On a horrific end, a painful beginning, and the challenging, nurturing relationships that sustained the entire process.
It’s interesting. There are folks that enter your life dramatically. Characters that—as you calmly orbit your own chosen sun—theatrically smash into you, throwing your entire anti-gravity glide out of whack for a while. Then there are those who seemingly float into your personal trajectory. Beings who emit their arrival, rather than announce it. Their unspoken influx is so subtle, so gentle, that at that moment of an official introduction, you can’t quite pinpoint where they came from or how long they’ve been sitting beside you, but that on some realm or another, it’s likely been lifetimes.
The initial handshake-smile-exchange with Kelli was not an “event”. There was no story. No drama. No shift in gears or necessary alteration in Due Course speed. It was a non-episode. The un-incident. If anything, an ever so slight, no-surprise-here subconscious nod to one who was meant to be there all along.
I remember freezing my ass off. Bundled in layers upon layers. Leaning against a very large rock, on a very small island, clutching a bottle of rose and arching my face towards the sun’s last visible rays. A Pacific Northwest beach in the middle of winter makes for a ballsy gathering place—but these women—with their wind-whipped expressions, and wild knotted hair, cracking a cheap bottle of wine with one hand, cradling the faces of any number of little ones with the other—well…these women know how to fucking party.
It was here, backed against a stone, eyes closed, that I opened them to Kelli, mirroring a vertical, sun-catcher’s snowflake directly to my right. And, while I’m sure we spent the next several hours forging the anything-but-original means of familiarizing… “So, what do you do?” likely followed by a “Far out, what brings you here?” There was a calm, private reshuffling within me.
A “Hello, old friend. So we meet again.”
At that time, unbeknownst to me, Kelli was executing her own Mad Woman’s Shuffle. Rather, frantically scuttling for solid ground during one mindfuck of a Giant Life Reorg. Morons coo about such phases as “transitions.” But, as anyone who’s fallen through the floor kicking and screaming and sobbing and breaking can attest to, it’s much more brutal than some gentle evolution.
While I see it as some higher deities flipping their Divine Birds, pulling the plug, and ending whatever game you think that at that point, you’d mastered, Kelli is much more graceful with her assumptions. “I think of it all as a wake up call.” She smiles “A gift. God saying ‘Beloved…I love you too much to let you keep going this way. You’re clearly not gonna get it on your own, so…here ya go.’”
Either way you choose to interpret it, the concluding results are the same: everything crumbles. Everything burns. And from some broken, beat down place, likely curled up crying at the foot of your toilet, you opt to stand, and to start again. It was months—months of watching Kelli quietly rise, and sift through the rubble—before I asked her to share her story…
“I mean, grace is all over the whole thing,” she begins. “But…where I was at when this all happened is a big grace thing,” she pulls a chair over, joining me at her own dining room table. “Like, for years before this, I had all of these people put into my life. And I went for it. I chose that. I was slowly making my way towards community, and friendships that were on a deeper level…relationships that weren’t surface anymore.”
While she’s referring to multiple, evolving relationships, one specific group of women emerged as well—Ladies Group. A collective of resilient, complicated, soul-searching and compassionate women. Women who meet on a weekly basis to, for lack of a more poetic phrase: demand that shit get real.
“I think I’ve always described it as ‘we are a group of women who are committed to each other. With the belief that you can’t truly know yourself until you have that reflection mirrored back to you, from someone else. Until you know how others see you.” Kelli continues. “We try to keep each other rooted in reality. We confront each other and help each other. We are committed to each other’s lives.”
“It’s kind of like a mentorship…It’s more like reality therapy maybe?” Kelli laughs. “I mean, that’s an actual thing. And it’s SUPER intense. You go, and everyone sits around you, and they just fire everything they see at you. I mean, you do this after a few weeks of spending therapy time with people, so they like, break you down until you can…” she pauses, “until you can like, face your True Self. Good, bad, ugly. Everything. Because so much of what we do is walk around trying to defend our identities of who we think we are, and who we think we should be, instead of just being. So,” Kelli continues, “years and years and YEARS ago, like, over 20 years ago…that’s how Ladies Group all started.”
Before being asked into Ladies Group, Kelli began randomly meeting members via a less personal, but equally pertinent gathering: “Mommy Group.”
“I was 29 when my first son was born. And,” Kelli grimaces, “the first months of his life were crazy. Just really insane. When he was four days old, he fell and fractured his skull. He’s fine, obviously,” she smiles, “but it was awful. Then I got mastitis. A couple weeks later, he got a super bad fever, and by the time we got to the doctor they were like, ‘We need to send you to the ER.’ So at a month old, he had to have this full battery of tests…IV, catheter, a blood draw and a spinal tap. And, on top of all that, he was colicky for like five months.” Kelli closes her eyes while she speaks.
“It was so hard. And I was isolated, and I didn’t have a huge group of friends. I didn’t know what to do.”
She continues, “So I got introduced to Mommy Group. Where, we’d all meet once a week, with all our kids. And we’d sit around and drink and talk or whatever, and there’d be a huge snack table for the kids, and they’d all just run around.” Kelli pauses. “It was just time for us to all be together. And some of these women went to Ladies Group, some didn’t. Mommy Group sort of morphed into Co-Op. A pre-school type deal, where every week, two moms would take all the kids and go teach them stuff.”
“I remember, the co-op was at Discovery Beach or something, and my son was just crying the whole time. And they called me, and asked me to come get him, so I came and picked him up and just started balling.” She adds, “And one of the women who saw the whole thing was like, ‘Do you want to come to Ladies Group?’” Kelli shrugs, “I knew it was there, I just didn’t really know what it was. It was kind of this mysterious thing everyone would talk about, and it was usually kind of intense.”
With that, Kelli went. “I mean, I was just like YES. This is exactly what I want. Women being women. Women being real. Real with each other. Telling each other hard truths. And, staying with it when there’s conflict.” She continues, “I mean, for people to continue to meet, after—let alone through—confrontation? I was in awe.” She pauses, “For me this was unheard of. I had never really been in female relationships like this. Ever.
As women, I think there’s some unspoken pressure to just “be fine.”
To be ‘okay.” She cocks an eyebrow at me. “I’m fine! Everything’s fine! Things are always fine!” Kelli spins that last ‘fine’ into a phony fit of giggles. She shrugs, looking at me. “You know?”
She continues, “So yeah. I just loved it. I ate it up. I didn’t know anything. But I just enjoyed being there. And it was really refreshing to be around women that were not afraid to be honest.”
Overlapping during this time, a closer friendship began forming between one of the Ladies Group “Old Schoolers” and Kelli. “She and I started hanging out. She would come over, and we’d just watch shows. We would stay up and talk until like 1 AM.” Kelli smiles, “Just about everything. God. The Bible. Books. Shows. Relationships. Friends. Black holes. Time. Space. I mean, just everything. And she challenged me a LOT. Because I was very insecure.”
I push her to elaborate on this point.
“She challenged me to get over myself!” Kelli laughs. “But essentially that! Like, ‘what are you so insecure about? What do you need to be an expert at? Why do you feel like you can’t speak into anyone’s life? Why do you believe that you have nothing to offer? And why do you think you have to get it ‘right’? Because,” she continues, “a lot of the insecurity was this belief that I would do it wrong. And that it would get messy! Which, sure—is what I want, it’s true—but the actuality of living that way?” She shrugs, smiling. “That is really scary.”
“Especially for someone like me, who was always a “good girl.” Like, I did the right thing. And, I see now how much pride that can build up inside of you. Like, ‘I don’t deserve this.’ Or ‘It’s not going to get messy for me, because I do everything right all the time.’
“That’s some tricky shit,” I chime in. That’s like…pride masked as humility.”
“Total false humility,” Kelli nods. “Like, what did I have to be humble about? My own efforts of ‘doing the right thing?’” She bursts out laughing. “That’s not real! That’s not raw. That’s not vulnerable at all. That’s protecting yourself. Protecting yourself so that you don’t ever have to get uncomfortable.”
When one of the facilitators relocated, Kelli had an inkling it was time to step up. “I had this feeling like I might be the new leader of the group. And, most of the other women in the group also had the feeling. All separately,” she shrugs. “And they all talked, and then came to me. And I was like ‘Holy Shit.’ And I didn’t want to do it. It was terrifying. I was cripplingly insecure about everything.”
“What was the scariest part about speaking up?” I prod, leaning back in my chair.
“What about confronting people?”
“That they weren’t going to like me. They weren’t going to like what they heard, which I translated as ‘They don’t like me.’”
“It wasn’t being wrong?” I ask.
“Right,” she smiles. “Well it’s—whatever way you put it—it’s that I was taking all of that on as ‘This is who I am.’ I’m wrong. Not, ‘Oh, I misread the situation.’” Kelli continues, “Like, I didn’t read it as something that I did, but as who I am. It was never ‘I’m experiencing a relationship thing where we kind of misread each other.’ Instead it was ‘Shit I totally did the wrong thing, and now this person hates me.’” She adds, “It’s that thing about mindfulness. It’s not ‘I’m sad.’ It’s ‘I’m experiencing sadness. I feel sad.”
“So,” I ask, “what would the mindful version of ‘I fucked up and this person hates me’ be?”
Kelli pauses for a minute. Weaves an unruly curl between her fingers. “It would be…probably being willing to stay. Being willing to hear it out.” She smiles, “right? Slowing it waaaaaaaaay down, and sticking with the conversation. And, even if I was wrong, not taking that on as who I am. That ‘I am A Wrong Person’. And,” she adds, “learning from my mistakes. And being humble enough to say ‘I’m really sorry.” She looks at me, shrugging. “And then…that’s it, right?”
“I can’t do anything else. You know? Mindfulness would be not defending probably. Not trying to ‘fix’ the situation. Or change the other person. Change their mind. Defend my own mind.” Kelli smiles, “You know?”
She continues, “So, there were a lot of things building up to this moment of ‘WHAT do you WANT? Who do you want to be? How do you want to have relationships?’”
That “Moment” she’s referring to: the Universe’s ultimate Bitch Slap. Perhaps that pivotal point where, as Kelli was convinced she was rounding Home Base, the whole fucking field—bleachers included—went up in flames. The beginning of her end, and—amazingly so—the activation of Operation Rebirth.
A half-assed leaf through her then-husband’s emails revealed the shittiest of the shitstorms: a full-fledged affair. When Kelli confronted him, his text (yes, text) reply read something along the lines of ‘I don’t love you anymore and I want a divorce.’ The bottom blew out, suddenly, with no warning. And as Kelli began to free-fall, Ladies Group stepped in to form one hell of a net.
“I called one of my friends from Ladies Group, and she came over immediately,” Kelli explains calmly. “And she just sat with me while I lost my shit. At this point, the confrontation with my ex was done. He was on an airplane, headed home, and we were texting. I was pacing…my youngest son was here, and when my friend came over, she just kind of…navigated him. Like, got him situated.” Kelli continues, “And then she just sat with me. And let me cry. Let me almost puke. Let me say the same things over and over and over and over and over again. You know?”
“She prayed with me, because that’s what I wanted to do, and then was like ‘Ok. Get your things. Now we’re going. You’re coming with me. You’re not staying here in this house.’ And,” Kelli adds, “I fought her on that for a while. I mean, I really wanted to talk to him. And she was like ‘No. You’re not going to talk to him. You’re not going to see him tonight.’ So, I packed up some things, and we went to her house, and she stayed up with me all night.”
Kelli pauses. “I think at some point, in the middle of the night, I had posted to Ladies Group’s Facebook page, and in the morning, I got up, called a couple members of the group who had since moved out of the city to a nearby island, and said ‘I’m coming.’ And everyone was like ‘Get your stuff and let’s go. Come to the island.’ One friend gently timed Kelli while she packed-up overnight bags for the kids, then loaded her own family of three into a separate vehicle, escorted her to the ferry terminal, and boarded the boat behind her.
“My last memory is…getting to the island, and walking through their door. And they were all there, hugging me, and hugging my kids. And,” Kelli begins tearing up, “then it kinda goes blank for two days.” She pauses, wiping her eyes. “I remember at one point laying on the couch. Then more of Ladies Group showed up. And it was just…” she chokes up, “it was just this house full of women. And me just…sobbing. And the kids somewhere. I don’t know where they were…”
She continues, “And from there, it became ‘ok now what? How do we move through this? What’s next?’”
Ladies Group continued to rally. One woman helped set Kelli up with a lawyer. Another housed her during the tumultuous weeks to follow. Still another kept an eye on Kelli’s sons during the day. A close group member became the go-between messenger, coordinating with Kelli’s ex via brief but necessary emails. “Because it was too much!” Kelli sighs deeply. “He was emailing me in the middle of the night. Terrible things about how much he doesn’t love me… all that stuff. I could not handle it.”
When, after a couple weeks of coming completely undone, Kelli and her kids finally left the island for ‘real life,’ the support still didn’t stop. “The day that I drove up to the house,” these women met me there. They dragged our marriage bed out onto the street corner, set up a new bed in my bedroom, and re-did the whole house.” Kelli’s eyes begin welling up again. “They got these chairs!” she gestures to our very seats. “They found this table. They were like, ‘THIS is YOUR house now. We’re going to make this your home.”
“They would come with their kids and hang out with me. I was never alone. For probably three weeks after I got back.” Kelli shrugs, smiling. “I would text the group at 1 AM, while having a panic attack, and they would just walk me through it. Again and again.” She continues, “Money? One woman gave me the $3,000 I needed as a retainer for my lawyer. She just wrote the check. Others would bring me groceries…everything.”
“The whole time, I just kept thinking, ‘do you know how many women go through this?’ And utterly alone at that?
Like, alone. They have no one. And they have kids! Like I do!” She sighs, “I mean, as it was happening, it was just that, right? Just…happening. I was just surviving.” Kelli continues, “but women do this on their own all the time.”
I mull this over for a moment, “They do do this all the time. And they do survive. But,” I add, “I imagine there’s a certain hardening of sorts that begins to happen. Like, when you’re in survival mode, you don’t really have the luxury of ‘experiencing’ the process.” I continue, “It seems that Ladies Group, if anything, gave you the space to like…soften into it. Unravel. Open up… “
“Oh yeah,” she nods. “I had the freedom and the space to actually experience it. I am absolutely blessed to have been given that space. To have been able to dive in. And,” Kelli adds, “not just that, but that they did it all with me. You know? They didn’t just feed me lovely-dovey stuff.” She bursts out laughing. “They told me hard things, really early on, about my heart towards my ex. Things that I did NOT like hearing.”
“What sort of things?”
Kelli smiles. “Like…forgiving him? And just a few months in!” She keeps laughing. “It wasn’t so much ‘You need to forgive him,’ but they sat me down for a conversation about what forgiveness is, and how it’s not for my ex. It would be for me. For my own heart to stay soft.” She pauses. “Freedom.”
“Is that what forgiveness is?”
She closes her eyes, nodding while she smiles. “Mmmmhmmm.”
“It’s the acceptance of grace. Because in the end,” she continues, “you are your own acceptance of the truth—of the reality of pain and suffering—and what it can bring you.
So, as long as I’m focusing on what he did to me, I’m totally missing out on my own personal growth.”
Kelli pauses, “So, if I’m able to say, ‘Listen, you fucked up, and you hurt me a lot, but I forgive you and I can move on, because I’m choosing that’—which granted, I think something like this will be a lifelong thing, right?” She elaborates, “But he doesn’t need me to forgive him. And he’s not waiting around for me to forgive him, you know? He has to forgive himself. And,” Kelli adds, “me forgiving him is essentially me forgiving myself.”
“Forgiving myself that I was even in this situation in the first place,” Kelli continues. “That I am incapable of having a perfect life. That I didn’t read the signs. That I couldn’t prevent bad things from happening to me. You know? And,” she smiles, “that all goes back to the pride thing. ‘I’m a good girl! I’ve got it all together!’”
“No! I’m not! And no,” she exclaims, “I don’t! The truth—and this was painful to realize—the truth is my heart is just as fucked up as my ex’s. I’m just choosing not to act upon it. I am perfectly capable of doing all the things that he’s done to me. Absolutely! But,” Kelli continues, “I choose to accept reality. Of pain and suffering. Good and bad.
And look, you can live defending your identity—in all of these things…or you can work on the bigger things… the things that are deeper and uncomfortable and more real than any of the stuff that’s going to burn and go away forever, you know?”
“I remember once, at our weekly group meeting, I was crying…at the time I was REALLY angry at my ex…but I was beginning to feel how that was not helpful.” She continues, “I would see him, and get so angry, and then he would leave… and I was just left with these gross, awful feelings, right? Which is not the truth.”
Kelli adds, “The truth was that I was very, very hurt. Deeply hurt. And, seeing him reminded me of how hurt I was.” She continues, “So I was defending that in a weird way…defending my feelings…all of that. And one of the women there just looked at me and said ‘
You are SO prideful.’ And I just stared at her like.. ‘WHAT?!’”
“I had never thought of myself that way. And that was the first time anyone had ever said that to me.” Kelli exhales deeply, before continuing, “She was trying to tell me that the ONLY way I could get to a place of forgiveness and freedom, was if I admitted just how prideful I was… and that I was NO better than him. And I remember,” Kelli explains, “she was like ‘What if THIS is how your ex gets enlightened? Huh? Like, What if this is what needed to happen in his journey, for him to evolve into a better, richer, fuller being? What are you gonna be? Standing over on the side chewing off your own arm? And then what, you look over and see him and his new partner, and their new life, all free and in love, getting their shit together, and they’ve got this new blended family… and you’re still over here scratching off your own skin?’” Kelli cocks an eyebrow at me.
“She asked me these things! And I was like ‘NO!’ “And she was like, ‘Ok, then you need to realize you’re no better than him. And forgive yourself. For not being enough. Because you are not enough.” Kelli smiles again. “Which is true! I will never be enough. That is the truth. But in my mind it was ‘how DARE he do this to ME!’
“I believed I was this ‘perfect’ person,” Kelli elaborates.
“Because alongside pride comes all those wicked insecurities that you’re trying to perfect. You know what I mean? Because you’re trying to present yourself as ‘well I am ____.’ And you tell yourself how great you are…but deep down, you tell yourself how bad you are. And then… you work really hard to perfect it.”
Kelli pauses before continuing. “It could have been so easy for these women to just feed the beast. To just fuel this raging fire of ‘How awful! How terrible! How dare he! He’s an asshole!’” she explains. “Even if some of it were true, it’s not helpful for me to move forward in my own personal life. I’ve got to let it go. You know?”
“He will have his own sufferings. Whatever they are… the consequences of his choices will absolutely play out. In some way or form. Maybe not until he’s on his deathbed. But they will. We all know that.” She shrugs. “It will all come back.”
“And,” she adds, “I don’t think of it like karma or punishment or anything. It’s more of a ‘we don’t have ANY control.
Like… the earth is spinning. Nature is happening. Things are moving. Time is going. And if you’re not onboard, and you’re like…trying to fix up your own little world where you’re in the middle of it, you’re going to get run over. Eventually. In some way or another.”
“And in a simple way too,” she continues. “Like finances! You can ignore that bill. But sooner or later, you will start getting calls. You can’t ignore it forever. It’s the same with our personal issues,” Kelli explains. “We’re always given opportunities to face them, and then it’s up to you to face them or not. And I kind of feel that as we get older, the more we try to cover it all up with other things, the harder it is and the less we realize we have to face them.” She pauses, “until it’s like a big giant blowup. But the blowup always comes. It always comes.”
Kelli continues, “You know, I was listening to the podcast On Being today. She was interviewing Brene Brown, and they were talking about vulnerability and creativity. There was this whole part where Brene was saying how she realized at some point in her life, she had always made herself small.” Kelli pauses, “For whatever reasons. Belief that she couldn’t be more. Belief that she wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t worthy of more. And I just started sobbing in my car.” Kelli continues, “because I think I’ve lived that way for a long time. I’ve pushed down who I am, who I was, who I want to be… for whatever reasons. Insecurities. Thinking that I couldn’t be more. Thinking there were others who were better.”
“Look,” she explains, “It’s a choice to dive into all that. Probably one of the harder choices a person could make—but it’s worth it. When you choose to join in on vulnerability, or kindness, or the search for meaning, or true identity…” she pauses, “when I began to engage with relationships, suffering, pain, the hours and hours of counseling…that’s when I began to believe that I am worth being.”
Kelli smiles. “Worth being here.
Worth being in relationship with people. Offering what I have to the world. Even if on a smaller scale. My kids. You. Ladies Group.” She pauses, still smiling. “The belief that God didn’t just spit me out with nothing in mind, you know? I was made this person. And that there’s so much more in there.” Kelli taps her hands over her heart. “So much more that I don’t even know about.”
She continues, “And I think having everything explode like it did just got rid of all this shit. Like, LOOK at who you are! You are this person. You are strong because you were made this way. Or you are lovely for no reason at all, just because you are.” Kelli’s eyes begin welling up. “And you’re here, and you’re willing to be here, and to be present with people in your life.
And as messy and as ugly and as fucked up as you do it sometimes, it doesn’t matter. The fact that you’re just here, that is enough.”
“And the love that I’ve gotten from Ladies Group…” she closes her eyes …”the acceptance, the care…and even just on a deeper level, the way that they still speak in to my life.. I feel even more loved at that. That these women are willing to get messy with me, for the greater good. For the sake of relationships. For the sake of growing. For the sake of not being stuck. Of not being limited.” Kelli pauses, “Of not limiting myself to just this, right here. You know?”
She grins at me. “Like how amazing to think that if I keep on this path…if I keep pushing and engaging and growing and stretching and listening and learning…things will only continue to evolve. Like, in 30 years, what I am going to be like then?!”
She bursts into laughter, throwing her hands above her head, “WOAHHH!!!”
“Holy Shit,” I mutter. “In 30 years, we’re gonna have to do another interview.”
She leans back in her seat, still laughing. “Deal.”