The “Perfect” Marriage

Twenty years ago I went to the pool at my apartment complex and noticed this guy and his friend. That day he approached me and asked, “for his friend” if I was single? Eighteen years ago I married him on June 1st, 2001 and the rest is history. Isn’t it crazy? The moments that lead up to some of the most important decisions of our lives are just that simple. I said yes to a date with Greg because I thought he was super handsome. I moved in with him because he made me feel safe and loved. I married him because in his eyes I felt like the most important person in the world while still holding on to my own identity. I had children with him because I wanted to create a family of our own with all the love and the mess that we experienced growing up. And I have stayed with him for a thousand different reasons. But perfect? Not a chance. The happiest years of my life have been spent with Greg Webb and some of the most challenging years too. It has not been perfect, to say the least, but we are still hanging on, still in love and still learning every day how to be good to each other and ourselves.

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The first eleven years of marriage for us were fairly smooth sailing. Don’t get me wrong, we had our challenges with infertility, juggling our dual income household with kids, frustrations with careers and the loss of parents, not easy stuff. I do remember feeling some sense of pride that we never went through the seven-year itch. I also remember not relating to my friends who experienced what would be considered “normal” struggle in their marriage early on. Greg and I were super easy going, hard workers, kind, enjoyed home life and our families and still had a very healthy intimate relationship. And we almost never…ever… fought. I can count on one hand in those eleven years how many times we raised our voices to one another. It seemed almost too good to be true. There’s no punch line here, in many ways it was just easy and it was that simple, we were happy. What we weren’t learning was how to communicate about difficult things, tell each other the truth, even when it was hard and this would eventually impact us in years to come.

At ten years of marriage, life took a major turn for Greg and our entire family. In 2011 it was clear that Greg was struggling to maintain his work schedule and performance due to multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed in 2007 but the symptoms were now taking their toll on Greg’s body, he was exhausted all the time and his company was frustrated with him. It was time to step out of the workforce and take care of himself physically and mentally. The good news was that I was enjoying my career with an amazing company and on a good track for progress. Greg could stay home with the kids and I could lean into my career and provide for our family. It was scary but it was workable. This dynamic changed a lot for us and in anticipation for that, we proactively started counseling. We talked openly about how this could impact us and it still felt easy and manageable. We thought we were doing everything right, and at the time I think we were. We were doing the best we could under the circumstances and counting our blessings every day. We had to learn to communicate differently. Now that he was the stay home parent I had to back off and let him manage the home. This was really hard for me and I struggled to release control which made it hard for him to own his part in the family. It took us almost three years to get our rhythm and better understand who owned what role in our new life. For instance, Greg was responsible for all house maintenance and daily tasks related to kids like checking homework, filling out paperwork, making meals, doing laundry and taking kids to the doctors when they were sick. I still managed the more strategic demands like birthday party planning, annual doctor visits, and parent/teacher conferences. We eventually started to settle into our new normal and I found a lot of peace knowing that Greg was home every day with our children. Today this feels like a massive luxury and I believe our kids are the amazing people that they are because of this dynamic. He’s home but he’s hands-off with all of them. He likes to call this “free-range parenting”. It gives them the freedom to be independent with the consistency and safety of having a parent close by ready to support them when needed. Greg is the most amazing father to our children. When I think about their relationships and how he compliments my super deep emotional side with his laughter and simplicity, it’s truly magical.

Appreciating how we complement each other and recognizing our different strengths took me years to get to. I spent many years frustrated and jealous that I was the one that went off to work every day while he got to be at home enjoying the three most important people in our lives. At the time I harbored resentment and didn’t share these feelings, it slowly chipped away at our foundation without me even realizing it was happening. In the earlier years when he was getting around more easily, I had all of these expectations of what I thought he should be doing while he was home. When I’d find out that he hit the gym, got a massage and went tanning I wanted to strangle him. I was traveling all over the country and working until 7pm trying to keep up and climb the corporate ladder. But I was also getting a lot of free time to be with other adults and enjoy dinners out while he was trapped at home with the kids. When I was home I felt the pull from the children for attention and it was hard to commit to time with just Greg. We were both getting sucked into the new roles that we had established and over many years we slowly started to drift apart. We had a routine and the routine did not include real conversation or real feelings of any kind. We were “nice” and we were raising our family in a calm and loving home but we weren’t paying attention to each other’s needs. He wasn’t interacting with other people as much and I was spending less and less time at home, it was inevitable that without an intentional intervention we would find ourselves distant over the years. This happened so slowly that I didn’t even realize it was happening. You go about your day to day lives and take so many things for granted and the drift finally puts you oceans apart on completely different vessels.

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When I stopped to really assess the situation I had not only lost my partner, I wasn’t quite sure who I was anymore. I felt lost and alone and afraid. I felt more and more out of control so…I prayed. I needed to figure this out, I was very unhappy and disengaged emotionally. I knew that breaking up our family, and not figuring it out, was NOT an option but I was starting to wish it was. See, at some point, things get so hard that fixing them feels like way more work than starting over. But I knew in my heart of hearts that Greg was my forever partner in all things. I never stopped loving him, not once. I was just tired and uncertain about what to do next. So, I did the only thing I knew to do and I buried it all deep down inside…for years. Over this time Greg and I just stopped talking, about anything meaningful. When we did try to talk it would escalate into a defensive argument about who was doing less. We both had valid perspectives, we had both stopped doing our part and the only way out of this was to own that. We would each have to start looking in the mirror to find our way back. I’ve been using a therapist for years and I was going regularly. She’s the same person that Greg and I first went to all those years before and I think of her as a life coach. I finally broke down and told her that I couldn’t keep living in this place anymore. We were not connecting in our relationship and I was not dealing with my unhappiness. I told Greg that if we didn’t start to get help, we wouldn’t make it. It was one of the scariest moments in my life but I was done and ready to surrender.

Michelle

This moment, this terrifying moment when you lay down the truth and you own the problem feels like getting the wind knocked out of you and holding your breath all at the same time. He had to respond and I was unsure just how unhappy he had become and what he was willing, or not willing, to do. It was at this moment, when I surrendered, that I knew I had made the best decision of my life all those years ago. I had picked a man that would love me through all the crazy and the emotion and the mess. He would not run from the fight and he would not only be there to love me but he would put in the work to grow and change so that we could start working towards a healthy loving relationship again.  We started to talk and tell each other the truth, even if it hurt at the moment. We sought help from an expert and began to share, “the stories that we were making up in our own head” so that we could clarify and better understand one other.  The love of my life showed up and he keeps showing up every day since.

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So for me, this is what a “perfect” marriage looks like. There are so many other details and moments that I could share and many that will always be just between Greg and me. But what I’m starting to understand is that learning and growth will be constant. We will not arrive in some place where we just get to stop paying attention, it takes work and commitment and patience and forgiveness and of course love. It means putting your partner’s needs ahead of your own at times AND stopping to take care of your own needs too. We’ve had 20 years of ups and downs, laughter and tears, chaos and silence, and I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone other than the man that approached me all those years ago at the pool. We are individually and collectively perfectly imperfect.heart-8544467

Greg, thank you for for being the man that loves me despite all my imperfections, you are the love of my life and the smartest decision I ever made.

Happy 18th!

Forget Me Not

I’m obsessed with capturing memories and I’ve been like this for as long as I can…well…remember. I take pictures of almost every moment possible and I’ve been journaling my entire adult life. I also have journals for all my kids that I started when Greg and I found out that I was pregnant with each of them. I didn’t want to forget or miss a minute of their lives. I typically focus on the emotions in a given time period or scenario but I try to capture dates and details as much as possible. Over time I have been less consistent in keeping up with them but I do my best. Social media changed the game for me and I use it constantly to help in my quest to document life, specifically Facebook for my personal story. I do enjoy sharing the adventures we have as a family, both big and small, but the main reason I document so much online is to create “My Social Book” which is a hardcover book with every post I’ve put on Facebook for that year. I have a book for every year since 2009, which is when I joined the site. My kids and their friends enjoy looking through these books now and I hope that will only matter more as time goes on. Books-FBI keep memory boxes for everyone in the family. The kids have trunks so they can toss all their awards, photos, notes, art, and special assignments into them for future reminiscing. They usually aren’t concerned about keeping much so I often put things that I think are special in the box for them because I know it might matter later. I love to watch their faces light up when they riffle through them and find that unexpected treasure. Even this blog is a way for me to capture what I’m thinking and what’s happening with my life right now.

But when I look at all of these different ways I capture memories it does feel a bit obsessive. I often recognize those moments when I’m so busy taking a picture that I’m missing out on the overall moment itself. It’s hard for me to just relax and enjoy a special event because I’m thinking, “I really need to document this!” I have thought a lot about why I feel the need to capture so much and I think there are a few reasons. For one, I’ve always struggled with my memory. I have very few clear memories as a child or even as late as my twenties. I’ve struggled with my memory in general, which made school very difficult and sometimes my work and relationships. I talked to my Mom when I was in high school about my concern with my memory and she bought me these memory tapes to try and support my development. They did help a little because they taught me about using association to remember facts, names, and dates. The best way I know how to describe my issue is this; it’s like my filing system is busted.  I know it’s in there but I can’t seem to easily retrieve it. I do enjoy learning about people so I’m very intentional about being present in conversations. I do my best to limit distractions and really listen to someone when they are speaking to me, especially when they are sharing something difficult and vulnerable. Typically I walk away from those conversations feeling more connected to that person and having a better sense of who they are. But if you ask me a week from that moment what the details were, the chances are that 9 times out of 10 I won’t be able to retrieve many of them. This has caused a lot of frustration for me. Cb64K3DXIAEJd2xI’ve learned to write everything down to combat the issue.  Professionally I keep notes on everyone I have an ongoing relationship with so that I can capture the details they have shared with me. Before going into a conversation I might review the notes to spark some memories of past dialog. In my role at work I run a lot of workshops and office meetings and I’m always concerned I will forget someone or something that should be at the forefront of my mind. I’m blessed to have people share a lot of themselves and their lives with me and when I don’t have it top of mind I’m afraid they will feel like they don’t matter. So I do my best before going on a visit to scan the names of every employee to help me put faces with names when I get there. I also look back on any notes I may have on anyone I’m going to see to jog my memory. I write everything down in my work journal, this helps me process information and also provides a reference to conversations. I write the date in every entry with the name of the person I’m talking with. I’ve built systems to overcome this issue but it takes extra work for sure. I always envy those that can easily recall information and I try to partner with them during any trivia game;-)

My parents did capture a lot of memories in pictures and I’m so grateful for that.  They also used audio tapes to record our Christmas mornings and I loved listening to everyone’s voices as we managed the chaos of that moment. All those pictures that they took have helped me remember things that feel so tucked away in my mind that they would be lost for good without the help of a photograph. But I think if I’m getting at the heart of why I want to capture all of these moments it has to do with my Dad. I think that losing him in my early twenties has shaped this obsession. I was just getting to know my Dad and never really had the opportunity to be an adult with him, so I missed out on really understanding who he was. 229177_10201089527819594_1408220212_nOutside of many childhood photographs and a few dozen handwritten letters (thank God for them) I only have what I can remember, and that is very little.  This picture of my Dad, brother and me in the mountains with our dog Misty has reinforced the “mountain man” persona that comes to mind when I think about my Dad. But he was so much more than that, and I wish I could have more insight into his mind, his beliefs, and his heart. I don’t think any of us are as simple as what people see in moments which is why I love capturing so much over many years. Watching people change and grow is an amazing process.

So then there’s fear, this is most likely the key driver in my obsession to document my life. I watched my grandmother struggle with dementia and now I’m losing my own Mom to this terrible disease. There’s so much “forgetting” and it’s scary to watch as she can’t comprehend exactly what’s happening. She understands that she’s getting confused and forgetting some things but can’t tell the difference of what she’s remembering correctly. It’s terrifying. Mom and memaI don’t know what life has in store for me. I can only hope that I’ll be here for many years to connect with my family and friends and continue to enjoy and capture a million more moments…and remember many of them. No matter how much time I have I do want to leave behind something that will help those I love to understand who I am and what I truly care about. If they were to look at the tens of thousands of pictures and the hundreds of thousands of words what I  hope they’ll see is how much I cared about each of them.  The pictures are only a little bit for me, they are mostly for them. I imagine one day when my kids are grown and have families of their own they may want to look back and fill in their own blanks as we all do and maybe all my “remembering” now will help just a little. In my quest to be the best version of myself I do want to be even more present and in the moment but I can’t promise that I won’t have that iPhone and pen ready to do the memorizing for me.Memory-quote-with-image-Dr-Seuss

 

Voice From the Grave

When you lose someone, I suspect, there is always a part of you that feels a bit empty but there are times in my life that the loss of my Dad, all those years ago, brings to surface a certain longing that sucks me down this black hole of emotion. It seems to happen mostly during the big life moments. My marriage, the birth of all three of my children, watching my brother struggle with alcoholism. In all of these moments, I have pleaded to have my Dad beside me for help, support, and comfort. And all of those moments have been answered with a lot of nothing. dad_toombstone_updatesThis does not mean I can’t find solace in his memory or even hear his voice being gentle and supportive with that southern twang he never quite lost. I can see his eyes welling up with tears out of joy, or pride, or pain. He was a man full of emotion which allowed this girl to feel normal and loved in all of mine. This last couple of years have been particularly hard in feeling his loss and I’m not quite sure why. It could be watching my own husband reach and pass the age of 51, which was the young age that we lost him. It could also be the struggle with losing my Mom, in a different way, as she battles dementia these last few years. The connection to my past seems to be more and more out of reach and I crave to ask my Dad questions and learn about him in a different way than you know your parents when you’re a child. I was 23 when I lost my Dad, still relatively self-absorbed and focused on myself. I wasn’t ready to really “know” my parents and my Dad and I were trying to repair a relationship that was damaged with divorce and remarriage and a move that put him thousands of miles from where I needed him to be. I was sad and angry but even in those years, all I really wanted was to know that I had his love and support. For as stubborn as I am he did his best to show me, relentlessly, that he loved me. I took it for granted at 15 when he wrote to me regularly. Telling me details of his life in Atlanta and his wish for me to be more a part of it all. He tried calling me all the time but this was before cell phones and we often didn’t connect due to my busy teenage schedule. He did his best under difficult circumstances but I held him in contempt and missed out on being present in the relationship.

I didn’t understand the true measure of his attempts to connect with me until I went to my Mom’s house this summer to stay with her while Frank, her husband, made a trip out of town. They had some water damage that forced all their belongings out of storage and revealed my past in two cardboard boxes. I hadn’t looked at the contents of these boxes for almost 30 years, so I was like a kid in a candy story riffling through all the archives of my high school years. There are mixed tapes, cards from ex-boyfriends, journals and the most precious find of them all, every letter my Dad wrote to me while I still lived with my Mom from 1988-1992. I started to read each one, taking it in like warm tea on a cold winter morning. Once I started I couldn’t stop. I was up most of the night reading each one, crying and laughing and remembering things that happened so long ago it felt like I was learning about them for the first time. I’ve always struggled with memory and this opened up a world that helped me understand just how much my Dad cared and how intentional he was about communication. One of the more interesting finds was a short story that my Dad wrote in 1993 titled “Carl”. 49721842_10218786521193368_7734946529105936384_nI remember him sending this to me in my first year of college and I knew it was about the famous “Carl” in his life. Carl was the son of his foster parents. He had died at the young age of 21 in the Korean War and I always understood, without much information, that my Dad admired him in a way that I couldn’t quite grasp based off of the limited 4-5 years that my Dad would know him as a young child. I also found the oldest book I’ve ever read wrapped in a plastic bag. It was a book I found in the old farmhouse where my Dad grew up. The house was located in the East Texas countryside between towns so small they no longer exist. The title of the book is “Digging for Gold” by Horatio Alger Jr., who died in 1899 so I assume this copy is from the mid-1800s and is falling apart at this point that I’m not sure I could read it now. But I remember reading it many years ago when I was about 12 and bored out of my mind in the quiet East Texas world. I wasn’t able to finish the book during the visit so Sister told me I could keep it. Sister was the woman that raised my Father, since the age of three. Everyone referred to her by this name based on her being the oldest sister of a large family. 49439872_10218786956884260_5904518006846783488_nI only knew her as my Grandmother and didn’t connect all the complicated dots until I was much older. She was gentle and kind and the type of Grandmother anyone would be lucky to have. I’ve been explaining why I called her this for forty years but the details of why Sister and Uncle Fred, as we called my Grandfather, were the keepers of my Dad’s childhood were never clear to me. I knew my paternal Grandmother was mentally ill and I knew my paternal Grandfather was a traveling hat salesman that enjoyed the company of women. So much that he married 6 or 7 of them. But that was about all that I really knew about why my Father was not raised by his birth parents. This photo was taken in 1958 when my Dad was 12 with the people that raised my Dad and his brother Hayden as their own. I will be eternally grateful for their gift of love and sacrifice that helped shape the man that would eventually raise me.

But it wasn’t until this weekend that I took the time to sit down and read the short story, titled “Carl”, that my Dad had written 25 years ago. It’s about the man that he considered a brother because of his kind nature and the connection to the people that my Dad would consider his parents due to his own being absent and unwilling to care for him. The story begins with a scene that’s right out of a movie. My Dad recalling what only a 3-year-old can recall of a night that would alter his life forever. A drive in the middle of the night to Dallas where he watched his “Daddy” hand over his newborn baby sister to strangers after holding her for many hours in one arm while driving with the other. His big brother, Hayden, in the front seat, until they stopped and his Grandpa Tommy entered the car forcing Hayden, at the age of 7, to move to the back with my Dad. They drove for another long distance all in the dark to finally reach a farmhouse where people my Dad had never seen would create a gentle distraction for a crying 3-year old by introducing him to a very gentle man named Carl.49512314_10218786956964262_5504168892412461056_n  The next morning he would wake with no sign of his Father in this new and strange place. It’s a wrenching childhood tale that many of us could never imagine. I think how fortunate in some way that my Dad was so young and unaware of all the details surrounding the need to be sent off to live with distant relatives. I do know based on the few things my Dad told me and the gift of this short story that this moment significantly shaped my Dad and also haunted him for his life. This picture makes me smile as I see my Dad and Hayden strike the same pose that Carl has. It tells the story of admiration and respect in the truest form. Carl was about 18 in this photo but looks much older than that based on a life of working a farm. He would soon head many thousands of miles away to fight for our country in Korea and come home once and then go back to Korea but still only come home once.

Reading my Father’s short story almost feels like I’m in the room with him listening to him tell me for himself. He was a man of words and loved to write. In his letters, I was always taken back by his ability to paint a picture and bring you into his world like you were right there. Reading “Carl”, was this on steroids. There is so much clarity about the details of what had happened with my Dad in those early years.  What I don’t hear in the story is the true impact of all these details so long ago. I still yearn to ask my Dad how things made him feel and how he overcame some of these challenges. But I know that ship has sailed so I relish in the moment with what I have. One of the deepest connections that my Dad and I had was our love of horses. I could listen to him tell me childhood horse stories from the farm for hours. When I was 10 my Dad bought me my first horse. A commitment he had made to me a year earlier. A year later we would purchase a second horse and spend hours with these animals caring for them and riding them on the Colorado plains. It was the most magical part of my childhood hands down. He always talked about a special horse, Lightfoot. 49464984_10218786956844259_1337364855044177920_nLightfoot was Carl’s horse that produced two colts but was quite small very old by the time my Dad came along. But because this horse was Carl’s horse, as a boy, it became the topic and thread for many stories. It was the first horse my Dad would sit on, as you see in this picture, when he was three and he would watch this horse die long after Carl did in the war. Lightfoot was the start of my Dad’s love for horses which would eventually be passed on to me. This part of the story was already known to me since we talked about horses all the time and his love for this one specifically. But somehow reading it in this story brought it back to life and helped me feel close to my Dad once again.

There were many things in the story I didn’t know. I didn’t know that my Dad worked at a lumber yard at 15 or the picture show when he was 16. I didn’t know how gentle Uncle Fred was or how protective Sister was. I didn’t know that Carl was killed by a grenade in a foxhole and I didn’t know he had made it home to visit between deployments, as we would call them today. I didn’t know that during the hardest economic years when the country was funding the war that Uncle Fred would work in a munitions plant to earn wages since the farm was not earning enough to survive. 49592479_10218786957644279_2564728738575024128_nI did know that my Dad was curious and stubborn and one of the best athletes to ever grace the East Texas countryside. He loved many sports but football the most and eventually he would become captain of the high school football team. That’s a big deal in Texas ya’ll;-) I also knew my Dad was college bound as a way to transform his life into something different. In the story, I learned so many things and I imagine I’ll read it another 100 times or so, hoping to pick up on some new information.

I cried a lot this weekend but the tears were of connection and love for my past and some grief for a past that I’ll never truly be able to learn about in full. As I was finishing the 61-page story that’s typed up as a manuscript, I realized that page 60 is missing. This second to the last page which appears to be the entire summary. I frantically texted my brother, knowing he would be the only other person I know with a copy. I asked if he had a copy of “Carl” with fear that it may have been lost over time with all of his moves. He said it was buried somewhere in his closet and he’d dig it out. A sense of calm came over me. Not only because I’m desperate to finish the story but mostly to know that I do still have my big brother who is another connection to a past I can barely remember and our Dad. I felt so incredibly grateful at this moment and a sense of peace washed over me. It’s like my Dad was saying, “don’t worry Shelly, I know I’m gone but you’ve got Mark and Mark’s got you.” I know that Mark and I would give just about anything to have Tommy Stewart back in our lives. He was a great man full of life and volatility and knowledge and argument and energy and kindness and competitive spirit and love. So much love that I know I will always carry that piece with me, forever. But to hear his voice in these 60, almost 61 pages was a gift that I will cherish forever. Thanks Dad.

Suffering Is Optional

There are many things out of my control. I can’t decide how I want others to feel or behave, I can’t stop bad things from happening and without a doubt there is zero chance of controlling the weather. The list goes on and on and on. Surrendering to this has been quite frustrating. 20764_1382872251094_2600318_nNot the weather part, the weather is one of those universal understandings that we all seem to get. Isn’t it funny that the weather is the most common topic with strangers in those moments when you only have seconds to share something? Maybe because we can all agree that a storm, the heat, the cold, will all come and go no matter how much we like or dislike the impact. So our ability to control this particular part of life is never going to be in question, only how we choose to react, that is for certain a choice. So, maybe when we think about this “suffering” concept, think about how you react to weather that’s not pleasing to you. This might be the easiest place to start addressing your own suffering.

As an eternal optimist, the idea of turning lemons into lemonade is easy for me. I’m a “turn that frown upside down” kind of gal, I honestly have no idea where it comes from but for the easy things in life, it serves me well. I also have a “control what you can” mindset. Now deciding what is in and out of my control, well there lies the dilemma and the journey I’ve been on my entire life. Determining what’s in my control and what’s not is like being on a tightrope. I’m constantly trying to strike a balance without falling from the sky. 252271_10201275204861404_1025892726_nGreg and I got married on June 1st, 2001 and we had the most beautiful outside wedding planned at sunset on the water. As we watched the weather forecast leading up to the big day it seemed inevitable that we would have to move the wedding inside to avoid the rain. It was a disappointment for sure but quickly reset my expectations and made the decision to be in the moment and let go of all the things that wouldn’t quite work out, like the beautiful outdoor surroundings and pictures in the garden. It helped that we were supported by people that we love and I was marrying the man of my dreams. By staying focused on the reason for the event and not the details allowed it to unfold perfectly. And the umbrella pictures are some of my favorites to this day.

Then there was that time that I flipped Madison and Liam over in a canoe on a Father’s Day outing. This lake was a “no swimming” lake due to major trees in the water that made it dangerous to swim. boat_kidsI had a walkie-talkie with me that Cooper insisted I use to keep in contact with him while he stayed on shore. When rowing I accidentally unclipped the walkie-talkie and it flew into the water. I only registered that it was a black device and thinking it was my phone I tried to save it, flipping us all into the lake along with my actual phone that was in my pocket. Madison and Liam were terrified and screaming in the middle of a lake while I was trying to get them back into the canoe.  I did my best to stay calm as they were crying and shaming me for my bad decision. Once I managed to get them back in the boat I figured out quickly I was not getting back in without flipping them again. So I did what anyone would do with two very upset children in the middle of a lake, I started to kick and then laugh and then kick some more. June 2014 206We were all fine but the phone was gone, Cooper was furious that I lost his walkie-talkie and the other two were soaking wet and very sad. So, then what? We got ice cream treats, a wrap for Madi that she happened to bring, and hiked into the woods. The phone was at the bottom of a lake and we had a great story to tell. It was that simple, move on and decide to make the best of it.

So… spoiler alert, it doesn’t always work out this way. There are moments that I’m so frustrated that things aren’t happening the way I expect that I fly into a rage. Typically, for me, these aren’t the big things in life, I seem to handle the hard stuff relatively well. The things that set me off are little, stupid things that I can only imagine are not the true reason for the explosion but the fuse that happens to light the fire. I’ve been known to throw things across the room out of pure frustration because I can’t get an inanimate object to respond appropriately or a person to understand me. Once I tripped over our dog gate, walking up the stairs, and I was so angry that I hurled it down the stairwell so hard that I put a hole in the drywall. It’s like I snap. 81949545All the “trying to manage” and “people to please” and “making it work” comes crashing down when one branch of the tree cracks and I feel as though I start falling down along with it. I’ve improved at controlling this on the outside but inside I often still feel like a time bomb ready to explode. The worst part about these moments is the inevitable embarrassment that comes with owning your crazy. It usually requires an apology to those you love most and sometimes even some drywall and paint repair. It’s an awful feeling. The truth is that I’m grateful when it’s the remote, or a plate, or whatever happens to be in my hand at that moment versus the words. Words that come in these volatile moments can strike the people that I love in the most vicious way. I’ll take a hole in the wall any day.

But what I’ve learned is that even in these most difficult emotional moments, we get to decide what happens next. Do we go cool off for a few minutes, do we immediately apologize, do we start the cleanup of glass and emotions or do we go sulk for hours or days trying to avoid the ramifications of our temper tantrum? This is what it comes down to, the choice to move through it or live in it. This is the difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

suf·fer·ing
/ˈsəf(ə)riNG/
noun
  1. the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.
    “weapons that cause unnecessary suffering”

I have a dear friend that said this very simple phrase to me years ago, “suffering is optional”. He’s an intellectual guy, maybe he read it in a book somewhere but it had the most profound impact on me. It seemed so clear, I get to decide if I want to stay in this place, it’s that simple. That is all we have control of at the end of the day. How we choose to react and behave in any given situation no matter how big or small. It is completely and absolutely up to us.

Think about the weather example again. When Mother Nature throws you a curve ball and you’re snowed in or rained out, how do you respond? Do you make the most of it and find a way to enjoy the moment? Or do you allow it to consume your entire day and steal any possible joy you could have experienced? I like to view these moments as a sign. Maybe whatever was planned was not meant to happen or I’m getting put on notice. “You are not in control” or “You need to slow down today” or “Your welcome, enjoy the obstacle”. Whatever it is, what comes next is my decision to make. Now that’s a very empowering feeling, the power of choice.  So here’s an idea, next time the weather goes sideways on you, go grab an umbrella or a shovel or a sled because they may be the best way to take your next step and might even eliminate the suffering.

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Everything Is Hard

It’s Sunday night and I’m in the kitchen cooking the Blue Apron meal we ordered this week. We always serve our food buffet style so you grab a plate, fill it up, and then head to the table. My husband, Greg, is trying to fix his plate and he’s leaning up against the island where the food is hot and ready and he’s awkwardly holding a plate trying to scoop some sweet potatoes up with a serving spoon. I hear him quietly say, “everything is hard.” It feels like a punch in the gut and knocks the wind out of me. The only thing I know to say is, “I can only imagine.” Then I start to contemplate how we should be serving food to make it easier for him.

You see, this moment would be fleeting under normal circumstances and it may sound a little confusing. Why is it so hard? What’s the big deal? You’re scooping up some sweet potatoes. And you’d be right, it shouldn’t be hard, or a big deal, but it is, it very much is a big deal. Greg suffers from Progressive Multiple Sclerosis which is to say that since his diagnosis in 2007 he has continued to slowly decline from the disease and almost everything he wants to do physically is hard. I have some trouble sharing this part of our story because we are smack dab in the middle of it and sometimes when you’re in the middle of something it’s difficult to understand what lessons you might be learning in the struggle. 10401231_1118264276060_4826_nBut here’s the deal, MS is like having a 6th person in our family. It’s like having some needy, angry, unpredictable cousin hanging around every day and the longer they’ve been living with us the more numb we’ve become to their antics. But as Greg continues to decline it’s impossible to ignore and even my, “figure it out”, “never complain” husband is getting broken down week by week, day by day, from this horrible disease. We started walking as Team Webb in 2008 to raise money for the National MS Society, this picture was our first team. It was the only way I knew how to fight the disease, just raise as much money as possible, that would be my part. Greg walked with us for the first couple years but after being the last to finish in 2010 he called it quits and now hangs back cheering us on from the starting line.

When I met Greg in 1999 he was a bricklayer who had been recently promoted to project manager in the construction industry. He was a “man’s man” who enjoyed trying new things and being active, much more active than me. He played in an over 40 recreation men’s baseball league and enjoyed golf. 11667408_10207229579077038_797006020164330979_nI remember feeling frustrated as a new resident to Maryland that he always had somewhere to be and I was left to figure out how to occupy my time. Greg was and still is a physical guy. He likes to be outside, works with his hands, fixes things and creates things. He ALWAYS has a project, or three, and very rarely rests. One reason I admired Greg so much when I met him was his work ethic, he never seems to stop. That is one reason this specific disease is so terrible because it’s literally taking Greg’s ability to do the smallest things away from him.

When we found out that he had MS in 2007 Greg was only dealing with minor symptoms. He said he felt “off” or even like he had a buzz. He would lose his balance and his legs would randomly stop working. 18064_1354966513468_7054623_nTypically, this happened when he was really hot or tired or maybe drinking a little too much so it was hard to figure out.  This picture of Greg and Madi at her Girl Scout’s Father-Daughter dance was an indicator of his progression, he was already unable to dance so he got on his knees and made it work. He always does his best to make it work, even under the most disappointing circumstances.

Over the next 4 years, after the diagnosis, his symptoms would progress to severe fatigue and the need to practically drag his left leg as he walked. He couldn’t run anymore and he had hung up the bat, glove, and eventually the golf game. It also started to impact his work. His work demanded long hours dealing with a lot of detail as an Estimator. He now required more rest than his career would allow so in 2011 Greg went on long-term disability and never returned to a job. His full-time role would now be to manage our home and our three amazing kiddos that were at the time 7, 5 and 2. With Cooper so small and active we hired some part-time help to chase him around and made sure he was in a good pre-school. 416943_4770982631736_1336422046_nGreg managed well and I think he enjoyed being off the hook for a full-time career that he never much cared for. He took to house projects that included building all kinds of things, from birdhouses to a full-blown tree house in our backyard. Our friend and neighbor Dan would carry the supplies but Greg essentially erected this thing on his own, it was impressive, to say the least.

We look back at these pictures from 6 years ago and feel grateful that he could build something so cool for the kids. But now it’s become difficult to do just the most basic everyday things. He’s started to lose his fine motor skills and his entire left side is giving out on him more and more each day. The gift, for now, is that Greg is still driving. This continues to provide independence and empowerment to support our family’s needs by running errands and children from event to event. What he can’t do so well is get up out of a chair, button a shirt or write with a pen. To battle this, he’s bought gadgets to help, like fat pens that make it possible to write more easily, and special silverware for eating. He falls almost daily, sometimes multiple times a day and typically laughs it off while others watch in horror as he gets himself upright again. I’m surprised he hasn’t broken anything, it’s truly amazing.

There are multiple other issues that Greg faces, some more private and not for this blog but so many others that would feel endless to list. He finally broke down and bought a used wheelchair a couple of years ago and it was a blessing and a curse. Now we could go places together as a family but learning to live life with someone in a wheelchair is not an easy thing. If you’ve never tried to navigate the world in a wheelchair give it a whirl one day, it will change your perspective on the most basic life activities. 12977096_10209357866002881_947258259814057537_oI had to start planning for everything. Where we could vacation, where we could eat, what events we could attend that would be wheelchair accessible. At first, Greg wanted to manually operate his chair which meant I would need to push him a lot because there are a lot of hills in the world that you are unaware of if you’re walking. This was tiring and frustrating and caused a lot of bickering that Greg and I were not accustomed too. I was now his mobility “operator” and he did not agree with my operating decisions. So, to ease this frustration Greg got a new chair and a very cool motor that could attach when needed. And these days it’s always needed. Just last week Greg decided that he can no longer get around the house with a cane, and we have canes everywhere. So he has brought the old wheelchair into the house to use. This was another eye-opening moment that MS was continuing down the devastating and debilitating path.

We recently went to a party that was hard for Greg to get around. It was too small of a space to bring the chair but he couldn’t get his legs to navigate him around the house. This meant we needed to find a “spot” to settle in and hope that people would come to find us. This makes him feel very unsettled for many reasons I’m sure. He doesn’t want to be a burden and he wishes he could just go grab his own drink. But that’s not the way it works anymore for us. I decline several invitations these days because the venue will be too difficult to manage. 8705_10204080205184659_6978446661864205821_nI don’t want to put Greg in uncomfortable situations and it reduces the stress I carry trying to figure it all out. So we are homebodies more than anything these days and honestly, it’s not that far off from who we were before MS. But it’s different when you feel like you can’t versus making the decision not to.

Up until the last two years, Greg’s attitude was unbelievably positive. And generally, it still is much of the time. But when something just keeps coming for you so relentlessly it’s hard to maintain that sunny disposition. I have to stop and remind myself when things are a mess and I’m wishing we could be more organized around the house that for Greg to return something from where he got it in the first place is hard. Moving from the living room to the kitchen takes every bit of energy he might have at that moment and many times it’s not worth the effort to put something back from where he got it. I have to remind myself of a lot of things these days. Mostly that this will not pass, at least not in the near term and what Greg will face will inevitably get worse. We have to adjust as a family and make space for the changes and the needs and the sadness and the anger and the loss and that feels really hard.

There are times to take all of this in, the feeling that you can’t control what’s happening and take witness to the pain and suffering of those you love so deeply. But this has to be in moments and then it’s time to move on. For all the pain that MS causes Greg and our family, we have many things to be grateful for. This is where I choose to spend most of my time. I believe that you can find peace in gratitude. So I stay focused on what gifts we have and what is positive in our life, this allows me to feel at peace to some degree. We are surrounded by family and friends and our children are thriving so we know we have many blessings to count. But acknowledging that this is REALLY hard is ok too. Because for Greg everything is hard so I think I can find the strength to keep looking forward and make the most of the situation by doing my best to learn and grow from it. There are many lessons in our lives and I’m doing my best to take them all in, even if it’s hard. 12976788_10209357900843752_7641070281628970001_o

 

Just Smile

The power of a smile, it can create an unexpected connection, it can alter your day when you’re absorbed with your own distracting thoughts and it can surprise you with its sudden shine and gravitational pull.  I have always been a “smiley” person. I learned early in my life that a smile can change the course of a situation, it can put people at ease, and it can potentially get you what you want, or need, in many situations.

My Mom has always smiled a lot. Maybe that’s where I picked it up. I noticed she smiled in public when she was interacting with pretty much anyone. Typically, people treated my Mom with kindness and showed interest in her and what she had to say.557847_4741898744657_653824696_n - Copy It probably didn’t hurt that she was attractive but it was the smile that warmed people up to her and made her approachable and easy to talk to. I realized early that it was the easiest thing I could do to make a connection, so I followed in her footsteps, maybe a little too much. Sometimes I smile so much that people actually call me out on it. One morning I was riding up the elevator with the President of my company, also my friend, and he paused as we stepped out into the hall and asked, “do you always smile, are you always happy?” Without hesitation, I said, “most of the time, I guess I am.” When I walked away I couldn’t stop thinking about his observation. I have been leveraging “the smile” for so long it truly does come naturally. And I can pull a smile out of my ass, even on my worst day because when I smile, people smile back, and that typically turns my day around quickly. But always happy? That’s a different story and a bit more complicated.

Smiling as a kid was a way to put a person or a situation at ease and I’ve been focused on making people comfortable for most of my life. I grew up in an emotionally loving but volatile home. Both of my parents are/were “feelers”. They also had the ability to use logic and information, (specifically my Dad) but when push came to shove we were an emotionally driven family and emotions can rise and fall pretty quick as a result. I had to learn to navigate these situations and make choices. When you grow up around intelligent and emotional people it’s like a dance and I had to pay close attention to what music was playing that day. tammy &michelle CO_0017I found that with my parents a smile could get them back to a calm and loving place much faster so I used that along with my gift of words. Between the smile and the words, I could get away with practically anything. But as I grew into a teenager and young adult my tactics may have become manipulative and for certain, self-absorbed. I smiled a lot in later years because it was a distraction, a decoy, from what was really going on. Has anyone asked you while in full smile, “what’s wrong?” Nope, me either. So, this has been a sure fire way to keep those pesky investigative questions at bay and manage my inner battles alone, completely alone.

So, this leads to what’s behind the smile. And that very daunting question, “are you always happy?” Well, mostly I am happy but sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with the speed of life and my old tactics begin to fail me. I have always believed that being sad was something that I did alone, in my car, in my room, anywhere that was safe to cry and feel everything that may be going on inside.  Iphone Pictures 2017-May18 7884Being sad is not something I choose to carry around on the outside and definitely not in the presence of others. But there are days I’m really sad, and I assume that’s no different than anyone else walking around this world. When I’m feeling sad I guess I fake it until I believe what I’m faking. I consider this the art of reframing and I’m pretty masterful at it. I put energy out to others, typically starting with a smile, and they send their energy back to me. It’s quite magical how others can lift you up in those moments of “faking it”. Eventually, this leads to a better moment, interaction, and day.

Here’s the challenge with this strategy, I stopped telling the truth. I didn’t start lying, it’s not like that but I have not been truthful for a long time, almost longer than I can remember. If you pride yourself on showing up in a positive way and that eventually becomes your brand then the “undoing” is to begin to show yourself in the most vulnerable way. For me, this means unfolding and coming to terms with the imperfections of my life. It is the act of letting people in to help me navigate the unsettling challenges that we all ultimately face. This is a daunting and ever-present, challenge for me.

The people closest to me can see right through me, as they should. I need them to, and I’m grateful to have them in my life so that I can be challenged and pushed at the most difficult moments. Fortunately, I have a few of these people in my life but it’s Aubrey that’s been around the longest. My smile has never fooled Aub, who has been watching my tactics for a lifetime. Maybe it’s because she knows my history, or maybe it’s because she’s been reading me for almost 30 years and sees the young vulnerable Michelle all covered up in “experience”. 1044499_10210776713953193_5548242026145674262_nOr maybe it’s because she’s annoyingly intuitive and just an overall badass. Whatever it is, we all need these people in our lives, the ones that will call us out. The ones that see us through the smile and the nodding and the attempts to move past a topic. We were down at the beach several years ago, which is where she lives, and out on our customary “date night” to catch up. We were only sitting for 3 minutes with our husbands when she simply asked me, “how are you?” I guess I paused, I don’t really remember, but she immediately stood up, grabbed my arm and ushered me out. Just as we stepped out of the restaurant and stood in the parking lot, in the dark of night, I fell apart but was still saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” She wasn’t having it, she knew I wasn’t fine and she wasn’t willing to listen to the words. She was focused on what I was feeling and I was feeling raw, to say the least. The smile didn’t work and she broke me down. Thank God she did. I went back to therapy when I got home and started to dig a little deeper to figure out exactly what was going on. If it wasn’t for Aub that night I would have continued down the road of life potentially fooling everyone, including myself. I wasn’t being truthful and she could tell. It’s that simple. d55538

I needed Aubrey’s help at that moment and I need more help than I’m willing to accept pretty much every day. As I tried to explain in my past blog, Help, it’s difficult, and I’m trying to be intentional about getting the help I need. I have so many people in my life that have tried and keep trying to support and listen to the truth but most days it seems easier to keep all the difficult stuff to myself. It’s exhausting to open up and go down those complicated roads. So I’m trying to think of it in moments versus big proclamations. For me, this means saying something sooner, even about the little things. If I think Greg, or a friend or my Mom is implying something then I’m trying to ask more questions to disrupt the stories that I build up in my head. Or if something pisses me off I’m working on saying, “that kinda pisses me off.” We don’t have to take everything on by ourselves and I think if I start addressing the little moments maybe they won’t build up to be such big issues. I have a choice and I’m doing the best I can to open myself up to asking for what I need and to share how I’m really feeling in the right moments. Let’s be honest, sometimes, all you need to do is smile in passing and move on. It would be weird to unleash everything “real” to the unknowing or undeserving.

I don’t plan to stop smiling, it wouldn’t be me if I did but I am working on what’s behind the smile. Sometimes it’s a lot of things and many of those things are difficult and painful. I want to be truthful and I want to be more open to getting help and then sometimes…I just want to smile.

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The Wall

Women and men, we are more alike than we are different but our differences have impacted our lives both personally and professionally. When I began leading the diversity and inclusion efforts for my company I was very focused on gender. For starters, I’m a woman and like many women, I’ve been working in a male-dominated field for over 22 years. As a technical recruiter that was recruiting IT professionals, I was very familiar with being one of the only women “in the room”. As a leader in D&I many of my efforts focused on underrepresented populations in the workforce. Women made up almost half of our workforce but very few women were making it to executive levels in the company. As I started to explore why this was happening and how we start to correct it I started to learn more about the differences between women and men. The reality was, we are living in a modern society but we had not evolved based on old societal norms that are still dictating “our place”. Both women and men are suffering tremendously from these old ways of behaving but it’s taking us centuries to correct it.

Let me first call out that there are, clearly, some biological differences between women and men. The most obvious is that women can build a human, right inside of our bodies. Crazy stuff! Men, they cannot do this. This very obvious difference is the crux for many of the challenges that we face as we work towards equality for women in the workplace. http_prod.static9.net.au_mediaNetworkImages201806180934180616_coach_pregnancyBecause we spend 10 months carrying a child and have “tools” to provide for that child in the early stages of life, women are the default caregiver most of the time. There are only a few exceptions of abandonment or death or a very progressive man stepping in early on. Women are seen as the natural caregivers and men are expected to get back to work protecting and providing for their families.

There is also a difference in hormones for men and women. Men naturally have more testosterone than women, 7 to 8 times as much, and it’s this hormone that supports men in their ability to take risks and “protect” what is “theirs”. This hormone is also linked to having more confidence. There are a lot of studies on this, here’s just one article on How Testosterone In Men Can Help With Confidence. Men needed this confidence hundreds of years ago so they could make very quick decisions about life and death. niord_and_the_saber_tooth_by_aaronmiller-d86d9smAt any moment a saber tooth tiger could be threatening to eat their family and it was their job to fight this vicious predator off. What an amazing thing to provide men with this injection of invincibility to take on risk. It’s truly fascinating and I see it play out to this day, but we don’t need men to fight off vicious animals, at least not the likes of a saber tooth tiger. But they still hold the keys to confidence in many situations; whereas women were needed to “hold down the fort”. We were back in the hut nurturing our children and our communities. And we needed to have lots of children in order to work the land or hunt or protect. So we had a lot going on. We also would spend days making food and fetching water from water sources that could be miles away. It was a team effort and everyone had a part to play. MjgxMzcxNQBut over the years innovation and technology changed the game. We figured out how to build wells for water and then there’s that whole indoor plumbing thing. We also discovered electricity so we could make and heat food without a fire. Boy how times were changing. When I was a kid it was a big deal to have a microwave; just minutes for a full meal to go from packaged and frozen to hot and ready. Amazing stuff! But here in lies the problem. The world around us was changing so fast. We now had weapons that anyone could use like guns to protect ourselves and we eventually had conveniences that made working all day to support the community much more efficient. So why do we continue to normalize men protecting and providing and women supporting and nurturing for so long? Well, maybe because it worked and it’s really only been the last 100 or so years that technology has come so far so fast.  How could the evolutions of our bodies catch up? They haven’t so we have to talk about how to shift while we still have a lot of natural and societal norms playing against us.

In Dr. Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly she talks about how shame impacts men and women differently. The short summary of her research says that everyone has worthiness issues and worthiness is about shame. Men feel shame when they feel weak (can’t kill the saber-tooth tiger) and women feel shame when they aren’t doing everything perfectly (managing the community and nurturing everyone sufficiently). So who wants to feel shame? Not me and I imagine not you either so we desperately avoid shame at all costs. This means that men can never appear weak and women feel the need to “do it all” and to do it perfectly….yeah for us.

After decades of watching women and men in the workplace, I saw this playing out time and time again. Once I started to take note and talk openly about the different behaviors The Wall analogy struck me. It’s very personal to me as I’ve avoided many walls, run through a few and was pushed over some. I’ve been using this analogy for several years to describe how men and women approach challenge or risk and here’s how I describe it…

When we hire young men we ask them to run through walls. We point at the wall and say, “run through it”. And guess what, they typically do. Then we point at another wall and they do it again. They do this over and over again because they can’t imagine what would happen if they didn’t just plow through that wall. Picture1Now, let’s look at how women approach this wall. We point at the wall and say, “run through it”. And guess what, they typically don’t. You see, us women have a few questions. What’s on the other side of the wall? Is it worth running through? Will it hurt? What’s it made of? Is there another way to get over the wall? A window, a door? Can I use a tool? What do I have to leave behind if I run through it? Why am I running through this wall again? And if you’re in an industry like I am the men that are in leadership positions and making decisions about who gets the next opportunity can be like, “seriously, if you can’t just run through the wall I’m not sure I know how to help you. I can’t want this more for you than you want this for yourself!” Sound familiar? So it took me a while to connect the dots but it’s so clear to me now. Men don’t feel they have a choice. It starts when they are young and they hear things like, “be a man”, “grow a pair”. Or even better, “don’t be a pussy.” If you want to watch a fascinating documentary on the impact of societal expectations that we put on our boys check out The Mask We Live on Netflix, it explores masculinity in today’s world. I have two little boys and I’m determined to find some balance for them so they can be themselves and maybe ask a few more questions before running through certain walls without feeling shame.

As for women, much of my work has focused on empowering them and building confidence so they can feel more prepared to run through walls when they are presented to them. We’ve also focused on advocacy because I’m sure, like many other executive women, I did not always run through the wall. Other people pushed or carried me over the wall and they believed enough in me to help me get to the other side. 41oZH6px1JL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_There are countless books for women focused on helping them be more prepared for The Wall but some of the best clarity came to me through an organization called Linkage. Susan Brady, Senior VP at Linkage, has done a great deal of work helping women to overcome the hurdles that they typically face in the workplace. Check out this video on the 7 Leadership Hurdles Women Face in the Workplace. If you would like to learn more about the hurdles Susan has a book coming out in November called Mastering Your Inner Critic and the Other 7 Hurdles to Advancement. I was honored to contribute to Susan’s book with some of my own hurdles and there have been many. I believe this work will be impactful for women and help us become more aware of what, we ourselves, could be doing to get in our own way. Do not hear me wrong here. There are a lot of societal implications impacting women in the workplace but the fastest way to see improvement in your own life is to get clear on you first.

Women will need to stay intentional in their efforts to face The Walls. This will continue to be a challenge for many of us and there will be times we do not run through them and it will be the right thing for us at the time. There will also be times that Men will run through too many Walls and this will create long-lasting damage. Running through The Wall can be devastating to middle-aged men as we see heart disease, addiction and the highest suicide rate across the US for men. Women continue to struggle to rise in leadership at the highest levels with still more CEOs named John or David than women. We may all need to evaluate the impact of The Wall for both men and women. And I’m sure some of you reading this feel like you may be on the other side of this stereotype and that’s cool but it’s an entirely different discussion. What happens to men that won’t run through The Wall and what happens to women that run through without question? It’s not easy for either one of them. I have been criticized for running through The Wall. I was seen as too focused on my career and in it for myself. It was uncomfortable for my male counterparts to witness my ambition, it wasn’t very ladylike. Ugh! But the more clear I’ve become on my purpose the easier this has been to overcome.

So I say we focus on what we can control and that is to get more grounded in ourselves through focusing on our strengths, prioritize more effectively, begin to gain clarity on what we enjoy and what we want to do, and give ourselves a little room to learn and grow. Failing is a must for both men and women. When we fail we learn to get back up to realize that it’s not that big of a deal. download (2)I find that surrounding myself with trusted advisors has helped me make better decisions that work best for my life. I have the right support around me to take the risks and to get back up when it doesn’t work out the way I’d hoped, and it often doesn’t work out. These are both personal and professional relationship and I am grateful for them all. I am still struggling to make the right decisions about which Walls to run through so I’m in this with you. It’s one more part of my journey and I suspect that it always will be.

So I say make some choices about what Walls you want to run through (guys) and then when you decide, run through it without looking back (ladies)! For on the other side may just be our next great adventure and most certainly will be progress!

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