During the last several months, I have been blessed with the gift of time. I took a leave of absence this year so that I could ‘work on me’. I’ve somewhat affectionately dubbed it ‘The Year of Me’. It’s been both humbling, wonderful, and terrifying all at the same time. For a girl who is constantly on the go, has a to do list eight miles long, and wants to conquer the world, being faced with days that are largely unscheduled has been an experience. It has taken conscious effort to keep this time flexible, to build new patterns, to allow myself space to explore different things.
My natural tendency has always been to pack a million things into a day. To wake at 4 or 4:30 for early morning workouts and fill the hours between the end of the workout and bedtime at 11 or later with lots of checkboxes. While my job as a teacher allowed me to make connections with people, my students especially, I really never made time for others outside of what came naturally with teaching. I measured my day simply by how much I got ‘accomplished’, how busy I appeared to be, and how much more I’d found to add to my list. Kind of insane when I look at it written out like that.
During this ‘Year of Me,’ I’m working to change some of these habits and tendencies. To trade appearances for more meaning. It’s hard work to break habits and thought processes that have been ingrained for so many years. Many days I struggle when I look up and realize I’ve somehow wiled away seven hours of my day and have nothing ‘to show for it’. But I’m trying to measure my success by something different. It’s not how busy I look, or how much impact I can visibly see on my immediate environment. It’s not how many things I’ve crossed off my list or even how full my calendar is. It’s about what I’m learning. It’s about how I’m growing. Even if I have nothing tangible to wave around as a badge of honor.
So, I’ve been guarding my time fiercely. I’m striving not to fill it with minutiae, but to fill it with meaning. I still rely on my calendar to keep me organized and it’s full. It’s full of meeting people over coffee, hiking with dear friends and talking about life, hockey practices without a bag of grading and a chance to talk to other parents, volunteering, and regular FaceTime dates with friends that aren’t as close by but challenge me to be the best version of myself.
While all of this sounds dreamy, it’s also an effort. It’s an effort not to fall back into the minutiae that made me feel good because I could show anyone (because I’m sure so many were interested - ha, ha) how much laundry I’d finished, the groceries that I’d bought, the papers that I’d graded, the lessons that I’d developed, the meetings I’d attended or spearheaded, and the floors that I’d vacuumed.
Suddenly, I find myself trying to judge my worth, my contribution, by the meaningful connections I’ve made that day. Even then, I have to remind myself it’s not about how many, but the depth of those connections. I have to remind myself that it may even be a meaningful connection with myself as I read, study, write, run, whatever.
I’ve always been a reader and I’m a sucker not only for a good cheesy Young Adult novel, but also for a good personal development / self-help type book. In the last year and almost a half, I’ve read my fair share of both cheesy and growth minded material. This weekend I was struck by a quote I read from the Dalai Lama, “The way through the sadness and grief that comes from great loss is to use it as motivation and to generate a deeper sense of purpose.”
This made me think of a conversation I had recently where I was asked about how I ‘stay so positive’. My first response was that it’s a lot of pretending, but the truth is also that it is a daily choice.
Each day I must wake up and make a conscious choice to look for beauty in the world, to see opportunities to grow, to honor the people I love. I must make the choice to see, feel and do these things regardless of the ugliness in the news or the hole in my heart.
For me, choice is becoming a habit, and most days I can make that choice in the morning and have it carry me through. But in all honesty, there are other days where I must consciously make that choice - over and over again. It can be exhausting. There are days when I give in to that exhaustion, but I try not to because I know deep in my soul, that regardless of how many times I have to make that choice, it is the right one.
I love that the Dalai Lama doesn’t talk about the way to “get over” grief, because losing Rylie is something that I’ll never “get over”. Instead it is something that I will wade my way through. Some days it will be easy, like walking at the edge of the surf on the beach where the sand is compact and hard. Other days it will be more work, like slogging through deep peanut buttery mud.
Regardless of the conditions, I’ve come to find comfort in knowing that I will use this grief to grow. Rylie has made me a better person. From the moment that she was born, and perhaps even more so since she died, she has been my motivation and given me a sense of purpose. Sometimes that motivation has been misguided, but I’m a work in progress - I’m learning.
When she was first born, my motivation was to be the best mother and role model that I could be. My purpose became to love her fiercely and to make sure she knew how loved she was. I found myself trying to do more and be more so that I could be an example to her.
Yet, somehow, even then, I found myself watching her and learning from her. I’d watch her grow and was always in awe of her spirit which was so authentic and loving.
Rylie loved with a heart that was so big and she welcomed everyone into it. She had a way of quirking up her eyes and laughing so that you couldn’t help by join in. She showed compassion in ways that were beyond her years.
Of course, much of this is hindsight. In the heat of moment - I was more aware of the times she’d dig in her heels and question me. Or the times that she’d drive me crazy making messes while she created the perfect gift, note, or trinket to remind someone of her love. Or the times when she’d get emotionally invested in a situation that was beyond her control and I’d have to talk her down.
Now that she’s gone, my motivation has shifted to be one of choice not control. I realize that I cannot control everything and by being present in the moment, I can learn a lot. I choose to honor her spirit and to live in a way that is inspired by love.
Although, I’m still figuring out how to do this, I know my purpose is to spread joy and kindness in her memory. To accept myself and others where we are. To show compassion and empathy. Most of all, I will make the choice each day to smile, to say hello, and find a little bit of joy in the day.
Meghann and Ziggy Guentensberger are Rylie's parents. During their time in the hospital with Rylie and after her death, they began writing about their experiences. What started as a way to keep people informed of Rylie's condition, turned into a way for them to process all that was happening. After she died on May 26, 2017 they both continued to write as a way to process and heal themselves and occasionally inspire others. These writings are housed on the Rylie's ARK Facebook page.