Monday, July 24, 2017

Life is My Runway

Ever since I was a kid, I've felt that fashion was important. Well, maybe not fashion exactly, but definitely how I present myself. There is a certain vibrance in appearance I was always searching for, a kind of zest that burst forth from the clothes and shoes and accessories I chose. In short, I dressed purposefully. 

[My first day of school outfit, age 6.]
I still dress purposefully. It doesn't have anything to do with the best clothes or expensive taste. I'm a social worker. I bargain shop. I look for the little pieces of awesome. I match and pair things together in a complimentary way, much like some folks pair a good meal with fine wine. It's a conscious decision about trivial stuff like earrings, pops of color, or scarves, but every little thing I put on, every little thing I carry with's like a message for anyone I meet. I dress purposefully...with intention...because I want everyone I see to feel like they mattered when I got ready in the morning. And I want to bring cheerfulness and joy with me when I walk into the lives of others. I feel like my outfits can do that.
[Bright necklaces can be talking points!]
I can't tell you how many times the bold necklaces I've chosen become fun topics of conversation with female patients in memory support units. They touch them as little children would...they comment on the eye-catching qualities...they talk about the necklaces they used to wear.

[Color and joy in living can show up in anything...including my clothes.]
There was a day a few years ago it dawned on me that I might be the most exciting part of someone's day. I think about that often now. My burst of energy through someone's door, my smile, and my outfit might be the best thing they see. What a huge responsibility, if you really think about it. What an honor and an awesome opportunity, if you think about it further. 

It's not a big deal, this whole outfit thing. But at the same's kind of a big deal. I remember a patient I used to have who looked forward to seeing what I'd be wearing every week. Where did I get it? She'd ask me. She'd really want to know. 

[I want my clothes to say: I like what I do. I'm happy to be here.]
I remember a patient who said, "Where did you get this dress?" 
"Stitch Fix," I said. And from that point on, it was like our "thing." She'd want to know what had come in my Stitch Fix package every other month. Silly? Maybe. Human? Absolutely. We're all curious, fun-loving creatures. And just because you're used to wearing pajamas and staying in bed all day every day doesn't mean you don't love clothes!

[Even my rain boots are fun. I wouldn't have it any other way.]
My rain boots are teal green. My winter coat is red like Little Red Riding Hood. I want even my outwear which has the primary purpose to protect from weather to have the secondary purpose to bring a shot of color and personality to the homes I visit.

I have a male patient who calls this my Pineapple Hair. Who knew that so much attention would be paid to whether my hair was up or down? That it could become an inside joke? 

[One of my favorite tops]

[In the cooler months, I love to rock a variety of scarves.]

Some might call me crazy, say I'm putting too much stock in material items...but that's not what it's about for me. 

Sometimes I dress up, sometimes I don't... but no matter what I wear, I enter every home, every space, with a smile and as I say "Hi" and "How are you?" I'm also saying - with my clothes - "I'm present. I always look forward to seeing you. My job is important to me. I want to radiate joy for you. I love life. Let's enjoy it together."

And I will continue to dress purposefully.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Looking Back

It's my work-i-versary. 2 years ago today, I began my journey as a Hospice MSW, LSW. I took this photo on July 6th, 2015, before I left my house in the morning.

I had just left a job I enjoyed, people with whom I loved working, and a whole ton of elderly residents I was going to miss. Being the Social Work Director at a skilled nursing facility in Allentown was a stint I'll always remember with fondness, but I was ready to move on.

Still, I was scared. I had just survived the most difficult year of my life - my first year of widowhood. Before I even had a chance to really ride the second year, I was jumping into a new reality. I was leaving my Positivity Wall I'd created at the nursing home - a colorful mosaic of powerful and gratitude-filled quotes in art form - but I was bringing masses of positivity with me on my new journey (I hoped).

[my last day with my Positivity Wall]
From the beginning, I felt right at home at Hospice. It didn't take long for me to fit in with the amazing people I'd started calling co-workers. I became one of those women whom people would meet and say, "I don't know how you do that work." People would comment on the sad aspects of the job, never understanding the beauty. I began to perfect my response: "It takes all kinds of people to make this world work," I'd say. Sometimes I'd change it up by saying, "I love what I do." Both statements are true.

I'm so glad I made the decision to change jobs, to take a risk to move on, to listen to my intuition (which told me Hospice was the place for me). As I've lived and breathed this work over the last two years, I've realized that there's nowhere else I'd rather be. In fact, I want to to keep doing this work as long as I can. There is nothing tugging me in another direction. I'm in this for the long haul. I have dreams and plans and my Positivity Wall is now a private gallery in the quiet of my mind. I'm doing what I love and loving what I do. There's nowhere I'd rather be.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Vacation Contemplation

As I sit on a beautiful beach, sea breeze blowing through my hair, my new husband beside me, and the happy screams of my bonus kids filling my ears, it's easy to recall other vacations I've had over the years. While I wiggle my toes in the hot sand and set my book to the side, it's the funny stories and random little moments that really stick out, not the hotels in which I've stayed, the ice cream cones I've licked, or the hyped-up activities I looked forward to as a kid.

While I may have been on almost every pier ride at Seaside Heights, NJ for example, it's not the rides I remember most. What pushes itself to the forefront of my memory is my dad effortlessly playing the Frog Bog on the boardwalk and winning me stuffed animals. It seemed amazing to me at the time that he could win at a game so few could master.

I also remember, not the various hotel pools or the beach shops I loved, but the fact that my grandparents sometimes came along on vacations with my parents, my brother, and me. I remember standing in the pool with my Nana, realizing that the water came up higher on her than it did on me because she was little and I was still growing.

I don't remember much the shells I found or the castles I built in the sand, but I do remember laughing with my mom over countless trials - all but forcing her to go on a spinning ride with me, for instance, after which she could barely function due to nausea.

I also recall eating too much ice cream and needing to use a bathroom on a random street on Martha's Vineyard where my mom had to barricade the whole Ladies' Room so I could go without my public bathroom phobia. :-D

I watch my new bonus children frolic in the waves of the Jersey shore and laugh to myself. My new husband smiles next to me, pointing out the funny gestures his children make from afar. Today we instituted a new tradition we called "Family Nap." Jeff and I, having gotten approximately 4 hours of sleep, made the fleeting statement that we felt a nap was in order between our morning fishing excursion and heading to the beach. Shockingly, we heard the words "I could take a nap," uttered by 11 year old Mia, immediately followed by a shrug from 8 year old Julia and the words, "I don't care. I'll take a nap." Needless to say, Jeff and I did not hesitate to run upstairs and leap in the king size bed at 12:30 pm. Mia and Julia leaped on after us, and our massive dog Luna took up the only space left, leaping on top to complete "Family Nap." We may have exceeded the weight limit for the bed, but I consider it a great success. My only regret was not having another person present to take a photo.

I smile remembering that last night, on the 4th of July, we were all so tired that we unanimously opted to stay inside and snuggle in our pajamas rather than go watch the nearby fireworks.

My experiences with family vacations used to be reserved for my own childhood memories - arguing, singing, laughing, eating, playing, and planning. Now I get to experience my own family vacations, high on life and excited about all the future events yet to come.

I'd choose a family vacation over a honeymoon any day. I've longed for this family.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Holding Space

Every morning, I feel the pulse of the day as I slide into the driver's seat of my car and turn my thoughts to the patients I'm about to see. I look through my sunglasses at the streets before me, paying attention to stoplights and signs, but already preparing for what lies ahead. I take a deep breath, silently accepting the tasks at hand as I turn up the dial on my radio, letting the country music fill my car and get my soul ready.

The sun shines, the trees sway in the breeze, the sounds of the passing cars break my reverie at times, but I am focused on the here and now. I glance at the small note cards I have shoved into the upper portion of my inside windshield. One says: "The place you are in needs you today." Another reads: "Follow what you love and it will take you where you want to go." The last one proclaims: "It is only with gratitude that life becomes rich."

These are the things I believe. These are the things that fuel me and energize me.

In between those note cards are the funeral memorial cards of some of the amazing patients I've known and loved. The stack grows monthly, but I keep it in my car, shoved into the dashboard so my eye can catch it regularly as I drive around Northampton, Lehigh, and Berks counties in the "office" that is my car. I remember them. Every time I add a new card to the pile, I leaf through them all, smiling a separate smile for each name, remembering the faces, the families, the jokes, the tears, and the homes. Most of all, I remember the lessons. 

[a cemetery I pass regularly in my travels near Topton]
Every day, I'm learning. Every day, I'm humbled to be part of these stories. If confidentiality was not an issue, I'd have a blog for all the beautiful and fascinating stories I've experienced and seen along the way. My heart is full.

There are times the scenery around me pulls me in and I pull over to ponder the situations into which I have been thrown. I let the last place go and prepare to face a new one. I hold space for the difficult circumstances I've witnessed and breathe out the pain I've seen and felt. I process. I problem-solve. I worry. I wait. I let scenarios play out inside my head. I thank God. I laugh. I let my eyes tear up. I sing along to the radio. I look up at the sky. I let go. And I hold on.

What a day this is! Every day. How tiring this is! Every day. How amazing this is! Every day. 

The 90 year old woman who tells me I'm her best friend. The man who wants to see every last wedding picture I can show him. The woman who shared with me some of the most horrific past experiences I've ever heard. The family who welcomes me in their door like I'm one of their own, joking that they will adopt me. The woman who tells me, "This might sound odd, but it's been fun" when she tells me good bye. The man who kisses my hand in a gesture of sweetness. The tough nuts to crack. The stubborn. The complex. The vivacious. The funny.

Funerals are part of the tapestry of my life. I attend. I show up to hold space for the stories I know and the people I met. I wrap families in hugs at the viewings and calling hours. I remember. Sometimes, just for myself, I write my own obituaries for people I especially connect with, because I hate the generic form of most obituary notices. I talk about the things I learned from them, I mention the human aspects of their life, and I talk about who they really are - not just a list of where they went to school and where they worked. And then I move along, back in my car to travel to enter the homes of those who allow me to share precious time with them. 

I see art. I see family pictures. I see gardens. I see farms. I see workshops. Grandchildren. Dogs. Cats. Grand mansions. Run down homes. Books. Love. Anger. Pain. Joy. I see so much. I hold it all. It's beautiful and mystifying and special. It's all in a day's work. It's all in a day. It's all. It's everything.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Dear Rick

Dear Rick,

So much has happened in the 3 years since you've been gone. I'm living another life now, but it has equal parts new and old. It's a good life. I've never been stronger, never been happier.

I'm getting married next month. I feel like everything is right and awesome. When you and I got engaged, I was 22. This time, I'm 32. I've learned so much in the last 10 years. This time around, things feel so different and so much more authentic. I know you won't take offense to me saying that.

When Jeff and I went to get our marriage license at the courthouse, we paid $50 for our collaborative second chance. "Is this your first marriage?" the worker asked from behind the big main desk.

"No," said Jeff.
"No," I said as I shook my head.

We passed her Jeff's divorce decree and your death certificate, our permission tickets to a new marriage. It felt strange to be in the courthouse. The last time I was there was to file the Will after you died.

No one really talks about you anymore. It's as though any newfound happiness I have is supposed to erase the sadness of the past. It isn't true, of course. You existed. And just because I'll be a wife again soon doesn't mean I was never a widow.

I have a dog, Rick. I always wanted a dog. Jeff and I adopted her together in September. The cats are 7 now and as entertaining as ever. I wonder sometimes if they remember you or if their little memory banks are only able to handle so much information at one time.

Jeff and I bought land in Center Valley. We are building a house there where our family can have more space. It's hard to believe that in the next year I'll be saying good bye to this house where I've lived for 10 years. You and I lived here together and things happened here, good and bad. Even the very bad. It's time to go.

I laugh so much, Rick. I laugh all the time. I sleep well and I eat well and I enjoy all the people who are in my life. I love my job and I think I'm good at it. Everything I went through when you died helps me do a better job every day. I feel so lucky to have had the experiences I've had...even though some of them were profoundly painful.

Remember when we were married and I trudged through graduate school while working full time? Well, this year I made the drive to DeSales every week, just like before...but this time, it was to teach. I became an graduate school instructor and taught a whole class of MSW students. I even talked about you. About grief after a suicide. About post-traumatic growth and all the healing that can happen after trauma.

I'm acquiring two step-daughters, Rick. They are fun, smart, and beautiful. It's so great to be able to do all the things I've always wanted to do with kids. My life is one of family bike rides, family vacations, family breakfasts and dinners, days of family swimming, and a lot of games. It makes me smile.

My nieces are 4 and 6 years old, Rick! I can't believe how big they've gotten since you saw them. They love playing with my soon-to-be step-daughters. My mom and dad's house is the place to be. We all have fun there.

I still run and sing to de-stress when I can. I still write to express myself. I still think of your suicide note, your incredible emotional pain, and the horror of the day you died...but not as often. I don't have nightmares anymore. 

I've met so many great people since you've been gone. They didn't know you. They only know me. Some of them know what I've been through. Some don't. My resilient grief sometimes precedes me. There are people who know my story before I meet them. The power and reach of my writing is often more immense than I realized. 

Believe it or not, I think you've saved several lives, Rick. I have received many an email, message, or letter telling me that because of you...because of me...the person(s) writing will always choose life. It's touching. There is meaning in the horrible loss. 

Grief can't be cured or fixed or gotten over. But healing does happen.

Healed (verb):
- to restore to health or soundness
- to ease or relieve
- to set right; repair

I truly feel that my life has been restored to health and soundness. I don't have to fake or fabricate anything. I don't have to paint a positive picture. When I say that everything feels right and awesome, I mean that with every breath I breathe and every bone in my body. I don't have any fear. I have never felt this way. 

My pain has been eased and relieved by the inner workings of my own heart and soul, the tender care of others, and the amazing experiences that have shaped me over the last 3 years. I am not stressed, I am not hurting, and I am not waiting and waiting for something good to happen. The good is all around me.

Life is right. It is repaired. I feel fully in charge of my own life. I turn 33 this year and every year seems better than the last. I am open to possibilities, restful each night, fulfilled by my work, and so very loved at home.

I want you to know that I'm more than okay, Rick. Life has been good to me in your absence. Thank you for anything you helped send my way. 

Love, Arielle

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Second Chance

I have been so caught up in the hustle and bustle of a busy life, that I forgot to share some wonderful news.

Jeff and I are engaged! He proposed in front of my parents, so they got to see a huge happy moment after watching me go through so much heartache over the years. We'll be married in June. Only 2 months away! I'll be a stepmom and the girls are excited to be my little bridesmaids. Jeff and I each get a second chance at love and life, creating an awesome life together brick by brick and memory by memory.

I'm saving all my loving words about Jeff for when we write our own vows, so for now I'll just share some snapshots of me with the person who has made feel like a million bucks and then some. He is my biggest fan and truly brought joy back to my life in a big way.