The Great Without: Reclaiming a Life & Legacy amidst Recurrent Pregnancy Loss

October 15th is International Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day. You might’ve also heard it called the Global Wave of Light.

On this date each calendar year, we honor lives lost too soon, and their surviving family members, by lighting a candle for an hour, starting at 7PM local time.

Want to help raise awareness? Post your shining candle with a statement of support and #WaveOfLight.

Not sure how to help after today? Keep reading. You being here is a great place to start.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

Recurrent, unexplained loss. Though I could not name them until recently, these three words have come to define my life. This losing — of people, places, things — is completely devastating. It’s delivered more as a pummeling than a clean, repeated removal. It’s a bad dream, a cruel joke, a punch instead of a punchline. And it’s not something I’d wish on anyone, ever.

It’s a bad dream, a cruel joke, a punch instead of a punchline. And it’s not something I’d wish on anyone, ever. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

The worst part is that when you go through this type of loss, you learn to anticipate its return in a co-opted brand of disaster preparedness, one where it feels like all you can do is wait to be pummeled again. Who wants to live that way? Not me, but here I am and here we are. May as well do something useful!

I’m not here to discuss the broad reaches of my life. That’s work best suited to forms longer than personal essay. What I am here to do, in a month where it really matters, is discuss unexplained, recurrent pregnancy loss, and provide some tips on how to go about living with or supporting other “waiting” parents through it. I’m by no means an expert, but I do know a thing or two about what it feels like to miscarry repeatedly and without medical explanation, and that counts for something, right?

Our journey begins in 2017. For a year, my husband and I tried and failed to get pregnant, mostly because I was lightyears off about when I was ovulating. It’s no wonder we didn’t conceive. Fueled by frustration, we decided to take some “time off” … and then it happened. We were expecting!

That joy didn’t last long. In week eight, we found out that we would eventually miscarry, and by the tenth week, it was over. It took me months to recover physically, and in all honesty, people in these shoes can spend the rest of their lives healing emotionally and spiritually from that kind of loss.

Our struggles didn’t end there, though I wish they had. For the better part of the next two years, my husband and I had an unbelievable mix of highs and lows. Unlike hoping-to-expect couples, another “waiting” community, our challenge has never been expecting. Achieving pregnancy, thankfully, does not seem to be our burden. But then again, maybe it is.

For whatever reason — and perhaps there isn’t one at all — my body will not hold pregnancies through the first trimester. We’ve been close a few times, even allowed ourselves the indulgence of picked names, Pinterest-decorated nurseries, and imagined registries from our favorite stores. But in the end, our story always ends the same way: blood, tears, and calls back to the doctor.

[P]eople in these shoes can spend the rest of their lives healing emotionally and spiritually from that kind of loss.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

In the beginning of this journey — that no one asks for, by the way — we believed our struggle would be short-lived. We honestly believed that with the right set of answers, a happier, biological-child-including future would materialize. So, we did a lot of the things that couples in our shoes tend to do. We prayed, we went to appointments, we took supplements, we tried new diet and lifestyle routines, we tried to get pregnant, we tried not trying to get pregnant, we tracked cycles and symptoms, and in the end, all we did was go mad. Mad with frustration, mad with envy over other friends’ and families’ happy announcements, mad with each other, mad with our God, mad at anything and everything that was — and sometimes wasn’t — related to our “ongoing situation.”

And that’s another thing. We need to talk about labels. We wouldn’t dare speak for anyone except ourselves, but for us, “unexplained, recurrent loss” is a label of what we’ve physically experienced, full stop. It says nothing about who we are, what we desire, or even what we have been through, after you remove the clinical list of happenings that get reported to OB/GYNs in appointments we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies. No, to get an accurate read on our “ongoing situation,” you’d have to know that this experience, our experience, is more aptly named The Great Without.

By this, we mean not just our losses, past tense, but our grief, present and future, as well. We grieve the reality and idea of parenthood just as much as the children we never got to take home. This is an acute point, bordering on belabored for those in-the-know, but largely missing from the consciousness of some parenting and childless-by-choice people around us, so it bears repeating: this is an entire way of life that we grieve. Saying anything less fails to portray anything close to an accurate picture. We are devastated, short and simple.

And that’s another thing. We need to talk about labels. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

To be very clear, being not-quite-parents in a sea of responses ranging from “We’re pregnant!,” and “I can’t wait to have another!,” to “Someone please take this child,” or “I can’t wait to get rid of this pregnancy,” and “Thank God I’m childless,” is emotional labor Every. Single. Time. It’s exhausting, hidden work, and we both struggle with the knowledge that’s it’s a job from which we cannot simply resign every time we’re mad that another “coworker” gets “promoted” to (or within) the parenthood club. That really stinks to admit, but it’s the truth, and more people need to speak on it so it’s less stigmatized.

Don’t get me wrong. We support the people and families in our lives to whom these statements pertain. Truly and deeply, we do. But to write this essay pretending that it’s easy to be strong would be a gross disservice to us, others like us, and everyone else who supports us. We aren’t going to do that.

Instead, we’re starting with intimate, piercing awareness, because that’s the tool that inspires some of the most lasting change. Awareness of what? The Great Without, of course! The period of our lives that we hope is the last major “stop” before we become parents, though perhaps through creative means. But first, you’ll have to understand.

The Great Without, as we’ve come to call it, is like living in a hole way below ground. We watch everyone else above us live relatively freely in whatever child-related lifestyles they’ve chosen, but often feel forgotten amidst their celebrations, lamentations, and rightful sources of stress. The problem here is that the investment of time and interest in each other’s lives isn’t balanced, and that’s something we have been working on for the better part of a year.

Some individuals and families have already been heroic in their efforts to truly listen and appropriately respond, but there are (and always will be!) others who can’t be bothered to change. From them, there is no “how are you faring?,” nary a rope or ladder offered unless it benefits them. I know, that’s not okay. We’re also learning not to accept this selfish behavior anymore. It’s been a learning experience, whether or not we’ve wanted it.

Don’t mistake me. It hasn’t all been bad. One of our best discoveries, for example, has been that we are never truly alone, whether or not we’ve got strong in-person support. That’s because, for better and for worse, the infertility community has no choice but to be very vocal. Otherwise, we’d rarely be heard — or at least heard fully and well.

Some community members are vocal quite regularly. Others go a step further and encourage additional voices to share their experiences, rather than relying on their own, or on oft-repeated statistics and opinions of whatever expert the internet says we should believe on any given day.

And no matter their approach, these brave individuals are all to be commended. Their efforts to raise awareness and improve outcomes for not-quite-parents like us is Big Work, especially when you consider that many are already emotionally drained before they get working at all.

And no matter their approach, these brave individuals are all to be commended. Their efforts to raise awareness and improve outcomes for not-quite-parents like us is Big Work, especially when you consider that many are already emotionally drained before they get working at all.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

Make no mistake, there is a large, giving community available to those who seek it. But somehow, lots of their stories still reference the feeling of walking alone. That reality makes painfully, publicly clear what many privately already know: we need more courageous voices to join this conversation.

For those of you saying, “We’ve come so far!,” you’re right, we have. But we still have so far left to go. Until the statistics of one-in-eight (U.S.-based couples facing infertility) and one-in-four (known pregnancies ending in miscarriage) come way down, and until more unaffected people understand them in the meantime, Big Work needs doing. Not just scientifically, or academically, or for large public awareness campaigns, but because at the end of the day, those statistics are people, and those people are hurting, and that should matter to you now if it didn’t already.

[A]t the end of the day, those statistics are people, and those people are hurting, and that should matter to you now if it didn’t already. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

There will also be those of you saying, “Exactly, and that’s why I’ve been doing X, Y, and Z for these affected communities.” And to that I’ve got to interject with a firm but loving, “No.” We don’t work for other people, we do work alongside them, as partners who are committed to the resolutions that those communities seek, not short-sighted answers that make your hearts feel better, if only for a minute.

As exhausting as it is to live with and through infertility and loss, whether once or routinely (as both can be), please let me assure you that it’s also exhausting to tell well-meaning individuals who believe they’re working “for us” what we really need … only to be ignored, our needs replaced with someone else’s desires, fears, or preferences.

Meaning well and doing good are very, very different things — and that’s a lesson for working with people impacted by infertility or loss, as well as many other social issues of the day, so please read that again. Meaning well and doing good are very, very different things, my loves.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be part of a world where difficult topics like pregnancy loss and infertility are easier to talk about and support others through, so I’m here to help. Not in a limitless, all-access kind of way, but in a “Hey, here’s someone who’s been through this thing you say you want to help with, so please listen for how to do that,” kind of way.

Part of knowing how to best support someone like me is being welcomed into a space where it’s safe to learn and make mistakes though, right? Somewhere you might eventually get it right, but where chances are, you’ll first get it very, very wrong. And where, in partnership, we can make a stronger, more supportive way forward.

Finally, to those asking “Why now?” I offer, “Why not?” It is always the right time to do the right thing. But this month that’s especially true. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.

I’d like to be part of a world where difficult topics like pregnancy loss and infertility are easier to talk about and support others through, so I’m here to help. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

With the immense disclaimer that each person or couple in the “waiting” community is best supported in the specific ways that they request, my husband and I have found our brand of peace by encouraging others to follow five concrete recommendations, listed below. We hope these “please don’t’s” and “please do’s” empower other bereaved or hopeful parents to set loving boundaries, and encourage supportive people in their orbit to truly listen to how to best support them:

(1) Please don’t privilege your personal discomfort over our lived experiences. If you are feeling uncomfortable discussing pregnancy, infant, or child loss with someone who has experienced that struggle, please tactfully say so, rather than sitting in unannounced silence or deflecting to another issue or conversation. Doing otherwise can sometimes read as a lack of understanding or concern, even if that is not your intention.

(2) Please don’t offer your hopes, vibes, or prayers for our future pregnancy success. Instead, take your cues from our stated comfort levels, needs, and desires. Responses that affirm the current situation, and feelings that surround it, along with statements of your genuine support, are a great place to start. Un-promised futures don’t need to be introduced into the mix when someone is having difficulty in the present moment. That’s not fair to either of you.

(3) Please do check in with us. Making sure we are “okay” after receiving emotionally complicated news (other pregnancy and birth announcements, for example) is laudable. Most people get that part right. What’s easier to forget is that we are people outside these struggles, and we don’t want to be reduced to our parenthood status any more than others do. So, check in with us in other moments, using your best judgement for social distancing and emotional availability.

(4) Please do educate yourselves on the issues surrounding childless lifestyles. There is a large difference between individuals and couples who have chosen to be childless, and those who have not. At the same time, these communities share an important commonality: we are both able to find happiness, joy, and fulfillment outside of parenthood. Spend time developing or further nuancing your understandings of these lifestyles, lest you unwittingly believe or falsely profess that we are first and foremost victims.

and finally

(5) Please do be patient with yourselves as you grow in your abilities to support us. We understand that occasionally you will make honest mistakes (so do we!). Making them is far better than the alternative, and as long as you’ve tried your best to listen, incorporate information, and grow, lots of us in the “waiting” or childless communities will be able to honor your efforts with grace and love.

That love brings me back to today, to my home with a loving spouse and the dog in charge of us both. Over the past three years, our family has been on a harrowing journey. None of us would’ve chosen it, but even in The Great Without — our purgatorial waiting place of not-quite-parenthood — we’ve managed to make peace with these boundaries and a future that may or may not include biological children.

We consider this a miraculous transformation in its in own right. Perhaps one day we’ll write more about it. But then again, maybe another courageous soul will rise to that occasion or another of their choosing. This story is one that both includes and transcends us, and we are keenly aware of that reality.

As our family continues to move through this very personal struggle, and as our nation and the world face gargantuan struggles of their own, we are here to offer a message of hope, a moment of radical humanity, and some sentience above all the unfeeling noise.

[W]e are here to offer a message of hope, a moment of radical humanity, and some sentience above all the unfeeling noise. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

Are you ready?

You are not alone. Your Great Without, whatever it is — childless or not, coupled or not, employed or not, housed or not, fed or not, adequately represented or not (VOTE!!!), everything you’ve ever wanted or not — is valid. You are cared for. You are seen. You are loved.

How do we know this?

There are at least two humans and a dog somewhere other than where you currently are, who without even knowing you, are rooting for you to succeed, find happiness, retain safety, and know true and lasting peace. That’d be us and we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon, because there’s too much positive upswing at stake.

We hope these “please don’t’s” and “please do’s” empower other bereaved or hopeful parents to set loving boundaries, and encourage supportive people in their orbit to truly listen to how to best support them.

Ryan Vale McGonigle | North by North Carolinian

You see, these moments of unexpected, radical connection are what create the most profound changes in people and societies. We firmly believe that there should be more of them, available to more people, in all times — but especially in times like these.

In our collective hour of need, it is our deepest desire that this knowledge will carry you forward. For us that means stepping forward in love to serve this village, even though we have no child. That’s what reclaiming our story looks like. It looks like hope. Pass it on.

That’s what reclaiming our story looks like. It looks like hope. Pass it on. — Ryan Vale McGonigle

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Re-posted (and addended) from the end of a previous blog post, Finding My New Thankful:

Is someone you know struggling with pregnancy loss or the passing of a child? Are you struggling with how to best support someone in this position? Here’s a starter kit, but please, please, please, #dothework and do some research on your own. I promise, while many women feel better talking about their losses, not all of them do, and either way, the last thing they want to be is your encyclopedia.

Three Links of Interest:

How to Support Someone Going through Pregnancy Loss (HuffPo)

Dealing with Grief after the Death of Your Baby (March of Dimes)

*NEW* RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association *NEW*

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

HOME-ISH: Rebuilding a Time-Honored Concept for the Modern Age

Some years ago, I looked into the blank-eyed stare of someone who had no idea what they were doing. I don’t just mean relative to the action they were about to take. I also mean how they were functioning in the interim, uncomfortable moments of change between what’s-now and what’s-next, which is to say, how they were adjusting to an idea they had supposedly undertaken with great confidence.

In fairness, it is quite impossible to know how your life will change when you leave home for the first time. Even after you leave, and have been away awhile, you still don’t really know. It takes a long, long, long time to understand. And even then, as anyone who has been away longer will tell you, you still haven’t got it except for maybe by a thread. And even that grip is tenuous.

This is a lesson we are all learning now, in a time of immense cultural, political, and yes, also necessarily personal change. We must address them — all of them — and we must do so closer to us, not further away, at least not at first. There is no more room or time for work-avoiding beliefs that look, sound, and act like any of the following: “If there’s a problem, it is over there,” or “If there is a failing, it must be someone else’s,” or “If there is a grievance, surely another individual will make it right.” Each of these statements, though perhaps momentarily pacifying, are not in anyone’s long-term interest, so we shouldn’t tolerate them in the short-term.

It should be noted that this is not the same thing as acknowledging shared plights or shared sins. If anything, right now we are called to acknowledge the great expanse of things long-overdue for our attention. But we cannot do this — or, we cannot do this well — if we are unwilling to acknowledge our roles in the care and keeping of that great expanse.

At first, this might make you feel alienated. The current political and cultural climate has unsettled many time-honored ideas in favor of reimagining a way forward that is more inclusive, and this is something we should celebrate. However, it is alright if, for a moment or fifty, you need to grieve what it is you had no idea you were losing until it was lost. This is especially true if you’re the type of person who usually notices the fabric of your life in distress only after overt, theatrical rips at the seams, instead of, say, small threadbare corners that become larger and larger over hours, and days, and weeks, and months and OH MY GOD HOW THE HELL DID WE GET HERE? It’s okay. Sometimes that’s me, too.

Even for seasoned folks, life can be overwhelming. We all struggle, we all fall down, we all have moments where we’re overcome with exhaustion, where we’re running on fumes. We’re all human. That is to be expected. And! We must still choose to stay committed, honoring our selves by first getting to know ourselves — yes, so that we know what we have to give, but also yes, so we know what we have to lose.

When I’ve said in The LibraRYAN Reading Group posts that you shouldn’t rely on my response to get started on your part of the assignments we’ve all been handed (many times, not just recently), I’ve meant it. Me sharing this context is in support of that statement, not in argument with it. Especially because I want to leave enough space for folks who are striving towards being better in new ways. In lots of places, I see messaging that essentially says “sink or swim,” and I don’t know about you, but that ideology is part of what got us here, no? As a result, I won’t be operating by or with it. Good, glad we cleared that up.

I am in the business of sharing things I’ve learned along my journey, in case they might be of service to anyone else. Therefore, with the seriously immense disclaimer that I am not an expert in anything, that I am a relative nobody, and that just like you, I have, do, and will get life very wrong on more than one occasion, here is one take on a starting place, from someone who gives a $#@^ about you — yes really, you the person, not you in general. That’s the entire point.

How to Plan a Stronger Home in Five Steps (and then a lot more):

(1) Accept responsibility for the fact that you, personally, are responsible for the marks you leave on yourself, on others, on your homes, on others’ homes, and on the world.

(2) After you fight me (yourself!) on that, seriously, accept responsibility for the things that happen (and have happened) on your watch, under your leadership, and in your presence or company. This is a lesson we learn in early years and then conveniently forget while in pursuit of whatever lofty goals we acquire “on our ways home.”

(3) Still struggling? It’s ok. Another way to look at this is to look back at your past (start more recently, then work backwards). See if you can find an example of something you’ve done, willfully or not, to fundamentally harm someone. If you can’t find an example, look closer and/or go back further. Then keep going. Finding more than one example certainly won’t get you a sticker, but you might learn something, and that should be enough.

(4) Ah! Now you’ve got the hang of it! It’s going to get a little harder, though. Are you ready? Once you’ve located those memories, sit with them for a minute. Think not just about how they changed the other person/s, but also how they fundamentally changed you (and they did, I promise).

(5) Now, here’s where the Big Work starts. While I regret to inform you that you cannot go back and un-do whatever nastiness you discovered, you can absolutely move forward in a new spirit of just-as-broken-as-the-rest-of-us-ness, and resolve to do better each and every “Next Time” you’re gifted (none of us ever deserve second chances, but we get them, and what we do with them matters).

Again, this is only your starting place. My hope is that you’ll start from a place that is open to the kinds of work that need to be done, and that when you make mistakes, you know you can come back to this home base and rest, re-learn, and get going again.

In the meantime, know that if it takes you longer than others to get through these steps, that’s ok. If it takes you less time and then you need to go back and re-take this course of action, that’s ok. Falling down, messing up, taking your time, these are all ok. The most important thing to remember is that we have a million moments to do the right thing, and in as many of those moments as possible, we should.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

P.S. I’ve written about the concept of “home” many times, but here are a few that might resonate in new ways. I’d love to hear how your thoughts on “home” have evolved over the years, too!

Home

Hiraeth: A Movement in Three Household Things

Sometimes I Feel Like Celia Foote

In the Middle with You

We’re All a Little North by North Carolinian

Reading Words: Last Ride to Graceland

Reading Words: TIME’s Special Issue on the American South

Full content and concept by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Dearest Loves

Stop your pointing fingers, loves,

Stop assigning blame.

Stop pretending you know better,

For we live by one shared, distant flame.

But how, you will ask, do I keep from falling,

Without first extending my hand?

How do I survive this Hell,

When nothing gets properly planned?

I feel so much better when I claw and I grab,

You will continue to plead.

And I feel so much better when it’s my hand that lashes,

When some other body breaks and bleeds.

I start to feel better when I pull someone down,

Into this dark, angry land of the damned.

So tell me why, self-righteous one, you’ll ocean away my sand.

No, Dearest Loves,

That’s not why I’ve come,

You’ve simply misunderstood.

I’d never dream of doing so, even if I could.

Let’s take a moment to understand, hard though it may seem,

That where we see sin,

There is neither you nor I,

Instead there is only we.

Sinners, broken, flailing about,

We’re inclined to stumble and fall.

But look for the light and soon you will find,

It’s each other we’ve had through it all.

When this we remember, it’s harder to feel

That one sinner bears all the weight.

We’re all fully culpable, yes indeed,

But we can also all be redeemed.

And when this maddening struggle is over,

We’ll stand once more side-by-side.

And then, Dearest Loves,

We’ll be truly United,

Still in name,

New in heart,

New in mind.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Your Holiday Anti-Do List

Hello Friends,

As mentioned in my previous post, I’d like to make this a season of giving. My reasons are many and varied, but suffice it to say that we are all dealing with entirely too much, all the time, whether or not we realize it.

The end of the calendar year is no exception. We make lists of food to prepare, presents to buy, and rooms to clean (and clean and clean). We set goals for a fresh start in January, when everything will be different (or maybe not). We plan parties and outfits and goodness knows how many other things. And it’s just … a lot. I say this as someone who loves this time of year.

So, inspired by all the honey-do’s and why-don’t-we’s of the season (and life), I’ve curated a few of my favorite ways to practice self-care, in the hopes that you might find time to try some anti-do’s as an antidote to all this everything. Cheers to your moment of chill, to slowing down, to appreciating the littles, and giving your Self the care s/he/they deserve/s. And yeah, if that means not even reading my cute little list, cheers to that too!

Exercise

For me, this looks like morning yoga practice* and afternoon walks with the pooch. If this doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s because it isn’t. Intentionally so, as a matter of fact. In previous years, I was downright obsessive about exercising. My waistline was a lot smaller then, but my strength and endurance are much higher now — to say nothing about my mental health improvements. Letting go a-lot-a-bit in 2019 felt all kinds of right, so while I’ll be putting in the work to tone up this coming year, I have exactly zero regrets about the more relaxed regimen that got me here.

I say this not to pat myself on the back, but to remind you, dear friends, that it’s not the intensity or the duration of your practice that makes exercise work. It’s your long-term commitment. And nothing makes commitment work like being well-informed and well-prepared. The first step in this process is to stop chasing popular fads and stop copy-catting whatever made someone else successful. Instead, spend some quality time getting to know yourself and what your body can handle/likes/needs. Then, here’s the hard part, know that it is often a moving target (gee, thanks). Along the journey, if whatever that is, is entirely different from literally anybody else, that is perfectly okay and actually kind of ideal. Taking care of yourself is as individualized as it is active when you’re doing it right.

*Yoga with Adriene is my go-to, at-home resource. It’s free. It’s organized (rejoice!). And it’s available for all levels of skill or experience. Hop on over to YouTube and hit that subscribe button so you never miss a new opportunity to love that beautiful body you’re in, if this is indeed something you’re committed to doing :).

Meditate

While I’ve benefitted from all manner of introspective activities throughout my life, in truth I’m really horrible at/not comfortable with them. And that’s why you’ll find me practicing all the time (see Fail Forward, below). I’ve journaled, I’ve blogged (am still blogging!), I’ve counted breaths, I’ve sought help in the outside world. You name it, I’ve tried it — almost, anyway.

For the longest time, meditation was something I just couldn’t bring myself to investigate. It felt like bunk-y, junk science, so I wrote it off. Then I fell into the sweet rhythm of yoga practice. The deeper I got there, the more interested in meditation I became, and so finally, about a year ago, I gave it a try. I haven’t looked back since. My favorite tools are over at Circle+Bloom, but don’t feel limited by that referral. Get out there and explore the www. There’s a bunch of free resources just waiting for you to love, or hate, or laugh at — choose your own adventure, the world is a big place.

Sleep

This. One. Is. So. Important. Sleep regulates everything from metabolism to emotional state to organ health to fertility — and a lot more that I won’t get into here. I’m not a medical professional and I definitely cannot give medical advice. But as a caring friend, I implore you: find 7-9 consecutive hours during which you can close your eyes and truly rest.

The good news is that if you’ve been exercising and meditating, this will be a bit easier for you — even if you battle shift work, demanding children, snoring partners, cover-hogging pets, or a lumpy mattress. I also recommend investing in your preferred combination of weighted blanket, room-darkening shades, and essential oils. They can’t hurt Mr. Sandman’s efforts to bring you some serious zzz’s.

Enjoy a Nourishing Meal … That You Didn’t Prepare

There’s a saying that those who prepare food never really get to enjoy it. I don’t know where this adage came from, but people sure like repeating it, so let’s go with the notion that it isn’t #fakenews. Personally, I’d put money on it having to do with sensory overload, which like, if that isn’t the theme of the secular season, tell me what else is.

That said, one of the best things we can do for ourselves in times of too much everything is to do absolutely nothing. When it comes to food, this means letting someone else occasionally prepare it for you. Food is nourishing on its own, but the act of consuming a good meal made with someone else’s hands is a transcendent experience. If we let it happen, letting someone cook for us reminds us that we are cared for. And in this season, when so often we neglect our own needs in the process of caring for everyone else, I can’t think of many better things to do. So, go out to eat, dine in chez vous or at the home of another loved one. But fill up on the love you’ll receive. Then look around to see who else you might share this spectacular gift with.

Talk to a Friend or Loved One

This brings me to my next point. The holidays are hard. Don’t do them alone. Even if you’re feeling all merry and bright today, no one knows what tomorrow might bring. What if tomorrow brings the greatest achievement of your lifetime? But also, what if tomorrow brings an unimaginable loss? Or, in a more likely scenario, what if tomorrow feels like an endless march through commercialism-fueled mania, and you’re stressed and standing in line in some big-box store for three hours to get that one thing you know that one person might not actually hate, and you’re not exactly singing “Welcome, Christmas” with all of Whoville? Wait, is that just me? Sorry. Moving along.

All joking aside, what I’d like to suggest is this: fight the urge to talk about the holidays 24/7. Remember that your loved ones have full lives outside these few months as well as within them. Check in with each other, routinely and with genuine concern. Bonus points if you find ways to pair this with other caring ideas.

Pick up an Old Hobby

Always, around this time of year, I get an old, familiar itch. What with all the coziness and nostalgia of the season, taking my viola out of its case is more of a reflex than the result of conscious decision-making. It’s in my nature (more about that over here).

While it’s been many moons since I’ve played to the level of my liking, that isn’t the point. Rather, putting bow-to-strings is an act of honoring another version of myself. I remember that girl well. I honor her and how far she’s come each time I come back to the music.  Just thinking about it, I have the happiest hobbyist heart.

The message I’m sharing here is this: indulge in your past pursuits. As a culture, we’re taught to pack away the things of our youth, to “grow past” something we love, and I think there’s something really devastating about that. How many of you “gave up” sports, or music, or collecting, or who knows what else, just because that was what you did in [insert timeframe here]? I wonder what would happen if you decided that you were going to put down your to-do list and resurrect your pastime?

And Finally, Find a New Way to Fail Forward

I’m not a resolutions person. While in theory I like the organization they provide, in practice, I find them suffocating. Who needs to limit their lives to one area of growth? How absurd is that, when we stop and think about it? I’ll let you ponder for a minute…

Hi, welcome back. Maybe you still like resolutions. That’s 100% perfect for you. Blessings on your journey. But if you’re like me, and you’re less driven by the general imperative to succeed, then the concept of a “fail forward project” might be a better fit.

The idea behind failing forward is that you commit to trying something new, with absolutely no pressure to do as society says we all must, and succeed. In case no one ever told you this, nowhere is it written that you have to succeed at anything you try (and nowhere is it promised, either). We all have unique gifts and talents. We all have areas we are not meant for (mine’s advanced mathematics. Raise your hand if this is you, too!). Stop fighting yourself and start devoting a bunch more of your power to the areas of your life that you know are uniquely you. Your potential is limitless there.

Struggling to discover where your limitless power exists? Great! That’s why we fail forward. Get out there and discover all your beautiful failings! Fail big. Fail repeatedly. Fail in only the way you can. Fail when everyone else says you have to succeed. Failure is your right. Be proud to claim it! And while I hope that these big, beautiful failures do eventually inspire loads of work in areas where you can be limitlessly successful (speaking it into existence right now!), I also hope you learn to enjoy the process of getting there as much as I have.

A lot of fun can happen when we free ourselves of the limiting concept of success. After all, life isn’t an assembly line or a checklist we have to complete before we go. Life is what we make of it. So go, make a mistake or five hundred. You’re not counting them. Just keep making them until you’re tired. When you need that rest (and you will), go sleep, eat a good meal, talk with a good friend, do some yoga, meditate, journal, play an instrument, go do literally anything else that brings you joy, because moving through these lovely little moments is called living, and eventually those moments comprise your life, so you may as well have fun along the way.

Blessings to you in the New Year, however you decide to measure it.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

NBNBC Logo_as_of_3.13.18

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Finding My New Thankful

Living in a Season of Thanks

I have no idea who follows me on this journey, and to be honest, attracting followers isn’t why I write in this corner of the universe. For me, it’s about a spirit of sharing, of learning, of connection, and of care.

I’m principally motivated by the desire to care for others, both on- and offline, and most days I’d stake my identity on that claim. But whoops, I messed up pretty badly, didn’t I? I’ve been neglecting this corner of the universe, and for that, I apologize. More on that later. Right now, by way of hellos and reintroductions, I’d like to honor your presence by breaking my silence with a post that’s as heartfelt as it is timely.

Before we get in too deep, it may help to know that I love the holidays. If you know me IRL, you know this already. I’ve probably talked your ears off about it on more than one occasion. And if you know this blog, you also know I’ve written about my love for the season over here. It’s been about a year since I annoyed the ever-living-you-know-what out of you on this topic, so in the spirit of the season, I thought, what better time to make my return? Ha.

In all seriousness, with the holidays providing opportunities galore for stock-taking and thanks-giving, deep down I knew it was time to do this work again. But here’s the thing. I also want this to be a season of actual giving on the blog, and the “gift” I’d like to give is the reminder that YOU ARE VALUED and YOU ARE LOVED. Whoa there with the Big Feelings, Ryan! Yeah, I can hear some of you reacting to that already, but hear me out.

Oh, the holidays! The strings of lights. The casseroles. The roasts and cookies and festive tunes. It’s all so wonderful, isn’t it? It is, it most definitely is. We dedicate ourselves to celebrations and social gatherings and reminding ourselves just how good we have it, no matter what we have (or haven’t), from the time the last piece of Halloween candy gets claimed, all the way until we ring in a new year. And that is wonderful. But it’s also sort of strange. Why do we limit our work in cherishing ourselves and others to a few short months per year? No, really. Why do we do this?

I grew up Catholic, and because of this, I’m programmed to find value and meaning in ordinary things, the things I’ve called “the littles” over many posts in a previous project. Lately, the notion of giving everyday thanks has really nagged at me, and while I won’t be reopening my last blog anytime soon, I do believe this is a sensible time to briefly resurrect its message.

On that note, I’d like to share a story, if you’ll permit. First, a short but serious warning that it trends heavier than some of my other posts, so those who are especially tender-hearted may feel completely free to “hug goodbye” now, with the knowledge that you’re cared about by at least one person. I hope your holiday season is glorious and filled with as many physical, emotional, and spiritual treasures as your heart desires. I mean that, truly, and I hope we find a reason to cross paths again.

For those who’ve elected to keep reading, allow me to take you back a few years, to a season where gratitude was something I took for granted, and where “living in a season of thanks” was, embarrassingly, essentially limited to the holidays and major life milestones.

Warm Hearts, Warm Nights

On a late-spring night in 2018, I was trying not to hyperventilate on the bathroom floor. Two lines had just presented themselves on a plastic wand before me. I was terrified. I always knew I’d wanted to be a mom. In younger years, I’d planned out a family with four kids, all by the age of 30. But there I was, late 20s, about to join the mommy club for the very first time — and absolutely positive that I was.not.ready. 

The rest of that night stands out so clearly. I’ve memorized it like you memorize favorite songs or movie scripts. It took mere seconds for me to get up, place the wand on the counter, and get myself outside for some fresh air. The dog and I barely made it around the block before I asked her if she was ready to be a “puppy sister,” because her “puppy mama” was going to need some serious coaching on the matter of this giant life change. She looked up at me, Cheshire grin on her perfectly whiskered face, and kept trotting along down the sidewalk.

It was that moment, right there, when I realized this was all going to be okay. Hubs got home an hour or so later, and the poor man barely had time to breathe before I dragged him upstairs to receive The News. We were both so happy, if entirely surprised. In the weeks ahead, we did all the things couples tend to do in this season of life: go to appointments, decide how we’d eventually tell our family and friends, calculate when our little bean would join us earthside, and yeah, argue over which room we’d be willing to sacrifice for a nursery when the time came. This was bliss. Pure, unadulterated bliss. Not that I knew or appreciated it.

Please Come in, It’s Cold out There Alone

[For more resources on this topic, see * at end of post].

Then the worst fear of every expectant couple materialized. We found out that our bean had been called home — just not to our house. Shortly after, past the “excuse me?” I offered the nurse, past the heaving of hearts, and later, of stomachs, past the yelling and anger and sadness, past all of it, I went numb.

Unlike the weeks before, when I’d made sure to soak up every detail of life, I approached what happened next by avoiding memory-making with a resolve that can only be described as absolute. And I pulled back from everything and everyone that mattered to me. Because that’s what happens with depression.

Luckily, though it felt like a tremendous inconvenience at the time, everyone I’d tried to push away was just as resolute about ensuring I wasn’t alone. And they loved me back into wellness, on all fronts. I’ll be forever grateful for these souls — doctors, nurses, family, and friends — across clinics, cities, and even hundreds of miles. They shared information, they shared hugs, and they shared hope, some without even realizing that they did, without even realizing they are superheroes in their own right.

Find Something to be Grateful for

This brings me to the larger point I’d like to make here. Along my journey, one person reminded me of something I think we can all learn from, no matter where we fall on the sliding scale of wellness, and no matter what season we find ourselves in. The reminder went something like this:

  1. Life is hard.
  2. Your life right now is even harder.
  3. Your experience is valid and it matters.
  4. But.
  5. There are also things to be grateful for.
  6. Look around for them and you’ll start to feel a little better each day.
  7. Yeah, I know it’s hard.
  8. Keep trying.
  9. And try again the next day.
  10. And the next.
  11. And one day, you’ll find more than one thing you’re grateful for again.
  12. And about that, you’ll be glad.

You know what? That person was right. [Person, yes, you can put that down on paper].

It is so, so important to allow yourself to be present in whatever feelings or emotions you have. Without being present in them, it’s hard to process them, live with them, and move through them into the next one(s) you have. And also, if you allow these feelings and emotions to control your life, to the point where they fully eclipse the gratitude you’d otherwise have, you might look back and regret missing whatever you’ve missed.

For me, this message was a critical wakeup call. I had to completely change my mindset. From that day forward, I made a point of finding something, even just one thing, to be grateful for every single day. At first, that was nearly impossible. It looked and sounded a lot like “Today I’m grateful for my shoes.” Not particularly inspiring, I know. But with each day, it got a little easier, and the things I was thankful for became more notable, until one day, just like that person said, I was grateful for more than one thing at a time. And then, just like that person said, I was glad — really and truly glad.

Thankfulness, Anew

That realization was about a year ago. Now we’re on the doorstep of another holiday season and I’m so happy it’s here. Sure, the holidays and their trappings bring me joy — this will never change — but more importantly, it’s been another year of love, support, and growth after the “terrible, horrible” that, in its own way, inspired my change of heart.

This year, when I count my blessings, I’ll count them a little differently. Make no mistake, I’ll still be thankful for my husband, who is my rock, for my family, who is my heart, for my friends, who are my joy, and my dog, who is my hope, but I’ll also be thankful for myself. Yeah, you read that right. I’m grateful for me, for just being here, for being present, for being able to be grateful at all. Life is good.

Before we go, I’ve also got to mention how grateful I am for YOU. Like I said at the beginning of this long-winded return, the best gift any of us can receive is the knowledge that we are valued and we are loved. I hope you know that you are both. From this small corner of the universe anyway, you’re all somebodies to be grateful for, and I wish nothing but the absolute best for you this holiday season always.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian 

NBNBC Logo_as_of_3.13.18

*P.S. Is someone you know struggling with pregnancy loss or the passing of a child? Are you struggling with how to best support someone in this position? Here’s a starter kit, but please, please, please, #dothework and do some research on your own. I promise, while many women feel better talking about their losses, not all of them do, and either way, the last thing they want to be is your encyclopedia. 

Two Links of Interest — Go Find More!

How To Support Someone Going Through Pregnancy Loss (HuffPo)

Dealing with grief after the death of your baby (March of Dimes)

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

Wishes Upon Joining The Ranks Of Trigenarians

This fall, I entered the vaunted thirties. In case you didn’t know, they’re the new everything. They’re when your life begins. By this time, you will have achieved some sense of normalcy and happiness. You’ll be a fully-fledged, largely secure adult. And even though you’ll be drowning in student loan debt and the rent will always be too damned high, at least you’ll be on your own. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s where it starts to fall apart for me too.

The trouble with being on your own is that you’re also on your own. As in, look out for number one because no one else will. As in, watch your back to avoid an affront. You get it. That is what we’re working towards? So that when we get “there,” to that imaginary definition of success, all we can do is wonder what it was all about? So that we can climb ladders to nowhere, just as alone and afraid as we were at the bottom? Apparently so, since many of us run — not walk — toward it for the duration of our teenage and young adult years. Just like we were taught to do, just like our parents were taught to do, just like their parents and their parents and their parents were taught to do.

I’m no different. I’ve been consciously looking forward to my thirties since the day I turned 21. In those nine years, I mostly thought about life as a series of finish lines to cross. I needed to graduate from college and get a master’s degree (check, check). I needed to explore careers and find a purpose (check, yes!). I needed to settle down with someone I couldn’t imagine life without (check, ❤ Hubs). I needed to be an equal partner in putting down long-term roots (check-ish). I needed to do a lot of things, and while I accomplished many of them, I only recently remembered that life isn’t a checklist. Those are not the standards by which I want to measure my life. At least not any longer.

A journeyer, that’s what I am. I realize this makes me counter-cultural — sometimes even unpopular. I’m okay with that, because I’ve worked really hard to own that identity, and I don’t need validation from others to affirm its worth any longer. I no longer need to engage in the chase, to get caught up in the dizzying work of pursuing what society wants for (read: expects of) me. Because, to be perfectly clear, these demands are more about keeping order than ensuring anyone’s happiness, health, or genuine ties to community — all things I care about deeply. There are simply too many opportunities for creating a meaningful life outside that prescriptive lifestyle. The “highly suggested” route to “the good life” no longer computes for me. Seeing that, I’ve decided to forge my own. Something tells me life is about to get a helluva lot more full.

I should note that privilege is inherent in my position. I am a middle-class white American female. While much has been expected of me, much has also been given. And while I’ve certainly worked really, really hard in this life, before that effort could be expended, my status afforded me opportunities I’d never have to dream of earning. This includes opportunities to reject definitions of success set by the very culture into which I was born and by which I was afforded extra opportunity in the first place.

I also recognize that part of my responsibility in having that privilege is to speak truth on it. I don’t just mean how it affects my life. I mean the ways in which it is organized, systematized, and allowed to continue so that those who control it are also its primary beneficiaries. To clarify, that’s white America, and white America, we can do better, regardless of political party or any other identity marker. We can. We just have to invest our privilege in more than ourselves.

Just so we’re all clear, this is meant to be a positive force. It is not a hall pass to advance division. Division, hatred, and dismantling of systems for the sake of these things alone solves nothing. I hear an awful lot of people on both sides of the aisle encouraging “resistance” as a response to the times. Fewer verbalize what they are resisting, the ways in which they are resisting, and why. That’s scary. I’m also not convinced this is what our ultimate goal should be. Resistance as a tool tends to rest on the foundation of defining ourselves by what we aren’t, and that’s a half-definition at best. What about what we are?

America, we need the other half of that equation in order to move forward, as individuals and as a nation. I’d like to see us all invest more time and energy into a much-needed introspective moment before we do irreparable harm to ourselves. This moment isn’t a good look for us, no matter how we identify. And the world is watching. Closely.

Granted, we all start somewhere and part of doing this work is respecting the journey at every stage it exists, allowing time and space for growth and change. What we can’t wait for is for someone else to start the healing work on our behalf. That someone else is YOU. And you’re needed right now.

This is not to say the work will be quick and easy. No, please don’t mistake urgency for these things. In actual fact, the work is complex and will take a long time. But it’s worthwhile. It’s about protecting our democracy for all citizens, and while this means more than those with white skin or male gender markers, it also must include them. No one is exempt, but no one is left out, either. Quite simply, we must decide if we are 50 states’-worth of people united — or not. I pray it’s the former, and I hope that you can identify and enact at least one way to support it in your corner of the world.

On one level, nothing would make me happier than to see our constitutional system support that effort, to create long-term, positive change for our nation. While it isn’t a perfect system, it is a living system, which means it does its best work when we let it work. It does, however, require periodic maintenance to serve us all, and to serve us well. It can and must grow with us, but before we criticize it too heavily, or assign full blame to documents dating back hundreds of years, I wonder if we might take a moment to think on how many of us actually use our constitutional rights to their full advantage. I’m betting many don’t, and that’s something we can start to change any day we like. Today is as good as any.

On another level, I fear most people will hear that message and think only of elections. This work mustn’t be confined; we can and should invest our energies here, but regardless of whether or not it’s election season, we all have a responsibility to live our values forward every single day. It can’t begin and end every other November. Our votes are not our only opportunities to make our voices heard or our values seen.

The work our country needs must be done daily and with intention. Indeed, it already is, but perhaps we are not aware of the moments when this happens, or how much power individual moments have. Every choice we make is a reflection of our values, of our beliefs, of our greatest hopes and our deepest fears. I ask you, as I often ask myself, what do your choices say about you? Hopefully what you want them to say — and hopefully something that doesn’t imperil your fellow humans.

Here’s the good news. Even if you weren’t happy with your answer to that question, it is never too late to readjust, reaffirm, realign. I have learned that lesson many times in my short life. It’s been one of my favorites — and one I try to keep front-and-center. I use it to examine my past, my present, and my future. Most of the time, it’s helpful. Especially at what feels like large crossroads such as this.

As I look ahead, I hope my thirties are marked by more actions I feel represent my honest, true self. Moments of grace and love, of solidarity and inclusion, of hope and hard work. Sure, I will mess up, I will fall down, and I will make mistakes. But I’ve got to try. More than anything else, arriving at my thirties has given me the confidence — no, the strength of character — to finally do itwhich is a good thing, because I was losing patience with myself for awhile there.

Admittedly, this would not be possible without the support of my world-class family and friends, whose love is so freely and routinely shared. That love makes all things possible. Not just in my life, but in general, for the world. Love transcends movements, it outlasts lifetimes, it alone stands infinite and incorruptible. It is the standard by which I measure everything. And I don’t think that’s unreasonable.

Already, love has formed me into a better self. I have no doubts that it will mould me further still. But before that happens, I’ve got to acknowledge its gifts. They are innumerable, but my best guess is that I’ve received four principal gifts thus far, for which I feel at least halfway undeserving. But maybe that’s the point of it all — maybe we’re all called to grow into the gifts we receive. And, if that’s the case, I pray that we may all come to receive them in whatever form and time they arrive. As for me:

(1) Love lets me know who I am. After 30 years in this body, it’d be a damned shame if I didn’t know myself by now. I’ve still got a laundry list of things to learn, I’m sure, but at this point I’m confident I understand who I am and what I’m here to do. Praise be. The struggle has not been in vain.

(2) Love lets me know what I stand for. At this point, the things I care about most seem to have arranged themselves in a compact but meaningful list. It looks a lot different than most of what I see around me, but you know what? I’m totally fine with that — in fact, I relish it. Do you know how liberating it is to finally step into yourself, stand up for yourself, and have the strength to stand up with others? I pray that you do or otherwise that you will soon.

(3) Love lets me fight for these things, no holds barred. Now that I know who I am and what I stand for, I am no longer capable of exclusively observing the world. I must contribute something of substance. It’s not just a calling, it’s a commandment, one which I finally feel strong enough to answer. Even though I am a nobody. Even though I’m imperfect. Even though I will most certainly fail — repeatedly. There are no more excuses. It’s time.

(4) Love lets me pursue health and happiness along the way. Taking care of the world is a worthwhile enterprise, but if past seasons of my life have taught me anything, it’s that you can’t fight for the big stuff until you take proper care of yourself. I’ve been doing a better job of this, but I have to admit that, until recently, I viewed it mostly as a chore. Now I see it’s a joy. It is a gift to be cherished, and with that knowledge, I will cherish it.

If this is my starting point for the next thirty years (God willing), then life is shaping up pretty well. I’ll continue down the road and see where it takes me. But for now, please permit me to share a brief birthday wish — or perhaps more accurately, a prayer. May we all have what we need to fight the good fight. May we encounter each other more often, learn from each other more often, and support each other more often. May the journeys we start alone find ways to converge, so that together we can proclaim the power of love, a love that knows neither beginning nor end, a love that is boundless, timeless, and ever-present. Amen.

xoxo,

Ryan

North by North Carolinian

northxnc_3.13.18

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle