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Being Brave Enough to Break My Own Heart

April 2, 2020

In March 2019, I went to the Power of Narrative conference in Boston with my close friend, Ann marie. She and I had been attending this conference for the last three years together and all year looked forward to those four days together to reconnect, talk, laugh, drink, eat, shop, write and think.

But last year’s conference weekend had a different “theme” for me, if you will. So many things were heavy on my mind, and I was also chosen to pitch a memoir-essay to a panel of editors. The essay centered around moving to the Middle of America, at midlife, and becoming a runner. During one of our downtime excursions, we ventured into a bookstore and Ann marie bought me a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Tiny Beautiful Things.” This book will change your life, Ann marie said to me. While I’m a deep believer in the power of words, I wasn’t sure how Strayed, whom I only really knew from her memoir, “Wild,” was going to change my life.

We went back to our hotel room and Ann marie read several passages and essays aloud to me. The one that struck me like a bolt of lighting was the following:

“You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”

“Be brave enough to break your own heart.” That was powerful! You must truly have to be brave to risk hurting and ruining yourself for something, I thought.

I’ve always thought of myself as strong. But brave? Not so much. My biggest act of bravery thus far was moving from San Diego to Indiana at age 40. And even that was not an “act of bravery,” per se. I wasn’t like Strayed who decided to leave her life and hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself (now, THAT was brave). This move, in July 2016, was a decision we made as a family so my husband could take a new job. I wasn’t brave; I was going along with what was best for my family.

Yet in May 2019, I summoned courage I did not think I had and I broke my own heart, as well as breaking others. I told my husband of 19 years that I needed a divorce.

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Bryan and I met as juniors at San Diego State University (SDSU). I was 20 years old; he was 22. In 2019, we knew each other for 23 years and were together as a couple for 20 years; that’s more years together than apart. We grew into adulthood together. He was my best friend, in many ways. We bought homes together. We raised (are still raising) an incredible daughter, Sophie (12). We brought home our first puppy as well as adopted two other dogs, and a liter of cats. We’ve endured the loss of pets together, as well as family members. We both went through graduate school and he went through law school. We weathered the down-turned 2008 economic crisis and endured forced furloughs while we both worked at SDSU. We went through countless jobs, in higher education as well as my shift to freelance writing. We had debt together. We paid off student loans and credit cards together. We moved across country together. We were partners, in every sense of the word. In my mind, we had a successful marriage and I am proud of that and all we’d accomplished.

Yet over the years, like so many other “normal” couples, especially ones that met and “coupled” so young, we grew apart. Our goals changed. We ended up wanting different things out of life. We talked less and less. I found myself getting frustrated at things that, for many years, I just accepted as part of marriage and life. I also unknowingly went on a journey of self-discovery and found a vulnerable girl buried deep within that needed to find her way out. And in order to do that – in order to find that person I’d been ignoring for so many years – I had to say goodbye to a relationship that no longer worked for me: my marriage.

While that may sound like an easy and an eloquently-written decision, let me assure you, it was not. I agonized over what I considered doing. You don’t just leave your spouse and break apart your family, I thought. For my entire life, I believed strongly that if you make a commitment like marriage, then you need to keep it, no matter what it cost or how it felt. I believed that strongly … until I didn’t anymore.

When I read that one paragraph from Strayed, combined with all the other thoughts that had been plaguing my mind for some time, something clicked in my mind. In order to fully discover myself, own my life and make the next 40 years count for me, I had to make a change.

I want to be very clear that this was a complicated decision. It’s not as simple as me needing a new start. I don’t blame Bryan for anything. He is not a bad person, and my decision to walk away from my marriage is not because of something he did. There was no instigating circumstance. I don’t hold him responsible for my feelings. I take full responsibility for everything that’s happened and every feeling I’ve had.

I knew the decision would be painful — for me, for Bryan, our daughter, family, friends who knew us as a “perfect” couple. But I also knew I had to save myself and be the person and mother I needed to be.

I won’t go into details about what happened after I told my ex-husband I wanted a divorce. What I will say is that while I fully wanted this new life and I do not regret my decision, that didn’t make the process any easier. It was months and months of pain, tears, anxiety, depression, grief, sadness, uncertainty, anger, shame, guilt … I broke my own heart, again and again, and I know I broke his, too.

But throughout all of that heartbreak and chaos, I remembered the one line that Ann marie read in our Boston hotel room, and she continued to repeat those same words in the months ahead when I was at many a breaking points: “You wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all.”

Divorce is never simple. Thus far, it was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. But anytime I felt like I was not going to make it though, I remembered the simplicity of that phrase. I wasn’t trying to hurt my ex-husband or my daughter. I wanted a different life for myself and I was worthy of that new life. And I had to change the terms of one relationship to get it. It hurt like hell and it was not easy (it’s still not easy; it still hurts and I’m still grieving). But I had to find strength and courage I didn’t know were in me. I had be brave enough to break my own heart.

Running and Writing: Lessons in Control, Inspiration and Solace

March 19, 2020

“Writing and running are dual pursuits that enable the illusion of control, a way of ordering the world through carefully crafted sentences and mile splits.”

I didn’t write that sentence, but I easily could have; because I share those exact sentiments. Those words were written by Jaclyn Gilbert in an essay entitled “The Need for Distance: Jaclyn Gilbert on Writing and Running.”

I consider myself both a writer and runner. I’ve learned so much from both endeavors, and see how both have such similarities for me. Through writing, I control a perception of me. I control the words I put out in the world. I didn’t know when I started running, that I was also doing that to gain a form of control over my life.

However, one lesson I’ve learned is that while people like Gilbert and I use running and writing as a way to maintain control, they’re also an illustration that I don’t have control. And a deep lesson both offer is the ability to learn how to live without control.

Running, for me, is predictably unpredictable. Every run starts with the same components — anticipation, shoes, running clothes, baseball hat, my heart monitor, Garmin watch, phone and earbuds if I’m running solo, and my piece of gum that I chew throughout … plus or minus a water bottle or gloves and a second layer, depending on the season. And every run starts with the same goal of getting outside and getting distance completed, whether it’s five or 15 miles. But on some runs, my legs feel heavy or my breathing sucks. Or my music keeps automatically pausing because the wind blew the wrong way or my phone wasn’t happy with the playlist selection. And I feel like I’ll never run at the level I did before. Or a rainstorm cuts the run short and I retreat to the car. In all those circumstances, the control I set out to achieve vanished and I had to embrace a new reality.

A great illustration of this is when I suffered a stress fracture in summer 2018. I had a goal to complete every local club race, including what would have been my first half marathon in September. But then the nagging pain in my left lower leg turned out to be a stress fracture. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. And not being able to run for six weeks, relieve stress in the way I’d become accustomed, and participate in that half marathon was a tough lesson in not having control. But I came back from that fracture and rebuilt my leg, my skills and my mind, and I ran stronger after that injury than I did before.

That same illusion of control happens in writing too. I’ve had times where I had a great idea, and then discovered someone else already wrote my essay. The control I had over the idea and its potential disappeared, so then what do I do with that idea? Do I give up or make it my own and publish it elsewhere? I can write what I think is a great piece, and then pitch it to ten publications and nobody wants to publish it. I can control my words and write the perfect sentence, but its meaning may be lost to a reader.

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Control (or lack thereof) aside, running and writing are forever linked in my mind. Running inspires me. It helps me think and, often times, ideas come to me while I’m outside moving. Those ideas translate to words that come out on the page, and more often than not, to my iPhone Notes app when I pause my run to furiously type out my thoughts.

But even more than that, both running and writing give me solace. I’ve run when I felt at my lowest and didn’t know how I would make it through devastating situations. I’ve written my way out of some of those situations as well. Both allow me to work through problems and help me feel less alone. Running helps me process emotions and things on my mind. Writing does the same in that it helps me make sense of the world. And sharing those words — whether it’s in the form of a blog post, Facebook or Instagram post, or even a text message to a friend — helps me feel less alone.

I’ve also learned that you have to be comfortable in your ability and secure in your desire to run and write. You want to do those two things because you are deeply moved to do so and see no alternative otherwise.

I know I’ll never write a bestselling novel or memoir. I’ll likely not be “discovered” or receive a Pulizer Prize. But I’ve never written for those reasons. I write because I have to. I write to get words out of my head, work through issues, and make sense of the world.

I know I’ll never place in a race for finishing in record time. I’ll likely never run a stretch of sub 10-minute miles. I may never be able to complete a 100-mile ultra run. But I’ve never run for those reasons. I run because I have to. I run to work through issues and make sense of what’s happening in my head.

It may seem odd to refer to activities such as writing and running as gifts. But they’re two of the greatest gifts of my life, and I’m thankful every day for the ability to practice both. I learn something new with every run I go on, and every piece of content I write. Even when all control is lost and I feel at my darkest, running and writing always bring me back to the light.

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Three Strangers’ Stories in an Hour in Indiana

February 6, 2020

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a bit know that I’m a huge “West Wing” and Aaron Sorkin fan. One of my favorite episodes is the season four opener, “20 Hours in America.” The episode begins with President Bartlett giving a campaign speech at an Indiana farm. After being left behind by the presidential motorcade, Josh, Toby and Donna are stranded in Indiana and they rely on the help of strangers to get across the state, and at the same time, are exposed to life in rural Indiana.

I like to think of my early love of this episode as yet another example of my fate to live in Indiana one day. Donna is even wearing an Indiana State University (ISU) sweatshirt in this clip of one of the ending scenes.

I’ve thought about this episode a lot over the years and have re-watched it many times, especially since moving to Terre Haute three-and-a-half years ago. I had my own “20 Hours in America” experience earlier this week that gave me pause and appreciate my adopted town and the people who live in it.

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About two weeks ago, I was rear-ended and it left just enough damage to warrant repairs and a rental car (luckily paid by the other insurance provider). This past Monday, I had an appointment to take my car to Scott’s Custom Collision Body Shop on the north end of Terre Haute. After dropping off my car, I sat in the lobby waiting for the Enterprise Rental Car representative to pick me up.

I had my book and phone in hand; but instead of going in for reading, I met Scott, the owner of the shop. He introduced himself and explained what would happen with my car and when to expect a call with updates. We talked about it being a “warm” morning (warm for February in Indiana), but snow was expected later this week. I learned Scott was born and raised in Terre Haute (something I hear a lot from folks around here). He was a nice man, and knew every customer by name who walked through his lobby.

Somehow it came up that I was from San Diego, and Scott asked the question I get from nearly everyone I meet in Terre Haute: “Why on earth would you move from California to Indiana?”

I told Scott my story and I said how much I’ve come to love Terre Haute — the change of seasons, weather, the outdoors, the people, more relaxed pace of life, cost of living — and how I have no desire to move back to Southern California. Most people are surprised at that answer. But I also notice their faces soften a bit and they nod in agreement. I feel an unspoken acceptance of me, almost like they’re saying, “She’s okay … she can stay here.” I got that impression from Scott as well.

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After my conversation with Scott ended, the young man (around 23 years old) from Enterprise arrived to drive me and another woman to the rental car facility on Wabash Avenue, which is in the downtown/central part of Terre Haute. I sat in the front seat of the Suburban and talked to my Enterprise representative (regrettably, I forgot his name). Like me, he is not from Terre Haute, but moved here with his parents from Minnesota at the age of 12. He explained to me the very different regions of Minnesota, and how he’s a Vikings fan.

He played football for the ISU football team and then became one of the few management trainees that Enterprise hired from campus. He’ll soon be training with the NFL as he still has hopes of playing on a pro team at some point. But, he said, if he doesn’t, he’s happy with his job at Enterprise and the opportunities it’s provided him.

I asked him why he chose to stay in Terre Haute after graduating from ISU, especially with pro football dreams. He said he’s raising two kids with his fiance, and they just bought a house. He likes this town, his job, and it’s a great place to raise a family. I nodded in agreement.

******

In the car with Mr. Enterprise and me was a woman who was also recently involved in a fender bender (regrettably I didn’t get her name either). Luckily, she said, it was a company car. She talked about being busy with work, which kept her traveling in her car a lot. The company wants her to take on more work and responsibility, but she’s not interested in that. She likes her 9 – 5 schedule and not being responsible for employees. It allows her the time to take care of the sheep at home, she said.

“The sheep?” I asked.

This older woman is also a sheep farmer and raises them on a plot of farm land just outside Terre Haute. Her husband is recovering from a medical situation, so tending to the sheep is left solely to her right now. This made for long days since she had to get up early to feed and care for the animals. I had some admiration for this woman who knew exactly what she wanted her life to be.

The three of us parted ways at Enterprise and I got into a black Nissan that took me five minutes to figure out how to navigate (I’m not used to “fancy” modern cars).

I’m not typically a person who starts conversations with strangers. That element of the Midwest still hasn’t quite infiltrated my psyche yet. But on this Monday morning, something compelled me to dig a little deeper with these people. And I found myself enriched by the stories of these three strangers, all of which took place in the span of just one hour, in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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Hoops, Memories and Community: A Basketball Story

January 29, 2020

I am not a sports person. Most people who know me will tell you that words “Leah” and “sports” are far from synonymous, especially when it comes to football. It’s a shock that I know the teams in the Super Bowl (Go 49ers!). However, there’s one sport that has been somewhat woven throughout my life in various ways, and that sport is basketball.

When I was 11-years-old, my dad took me and my sister, Ellye, to see “Hoosiers” in the movie theater. My dad loves basketball; college basketball to be specific. He’s been following the San Diego State University (SDSU) Aztecs since his days working at the university, and he’s also loyal to the men’s and women’s University of Connecticut Huskies teams (dad’s a UConn alum).

Dad loved “Hoosiers” and the Cinderella story of the underdog team that came together with a broken coach and assistant coach, all of whom worked together to create something extraordinary and made that Indiana town proud. One of my favorite memories is taking my dad to the actual Hoosier Gym in Knightstown, Indiana where the movie was filmed, and watching him shoot the ball in the hoop.

I remember being moved by the story of a small town that bonded over the Hickory High School basketball team. I asked dad to take me to the movie a second time. Even at age 11, I loved the beautiful scenery and wondered what it would feel like to live in a small town in the middle of America. … It’s a bit surreal to think that I sat in a movie theater watching a story about Indiana basketball 33 years ago; and today, Ellye and I, call Indiana our home. Perhaps that “Hoosiers” viewing had a deeper impact than we could have imagined.

After the “Hoosiers” viewing, Ellye went on to play basketball in the local rec league and Magic Johnson became one of her heroes. I never had the desire to play basketball, but I enjoyed watching my sister engage in something I didn’t think I was capable of doing.

I attended San Diego State and spent a good portion of my adult life working on the campus as well. Basketball season created an excitement on campus. That’s when the Aztecs soared. They dominated the season games and were regular Mountain West Conference champions. Even if you weren’t a sports fan, everyone became an Aztec for Life when the team made its way toward March Madness. The enthusiasm on campus was contagious. And I thought I was pretty cool for being Facebook friends with Kawhi Leonard when he helped take the team all the way to the March Madness in 2011. That year, SDSU played UConn in the Sweet Sixteen games of March 2011, and my dad had the opportunity to sit in the Anaheim arena and watch his two favorite teams rival each other (UConn won, 74-67).

I continue to follow my Aztecs, from 2,000 miles away in the heart of Hoosierland, wearing my red and black SDSU Aztecs baseball cap on runs. Today, the team is #4 in the nation and undefeated at 21-0. I love the collective excitement that my fellow alumni, friends and former colleagues share on social media together. We have this common bond, and it makes me proud that SDSU gave me my start in so many ways.

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As I began this post, I wrote that I’m not a sports person. And that’s true in the sense that I don’t have the same passion for sports as I do for books, music, reading, TV and movies, and running. But I do appreciate the communal aspect of it, and how it bonds people together.

I’ve seen that this week after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. Whether you are a fan of his or not, or even follow basketball, there’s no denying that the nation has come together in that shared grief. It’s a comforting feeling that helps quell the sadness a bit.

Sophie has been performing on the middle school dance team this year, and one of their obligations is to perform at the middle school home basketball games. I attend every one of those games – of course to see Sophie – but I also enjoy sitting in the bleachers watching the home team play. I like seeing so many of the new friends I’ve come to meet over my few years here in Indiana. I smile watching Sophie and her friends congregate together to chat and watch the game, and it makes me happy to see so many other students choose to spend their evening watching their middle school classmates play. It all gives me a very strong sense of community, very much like how I felt a spiritual connection sitting in the small, local Jewish synagogue.

Maybe it’s my “Hoosiers” nostalgia and that early bond I formed with my dad. Maybe it’s remembering Ellye dribbling across the rec center floor and the Magic Johnson jersey she received for her birthday one year. Maybe it’s the excitement of the Aztecs dominating college basketball this season. Or maybe it’s the fact that I found my community and home in Indiana. Either way, there’s no denying basketball has played a role in my life and I’m grateful for the memories to go with that.

Looking Back at 2019: A Year of Endurance

December 31, 2019

Endurance

noun: the fact or power of enduring an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way

adjective: denoting or relating to a race or other sporting event that takes place over a long distance or otherwise demands great physical stamina

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Several years ago, I started a tradition in which my last blog post of the year was a reflection on the past 12 months, both in words and photos. Many people start January by choosing a word as their guiding theme for the year ahead. I could never quite get into that idea. My custom involves looking back at the past year — reflecting on what I’ve done, learned and experienced, and choosing a word that represented the past year. I knew endurance would be my word for 2019 for quite some time. In fact, the idea came to me while I was running the Great Smoky Mountain Half Marathon in September.

When I started 2019, I had one goal in mind. Naturally, it was running related. I wanted to run farther and longer, and be able to sustain conversations with friends while running. Accomplishing this goal comes down to one thing: endurance. I didn’t realize on New Year’s Day, however, that that goal of endurance would come to symbolize even more as the year went on.

At the beginning of 2019, the longest distance I ran was seven miles and I ran predominantly by myself. I joined the Trained in Terre Haute running program and every Saturday, I joined three girlfriends for weekly runs. My friend, Emily, and I also decided we’d run one race each month, whether it was a 10K or 5-mile trail run. All that while, I ran with friends. I had conversations. I ran for longer, and more miles. On April 20, I ran my first half marathon distance of 13.1 miles, with close friends by my side. On May 18, I finished my first ultra distance of 50K (31 miles).

I spent June through the end of September training for the Indiana Trail 100K (62 miles) race. I ran five days a week, with back-to-back weekend long runs, in the summer heat and humidity. I ran alone and I ran with friends. On September 20, I ran a marathon distance of 26.2 miles and then achieved a personal record (PR) time completing a half marathon the next day. And on October 12, I attempted my biggest challenge, the Indiana Trail 100K. While I didn’t achieve the 100K goal, I did manage to finish with 51 miles. I’m closing 2019 with 1,087 miles run; not bad considering my total miles for 2018 was 315 miles.

Endurance came in more ways than my running. Twenty-nineteen was a challenging and personally transformative year for me as well. I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of through experiences I never thought I would go through. I realize I’m being vague, but I cannot go into details about the situations I faced right now (I hope to at some point). I’ve gone through some extremely difficult times, but they’ve also allowed me to grow in ways I never thought possible of myself.

Through personal endurance, I also learned a lot about vulnerability. It’s a scary thing, but can also be transformative and beautiful. I’m incredibly grateful to my friends and family that helped me embrace that. Looking back at this year – my running and personal situations – I honestly don’t know how I endured it all. Yet here I am, ready to “dwell in possibility” of a new decade.

The year also brought other things … One of the best things I did in 2019 was teach kids writing classes at the local library and coordinated drop-in writing sessions for writers at a coffee shop. Sophie finished elementary school and moved on to middle school where she joined the dance team and landed the lead in the school musical. In the spring, I attended the Power of Narrative Conference in Boston with my great friend, Ann marie, and I pitched a writing project idea to a panel of editors. I was fortunate to work with wonderful clients and I restored my freelance business to a new level of success.

I’m grateful my two dogs and cat are still with us, as much as they drive me crazy at times. I saw some wonderful live music shows and spent countless hours with deep friends. I made great memories with my sister, Ellye; and Sophie shared time with her cousins who now live close to us. My sister, Sari, visited over the summer. I enjoyed many long conversations with my sister, Kayli. And my mom made three trips to Indiana in 2019.

These year-end photo collages give me a chance to visually reflect on the past year. I love looking back on all the memories, seeing Sophie grow up and watching the natural environment and seasons change before my eyes. I really love that my physical space is a constant reminder that life passes by, that nothing is permanent, and there is always a possibility to make a change and wake up anew each day. I share many of these moments and “micro-blog posts” on Instagram, so feel free to follow me there if you’re not already.

Thank you for reading Leah’s Thoughts and being part of my journey. Happy New Year, and here’s to 2020 and a new decade!

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