The courage to have great expectations

I started getting excited a couple days after Christmas. I’d applied for a $500 flash grant and felt a surge of buoyancy when the foundation’s director messaged me to see if I’d received her email. Why would she be anxious about getting in touch if I wasn’t the winner?! As I waited for her to try sending the email again, my confidence and anticipation intensified. When I finally uncovered the notification where it had gotten waylaid by junk mail filters, I was darn near giddy with glee. The subject line read “Marva, you are our December grant winner!”

Half a second later I went into shock as I read the first paragraph and began plummeting down an emotional avalanche. “Congratulations! You have won a micro-grant in the amount of $55.” What the hey?! Did they forget a zero? Is this a typo?

As I processed my disappointment, I went back to the website, which clearly referred to $500 grants. Then I tracked down the Call for Submissions and found a key statement: “The amount depends on the final balance in our account on December 22.” I remembered reading this sentence through my inner optimist’s rosy lenses and interpreting it as implying I might very well get MORE than $500!

As I digested the news, I zipped through a micro-version of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), as I think we all do when we are caught by surprise. Writing this post is my way of working through the last two stages.

What’s most amazing is not that I managed within an hour of receiving the news to write a gracious reply with a request for clarification of the award amount, but that I allowed myself to raise my expectations that high in the first place.

You see, many years ago—as a young child—I taught myself to lower my expectations as a technique for preventing disappointment. Can anyone out there relate to that?

Marva in 6th Grade

By 6th grade I was adept at lowering my expectations

I employed that tool for 30 years or more before waking up and noticing a persistent pattern: no matter how low I dropped my expectations, people and situations still disappointed me. I finally figured out the reason: what I expected most strongly was that I would be disappointed. And I was, again and again and again.

By bracing myself for the worst, I left little if any room in my world for lovely surprises and happy outcomes. And, in fact, when circumstances seemed to be going well, I invariably had the shadowy suspicion that at any moment someone would announce there had been a mistake! I vividly recall sitting on my couch in an extraordinary new living space about 15 years ago and having a panic seize my heart as I imagined a knock on my front door with this news: I’m sorry, but you don’t deserve this.

The hardest part

For decades I was trapped in the dark clutches of my lower brain’s natural bias toward noticing the negative, a throwback to hunter/gatherer ancestors who presumably had little time to stop and smell the wild roses because they needed to be alert for saber-toothed cats and other potentially-deadly dangers. All these millennia later we can still find ourselves stuck with choosing from the primitive brain’s limited menu of options: fight, flight, freeze.

The good news is that humans have the power to consciously overwrite this old program and move from the dingy, danger-filled basement of the lower brain to a roomier, lighter apartment upstairs in the front of the brain. Decision-making works differently in the penthouse, with time to pause and consider before responding. There is a really wise and creative Upstairs Committee always available for consultation, and I love learning how to tap their ingenuity.

Which leads me back to the disappointing news that I’d received a $55 grant instead of a $500 grant. With a panoramic view of options from the comfy couch in my sunny mental apartment I could actually watch the incoming information arrive in the basement and provoke a rapid anger-fear-despair routine. But because of the hard work I’ve done to install strong stairs and a speedy elevator, the data and emotions arrived fairly quickly up in the mental penthouse where I could take a deep breath and respond more constructively with the help of the Upstairs Committee.

Down in the Doom Room I heard the usual commotion: I never win anything. Why even bother? I might as well tell them to keep their money. People are so misleading; this is probably some kind of scam. You can’t trust the Internet. What was I thinking? Why did I even waste my time? I should have known this was too good to be true.

Up in my higher mind there was a much different set of options under discussion: Maybe it’s a typo; I could write to express my confusion and request clarification. I’ll be able to cover this month’s electric bill at Insight with that money. I am so glad I can consciously choose to be gracious and grateful instead of defaulting to anger and defeat. This could be a good illustration for a blog post!

For the skeptics—what good are great expectations? You only got $55—I have some important news: a day or two after I applied for the grant I received an unexpected check for $500. I’ll just leave you to ponder that along with the reminder that my initial expectation was that I might very well get MORE than $500!


I choose life: a journey beyond childhood grief

When I look at pictures of myself from the first few years of my life I see a child who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful. I have a photo album that offers a poignantly graphic version of my story. Just after the snapshots documenting my third birthday in 1962, the pages fade to black. It’s not that my story ended, but that I abruptly lost my storyteller.

My parents, Morris & Pat, in college, circa 1955

My parents, who met and fell in love during college in Idaho, had been married for less than 7 years. My dad Morris was a pastor of a tiny church in Connecticut 1,400 miles from our nearest relatives, my mom Pat served as pianist-soloist-music director-program organizer-Sunday School teacher all rolled into one. A few weeks after the birth of my first sibling, our mother was diagnosed with an aggressive, untreatable cancer focused in her small intestine. Less than a month after open-and-shut exploratory surgery, the most important person in my life was dead of starvation, all nutrients hijacked to support a basketball-size tumor.

In the narrow window between diagnosis and death, my mom helped from her hospital bed to navigate a bewildering thicket of considerations before deciding to accept an offer from her older brother and his wife—3,000 miles away in Oregon—to adopt Faye Anne. Born in April, my new sister disappeared in May, my mom in June, a two-month-wide tornado that roared through my life and ripped half its contents away.

The year after my mom’s death, my dad remarried and we moved to a new home in another state, minimizing the evidence of our loss, forging a new family unit in which old frames of reference and familiar rituals dissolved, with strange procedures and stressful expectations taking their place. I do not remember talking much about my mom again during my childhood. The subject felt closed for discussion, an unspoken taboo that I would not dare to question for decades. I did not see my sister again until I was 12, and then only for a brief visit. 

Marva Lee & Faye Anne together again, 1971

Like many children who experience trauma, I recall little of this. I can draw an accurate floor plan of the house where I last saw my mom, even correctly placing furniture in the diagram. I can cite surprisingly lucid details about random, mundane events that happened two days before her death and in the week after the funeral. But my mother is nowhere to be found. She has been packed away in an unlabeled box in a memory-hoarder’s dangerously-cluttered attic.

These few paragraphs are a synopsis of the first volume in the library of my life. Elsewhere on the shelf is a book describing the debilitating weight of unresolved grief I carried for 30 years. There’s a dark memoir that details how to numb pain with drugs, alcohol, work and perfectionism. Another volume tracks my gradual loss of self-esteem and trust in my own instinct and intuition. The biggest tome in the set is all about trying to control what cannot be controlled. Recurring themes are sorrow, shame, self-destructiveness, anxiety, neediness, and over-compensation, all signs that hint at their roots in trauma.

I started deliberately shifting themes and writing a new story twenty years ago. I awakened in some kind of soul‐darkness one February morning in 1995 and lay there in the grip of an existential terror so paralyzing I wondered if I might already be en route to some hellish afterworld. Gradually the panic began to give way to resignation and I became aware of a tiny light in my field of awareness. I understood that the light represented what remained of my once‐indomitable and radiant spirit. I suddenly saw with dramatic clarity that to continue on the same trajectory was a form of slow suicide. I recognized that I had the power to choose whether to extinguish my light or nurture it back to full illumination.

Three words came into my mind that morning and rang like a bell that continues to reverberate in my consciousness two decades later: I choose life.

My life is now my most convincing evidence for the power to change one’s story. That I, who never expected to live past the age at which my mother died—28—am writing this at the age of 56 is more remarkable than I can say. By all rights I should have died a dozen times or more, taking into account the many dangerous circumstances in which I made crazy bets with death simply because I didn’t care if I lost.

Slowly and deliberately I began reinvesting in myself after emotional bankruptcy. I stopped daily self-medication with alcohol. I’m convinced the single most healing step I took was to find someone to listen and hold my story with me, an objective professional who shocked me by crying. “What happened to you,” she said, “was a tragedy.” Mute with surprise at this pronouncement, I felt something novel wash over me, not a familiar wave of shame, grief or despair, but something new: compassion for myself.

These are the redemptive messages my therapist Gail willingly repeated as often as necessary for me to finally begin believing them: You are lovable. You have the right to feel sad and angry. If you allow yourself to feel these emotions, you will not fall apart. Each of these were prisms of insight that allowed me to recolor my entire context.

Facet by facet, I slowly salvaged the diamond of self‐love. I was astounded by the relief of being allowed to speak my own truth, to tell my version of my life without excusing or defending. I believe it is possible to save someone’s life by the way you listen to their stories.

Just as my mental health challenges did not all arrive at once, but arose at intervals as my unaddressed grief and unfelt feelings accumulated, so my return to wholeness did not happen in some instantaneous turnaround. Five years of therapy, self-help groups, journaling, body work, anger work, forgiveness rituals, meditation, reconnection with nature, support from family and friends, and learning to trust myself and others again—all of these are part of the task of writing a new story that eventually brings me to this grace-filled chapter of my experience.

My life feels deeply purposeful these days, not because of what I’m doing, but because of who I’m being—my authentic self. After years of fear, mistrust and isolation, I am deeply embedded in my community in a variety of courageous ways, offering myself as living inspiration to others. This week I heard the news that I passed my state certification exam to serve as a peer support specialist, positioning me to give back to others the kind of non-judgmental, compassionate listening that encouraged my healing as I brought my story out into the light for transformation.

If I look at pictures of myself these days, I see a woman who feels safe, loved, easy-going, curious and—above all else—joyful.