Dark Night of The Soul or This Must be Christmas

My husband and I eloped and were married outside in the snow on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.  It was just the two of us and I was wearing a red ski jacket and Levi 501 jeans.  

That was December, 1994.  

I’m not going to lie, this has been a difficult Christmas. Although, everyone warned me, including people I hardly know, I am an optimist and did not really see it coming.

The morning started out well, we had breakfast wearing matching PJ’s, as always.  Absent mindedly, I make goat cheese and herb omelettes. I’m so skilled at this by now, I hardly notice my motions.  We give the most thoughtful of gifts, but 80 minutes later we are on the Ritz- Carlton gondola in a heated three way battle over Snapchat. Of course,  it is never about what it’s about, and regrettable words spill onto the pure white snow. A place that has always been sacred ground for the three of us, where there are no disagreements and we are alive in the present moment.  

I ski one run and I’m so distracted, I think I’m going to break my legs if I don’t go down. And it’s true, I have many near miss collisions as I make my way down from the top to the Northstar Village.  

We are all three strong, and fiercely independent women, my daughter who wants to study philosophy tells me. But of course this is stating the obvious, since our children are so much like us, we end up raising ourselves.  

We then have a philosophical conversation in front of the Northstar Village Starbucks, shouting about love, respect and kindness.  We are essentially saying the same things making the argument a loop that is impossible to resolve.  It ends with much stomping off, satisfying on all accounts, but especially so in boots and ice. 

So, now we have a new memory of Christmas, and it is added to the kolidoscope of past memories, and the lens we use will create a very different picture for each of us.  

Later, at dinner all is calm, I think in 100 years, I will remember this day as only perfect. The pink moment at dusk on the lake, and our hearts beating beautifully in rythym. We are always in sync. 

Devotion, Dreams & Hard Work

Photo by Randal Gee, 2016

I have devoted the past 20 plus years to my family, in the last two, I have added myself to the equation, but my children have always been and remain my number one priority.  As my daughters head into their own futures I am able to devote myself again to own my career and the dreams I hope to achieve for myself as a person.  I know in doing this I will be a role model for my children, teaching them how to map out, work toward, and achieve their own goals.

In 2015, I started to think seriously about my next chapter.  This was such an exciting time for me, I worked for the fascinating Catherine Burns, the famous art dealer, and then the most talked about online furniture store, Previously Owned by a Gay Man.  I was approved by the Dean to teach at UC Berkeley in their International Program, which I love and will continue to do in 2017.  This period brought with it my love for sailing and a renewed interest in the ocean. I co-founded the non-profit, The Trident Project, and I have started a company with Andrew Lacenere, called Ocean SF.  

My 2016 was full of so much hard work that I literally worked around the clock.  I would wake up and work and then work until I went to sleep at night. I hardly noticed this, as doing what you really love is always on your mind, and interesting and fun.   This is not to mention, the responsibilities of being a mother to two active and mischievous teens, a house on an acre of land, a 70 lb. dog, two cats and a rabbit, plus a second home in Lake Tahoe.  I do not take my blessings for granted, but to those where much has been given much is expected.  It’s been an incredibly busy time, and then in July, my husband of 22 years unexpectedly died.  Having work I love, and so much to do, has been an antidote to my grief and has kept me focused and on my path.

I will share more about Ocean SF and the Trident Project in the days ahead, but for now, all I can say is, if you haven’t already, find the thing in life that lights you up, then devote yourself fearlessly and wholeheartedly to that.


Traditions, Christmas Trees & Anxiety

I am the sort of mother who reads parenting books like novels. At every stage I researched and read everything I could to make myself the best mother possible.  I left nothing to chance, and I followed most of the advise of the day to the letter.  Our home had strict schedules, and for many years we sat down to dinner, all four of us, at six thirty  p.m. sharp, there were extensive bedtime rituals, and holiday traditions that did not waiver.  I put my children, their happiness and well being first in every situation, including creating and nurturing a stable and happy marriage. 

For the past dozen years I’ve had two Christmas trees, one in each symmetrical Bay window facing the street of our home.  My predacessor was the original owner of this beautiful traditional house and for thirty years she had a tree in each window.  When I moved here my neighbors, who had grown up in my town, and then moved back to raise their own families, would repeatedly mention to me that I needed a second tree as the house always had two Christmas trees.  One in each window.  My second year in the house I acquiesced, and from then on, the family room window had the tree with colorful lights and the Kid decorations including the school craft ornaments, and the living room had white lights and the more formal glass and keepsake ornaments. 

Today, the rooms are dark.  There are no trees at all. It’s December 20th and there is not one Christmas ball to be found.  The house sitter comes and goes and the alarm is set. I’m in Truckee with the Tahoe tree which is decorated with a collection of snowmen. But it has been moved. It’s no longer in the living room, but in the dining room. My younger daughter insisted on this, and honestly it makes me anxious to not see it in the same place it’s always been. 

Of all of the parenting advise I learned reading so much through the years, the most important and useful was to teach the children to tolerate anxiety.  I did this on many occasions, but mostly by signing them up for classes and camps where they had no friends. I know this sounds cruel, but because of it they have friends from all over the Bay Area, many from the UC Berkeley Gifted Science Camp where they took physics and human anatomy in grade school.  Due to this and many other factors, I have created fantastically independent girls who are quite fearless in most, and especially new, situations.

I am starting to realize, that I am the one who craves the traditions and clings to the outmoded ideals of the past.

So now, I am learning from my own confident and modern daughters, how to step into the future without anxiety and fear. 

At the end of the day, the trees in the windows are not as important as we think. 

The unexpected is the new normal.  I am loosening my grip on the past and am ready to move into the magical unknown of the future. But for right now, I am enjoying just the present.  The snow in the trees, the bright winter blue sky, and my dog at my feet by the fire. 



As a prideful person, it has taken courage on my part to allow others to help, support and love me through this painful experience.  When I became aware of the analogy that my refusing help was like having a child that wouldn’t allow you to love it, I was finally able to open up and let others help me.  I grew up believing to ask for, or God forbid need help, was a weakness, and when it was offered it was to be politely refused.   So, when my friend Julie who is a spiritual teacher and healer called to ask if I wanted to do an exercise to release my husband, in this new spirit, I agreed.

The same is true for my colleague at UC Berkeley who reached out and offered to be my business coach.  We met two years ago, when she hired me to teach in UC’s International Program for Entrepreneurs.  I immediately accepted her help as there is no one more experienced to help me launch my company at a very high level than her.

I had a very intense week last week, and then everything happened on Friday.  I had a follow up phone call with Brigette regarding our Monday session, and then Julie showed up to do the releasing exercise, this was followed by an annual lunch with my college friends Sue and Kim.

Earlier in the morning, I had talked to Brigette about the excitement and fear inherent in giving up what is safe for something we love.  She told me, as we climb the mountain in our life to our highest goals we cut through the undergrowth and finally at the top of the mountain we have a choice.  We either trust in our wings or we make the sickening choice to go back from where we came.  For me this would be as a Product Marketing Consultant in San Fransisco, seriously not a bad life, but unlike my work, the death of my husband gave me no choice in terms of going back from where I had come from.  As much as I’ve lamented and replayed all of the memories of our 22 years together, nothing I could do would bring him back.  If I could rewind my life and place myself in 2009 and change the course of the past seven years, I would.  It’s not that I choose not to go back down the mountain, the mountain is no longer there.

After hanging up with Bridgette, Julie and I started the releasing process.  I took four pictures of the happiest times with my husband, the ones that represented the person I loved the most.  One was of him when I first met him, one of us together when we were dating (above), the next one of us after we were married and and another of him at our older daughter’s seventh birthday party (below).

I took a cord and tied two knots at each end, one for me and one for him.  Then I cut the cord in the middle and said a prayer to release both of us.  Julie and I were both crying.  We walked to the park with his half of the cord and I wrapped it around a branch of the tree my daughters used to climb when they were little.

The girls had a system for climbing this tree and they named each branch they used to get to the top.  And being a tree climber myself I trusted their ability, and allowed it, even though my wiser mom friends threatened to call the fire department to get them down.

At the time I thought of this tree as the place my daughters found their courage, so it felt the appropriate place for his cord to fly away.

The song that plays when I get in the car is Fly, by Maddie and Tae, and the lyrics go like this:

Keep on climbing though the ground might shake

Just keep on reaching though the limb might break

We’ve come this far don’t you be scared now

Because you can learn to fly on the way down

You won’t forget the heavy steps it took to let it go

Close your eyes and count to ten 

Hold your breath and fly…

Over the weekend, I went skiing.  The past few weekends I’ve had trouble skiing, as my boards would chatter and slip out of control on the icy trails.  In fear I would revert to my bad habits of the Mount Bachlor years sitting back on my 185 K2’s, forgetting everything I’ve learned over the last nine years skiing Tahoe and training as a ski instructor at Northstar. 

If you want to be pushed skiing there is no better way than to ski with ski instructors on their day off. On Sunday, with dread, I followed the expert Dory down the mountain. And finally, it all came back, I bent low in my turn feeling my edges dig deep into the icy snow and I was again in perfect control. 

It felt like flying. 

Love, Snow & Meyer Lemons

Having lost my own father at nine years old, I am uniquely qualified to guide my own daughters through the after math of the sudden death of their father in July.  I remember my own childhood’s depressing holidays and father daughter dances, tea parties and even Dads week-end at OSU as excruciatingly painful at worst, and awkward at best.  Being a strategic person, I am always thinking ahead to triggers and events where I can protect my children and soften the blows of what can’t be avoided, and to completely avoid what can be silently sidestepped.  While, I also understand that adversity is a critical component of human development and growth, there really is a breaking point, and teenage girls are simultaneously terrifically tough and terribly fragile.

At my husbands funeral when I spoke, I asked that when people see us, at school or around our small town, that all they have to say is, “I don’t know what to say…” and I informed them that we don’t know what to say either, but it is better to say something, than nothing at all.  In some ways, I think those words have given people permission to approach us.  I am hugged in grocery stores, on the street, at school and anywhere and everywhere I go.  I often hear, “I’m just so sorry, Sydney,” as I am wrapped in the arms of one of my friends or many acquaintances.   All of this is very supportive and helpful.  So, I would recommend that someone send this message loud and clear to friends and family after a death.  I can’t imagine how sad and isolated I would feel if people avoided me and felt uncomfortable talking to me, or my children.

At home in Moraga, I have a Meyer lemon tree that is abundantly fruitful and as gifts I cut the limbs and leave the entire branch with it’s fragrant leaves, and the lemons attached on the doorsteps of my Truckee neighbors when they are in season.  It’s such a nice surprise for them to come home to a branch full of fresh ripe lemons while the snow is falling.

On this last trip it was so cold, I had to deliver them in person, so the fruit wouldn’t freeze on the doorstep.  I was having a difficult day, being flooded with memories of other holidays skiing and cooking Thanksgiving dinner at the cabin, so when my neighbors opened the door, and their entire family hugged me I started to cry.  They were so sweet and comforting to me.  I can’t imagine not having this.  But, I also believe that I have allowed people to love me.  Perhaps it is my age, or just having learned to allow the good things in life to come to me without too much drama, but I have been loved and supported through this experience in ways that I could not have foreseen.  It has taught me so much about love, life and the magic of letting love in, and how important it is to keep our hearts open and to see the gifts that present themselves in even the most tragic of moments.

There is beauty to be found in both the light and the shadows of this world.  It is the contrasts that make life so beautiful to me, in the same way the senses are awakened to the juxtaposition of a branch of sweet Meyer lemons found on a snowy doorstep.