Be the light in the darkness

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Photos by Carla Kucinski

It’s 3:30 on a Wednesday. Three days before Christmas. I am sitting in my favorite tea shop, sipping a cup of hot cocoa that tastes like a melted milk chocolate bar. I feel its warmth as it travels down my throat and warms my insides. These next two weeks are all about comfort and self-care. Pause. Rest. Reflect.

My eyes burn from the lack of sleep I had last night. I painted my eyelids with grey eyeliner and combed my lashes with thick black mascara to make myself look and feel more awake than I am. I stayed up most of the night with my dog Molly who had a tumor removed from her chest the previous day. It was a fatty tumor about the size of golf ball near her shoulder, with a smaller bump that had appeared last month. When we picked her up after her surgery, our vet was certain the smaller tumor was cancer and sent it out for further testing.

That night, I slept with Molly on the couch with our tower of pillows and piles of blankets and stroked her head as she whined through the night. Every time she whimpered I Googled: Dog, pain, surgery, whining—trying to find ways to soothe her. There’s nothing worse than hearing an animal suffer and knowing there’s not much you can do but be there—be her comfort, her security for all the times she has been yours. As I sat beside her on the couch, I propped my head up with the palm of my hand to keep myself from nodding off while I stroked her silky ears. I started thinking about earlier this year when she didn’t leave my side the entire time I was recovering from my miscarriage. She camped out on the couch with me, nuzzled her muzzle into the crook of my arm and slept with me for days. When I cried, she licked the tears on my face. Now it was my turn to take care of her.

Molly recuperating after surgery. (All photos by Carla Kucinski.)

Molly recuperating after surgery. 

Fucking cancer. This year it already invaded the lives of three people I love, and now my dog. Eight days later, good news arrived. Lab results were in and it was in fact a mast cell tumor, grade II, but our vet was able to get the entire tumor, which meant no follow-up treatment with chemo drugs. “This is all good, good, good, good, news,” Dr. Fuller sang into the phone. I threw my arms around Molly’s big neck and wept. She celebrated with a Kong bone filled with peanut butter.

A two-inch scar remains where Molly’s tumor was removed. We called her Frankenpup for the first few days. We needed to find some humor in all of this as we waited to find out whether our dog had cancer. Over the last 10 days, the scar has changed from a jagged, angry red line to a faded pink scar. The fur where they shaved her is started to grow back in as if nothing ever happened. It made me think of a passage I read recently in “Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself 40 Ways” about finding beauty in your scars. “I see scars and I see stories. I see a being who has lived, who has depth, who is a survivor. Living is beautiful. … We may hurt, but we will heal … ”

My pup is a survivor. I suppose I am, too.

I can’t help but think of my own scars that I earned this year. 2016 has been challenging and exhausting. I am tired. So tired. I feel like I’ve been on a treadmill all year, and now I can finally get off and rest. I’ve been off from work since Dec. 18, which leaves lots of open days to just drift. It’s one of the rare times of the year where I let myself be lazy and quiet. My muscles ache. Even my bones feel tired. I thought maybe it was because of this sinus infection I’ve been battling on and off for the past few weeks, but honestly, I think it’s the weight of this year, still trying to hang on and drag me down. It’s like I’ve been carrying fistfuls of stones in my pockets this past year. But it’s time to finally let it all go. That phrase, “let it go,” has been a thread in this journey of ups and downs. I’m still not sure I’ve mastered the act, or even know how to begin. I’m learning.

Earlier this year my therapist, told me that I needed to decide how I wanted to carry this grief. What did I want it to look like? How did I want to feel carrying it? I think I started out holding this weight of grief, heavy like wet clay, in my heart and my stomach for months. Eventually the weight shifted and I carried it on my side, like I was holding a basketball that I could put down or pick up at any time. Some days my grief still feels like a boulder, other days it feels like a single stone. I want to pick it up and launch it into a lake, hear it kurplunk in the water, sink to the bottom, never to be found again. But it’s a part of me now, and always will be. I just need to learn how to carry it, live in harmony with it. I’m learning.

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Every year on the evening of winter solstice, my yoga studio hosts a ceremony that involves reflection and meditation with a few yoga poses thrown in. I went for the first time last year and found the experience cathartic and moving. The practice involves a “letting go” segment (there’s that phrase again) where we each hold in our hand a smooth, charcoal grey stone and breathe, meditate, and do a few gentle yoga poses while focusing on the things that no longer serve you and that you want to let go of. As I laid on my mat, the stone cold in the palm of my right hand, I thought about the past year and what I wanted to rid myself of. My cheeks became wet with tears. There was still so much pain weighing me down. All the “what ifs” and “what would have been” or “could have been” circled in my mind.

I found out on Christmas Eve that I was pregnant. I remember my heart racing as I looked at the two pink lines in disbelief. I flung open the bathroom door and yelled to Andrew, “I’m pregnant!” It was 5:30 in the morning. We had to wake up early for the 10-hour drive to his parents’ house in New Jersey. Andrew was half-sitting up in bed with a pillow propped up behind him, bleary-eyed but awake. I’ll never forget his smile that morning. I jumped on top of him and then Molly tried jumping in the bed with us. It feels like it was all a dream, but my heart says otherwise.

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I poured into that stone my sadness, pain, fears, uncertainties, worries and all of the hurt so many of my close friends have endured this year. I was one of the first people to drop my stone in the middle of a circle of flickering tea lights. I couldn’t wait to get rid of it. As soon as it left my hand, my heart felt lighter hearing the weight of it hit the floor. It was a release from this chaotic year; even if it was temporary, it felt freeing.

A few days after Thanksgiving, a tarot card reader told me I was in my Wheel of Fortune Year, which is characterized by upheaval and change that will be painful, traumatic and shocking. She described it as having no control as life spun out of control. And there’s no time to adjust to each change. That’s certainly how this year has gone so far—a series of traumas, losses and heartache. But she also said it was a year of tremendous growth and advised me not to stay stagnant, to shake things up, take risks and be open to creating new opportunities. I definitely haven’t been sitting idle.

“You’re lucky you’re alive,” a friend said to me the other day, looking me square in the eyes. She is Vietnamese and follows Chinese astrology. I’m a monkey, and this past year was the Year of the Monkey. I thought that meant it was my year. My friend told me it was the opposite: when it’s your year, it’s the worst year. The Chinese new year began on Feb. 8. That same day I found out we lost our baby. My year of bad luck had begun.

But the winter solstice ceremony helped me remember the bright spots in 2016. As my teacher asked us to think about the good memories, I closed my eyes and started to smile as images of this past year flashed in my mind. I thought of all the places I’ve been. Me and Andrew in Maine. Vistas. Walks on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. Lobster and warm melted butter. Atlantic Beach and its sparkling ocean. Reading on the deck. Sunsets. Sunrises. Laughing at Molly chasing birds in the water. Roanoke. The bitter cold. The wind chill. February. Valentine’s Day. Dinner and martinis. A rock show. Fire places in the lobby. The sun cutting through the trees. Asheville. Cocktails at a sidewalk café. Mountains. Us. Life returning to normal. Late night heart-to-hearts with my oldest sis on her couch in our pajamas and glasses. Sipping rosé with Gina and Marco. Laughing. Crying. Sharing our life’s stories. The sweet ending of summer. Swimming in the lake at Omega. Napping under the trees and summer sun. Meeting Janie. Meeting Janine. Facing my fears. Reading my work to strangers. Crying in front of strangers. Being vulnerable. The drive home. The Catskills. The Hudson–the magnificent Hudson. Lobster fest under white twinkle lights. Tasting my first oyster, a mix of salt and sea. Being the surprise at your best friend’s birthday party. Pajama parties. Cocoa. Laughing until your face hurts. Old movies. Balloons on my birthday. Snowflakes. Sunshine. The turning of leaves.

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Life can be ugly, but also beautiful. The two cannot exist without the other. The good still outweighs the bad, and yet, why is it always the bad stuff that seems to lodge itself in the forefront of my brain and loop on repeat? Why can’t my mind be flooded with the good memories?

Addison texted me the other day and said we were like the phoenix rising from the ashes. This year was an opportunity for me to grow. I came to some realizations about my future, and I’ve been making steps toward fulfilling my plan to create a richer, fuller life. When I look at myself in the mirror, I mean really look at myself, I see someone with scars but also someone who has chosen not to hide them. They are proof of my strength and resilience, a reminder of what I’ve survived and what I’ve lived. I no longer want to honor my pain and sadness and grief. I want to make whole this sutured heart of mine. It’s time I start honoring the joy in my present life and give power to that and not the past. No more looking back.

Kabir says, “Wherever you are is the entry point.” As I walk into 2017, I imagine myself digging my hands into my pockets and pulling out fistfuls of stones and letting them slip out of my hands as I walk forward and leave them in my wake. They are no longer coming with me on this journey. There isn’t any room. There’s only room for joy. I have to believe there is a greater path, destiny for me that I will follow. Grief made me feel trapped. Unmovable. And I think this is what these last few days of 2016 have been about for me. Sitting with my grief. Really sitting with it, embracing it, having a talk with it. I’m done with you. We’re breaking up. I need to come home to myself. This is my entry point into true peace.

The winter solstice ceremony closed with each of us lighting the candle of the person next to us until the entire room was aglow in candle light. I looked around at the faces in the room, glowing in the golden light, and I saw a diversity of expressions: peace, joy, sadness, pain. Me? I felt like my entire body was smiling. “Be the light in the darkness,” my teacher said as she lifted her candle. It made me think of the famous quote by Rumi: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” In those moments of darkness when it seems no light can get in, I vow to find it and not lose sight of it as I head into the new year with an open heart and open mind. I owe that to myself. 2016, I’m letting you go.

Some of the bright spots …

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Make a wish


My mother always made me feel special on my birthday. Every year she picked out the perfect Barbie doll, the best stuffed animal, the prettiest bracelet. When I look back on my birthdays as a kid, it’s not so much a particular gift or image that I remember most, it’s a feeling, how the people I love, especially my mom, made me feel important.

For years, my mom hung a Happy Birthday sign above the sink in our kitchen, chunky letters in every color of the rainbow strung together. It was the first thing I’d see when I came downstairs from my bedroom. As I stood sleepy-eyed in my pajamas, she’d sing “Happy Birthday” in a country-western twang with such passion – and volume – even though she doesn’t have the best singing voice. She still calls my sisters and me on every birthday and sings to us. I always let her call go to voicemail because I like to play the message over and over; it makes me smile.

What also made my birthdays so special every year as a kid was being able to design my own birthday cake. We went to a bakery called Mr. Baker, where your senses were greeted with the scent of vanilla icing whenever you stepped through the door. I loved the ritual of going with my mom to pick up my birthday cake and riding home with it sealed in a traditional white cake box. The anticipation of waiting to eat it drove me crazy. At age 36, I have not outgrown that and probably never will.

I took my birthday cake seriously as a kid – and still do. I had obsessions with Snoopy and Garfield when I was a child, so naturally they ended up on a lot of my cakes during my early childhood. I can still picture my double-layer cake with Garfield drawn on the top of it. It was my fifth or sixth birthday, and my whole family was gathered in the dining room, the lights dim and golden. My mom’s face glowed in birthday candlelight as she walked toward me with my Garfield cake, and everyone started to sing “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears before I could blow out the candles. I ran to my room and threw myself down on the bed, burying my face in my pillow. My mom scooped me up, and I cried into her chest unable to explain the tears.

Now, as an adult, I know the reason. It wasn’t just that my mom ordered me the perfect Garfield cake; it was that everyone I loved was gathered in the same room to celebrate me, my life. That birthday was the first time that I recognized what it means to be truly loved and cared about.

I carried that same feeling with me throughout the day on Wednesday as I celebrated my 36th birthday. All day I felt surrounded by so much love from the moment I first opened my eyes and saw my husband smiling back at me. Sweet text messages and phone calls trickled in throughout the day, each birthday wish touching my heart. After the tough couple of months I’ve been going through, it felt good to truly feel joyful for one day.

My husband can’t cook, but he’s great at ordering takeout. When I walked into our kitchen on the morning of my birthday, he had set a table for two with a Chick-fil-A biscuit and golden hash browns waiting for me — my twice a year guilty pleasure. He went into work a little later that morning so we could eat breakfast together. It was a simple gesture, but it felt grand to me.


Later that afternoon, two of my dear friends treated me to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants. When I arrived, they were seated in a booth with a small flower pot of yellow Gerbera daisies on the table and the biggest balloon I had ever seen attached to it with spirals of multicolored ribbon. I shrieked with glee when I saw it — and teared up a little, too. Those little touches sure made this birthday girl feel special. I left our lunch that day with my heart full — and my face sore from laughing so much. Good friends always know what our hearts need.


Afterwards, I went for a stroll in the woods with my dog Molly, and as I walked among the towering pines and the wisteria in bloom, I paused and looked up, taking it all in, this vast and beautiful world.  My eyes, my senses, my heart — they felt wide open. In the middle of the woods, this place that I cherish, my daily haven, I felt a deep connection to the universe. Among the rubble of winter’s fallen trees and bare branches, new life was unfurling all around me. Birds chirped. Four monarch butterflies danced in a figure eight near me. Wisteria’s delicate lavender flowers clung to their vine. I thought about these last two months and all the grief that has consumed me, and I realized even in the midst of sorrow there are gifts. You just have to open your eyes, and your heart to see them.


When I got home, there was a card waiting from me from my best friend Addison, who I share this blog with. The cover of the card pictures a cluster of cars, traveling in different directions, and a young girl on a bike looking over her shoulder while pedaling away from them. “I like to think that this is you pedaling even further past the grief that began this year,” she wrote. “You’re looking back a wee bit but pedaling forward to your next adventure.”


I love that analogy. It’s always a comfort when those we love can see a future beyond our grief. Reading Addison’s words gave me hope. Yes, I’m still glancing back at the past as I weather this season of change, but deep in my heart I believe the best is yet to come. Birthdays are a perfect way to mark a new beginning.


That night my oldest sister, brother-in-law and two nephews sang “Happy Birthday” to me via FaceTime – a virtual birthday party. Hearing my sweet nephews’ voices in the chorus of adults made me laugh as they sang with such fervor. This time there weren’t any tears, just laughter and gratitude. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and made a wish. I wished for joy, but after I blew out the candles, and opened my eyes, I realized I already have it.

The Marry Month of May

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Wedding anniversaries are usually intimate affairs for two, but I recently celebrated my first one with my wife and six men.

I thought that might get your attention.

The celebration took place at a dinner party gathering of The May 5th Club. You see last May, four gay couples from the Triad all got married on the same day – a Monday no less – across three time zones.

They say there’s no place like home but thanks to Amendment One, we all had to leave NC to marry the person we want to spend the rest of our life with. The four weddings were as different as the four couples but over the course of a wonderful evening together we learned that we all agreed on one thing – being married just feels different. 

And we love it.

So I give you Four Weddings and a Squirrel (I’ll explain later.)

David and Mark

Mark and David

David and Mark

They got “maui’d” in Maui on the beach at sunset. I would say it was the wedding of their dreams but they would admit that they planned the vacation first. A few months before their trip, they were sitting at dinner in Asheville one Saturday night and Mark said, “You know, we should get married when we’re in Hawaii.” And that was that.

David has a dear friend who lives in HI who helped them arrange the details and served as their witness. They had a traditional Hawaiian wedding including the blessing of rings sprinkled by a Ti leaf dipped in ocean water gathered from a Koa wood bowl. Koa is a treasured hardwood that represents integrity and strength – a fitting reflection of David and Mark.

They both confessed to tearing up “a little bit” at the blessing at the end of the service but their favorite part was the “after”– a celebration dinner that went on for hours.

“Mark feels like home to me,” said David.

As we sat around David and Mark’s table at our dinner that night, I think all of us felt at home.

Mark and Kem

Mark and Kem

Kem and Mark

Some trips down the aisle are longer than others and that was certainly the case for Kem and Mark. They had been fast friends for years and after Kem divorced his wife of 32 years, they eventually started going out. “It just kind of made sense to start dating my best friend,” said Mark.

I asked them when they knew it was getting serious between them and Kem smiled his gentle smile and softly said, “When the first thing I thought of every morning was him.”

Mark is the analytical one in the relationship and when the Edie Windsor ruling came down in 2013, overturning The Defense of Marriage Act, he began to think strategically about getting married. “The possibilities became real and I knew we had to get ahead of what was happening here in NC,” he said.

They were married in Seattle because as Kem noted, “We wanted to get as far to the left of NC as we could.” They chose a beautiful B&B in the Gaslight district and were touched by the warm reception of so many strangers at the inn. “Everyone wanted to come up and hug us,” said Kem.

After the ceremony, they drove two hours to Vancouver for their honeymoon and that’s when it hit Mark. He turned to his best friend and said, “This has been a perfect day. We’re married.”

Joey and Chad

Joey and Chad

Chad and Joey

I work with Chad and when he was interviewing for the position a year ago this past February, he told me he was engaged. When he accepted the position, he reminded me that he would need a little time off for his wedding. I said, “Sure, when is it?” “May 5th,” he replied.

The rest of the conversation went like this:

Me: (shriek) Oh, my God, I’m getting married on May 5th!

Chad: (shriek) Oh, my God, that’s crazy!

Me:  We picked May 5th because it’s the anniversary of our first date.

Chad: (louder shriek): Oh, my God, that’s why we picked it, too!

Me: Where are you getting married?

Chad: DC.

Me: (louder shriek) Me, too!

Chad: (even louder shriek) Oh, my God!

I’m sure my staff thought we were being taken hostage in my office with all the noise.

It took two proposals for them to seal the deal. Chad proposed to Joey over dinner out one night in a very casual way. He simply said, “So, I think we should get married. What do you think?” To which Joey replied, “No, that is not a real proposal.”

For Joey, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling. He wanted Chad to put a ring on it.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013 and Chad and Joey were walking around DC, one of their favorite cities, when they stopped in front of the White House and Joey said, “I think we’re ready, let’s get married.” They were going to do it on the spot but soon learned about the three-day waiting period for a license in DC.

Chad and Joey's best squirrel

Chad and Joey’s best squirrel

So they decided to wait and do it up right on the anniversary of their first date. They were married in a wedding chapel in the morning and then took a long walk around the city. They once again found themselves in front of the White House and staked out a private space in a nearby park and exchanged their own vows with each other. Their witness was a lone squirrel who chewed loudly on a nut while they poured their hearts out to each other.

Chad’s favorite memory of the day is watching Joey methodically getting ready for their wedding in their room at the Mayflower Hotel. He watched his soon to be husband delicately lay out his shirt, tie and suit – stopping to wipe his eyes after he placed each item on the bed.

I love this story.

Oh, and by the way, Joey got his bling and then some.

Joy and Addy

Joy and Addy

Addison and Joy

I wrote about our wedding in a blog post last summer and although I never tire of hearing the story, I can understand that you might.

Joy and I had been planning a blessing at our church for months. We knew we didn’t want any part of a “pretend” wedding in NC but when it became apparent that legally married same-sex couples would be afforded federal benefits, we decided we should have a civil ceremony. We thought we would go to DC and have our dear friends, Phyllis and Tom, DC residents, be our witnesses at the court-house.

Phyllis would not hear of it and insisted that we be married in her fabulous apartment near Dupont Circle. Phyllis is my mentor and one of my dearest friends on earth and I learned early on that you never argue with her. And really, why would you?

And so we had a beautiful and intimate wedding surrounded by a few dear friends and approximately 2,000 cherry blossoms. Seriously, Phyllis and Tom’s living room looked like the Tidal Basin in May.

And we were both astonished by how completing overwhelming the moment was. We knew we would be happy but to be held in the center of a circle of so much love and to say words to each other that we never dreamed we’d ever be able to was utterly thrilling.

We really did feel different. We felt more. More connected, more loved, more permanent.

More.

The irony is not lost on me that as we all look forward to celebrating our first anniversaries with our spouses, the Supreme Court is weighing the decision on same-sex marriage perhaps once and for all.

I lost all patience on this issue a long time ago and I can only hope that love will indeed finally win when the Court’s decision is revealed in June. Whatever happens, I know of eight sweet hearts who will forever take the Fifth.

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The May 5th Club

A Love Story (and what happened when I interviewed my parents.)

Today is my father’s 68th birthday.

It’s also the anniversary of my mom and dad’s first date.

I’ve always known that my parents met in a grocery store and that my father was shy and my mother was outgoing. I knew that boys warned my dad not to get involved with my mom, that she was a heart-breaker, and how on their first date, my father couldn’t take his eyes off of her.

But what I’ve realized recently are all the things that I don’t know – what they wore on their first date, where they went, how they felt about each other, when they knew they had found “the one.”

So on the eve of Valentine’s Day last week, I spent my Friday night on FaceTime interviewing my parents, asking them all the questions I’ve always wanted to ask. Continue reading

How to push through a creative block

Hello, world.

I feel as though I’ve been absent for some time now. The thing is, September and October were a complete blur for me and my need to write was extinguished by a series of, well, craziness.

We packed, we moved, we unpacked. Then, I discovered I had not one but two ovarian cysts. This news was followed by a brief walk through a patch of woods that left me covered front to back with poison ivy for three weeks; it was a nightmare. And then, my dog chased a squirrel into the woods and got speared by a tree branch in the process, resulting in a puncture wound and emergency surgery. My poor girl.

In retrospect, these series of events could have been great fodder for blog posts, but I’ve been unable to create lately. I’ve been feeling blocked. And if I’m being completely honest with myself, I haven’t been feeling like this for just the past two months; it’s more like the last year – or longer. I’ve journaled about it, reflected on it, read books and articles on the topic, but I could not figure out what was at the heart of this creative wall.

To help me uncover what was at the core, a few weeks ago, I turned to an online writing series facilitated by friend and poet Jacinta White. Becoming Undone: Unpacking Life’s Weight helped me identify the things in my life that are weighing me down and keeping me from moving forward. My “A-ha” moment came during the first writing prompt, where we had to write a list poem that began with the line: “Daily I carry … ” Without hesitation, guilt was the first word I scribbled in my notebook.

Photo by Carla Kucinski.

Photo by Carla Kucinski.

Continue reading