  — with a breaking news alert. 50 dead and 52 injured at a gay night club in Orlando. So many emotions torpedoed into my chest all eclipsed by an overlying question. Anger. WHY? Sadness. WHY? Confusion. WHY? Helplessness. WHY? Frustration. Desperation. Horror. WHY? Why? …Why?

Anger. Anger has emerged a lot this year. Finally, rather than shutting it out, I’ve sat down and asked it some questions. I finally admitted to my anger that I used to be afraid of it; that it used to be muddled with hatred, jealousy, and insecurity. But as I investigate finding clarity in joy, I discover a similar clarity in anger. I’m recognizing that the feelings I used to perceive as anger may not be anger at all. Hurt is not anger. Loss is not anger. Being hungry and tired is definitely not anger. Frustration is not anger. But this senseless act of violence and the involuntary effect it has on my body and mind… This is anger.

“I tried to speak my feelings in a drawing or poem but I couldn’t. It seemed whenever I wanted to express injustice, I never had the right lines.” – Patti Smith

As Patti wrote in her book Just Kids, I find anger and injustice difficult to articulate. They are overwhelming, indescribable, and often times all we’re left with are facts to explain how we feel. I think we have all learned that sometimes facts aren’t enough, and there aren’t always the right words to make what is going on inside of us a reality for others. Those who have used personal truths in a debate know the exhaustion of trying to make someone else feel even a fraction of what they feel. To give someone just enough that they might understand, to find the magical combination of words that will align perfectly and turn a light on inside the other person; it’s almost always draining, sometimes demeaning, and often fruitless. So I find I am inspired to write about love and grace and peace because people cherish those things; people want more of those things. We are tired of anger and hatred and discrimination, and as much as we want them to go away, they keep rearing their ugly heads — a reminder that evil is alive. They only grow bigger when ignored, so I won’t ignore them. Injustice burns as hotly as inspiration, and if I acknowledge the brilliance of being moved by beautiful things, I must honestly feel the impact of ugliness as well. If a song can make me cry happy tears while dancing in my living room, then experiencing frustration and desperation must also call my feet to move and my hands to dig in their own way.

Flash back to the evening of April 23. I was on my second glass of wine after making dinner with Fairfax. Fairfax is the ultimate source for pop culture news. She has a meme for everything and the perfect .gif for any topic, and she knows the release date of albums before anyone else I know. So, of course she knew the exact release date of Beyoncé’s film, Lemonade. We pressed play with few expectations and a sliver of excitement. Only one song deep, I suddenly found myself on the verge of tears and bursting in all directions. “This is ‘For Women Who are Difficult to Love’! This is Warsan Shire! This is so important! THIS IS SO IMPORTANT!” It’s all I could talk about for days afterward as I listened to the album on repeat. I deeply felt the anger expressed in the first portion of the album, the sadness in the middle, and the cry for healing in the end. It was a thematic story I deeply resonated with on both a personal and societal level, and someone I respected was talking about it.

Not only did Lemonade shine a light on one of my favorite poets, but it tackled hugely important issues such as gender inequality, racial injustice, and unhealthy relationships — and many people completely missed the point. Beyoncé told a story about hurt, anger, and revenge followed by redemption, forgiveness, and love, but it was overshadowed by gossip and speculation about her personal life. I couldn’t avoid the online articles asking, “Is Beyoncé a good role model? Do we actually want our daughters exposed to her message?” These questions felt completely nonsensical to me, as her message is one of female empowerment and self-love. Yes, it is communicated through powerful language and littered with difficult stories, but I wouldn’t expect much less after generations of oppression and belittlement.

I grew up in a traditional community that would likely never admit its unspoken expectations for women (family, babies, and maybe a job... if it doesn’t interfere with parenting).  My mother, and her mother, and many of the mothers around me unintentionally set this example. The precedent was subconsciously taught by educators, expected by men, and considered “the norm” by nearly everyone. Diverting from this path took conviction, strength, and determination — and it was something I never, even for a second, considered doing. I decided at a young age that I wanted to marry by 24 and have kids by 27; everything else would take care of itself. It wasn’t until I was waist deep in those traditional waters that I realized it wasn’t for me. At least not yet. At the age of 25, I found myself with everything I thought I wanted, realizing that it wasn’t what I actually wanted at all. I remember crying to a friend in the hair studio on the property of my dream house, telling her I didn’t think I was intelligent anymore, and that I had lost an identity I used to cherish in favor of something I thought appealed more. “I was always smart. And I’m not smart anymore. I don’t know why I’m not smart anymore. I have a fashion blog, I’m a hairstylist, I’m a wife, and I’m not smart anymore.” These memories lit a fire in me about who women are told they are before they are given an opportunity to decide for themselves. I believe this is part of the message being communicated by Beyoncé; that women are so much greater, powerful, deserving, and worthy than the stagnant guidelines our culture suggests. Do I want my hypothetical future daughter exposed to that message? Absolutely, no doubt, hell to the yes.

My deep passion for Lemonade’s message combined with my anger of the misunderstanding surrounding it. I found myself trying to explain the inexplicable, searching for words to express why this mattered but always feeling unsatisfied. This is what injustice does: It burns inside of us until we find a way to express it the best way we know how. In Beyoncé’s instance, anger and inspiration collided to create something raw, thought provoking, and just controversial enough to call attention and ultimately plant a small seed of change. Many of us watched the film and recognized elements of our own stories told through a person with the power to be heard. It was honest and culturally relevant. For those who resonated with it, it created a strong desire to participate and get our hands dirty. To some it was simply a new album, but to us it was a resounding, “You are not alone.”  This is what the power of our unique voices can do. They can express an inexplicable injustice and reach others with a similar conviction.

The “Why?” question on everyone’s mind on June 13 is unanswerable. Attempts to wrap my mind around what happened in a definitive “this-is-why” way resulted in nothing but anger, frustration, and discouragement. Some things can’t be explained and we simply have to wade through the not knowing and the heavy despair. What happened was an act of hatred toward a specific group of people and it spotlighted disturbing facts regarding our government’s inability to create laws to prevent this kind of tragedy. A cry in our society for reformation hasn’t been heard; the message of hatred is still louder than the message of love. Amidst our feelings of overwhelming injustice and powerlessness, we do our best to exercise hope and extend light in the darkness by sharing stories about the people who step up after tragedy; we honor the lives of the victims and pray to bear witness to change. We rally together with our banners of grace and love and reformation, but as history proves, change doesn’t happen in an instant. Change takes time, and sometimes it may feel like our shouts are nothing but whispers. But, in a world where our unique voices are our most powerful, peaceful weapons, we have to keep speaking in our own ways. When there are no words, perhaps we can find other mediums to express ourselves to those willing to listen.

I deeply believe that love can change the world. This overused phrase has lost its poignancy, feeling more like a cheesy phrase with little meaning. All the same, I find myself wanting to shout it in times of injustice because of its inherent truth. Yes, anger and violence can seem so heavy that they bury our messages of love. That may be the case today. But for each child raised in an environment of intolerance and hatred there may be three more born into homes of acceptance and harmony. I recently learned there is now evidence proving that our bodies’ have the ability to turn certain genes “on and off” simply through impactful experiences, and that these alterations can be passed down to future generations, suggesting that perhaps we can do more than simply affect our children by how we nurture them. We may actually be able to pass down traits that exhibit more love, grace, and peace. Now, more than ever, developing these qualities is our most important survival tactic because we are living in a world where we are our own worst enemies; humans are falling prey to themselves. The evolution of our minds and hearts is crucial. I choose to believe that love can change and save the world… and it can do so by changing humanity.

One of my favorite metaphors for personal growth has always been a flower blooming, but I’m realizing that my life maybe actually be less like an emerging bud and more like the filthy gardener elbow-deep in dirt, working diligently to keep beauty alive. Rather than being the growth itself, I am tending to seeds — little vessels of hope — and burying them deep enough that they will sprout roots and emerge when they are ready. We can allow injustice to drag us down, make us callused, hard, and vengeful or we can become more determined in our softness and more stubborn in our graciousness; using injustice as a tool to dig deep and plant seeds of goodness. We are a species still evolving and our hearts, minds, and bodies have the ability to develop into something even greater. I have faith that the growth I nurture won’t end with me, that future generations will be grateful and diligent laborers who will feel honored to tend to something blooming and accept the hard work that comes with conviction. I have faith they will recognize that the rot of my generation has potential to be redeemed in theirs.

I don’t know what makes you angry, what injustices make your mind repeat “Why?” but perhaps this is simply soil waiting to be sown. Perhaps this is what you must break apart with your hands in order to plant your seeds. If beautiful things are tended to, they can grow amongst uncertainty, pain, and filth. So maybe this is where it all begins; rather than looking skyward hoping for sunlight, we are called to kneel and dig; to immerse ourselves in the inexplicable “Why?” and plant something positive... to embrace the belief that things get messy before they grow.

All my love,
Kayley

p.s. In light of recent events that occurred at the beginning of July just before this was sent to print, I continue to stubbornly hope for a future with less hatred and prejudice and more love and understanding. Black lives matter.

 

JULY

A single takeout tray, a smudgy coffee table, Sex and the City marathons, a stack of half-read poetry books. A string of outgoing texts to out-of-town friends, early bedtimes, and a full French press of coffee to myself in the morning. This is what my loneliness looks like. Cavernous, gaping, hungry. This is what my loneliness feels like.

“the year of letting go, of understanding loss. grace. of the word ‘no’ and also being able to say ‘you are not kind’. the year of humanity/humility. when the whole world couldn’t get out of bed. everyone i’ve met this year, says the same thing ‘you are so easy to be around, how do you do that?’. the year i broke open and dug out all the rot with my own hands. the year i learnt small talk. and how to smile at strangers. the year i understood that i am my best when i reach out and ask ‘do you want to be my friend?’. the year of sugar, everywhere. softness. sweetness. honey honey. the year of being alone, and learning how much i like it. the year of hugging people i don’t know, because i want to know them. the year i made peace and love, right here.”

Warsan Shire’s words begin with the idea of letting go, of loss, of the word “no.” I dove into these topics headfirst—feeling that surrender and boundaries would be monumental for me this year. However, I didn’t realize they would also inevitably lead to the reality that I haven’t yet learned to like being alone. I did not foresee the most natural parts of the quote flowing into the most difficult, yet this month I have found myself trapped in a strong current. I can see clearly now that despite our best efforts, we will inevitably funnel into the sea we’ve swam upstream to avoid. Here, in July, I’m tired of shallowly treading through my loneliness; I am learning true surrender for possibly the first time.

I texted a friend last night. He asked how I am and I said, “Lonely… sort of.” He asked me if I feel lonely often. I told him that I did and not to tell anyone—it is my secret. I’ve long believed that admitting loneliness is synonymous with admitting weakness; that my inability to feel comfortable alone is something I should be ashamed of and keep to myself. The truth is, empty rooms often feel as though they have the ability to swallow me whole, and I’ve feared acknowledging this at the risk of giving loneliness more power. I’ve always been this way.

After the politics of childhood parties where moms controlled the guest list and everyone was invited, we all began to establish memories of times we excitedly waited for a promised call that never came. I’ve gone to bed in a full face of makeup that never made it out of the house—and cried after seeing pictures from get-togethers no one invited me to. As far back as the age of eight, my diary entries express confusion about friendship and are riddled with stories of the games girls play—like the day when they all wanted to be my friend and the next when none of them would sit by me at lunch. All the awkward silences when I entered a room. The time the other girls swam to the opposite side of the pool to gossip as I watched the water reflect on the underside of the diving board. I pretended not to notice I was alone.

My first roots of insecurity erupted at a young age; many of them stemmed from issues in friendship. Thoughts of something being wrong with me inhabited my mind. I picked up the habit of second-guessing things I said as soon as conversations ended, and developed a desperate desire to be likeable. It wasn’t long before I established a need to cling to anyone who I felt seen by—anyone to hide behind. By middle school I found a loneliness shield; a pattern that I would carry with me for life, and that was the need for a single person to pour myself into, someone to make me feel safe, wanted, and necessary.

I met Danielle in eighth grade honors English class. She had a short bob, glasses with lenses so thick the size of her actual eyes was difficult to decipher, and braces on both her back and her teeth. She was the epitome of awkward and could make me belly laugh until my sides ached. Because of a move across town the year before, I found myself in the unpleasant role of “the new girl,” and her friendship made that school feel less foreign. She was the first friend I loved like a family member and we were inseparable for years. My junior year of high school I met Claudia. She drove a junker car covered in bumper stickers that felt way cooler than my pristine Jeep Liberty. We went to concerts and gushed about boys and could have survived solely on chips and salsa. We stayed up late to share stories and sometimes I would wake up early and drive to her house so I could sleep next to her. In those days, I didn’t really want to be anywhere else. My freshman year of college I met Hypatia. She lived down the hall but often slept on my futon and we were rarely seen without the other. Before long we were dressing similarly, reading the same books, listening to the same music, and so intertwined that everything felt like a mutual understanding. She was my campus-exploring partner, Urban Outfitters sales rack competitor, and the person I couldn’t wait to return back to after weekends and holidays at home. Then I met the guy who would eventually become my husband, supplying me with a shield for years, until it became clear that a barrier had developed between us rather than around us. Over time, the loneliness pervaded every room in our house—even the ones we were in together. It’s been said that the loneliness with someone else is more devastating than the loneliness when alone. I would argue that it’s a different sort of desperation.

I recently went to the beach with my best friend. His story is similar to mine. We are from the same place and have walked many of the same roads, and when we are together I can rest. When I am at odds with myself he is an advocate for the goodness in me, a constant encouragement, and a devout believer in my unique gifts. He sees a power in me I often don’t see in myself, and because of that, he is often the sole audience for my moments of greatest weakness. As we laid in a little nook on the beach in Malibu, Holly covered in sand and salt water at my feet, I told him my loneliness was becoming a monster preying on me any time I was alone—that it’s favorite pastime is to pick at all my half-healed wounds. It insists that I’m different, that I feel too much, that no one wants to be around me. It says that I don’t do well in group settings, and I’m destined to be a one-on-one friend. It explains that the reason I often feel left out is because there’s something wrong with me, and it believes the same something has been wrong with me since I was that eight-year-old writing in her diary.

This beach best friend is the same friend who has expressed difficulty chipping through my toughest layers. There is a soft, free-flowing center in me that no one sees. It is where my writing and tears and laughter originate, and it’s a place I visit when I’m alone, occasionally bringing back little souvenirs—a poem, a story, a genuine smile, a deep sadness. I’m not brave enough to let others into this place and I protect it with sass and sarcasm. But it’s also the source of what makes me feel different and distant. I once admitted that I sometimes feel tortured by my endless capacity for emotion; I feel misunderstood by others… even by myself. The boy I loved last fall said I had the temperament of Sylvia Plath, and we all know that didn’t end well for her… I fear that being alone is too vulnerable, too fragile, too dark.

But I refuse to be afraid of the unknown in me. This shadowy side is haunting only because it is still undiscovered. If I view myself as a whole, I see that I am both dark and light; I am never all of one or the other. They coexist. Mystery can either intimidate or inspire us, and I can see now that hiding behind an inner door I once thought led into a room of nothing but too-much-feeling are lessons I’ve never given myself the opportunity to learn and valuable thoughts I’ve never been willing to share. I want to know this place better. I want to spend more time here, become familiar with its vast and shrouded corners, hoping to someday feel comfortable inviting the right people to explore with me. But until then, I am recognizing new work that needs to be done—and it needs to be done alone.

I read somewhere that loneliness is not actually the feeling of being alone, but rather the feeling of being misunderstood. At the time it seemed more interesting than true, but as this year progresses I think whoever wrote this might be on to something. It might explain some of the loneliness that occurred during my connection-less marriage. Warsan Shire describes being easy to be around, learning small talk, smiling at strangers. These are all things that make for good company, things that logically should make you feel less lonely—the agonizing lonely bits of the quote appear to be contained in “the year of the being alone.” But I am beginning to wonder if some loneliness is actually contained in the small talk, the shallow interaction, the being “easy” to be around. I struggle with surface level, I am drained by casual conversation. But I also haven’t learned to like being alone, to laugh out loud at my own jokes and ask myself thought-provoking questions, to tell myself my own stories and stay interested.

I think learning to enjoy being alone lies in the ability to dive beneath the surface of yourself, finding company even when no one else is home. Maybe when you get to know yourself like you would know a best friend, you can find more joy in small talk, in being easy to be around, because the desperation for deep connection subsides a bit. And when you understand yourself, then you can recognize when you are understood by others, and discover the right people to ask, “Do you want to be my friend?”

This morning I woke up and listened to Norah Jones “Come Away With Me” on repeat while I got ready. I secured my wet hair into a low bun, put on my favorite dress, and danced in the living room. Sometimes I revert back to my childhood spent in the tri-level house on Chamonix Court where I would pretend I was a princess and pass downtime joyfully. Living room dancing was, and still is, my favorite way to do this. It reminds me of the years I felt at home in my body, the time before the lonely diary entries, when I would happily occupy myself and wait for my dad to come home, put on a record, and twirl me under his arm.

Today my nails are freshly painted, I’m well rested, and I’m moving slowly. I’m realizing that if I let go of the lonely feeling, even for a moment, all I can feel is peace. My house is organized and smells of lilac oil, the dryer is humming as it tosses damp laundry, and my mind is generating poetic lines that it can’t create when I have company. I look around and I see myself everywhere. I’m in the furniture I selected, in the stack of books with freshly folded down page corners, in the remainder of a meal I just ate because it’s what I was craving, in the record spinning on the turntable dad restored and handed down to me, even in my favorite light reflecting the shape of shifting palm branches onto the dining room wall. While the line “The year of being alone and learning how much I like it” was always going to be the most difficult for me, maybe it’s also the most important because now is the perfect time to observe, learn, and value the person I am when I am completely free to be who I am.

This period in my life is likely just a season and a unique opportunity to grow in a place that doesn’t feel ideal, to face the hollow feeling in my chest and find a way to fill it without resorting to using a human as a shield. I am choosing to believe that my life is still a light with moments of darkness, rather than a void with occasional glimmers of brightness. That even on those nights when I’m sitting on the couch trying to fill the emptiness with a glass of wine and a book, that this isn’t my forever. There will likely come a day when I will be grateful for a moment alone, and I will fondly remember the days I am currently living, the time when I was still learning that my body doesn’t become valueless when it’s the only one in the room.

All my love,
Kayley

AUGUST

It’s the first of September and I just returned to LA after spending two weeks at my parents’ new house in a middle-of-nowhere town in West Michigan. It’s their “someday we will retire” home, and my mother designed and decorated it using her heart rather than her hands. It carries the feel of our past home – the one my siblings and I grew up in – into the present day. The furniture hasn’t changed and it has wall-sized windows, neutral paint, white cabinets, and dark hardwood floors. It immediately enveloped my family in a sense of belonging, a sense that it had been waiting for us to arrive.

The heavy front door opens into a high-ceilinged living room that is already full of happy memories and showered in the special details that transform a house into a home. In the bookcase on the wide, open stairway is a photo of my mom feeding my father cake at their wedding; they are both in white and her hair is long, auburn, and styled in a roller curl. He is smiling, his mouth wide, his eyes happy. In the lower level bathroom there are two large frames filled with drawings my siblings and I created when our heights still indicated our ages. There’s a pencil drawing of a wolf with drool dripping from its fangs; a vibrant palm tree with marker lines still visible; several portraits of all six members of our family; and one or two that are just colorful, tangled scribbles. The library nook was designed with just enough space to hold my mother’s favorite books, our board game collection, and all of our old yearbooks. In the storage room hidden behind a sliding barn door are boxes labeled with my mom’s enviously graceful handwriting, “Layne’s Stuffed Animals,” “Kayley’s Memory Box,” “Halloween Costumes”… If you look out any of the windows at the back of the house, you will find my favorite view: a Mediterranean-blue lake peeks out between tree trunks, often smooth and reflecting the sky on its glassy surface. There is something about this lake that demands stillness, deep inhales and exhales, rest. It is a true haven for a family continually thrown into new storms, a family with a past of struggle and heart-aching pain, a family that is still learning how to hold itself together with threads of love and gratitude.

 Even though I’m visiting a new home, breathing Michigan air still stirs up a sense of nostalgia, a reminder of days when I didn’t think I could smile any wider and nights when I questioned whether or not I wanted to wake up the next morning. It’s the place I couldn’t wait to leave and somewhere I look forward to visiting now; my feelings of goodness and pain swirling around each other, balancing like a yin yang.

 I don’t know why some people are able to overcome hardship, grow, and come out on the other side glowing, motivated, and stronger – and alternatively, why some people cave under heavy circumstances and shrink until they are unrecognizable, a shell of whom they were before. I don’t know why certain childhood traumas didn’t leave me hard, callused, and afraid. After my divorce, I don’t know why I felt the need to pack up my favorite things and move across the country, something I never considered doing before. People ask me why I moved to Los Angeles and I still have no tangible answer. After my heartbreak last year, I don’t know why the grief caused me to find the missing piece to a project that was floating around in my mind, therefore creating The Year of the Work. I really don’t know.

 This is what I do know: I am grateful. In the moments when I stop to think about the events from my past and the transformations that occurred in me through certain sufferings, I find myself on the verge of thankful tears. In these moments, I am overcome with a powerful knowledge that I am not the ruler of my life, because, trust me, I am not all that brave, or savvy, or refined. I often act recklessly, make impulsive decisions, and talk about silly things to fill silences. I have better answers for why I did the wrong thing than why I did the right thing. Yet, somehow, I feel like – despite all of the opportunities my life had to go horribly, devastatingly downhill – I am guided, protected, cared for. In these moments of stillness, the only proof I need to know that there is a force in this world greater than I am is to reflect on my own life, pinpointing all the instances where it could have imploded but it didn’t. And then recognizing that I really don’t know why. 

Those three words, “I don’t know,” are some I’ve gotten good at saying confidently. I am as proud of my not knowing as I am of my knowing because it means that maintaining a sense of wonder about my life and believing that I am doing the best with what I have truly is enough.

One morning in Michigan, I woke up to an empty house. I put on a silk, green kimono given to me by my friend Lily (who owns a vintage shop and heard my cry for a new robe), poured a cup of coffee, and decided to read by the lake. I curled up in a chair on the wooden platform at the end of the dock and flipped to the spot I left off in Shauna Niequist’s most recent book, Present Over Perfect.

“My life is marked now by quiet, connection, simplicity. It has taken every bit of more than three years to learn these things, and like any hard, good work, I fail and try again more often than I’d prefer. But there is a peace that defines my days, a settledness, a groundedness. I’ve been searching for this in a million places, all outside myself, and it astounds me to realize that the groundedness is within me, and that maybe it was there all along.”

 Stillness. Presence. Rest. I am astounded by how often the right article, book, poem falls into my hands (or onto my computer screen) with the most relevant, divine timing. I wouldn’t compare this feeling to discovering an answer to a question I’ve been asking, but rather finding company in a place I have already been searching. 

 I never truly believed in the power of manifestation until I paid attention to the frequency at which this happens to me; how I am continually provided companionship through writing. I know the idea of manifestation may be “new agey” and scary, but bear with me for a moment here. Manifestation is simply putting your energy, desires, and hopes out into the world and finding its likeness. It is recognizing a personal want or need, and focusing a gentle intention on that want or need, rather than bulldozing your way through life in an attempt to get it. It is practicing a determined patience and stillness, which is a place just quiet enough to recognize when your requests are heard and you are provided for. Manifestation comes from prayer; it comes from meditation; it comes from raw honesty, hopefulness, and humbleness. After spending a certain amount of time exploring a new method of thinking about something, I often come across another person who is pioneering the exact same territory and telling their story through words on a page. This is what Present Over Perfect was for me this month – an answer that I am exactly where I need to be right now, and I am not alone.

 I can be still. I can be grateful. I can be present. I can be patient. I can have hope. I can feel light.

 In times of struggle or frustration, I often find myself repeating the first line from a poem by Aldous Huxley that came to me through a friend during my separation in 2013: “It is dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly, child. Lightly. Learn to do everything lightly.” To me this means acting in a way that recognizes that life should be treated as temporary, and to be grateful with what I have when I have it and let go of anything I am carrying that is too heavy. Throughout this process, I am practicing a new gratitude for my body (perceived flaws and all), for my home, my jobs, my people, my traumas, my triumphs. I am also acknowledging that if there is something in my life that I simply cannot form a sense of gratitude around, perhaps it needs to be let go. That if I am holding on to anything I can’t handle lightly then it is ultimately holding me back. I often find myself attempting to achieve perfection, the perfect balance, the perfect surroundings, the perfect relationships, and it is heavy. Perfection is burdensome. So now, rather than practicing perfection, I want to practice impermanence. I want to see everything in my life, the good and the bad, as something temporary, something that has the ability to come and go, and be grateful for what I have when I have it, and thankful for each stage of life whether or not it is ideal.

 I’ve seen good relationships gone bad, moved out of a home I thought I would die in, sold trinkets I spent years collecting, waded through years of struggle, said goodbye to close friends, and now I am here, realizing how little control I have over the events of my life, but rather, complete control over how I respond to them. I want to respond with gratitude.

 As I packed my suitcase in the lower level bedroom I called “mine” for two weeks, I devised a plan on how to bring a sense of stillness back to Los Angeles. It occurred to me that don’t need to have an empty schedule and a body of water right out the back door to be present and calm; I simply need quiet, solitude, an environment with few distractions… a sidewalk or a hiking trail, and the time to take a walk.

I find that after the initial moments of chaos when Holly spots my hand reaching for her cracked leather leash, I am always able to re-center. Once we burst through the front door, she pulls me forward as she excitedly hunts for lizards and tracks down new smells, I hit play on my favorite playlist, and everything else melts away.

 On a recent walk, as I was stepping around fallen peaches from a neighbor’s tree, I was struck with a strong sense of wonder with my surroundings, my life, and ultimately, myself. It has taken me almost thirty years of life to realize that when I feel the most present, I also feel the most grateful, which would suggest that at any given time I have plenty to be thankful for, plenty to marvel at, and plenty to fill me. The problem is not a lack of blessing, but rather my inability to recognize it. When I am still, I find myself overwhelmed with how many gifts I’ve been given without even asking for them.

 It was on this same walk that I reflected on my trip to Michigan at the end of 2015. In mid-December, I left my house with Holly in tow, completely exhausted, emotionally shattered, confused. The time over the holidays spent with family and friends jump-started my healing process, and Michigan suddenly looked brighter to me than it had in years. My thoughts about Los Angeles had become shrouded in grief, and because of my sudden jolt of hope, I started house-hunting in Grand Rapids with the intention of moving back for good. The night before boarding my flight returning to California, I sat at the countertop in the new kitchen, unable to hold back tears, terrified that the mending I had done on my heart would unravel as soon as I stepped foot into a house that had recently stockpiled difficult memories.

The next morning my body naturally woke at the same time I would typically meet my mom upstairs for a cup of coffee, but instead, I was in an empty house in Los Angeles. I put water on to boil and checked to see if any homes in Grand Rapids were recently listed for sale, which was interrupted by Holly whining at the front door. I shuffled my way through the living room to let her outside, held my breath as I turned the knob, expecting a wall of stabbing winter air to greet me. Instead, I was welcomed with a hug of warmth and Holly eagerly bounded down the stairs. I poured a cup of coffee from my favorite gold French press and sat on the top step, still. In that instant, my attitude shifted. With a panting, happy Holly sunbathing in her favorite spot, I could see that this house of mine wasn’t graffitied with sadness and disappointment at all. In fact, it felt much more like the sanctuary it was when I first moved in, rather than the prison I allowed it to become. It was home again, and everything was going to be okay. I could breathe again.

I still don’t know why my personal nature is to fight against the current, to make everything in my life permanent, and carry things that weigh me down, but I do know now where I can go to be still and let go, where I can be imperfect and good. Before I recognized the power of these sacred, quiet spaces, I was unable to find equilibrium. I know now that my balance comes in stillness.

This year’s August was a period of routine, rest, and presence; a month of wondering why I spend so much of my time doing anything but being still, anything but practicing gratitude, anything but allowing myself to simply be. I wonder if the act of stillness itself feels unproductive, dull, or wasteful as even choosing to write about this topic at first felt unnatural, as if it weren’t dramatic or life-changing enough. But through the process of practicing stillness, my perspective has shifted. Perhaps it isn’t the moving, the going, the chasing that results in the greatest change. I think, instead, it is the in-between moments, the lulls and silences when we can check in with ourselves, acknowledging all that we still don’t know but trusting that we are going to be okay. 

All my love,
Kayley

 

SEPTEMBER

A favorite room of mine in mom and dad’s new house is one you would never expect. It’s the laundry room—often missed as it’s tucked off the back hallway and reserved for chores—and I find it strangely peaceful. Aside from the aroma of fresh soap and the whirring sound the dryer makes, it has natural stone floors, wicker baskets, big white cabinets, and a window that looks out to the side yard full of chopped wood, pine, and sky. It’s a room my mom spends considerable time in as she washes the clothing of everyone in the house (one of the many perks of visiting home) and irons my dad’s work slacks and button downs. Detergent, softener, stain remover, and dryer sheets fill the cabinets, but behind the door below the counter, you will find a bin full of craft supplies. These days it contains mostly gift wrap necessities—raffia ribbon in all colors of the rainbow, burlap scraps, craft paper, and carefully designed gift tags—but my mom still holds on to artifacts from her cross-stitching days: embroidery floss, a hoop, and a pair of gold scissors that look like a crane. I recently concluded these treasures had remained untouched for far too long. While putting them to use during my time in Michigan I discovered a natural flow and peace in the simple act of busying my hands with a needle and thread.

I brought my new infatuation with this admittedly old-fashioned hobby back to my modern life in California. After a major haul at Jo-Ann Fabrics, I sat down to start a new pattern from a book of flowers my friend Marlee gave me. In the process of weaving a deep green in and out, in and out, counting two over, then three up, 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, my thoughts drifted from the details of what I worked on to the wonder that I was doing it in the first place. My fingers pinching the needle, veins raising on the backs of my hands, wrists moving in such a way that I could create this fluid, methodical motion; it was just enough to keep my body occupied, but not so much that my mind couldn’t wander. With Holly sound asleep beside me, I could stay in bed for hours, propped up by two pillows, creating one little X after another, my thoughts free to drift as they please.

As a teenager, I allowed my anxiety to show on my hands. I bit my nails down to stumps until a throbbing redness encapsulated each fingertip. Others often asked me, “Doesn’t that hurt?” The answer, of course, was yes. But I was too humiliated to admit it. My mother, also a nail-biter, constantly encouraged me to break the habit, but I bit my nails unconsciously. Any time my hands were idle, they slowly moved to my mouth as I let my thoughts race with worry and stress. All the facts about bacteria and illness, while disturbing, couldn’t curb the vice. Even a horrible tasting nail polish wasn’t a match for my need to nervously gnaw. I felt embarrassed about the way my hands looked and started finding other things to hate about them; how crooked my index fingers are, the flatness of my nail beds, the natural clamminess of my palms, but worst of all was the nail biting. At age 18, I was able to convince myself that I was capable of controlling this habit, and I decided it was time to stop allowing it to rule over me. So, finally, after years of sitting with my hands tucked between my legs or hiding them in my pockets, I took my power back.

My freshman year of college was a time of fresh starts, new experiences, and rediscovery. This included my commitment to painting my nails every day, knowing that if they were well cared for, I wouldn’t want to ruin them by putting them in my mouth. I learned simple nail art, accumulated a library of colors, and never wavered from this routine. By the end of the year, my desire to bite my nails vanished.

Now I keep my nails long because it reminds of me of a challenge I overcame. It may seem small, but at the time it felt monumental. In some ways it still does; breaking the habit was directly connected to inner noise and worry. Now I can use them to quiet my mind even more, to assist in threading a needle, plucking away stray threads, breaking down a six-strand piece of embroidery floss down into the two threads I need to stitch.

My index fingers still curve inward; I still have constantly muggy palms. Over time my hands have accumulated scars, veins, and subtle signs of aging. But rather than disparaging these perceived imperfections, I choose to cherish them. The triangle-shaped scar on my right hand from the time little brother dropped a glass pickle jar in the garage lives on the same finger as my mom’s original wedding band, a simple gold hoop with scratches on the side where it used to be soldered to her engagement ring. The blue tributaries that flow from my wrist to my first knuckle look an awful lot like the veins in the hands I used to admire when I was a little girl, my mother’s, the ones I thought were capable of healing through touch, that could mend anything torn and remove even the toughest of stains. As I complete the second stitch of an X to create a petal on a yellow flower, I can see burns from curling irons, freckles that have appeared over time, and a ring finger on my left hand that no longer has a ghostly tan line, a reminder of a past life, proof that there is life after death. These physical characteristics combine to tell bits of my story, show where I’ve been, and remind me how far I’ve come -- and they live on hands that are still able to learn new skills, touch new people, and give more freely. Their petite size complemented by the soft pink color on my nails does nothing to diminish their capability. I can’t help but feel that this often overlooked, yet incredible body part is a powerful metaphor for the female gender as a whole.

Performing an act as simple as completing a cross-stitch is more of a miracle than it is mundane. Our hands contain 29 bones, 29 joints, 123 ligaments, 48 nerves, and 30 arteries; moving our fingers requires 34 muscles. Homo sapiens are the only species that can use ulnar opposition, which is the ability to rotate the index and ring fingers across the palm to meet the thumb. The appearance of our fingernails can be used as an indicator for larger health issues, and a quarter of the part in our brain that controls all movement in the body is dedicated to our hands. Our fingertips are more sensitive than our eyes, containing more receptors for sending messages to our brains. Aside from using our hands to touch, we can also use our hands as a supplement for sight; their movement can replace words. In many ways, our hands are the ultimate tool used to express ourselves literally and creatively.

On a daily basis, I use my hands to prepare food that nourishes my body, text faraway friends, adorn myself in clothes that express who I am, and write down thoughts that become poems. With my hands I can create hairstyles that make women feel as beautiful as they truly are and earn my livelihood in the process. I am insistent on purchasing books with pages I can touch and turn, rather than owning a Kindle. I send letters instead of using a blog simply because an object’s physical form can directly affect its value, and I believe that the sense of touch is infinitely important even as it is being minimized. My favorite mugs fit perfectly in my palm and I can’t stop stroking my own arms while wearing my favorite cashmere cardigan. With my hands I have held my friend’s babies, braided my little sister’s hair, opened champagne bottles when there was reason to celebrate, wiped tears off another’s cheeks when there was reason to grieve.

While my hands are capable of miraculous tasks like expressing care and love and providing physical and emotional nourishment, I continually notice all the ways I use them to self-deprecate. On the days I feel ashamed of my body, it is my hands that smooth the curves on the outside of my thighs I sometimes wish would melt away. I allow my thumbs to type names into search bars, knowing whatever I uncover will only hurt me. I still can’t stop picking at my cuticles, plucking away split ends, running my fingers over wrinkles that are slowly appearing on my forehead. I pour myself a third glass of wine that I don’t need. I use them to hold the hand of someone I know will eventually break my heart. I find myself grabbing each opposite elbow and wrapping my arms around my chest in an attempt to shrink when I’m not feeling big and brave. In doing so I create an enemy of myself.

My hands are a mirror reflecting who I am; what I do with them is a clear expression of what lives inside of me, what I believe in. I am beginning to understand that I have the power and ability to affect and be affected by touch. Acknowledging this has helped me think loving thoughts toward this part of my body that I used to detest and hide. I want to look down while stitching and feel a sense of amazement over what I create with my fingers. I want to hug others and appreciate the feeling of their backs on my palms, as I know the people in my life are the best gift I’ve been given. I want to be honored for the opportunity to curl, shape, and pin strands of hair in a way that makes a woman feel infinitely special. I want to use my hands to take care of my body and heart rather than picking myself apart, and I want my physical form to be an expression of love for others as well as a vessel that holds tight the love I have for myself. I want to see myself as the living miracle that I am. And I want this for you, too.

As my hands create the final stitch in one of the dainty, butter yellow flowers, I set my embroidery hoop down and welcome Holly onto my lap. She looks up at me adoringly as I use my fingers to comb her fur and I think of how grateful I am for this part of my body I never imagined I could love.

It is never too late. What is it that makes you cringe when you look in a mirror? How can you rearrange your thinking about that part of your body, and start seeing its infinite value instead of its imperfections? In what ways are you allowing your physical self to be an enemy, rather than a friend, and what can you do create a sense of harmony instead opposition? Stop fighting yourself. You’re making this life harder than it needs to be. You are beautiful, talented, powerful, influential, magical. Your body has known this for a long time. Perhaps it is time for your head and heart to catch up.

All my love,
Kayley

 

OCTOBER

A year ago, this month, I thought my life was about to dramatically change. Throughout the last days of October 2015, I created a narrative    about my future; a tale of international travel, breathing joy into the lives of others, and sleeping soundly next to a man who made every previous heartbreak and hurt worthwhile. I believed everything that happened in my previous 28 years of life simply set me up for this—an opportunity to love more deeply and live more freely than I imagined possible. I was certain of it. I was intoxicated by it. 

On a chilly night at the end of the month, I invited Fairfax over for dinner. We made our staple: a kale salad dressed in lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper, as well as steamed pot stickers with homemade ponzu sauce. Toward the end of our meal, after we sufficiently updated each other on the happenings of our lives, my phone buzzed. It was him. We had met on Instagram a week prior and made true-to-Los-Angeles plans to meet for the first time over an overpriced juice. While the date wasn’t for another couple of days, he was already crossing my mind more than anyone I knew in person. After our first few correspondences, I found myself breaking into an unexplainable smile and my stomach fluttering when his name appeared in my newsfeed. I was already smitten. “Are you busy right now?” flashed across my screen. I glanced up at Fairfax and the excitement in my eyes said what I didn’t have to. “It’s him, isn’t it? What does it say?!” “He wants to know if I’m busy right now.” “You aren’t! You aren’t!” Dutifully following the dating rule about not giving a home address to a stranger, I said he could pick me up at a restaurant down the street in fifteen minutes. We dashed into my room, tore through my wardrobe and decided on my favorite blue jeans, a simple tee, and a long, olive green cardigan because it enhanced my eyes. My hair was in a messy bun from an afternoon spent in the park with Holly, and while I imagined meeting him for the first time with my hair down, it would have to do. I touched up my minimal makeup and Fairfax told me I looked beautiful. “I’ve never been so anxious before a date. Maybe I should cancel. Should I cancel?” “No. I have a good feeling about this. I’m so excited for you.”

Fairfax and I waited in her car outside the restaurant, and just before I was sure I would explode from anticipation, he pulled up in a shiny Audi that was somehow silver, blue, and green all at once, and got out to meet me in the middle of the street. He was taller than I expected, less composed, more awkward. His smile was vibrant and wide as he walked me to the passenger side and opened the car door. His gaze was already adoring, like he was looking at an old friend. As I settled into the leather seat, my nerves relaxed, and it was like I had been here before. Like walking through the backdoor of my parent’s house. Like waking up in my childhood bedroom.

An hour later I was perched on his rooftop with a clear view of the stars—wrapped in a blanket, a pair of his wool socks warming my toes—and sharing my story. I looked away from his enraptured stare as I told the hardest parts, and beamed as I talked about my family. His story aligned with mine as if we had been dancing together for years; as if our two lives traveled parallel all this time and one of us shifted just enough so that we were now completely in sync with one another, destined to do life together. He said I felt clean; that hard work filled the past years of my life, creating space and peace inside of me; that it was breathtaking to witness. “There is a light coming out of you,” he said. I saw a shooting star. He told me it was his birthday.

These magical moments went on for weeks until suddenly confusion, mixed signals, and tears replaced them. Our late nights of conversation and laughter turned into evenings when I went to bed early and alone, looking forward to the first moments of the next day as they were often the most hopeful and not yet riddled with the disappointment that I hadn’t heard from him… again. I couldn’t think about anything else. It was a “Sex and the City” episode come to life, specifically the episode when Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte staged an intervention after Carrie’s breakup with Big because she had to stop talking about it. “But I spent time with his kids. He told his mom about me. He said he had never been so happy.” I simply couldn’t accept that the good times were a memory instead of a present reality, and that letting go was my only choice. I desperately searched for signs that he still cared. I interpreted every “like” on Instagram and feeble text message as “I love you,” even though he had never actually said those words to me.

Over the following weeks I lost sleep and weight and direction. I prayed for healing. It arrived slowly, a sun creeping over a horizon after a stormy night. It began in those early mornings; in moments spent curled up with Holly in Fairfax’s bed as she played old episodes of “Friends” for me on her iPad; in her offerings of water and tea and sometimes tequila; in the sound of my mom’s voice as she counted down the days remaining until I was home for Christmas. And then it came in tears cried at a Grand Rapids brewery; in waking up to a view of a lake outside my window; in coffee with mom every day; in game after game of pool with dad; in laughter at happy hour; in long conversations on Lily’s couch.

I blocked his phone number and let months pass. The person I was before we met returned. I dated other people. I found my footing. I was over it. I was stronger because of it—and willing to test that strength.

That night in March he admitted he couldn’t remember how to get to my house—the one he once referred to as “Eden.” It took him twice as long as expected to arrive. He sat on the left side of the couch, the one closest to the record player, which was playing my favorite songs. He remarked on how we had the exact same taste in music, and as he studied the bag full letters on the coffee table, his eyes filled with tears. He said it was as if he saw my heart and soul laid out before him, and he begged me to come closer. I resisted, and felt a wave of terror as I looked into his eyes. As his mouth moved, I sat uncomfortably with the feeling that everything he said seemed untrue, especially when the words “I love you” fell from his lips for the first time. “I love you. You’re a part of me. I still can’t offer you anything. Please let me hold you.”

It was only a matter of weeks before I blocked his phone number again. That singular test of strength was enough to learn that I don’t need to test my strength to know it is there. Sometimes strength is in understanding your weaknesses, and perhaps the real strength is in maintaining a boundary, rather than not needing one at all. Healing happens in safe spaces and I had to learn to create and maintain that safe place.

It’s been a year since the night we laid on our backs looking up at the stars, a year since he remarked that he could see a light coming from me. He was the first person to tell me he saw it, but now I see it in myself every day. Rather than remembering what it sounded like when he said, “There is a light coming out of you.” I recall what it felt like to say the two words that fell out of my mouth in response, two words that surprised us both. “I know.” They came from nowhere, or rather somewhere buried so deep I didn’t even know they were there.

Prior to our meeting, I spent years rebuilding my life, questioning what I believed, learning lessons the hard way, scrubbing my most hidden corners, and I still felt dirty inside. I had adopted a kindness and compassion I never imagined possible and I still carried around guilt and a feeling of unworthiness. It was as if that “I know” sprung out of a place inside me I hadn’t yet explored. It was a preview of what was to come. I look back on who I was a year ago, a girl who, at age 28, was divorced and in a new city she never expected to call home. Despite all she already overcame she never could have anticipated that the next few months would shape her in a way she hadn’t yet experienced, that there was still more to learn, and there always will be. She may have been naïve and had far less figured out than she chose to project, but I am so proud of her. I am proud of those two words she said before she even recognized their truth. Now, a whole rotation around the sun later, after that boy came and went and came and went again, she hasn’t let him take the light away with him. Because the light is still inside her, perhaps brighter than ever, and she knows that now. She knows.

I know.

This is what I don’t know. I don’t know the ten steps to heal heartbreak. I don’t know how to stop involuntary tears or when you’ll be able to listen to his favorite song again. I don’t know when you will be grateful to sleep in the middle of the bed or when using his toothbrush to clean the grout on the bathroom floor will feel more redemptive than disappointing. I don’t know the how-to’s or the timeline or the formula, and I don’t know if anyone does. I do know that healing takes time. I know that it is more like a TSA line of back and forths than an elevator rising. But even in your weaving in and out of good and bad days, you are still moving forward. Accept that it comes in waves. Be grateful for the good days and forgive yourself for the bad ones. Know that sometimes that is the best you can do. Know that practicing gratitude and grace and forgiveness is sometimes a lot to deal with. It’s okay to feel tired. It’s okay to feel discouraged. It’s okay to be sad. But know that someday you won’t be. Tell yourself that there is a light inside of you and practice saying, “I know.” Look forward to the day you believe yourself. It will come.

 

Today is Halloween. It’s a chilly day in Los Angeles, and I recall how last year on this day we were on our way to Point Dume in Malibu. I was wearing my favorite swimsuit cover up, a canvas-colored tunic with embroidery and drawstrings that hang from the neck with tassels at the end. I remember because the photos he took of me that day as I gleefully playing in the ocean are some of the few from that time in my life that I haven’t deleted from my Instagram.

Last year it was warm enough to go in the water and stay until after sunset, but today I am wearing the bootcut jeans I bought three years ago in hopes they would come back in style, a chunky secondhand sweater, and a scarf I rediscovered in the back of my closet. I’m eating alone outside at a local restaurant, and I’m happy. I’m just as happy today as I was a year ago. But the difference is that today’s happiness is far less anxious, less worrisome, than last year’s happiness. Last year’s happiness was dependent on the undependable, on the actions of another person and his sudden, disorienting presence in my life. Today’s happiness is rooted deep in me and with that comes an inexplicable feeling of peace. It is an unshakeable satisfaction that I could have only learned through the mistake of deriving my joy from somewhere other than my own self. And despite my despair when this man continually told me he couldn’t offer me anything, I have found a way for those words to stay with me in a more positive way. No one can offer me anything that will make me more happy, joyful, and grateful than I am right now. While I hope for the opportunity to someday share this new way of living with someone who has also experienced it, I know that if I begin each morning for the rest of my life waking up to only myself, I will still anticipate every new day. This light does not burn out when there’s no one but me to see it. It is a year later, and I know that now.

All my love,
Kayley

NOVEMBER

How many times do you think you’ve said, “I’m fine” or “it’s okay” when you were neither fine nor okay? Probably more than you can remember. I toted those phrases during the most difficult times in my life, when everything was neither fine nor okay. Rather, I was swimming in a sea of pain and didn’t see a clear path to reconciling it. So, on the morning of November 9, while greeting students at the yoga studio I work at, the question suddenly felt loaded. I asked, “How are you?” knowing that the answer would not be “Good!” or even “Fine” or “Okay.” Instead, the responses involved sighs, head shakes, and sometimes a simple “not great.” The teacher entered with bloodshot eyes and earnestly said, “I don’t know what to say to them. What do I say to them?”

The morning proceeded solemnly, with mats freckled with tears and more hugs than usual. Rather than working on my usual social media tasks while class was in session, I walked to the coffee shop, and then to the juice bar for an acai bowl, searching for anything to distract me from the events of the night before. 

I am grateful that my neighborhood, Highland Park, is a community where my opinions and values feel widely represented. I live in a world of tolerance and forward thinking. My favorite streets host modern coffee shops and family-owned Mexican bakeries, sidewalk taco stands and brand new cocktail lounges. I overhear conversations in languages I don’t understand on a daily basis; no one blinks an eye at anyone wearing clothing they aren’t familiar with. This felt like a notable change when I first moved to Los Angeles but it only took a couple years for this environment to feel normal. It’s easy to forget the intolerance that occurs in other parts of the country, or rather to adopt a hope that I don’t live in a progressive city and that the rest of the country is keeping up. As November 8 approached, Highland Park buzzed with excitement. It already felt decided.

The environment shifted overnight to crushing disappointment. Throughout the residential streets, blue signs displaying a woman’s name that once represented an impending triumph were suddenly relics; a reminder of a movement now postponed. Local news stations frantically reported on a sea of protesters downtown. #Calexit became a trending hashtag on social media as some California residents looked into the logistics of seceding. The cry was deafening, but uniting in this pain and fear makes the election results easier to grieve. It allows me to avoid the automatic “fine” or “okay” without worry that my response would be met with resistance. It also makes it easier to understand the way I handle disappointment.

Summer 2013. Ex-husband is accusing me of being selfish. Our counselor has yet to see me cry because I am past the point of tears. I stay silent in many of our meetings; completely disassociated from the life I just left. If I’m honest, I know I made up my mind the minute I moved out, but living in an environment of “shoulds” keeps me from taking the next step. Instead, I return to my spot on a couch next to this man I don’t love anymore and across from a counselor I suspect doesn’t like me very much (but I don’t really blame him because I don’t think that, right now, I should like myself all that much either). I attempt to reopen wounds I covered over the past few years so I don’t look callused, but I can’t do it naturally. It’s clear that my entire being just wants to move on.

Winter 2013-2014. It’s New Years Eve and I’m at lunch with a friend, shedding tears while stuffing my mouth with half-off sushi. I’m about to walk down the street to meet my lawyer, Hal, at the courthouse. My phone is rattling the table as texts from the soon-to-be ex-husband stream in. Pictures he took of me years prior—when my smile still looked genuine—flood my lock screen. My friend tells me to turn my phone off.  

Hours later, my phone is back on and the divorce is final. I’m wearing a black dress with an open back that I adored when it arrived in the mail. I made the mistake of shopping for the accessories after court and suddenly jewelry and shoes feel unimportant. After visiting the fourth store, I choose a necklace that is “good enough” and stop at Walgreen’s for a cranberry lipstick to match. Now-official ex-husband and I meet for a beer before going our separate ways. My way is to a mansion party. I’m introduced to someone who grew up in Grand Rapids but moved to Los Angeles. He’s standing outside surrounded in a cloud of cigarette smoke, wearing two scarves, mala beads, and a hood over his hair long enough to tie back. He seems dark and mysterious to me, foreign, different... refreshing. We become fast friends. By mid-January, he has talked up Los Angeles enough
that I feel compelled to move. I tell my family and some friends, emotionally check out of Grand Rapids, and spend the next few months planning my somewhat impulsive move.


Fall 2015. The first signs of trouble in my fresh relationship arise. I ask Danielle if I can visit her in Colorado for Thanksgiving. I leave the next morning, drive 15 hours, and fill my soul back up with the reminder of how beautiful our world can be. I begin to wonder if sunsets in Utah have actual healing powers.

Winter 2015. I’m crying in my parent’s living room. At their kitchen counter. On the big chair in the basement. Into the pillow in the guest bedroom. I’m digging through my library of saved quotes and come across an old favorite by Warsan Shire. I have an idea. The Year of the Work is born. 

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion shares words that resonated with her as she mourned the loss of her husband, a much greater grief than I feel I’ve ever experienced, yet grief all the same: “‘A night of memories and sighs / I consecrate to thee.” ‘A night of memories and sighs,’ I remembered the lecturer repeating. A night. One night. It might be all night but he doesn’t even say all night, he says a night, not a matter of a life, a matter of some hours.”

I can see so clearly now that this is how I handle disappointment. I give it a (long) night of memories and sighs. I white-knuckle sadness; let it consume me for a period of time, and then quickly let it go. And it took me this many years to realize that not everyone is this way. We all process in our own time, and none of us are wrong. This month I’ve given all sorts of grace about this; grace to those who require more time to mourn and grace to myself—particularly past versions of myself—when I questioned my compassion and true depth of feeling because I’m inclined to set my sadness aside in favor of action. It’s allowed me to process the many instances when others accused me of being callused or cold-hearted as well as the times I’ve berated myself for not acting in a way I thought was appropriate, for not feeling enough, for the emotional whiplash my personal grieving process entails.

November 10, 2016. Two days after the election. I wake up feeling a fire stoked in me overnight. The results motivate me, rather than crush me, and I’m eager to find a way to use my voice to create change, to bring people together. I’m eager to talk hopefully, strategically, and with fresh insight. I’m ready to pick myself up and rise strong. I unlock the yoga studio door and wait for the students to arrive. The first walks in. She attended class the day before and I can sense that she is still suffering from a wounded spirit. She is still sad. And so is the next student. And the teacher. And I realize that many of us need more time; that the energy for action that quickly erupts in me sometimes takes longer to emerge in others.

In the RobCast discussing the election, Rob Bell has a conversation with Pete Rollins, who shares some insight into hope, specifically the two different kinds of hope. The first type is a passive hope that trusts it’ll all be okay. It assumes that things will go the way we want if given enough time. The second type of hope occurs in disturbance. It’s a hope that demands action, a hope that we can make a better world.

This second type of hope is what I concern myself with lately. The need for a consistent, passive hope has faded over the past few years. I no longer rely on the “everything will be okay” mentality. Since realizing that my hope doesn’t die in difficulty, I have begun to direct energy into a hope that requires action, that promises progress. During some of the hardest times in my life, I realized the importance of forward motion and took steps whenever possible to make that happen, whether it involved a move, a trip, a project. Granted, much of this was a distraction, but it also served as a healing tool. It allowed me to grow and become greater, rather than fixating on the backward notion of becoming “great again.”

November left many of us feeling deflated and discouraged, lamenting for our country and the progress we felt we had made. In considering what steps to take next, I have reflected on times in my life when it seemed like everything was right on track, but there were strong undercurrents I kept ignoring. Something wasn’t quite right, but I found myself burying it, rather than resolving it. This way of living never turned out well for me. It almost always led to a moment of reckoning when I found myself needing to unearth the unresolved, to quite literally “dig out the rot.” In order to get to the root of the suppressed, I've always needed to dismantle and disintegrate perceived progresses I've made. I moved out of the "dream" house I spent so long putting together. I ended my style blog I worked so painstakingly to build. I ended my marriage. And I believe that's where our country finds itself today: tearing down so it can re-build something sturdier, something more united, something greater.

A wound is exposed. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it’s scary. It’s okay to not be “okay.” It’s fine not to feel “fine.” I affirm your fear and your sadness, but I hope you will agree with me when I say we have to find the second version of hope. We must take action. We must create a better world.

But how? It’s a big question—not because there is no one right answer, but because there are many small answers and we don’t know the best or most impactful answer.

My current vision of progress looks like a lot of daunting, scattered puzzle pieces that we have been asked to assemble without seeing the final image. It feels impossible that they could all come together to create something beautiful, but we are assured that they can. There is not an obvious grand solution and there are many options of what to do, even if each step feels so insignificantly small. Some of us may easily spot the edges or corners, others may see which colors align, but neither of these abilities alone is enough. Even when progress feels unattainable, I think we all can agree on what not to do—and that is to do nothing. We need all visions, talents, and perspectives. Together we can piece together the big picture if we each find our contribution, adopt a strong determination, and refuse to give up.

I know now that my strongest voice often emerges out of grief and my desperate need to make sense out of it. To make everything purposeful. To be able to say “I’m fine” or “it’s okay” quickly, whether or not I mean it; to let disappointment go and embrace the hope that I can make things better. I think of this as a public strength and a personal weakness. I feel called to use my quick resolve to lead and encourage action in others. However, the truth is that getting past the initial disappointment has never been where my grieving ends.

Moving to Los Angeles didn’t immediately resolve certain conflicts within myself. Many of the issues I was numb to while in Grand Rapids finally surfaced when I was miles away from their origin and no longer publicly dealing with them. After The Year of the Work began, it became clear that it wasn’t a solution to my heartache, but rather a tool to process it. I struggled with bouts of sadness even during the most inspiring months of the project. Similarly, I know that I will dig out the shrapnel of this election for the next four years and some of us may feel aches of it for the rest of our lives. Despite the remnants of pain that stay with us long after a tragedy occurs, I can say that even in my moments of deepest sorrow and anxiety, the next month still came—and with it came progress. Even on the days when I asked myself where this all was going, everything inevitably moved forward and I got to decide how I would participate and what I would contribute. Even in sorrow, I know I still have something to say.

Whatever you do, do not tell yourself that your voice is insignificant. Though what you profess may feel like an echo of what those have said before you, you have the power to say it in a whole new way, because we each express ourselves uniquely. We fall into the trap of believing that in order for a voice to be heard, it must be loud. But even whispers have the power to encourage change. Like smiling at a stranger, like choosing non-judgment, like hugging a friend, like volunteering, like exercising patience, like taking pride in your work, like practicing self-care, like creating art, like having hard conversations… We each have ways we can contribute to this new action-based hope. But, getting to our destination will require many perspectives and passions. Look closely. Help heal the wounds that you can.

I don’t know what will happen in our country or our world over the next four years. But I remain hopeful that this disruption will jumpstart powerful change. I hold on to the belief that in the battle of good and evil it isn’t a matter of good winning, but rather good growing; an end to complacency and the beginning of active participation, a desire for deep understanding, and new, emboldened love. I pray that with each questionable decision made in our government, each saddening news headline, and every act of hate, our motivation will simply grow stronger; that we won’t give up, that we will see it as a cry for more light in the darkness, another way to stoke our fire.

I am eager to witness what will rise from the ashes many of us experienced this month. Nearly three weeks later I can already see a fresh energy blooming throughout my neighborhood. There’s a growing atmosphere of determination rather than defeat, and this time I know it isn’t specific to the area I live in. It has spread across the country in numbers large enough that we can begin putting these pieces together. I am bursting with faith in the power of the individual; with the belief in a bright future fueled by those of us who refuse to be silent. I believe in myself. I believe in you. I believe in us.

All my love,

Kayley