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Katrina Willis "Table for Six"
Ever since I can remember holding a pen, I remember writing. Words are my constant companion, my solace, my connection to humanity. I write because I must, but I also write to share a common experience. If one of my sentences makes you feel like you are not alone in this wide world, then I have done my job. We have so much to share as human beings, don’t we? Thank you for letting me share my words.
Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks

November 19, 2012 | 09:03 PM

I cannot deny that these past two years have been hard. Soul-crushing, fetal-position hard at times. Let me begin by saying this, by owning this: I know that if I threw my problems into a pile with all the other problems of the world, I'd grab mine back as quickly as I could. I know that in the big scheme of things, I am blessed beyond belief with abundance and joy and gifts that cannot be measured by miles or with a checkbook.

But I also refuse to minimize the challenges that we've faced over the past couple of years. To brush them under the rug is to deny that life hits us -- all of us -- hard sometimes. Harder than we'd like to admit. I'm here to fess up -- for you, for me, for all of us.

There is a great deal of shame in owning our faults, our weaknesses, our failures. When we expose our Achilles heel, it is made even more vulnerable to those who might want to strike it... even if -- especially if -- that someone is us. But there is no honor in pretending all is well and perfect when it is not. It doesn't serve you, it doesn't serve me.

In the past two years, our lives have been turned upside down. At the beginning of our journey, I thought I was going to lose my husband. He was working a job that was slowly bringing him to his knees, that pecked away at his soul one little piece at a time. He was carrying the weight of 1,600 kids and 3,200 parents on his shoulders. Some of those fabulous parents supported and encouraged and lifted him. Others, well... didn't. On his best days, he might please 50% of those he worked with. On his worst, he stood alone. He is a good man with a good heart who was trying to do the right thing in a world where right and wrong aren't always so easily defined. By the end of his tenure, he was a man I didn't recognize -- beaten down, angry, defeated. His stress level was through the roof, his physical health in decline. With doctorate in hand, he admitted that he could no longer do it, that he had to find another career path.

And so our journey began.

In Mississippi, I got my husband back -- the one who laughs loudly and easily. For that I am eternally grateful. But there were prices to pay, are always prices to pay. I lost my dream home -- literally, financially, emotionally. (In all honesty, it was never Chris's dream home to begin with. He went along for the ride because I loved that house and he loved me.) The beautiful home we built and painted and decorated and planned to raise our children in, gone. I get nostalgic for my double-sided fireplace and my cloffice, but the bills were too high, the income too low. We sacrificed our hometown, the only place our four young children had grown and prospered in for a decade. He needed a change of scenery, could no longer live in the fishbowl. I supported that. We supported that.

We uprooted our family, moved four states away, and began a new life in the South. There was adventure, there was excitement, there was promise and possibility, and there was a hole in my heart as big as the Grand Canyon. I cried as I watched our family and friends grow smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror. Cried for days, months. It's a challenge to traverse relationships across a span of 500 miles. Yes, there's the phone and the internet, and Facebook. But the gift of proximity is lost. There are no soul-refreshing walk/talks through Eagle Creek Park, no last-minute lunches in Broad Ripple, no impromptu Friday night neighborhood gatherings, no dinners at Amore when spouses are attending board meetings, no one walking in -- unannounced and always welcome -- through the garage entrance after having punched in our "private" code for entry.

Adjusting to our new income -- the one that's 50% less than the previous one -- was also far more challenging that we'd imagined. We cut our expenses, paid off debts, tightened our belts. But ultimately, we still had four kids who needed food and clothing and school supplies and doctor visits and extracurricular activity fees and heat and water and electricity.

Begrudgingly, I went back to work full-time. It was not my dream. It was not my desire. It was my necessity. Writing -- the kind that fills my soul, not the kind that pays the bills -- had to take a back seat. Instead of being my primary focus, it got to fill in the cracks of what was left after work, after the kids, after my familial responsibilities. Was I bitter? Oh, you betcha. And then came the anger, the resentment, the Why-Do-You-Get-To-Be-Happy-At-My-Expense conversations.

It wasn't pretty.

I've been a reluctant Mississippian, slow to warm, hesitant to make friends, willing only to dip my toes in the South. This was to be my "two-year vacation." We were going to re-evaluate after that. No reason to make connections when they would most likely be severed again shortly. And so, I set myself up for more loneliness, opened the door and invited it in. I am so very grateful for the few true friendships I've made here, those who didn't allow me to completely go into hiding. (Hiding, after all, is what I do best on my cloudiest days.) These women have sustained me in my Southern town, have given me something to hold on to even while I insisted on looking back.

I'm not easy to love sometimes. As Joni Mitchell so eloquently sings in "The River"...

"I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad..."

That's me. All me. I need, I need, and then I need some more. I need more love, more reassurance, more hand-holding than the average bear. I am eternally in fear of being left behind, abandoned, despite all those who have chosen to stay. I'm frantic and unreasonable and over-dramatic. And I get too sad, stay there for too long. The friends who know this and embrace this and honor this are so brave and strong and cherished and special.

And on the flip side, I love hard. I'm a balls-to-the-wall friend. After the leaning, I stand in support. When I'm strong, I'm rock steady. My arms are always open. And I'm great fun at a party. Somehow, in some way, I hope that balance serves those who are forever locked in my heart and in my soul. Extra-salty tears and extra-hard hugs... that's what I have to offer.

Over the past two years, I've been living in limbo -- somewhere in between Mississippi and Indiana... but not necessarily in Tennessee. I've been trying to maintain two residences, to live two different lives. I've yet to figure out how to simply be... and to trust that I'm where I am for a reason. Oh, I know it and believe it in my heart, but living it? That's an entirely different issue, one that I face every minute of every day.

And what of my writing? That's been a disappointment, too. It looked promising here and there -- a Midwest Writers Fellowship, a Notes & Words contest finalist nod, a few full-manuscript agent reads of "Three of Eva," a gig with "Indy's Child" magazine, some blogging accolades. But my vision of supporting my family through my writing? Not yet realized. Yes, I'm supporting them with words about marketing software and ROI, but that's not exactly the vision I had in mind. (I know. I know. God is up there laughing at me. "YOUR vision?? Ha! Ha! Ha!" I know.)

So, in the glass-half-empty view, it's been a more-than-challenging couple of years filled with heartbreak and loss and loneliness. There have been far more tears than I would have liked. Too much food, too much wine, too much weight gained, too little balance.

And on the glass-half-full side, there is an overwhelming abundance of things to be grateful for. My beloved kids. Damn. I am so very, very proud of them and their tenacity and their resilience. They have all made their way, found a place, carved a path. It wasn't easy for them, either. I'm sure on certain days, it's still not. But academically, socially, athletically, they're knocking it out of the park. Chris is so much happier, too. He's doing work that he loves, despite the dismal pay. (What is it about this country that rewards those involved with athletics substantially more than those involved with academics? How is it that my husband, with his doctorate, tasked with educating our future leaders, can make so very little when the coaching staffs make so damn much?)

In my glass-half-full world, I have beautiful, supportive, cherished friends in both Indiana and Mississippi (and in many other states as well, right California and Tennessee?). I have a job that came knocking at just the right time, that pays well and helps me support my loves during this ongoing transition. I have a healthy family. (And trust that I will never, ever, ever take that for granted.) I'm married to my best friend, the one who gets to ride the roller-coaster every single damn day. The one who, despite the nausea, chooses to get back in that line again and again.

I'm stretching. I'm growing. That's always a bittersweet endeavor. Change is hard, friends. It's fucking hard at times. It's lonely here. Overwhelmingly lonely at times. On certain days, I feel isolated, remote, forgotten. For a girl who'd grown accustomed to activities every night, neighbors at the bus stop in the mornings, impromptu drop-by coffee klatches, parties on the weekends, black tie events, couples' dates, football parties, poolside gatherings, book club meetings, and firepit soirees, the silence can be daunting. I try to embrace it, but oftentimes, it swallows me whole instead.

Then there are those days that the silence and the slower pace comfort me, and I feel blessed, loved, grateful beyond measure. It's the biggest sustained challenge I've ever faced, this life of change. Staying put would have been easier in so many ways. And staying put would have been harder in many ways, as well. Choosing something safe would probably have been less stressful. But ultimately, the reward is in the journey. I'm learning that. Bit by bit by bit. Step by painful step -- blisters and black toenails and all.

There is no growth in standing still. Even the tree, confined to one, solitary space reaches through the dirt with its roots, stretches its branches upward, upward as its leaves bloom, change, fall, and bloom again.

But sometimes I miss the luxury of the known. The home, the yard, the money, the neighborhood, the (perceived) security -- the things that don't really matter in the long run can make life seem a little easier.

Or not.

The choice is always, always ours. Because we are not our homes, our cars, our friends, our family, our successes. We are individuals, finding our solitary paths, contributing to a greater good.

I'm choosing happiness and growth whenever and wherever I can. But I can guarantee it will not be sunshine and roses every day. There are some days, weeks, months, I will still wallow in woe-is-me. It will be ugly and messy and uninspiring. It's not fun to watch or to participate in. It's not who I want to be. And yet, it is. I'm okay with that. It would be inauthentic of me to live it any other way. I'm a girl of extremes, and life is made of ups and downs and choices. Sometimes the choices we make are easier than others. Sometimes the choices we're offered are not the ones we were hoping for. It takes time for me to wrestle with that, to reconcile with it. Good days, bad days, neutral days... all ultimately part of the equation.

The next moment can always be better.

In this particular moment, I choose gratitude. Today, I choose to teach my kids -- and anyone else who might be listening -- that it's okay to feel lost and out of sorts with this world, to feel that you don't really have a space to call your own, to feel like you're trying to build a house on shifting sand. That they can fall down and still get back up, that skinned knees and skinned hearts eventually heal, even if they do leave a scar. Scars are the tough, pink, jagged-edged, external reminders of our internal strength. Everyone has those battle wounds. No one walks through this world without damaging the perfect physical package he or she was granted at birth. Everyone breaks in different places, at different times, in different ways. The gift is in the healing, the recovery. Standing back up, taking the next step -- that's what's important. That's what matters. Giving of yourself, your heart, your time, your beautiful vulnerability -- those are gifts that money will never be able to buy. That currency is what's important. Those are the things that matter most.

I'm learning. We're learning. About scars and skinned knees and the lovely, human mess of it all. Onward. Always onward. To the next flawed, imperfect, and glorious adventure.

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