Custom lettering
and rustic handmade
wood-cut art

About

Hi there!

That's me holding a really big wood-carved sign I once made. I stumbled into this craft on accident when I took a woodblock print-making class at the Rochester Brainery and decided I liked the look of the carved wood better than the actual print that it made. Around the same time, I had just started working on a 52-week typography project, and I decided to combine the two. The result? Hand-drawn, hand-carved wood lettering.

I live in Geneseo, NY with my husband Keith Walters, our daughter Rowan, our son Finn, and our four-legged pack leader, Lady. Together, Keith and I own The Walters Creative Company, and we co-own and operate The Gallery on Main Street in Geneseo.

By day, I am an art director for a marketing agency, and by night I make these carvings and designs after my silly little kiddos go to bed.

The process

IT USUALLY GOES A LITTLE BIT LIKE THIS:

First, a tiny, crappy thumbnail sketch. Second, a finished and refined design. And third, a final carved and framed piece. I use only pencil and paper to create my compositions, which often start a bit bigger than the size of a quarter, and then I finalize and refine them with a little bit of help from digital tools like Photoshop and Illustrator. I then use a craft knife and a wood-cutting gauge to carefully chisel the design out of some soft pine. And then I finish each piece off with a quick rustic frame made from 1x2, which allows each piece to either hang on the wall or sit on a shelf or tabletop. See the evolution of "You will never regret being kind" below.

SKETCH

POLISH

CARVE

Contact

LET'S TALK

Drop a line using the form below, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Or message me on Instagram if you're not into forms.

JOANNA WALTERS

Custom lettering and handmade wood-cut art
Geneseo, NY

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"We are born makers.
We move what we're learning from
our heads to our hearts through our hands."

-Brené Brown

For Anna, who sat outside my door, with banana GIFs

A few years ago, my cousin Anna sent me a print of the above quote from Brene Brown and a golden yellow journal in which I drew my very first quote crammed into a circle. These words-in-circles-in-wood have become the medium through which I move what I’m learning from my head to my heart.

What follows is a deeply personal summary of what I’ve learned over the past few years of my life through the transformation from woman to mother, each chapter anchored to a few words that helped me move through what I was learning in that season. I’m damn lucky to be here to tell this story. Alive, breathing, hands shaking. And because of that, I feel I have an obligation to share, in case someone out there finds themselves in a similar situation and can draw any kind of inspiration from what I’ve been through, to pull through what they're going through.

Thank you so much for being here. Drop a line with the form below if you wish.

For Helen, who makes this all worth it

Some of you may remember that I picked up this whole “words in circles in wood” thing as a 52-week art challenge to distract myself from trying to get pregnant. If you want to start at the very beginning of my story, you can read that here. I told my husband Keith back then that writing the summation of that project would be worth it if it helped just one person. Helen reached out to me after coming across the written postmortem of my 52 week project and left this message for me:

She and I now keep in touch, from across the country, by email regularly. That early pregnancy turned into a beautiful baby girl, and we now get to watch each other’s children grow up from a distance. So here I sit, writing again, with hopes that this may find even just one person who needs to hear it.

Here’s what I wrote about this piece back then:

“The first time that we were pregnant, I let myself get way too excited. I planned out the nursery and made a list of names and spent all my time daydreaming about what the future would hold. Classic counting-your-chickens-before-they-hatch situation. I went in for my first ultrasound in January, ready to hear a tiny heartbeat, but there was nothing. Just a quiet empty womb. I sobbed for days and days, grieving not only the loss of that little embryo, but the foiling of all those plans I had made. By this time, the fourth time, I had learned not to make plans. We referred to the little one as “hypothetical baby” for a solid 20 weeks before we allowed ourselves to act like it was really happening. This time, I took it one day at a time. Each day that I woke up, pregnant still, was one more day under my (tightening) belt. This project kept me occupied and away from scrolling baby room ideas on Pinterest.”

I had three miscarriages over the course of two years before we were lucky enough to get pregnant with our daughter, Rowan. An early loss, a failed embryo and subsequent D&C, and an ectopic pregnancy that burst and took a whole bunch of my blood and one of my fallopian tubes with it.*

“One day at a time” became my getting-through-pregnancy mantra.

*Note
I am slightly foggy on the details because I was having seizures induced by heavy internal bleeding at the time, but I think that in order to save my life, what the doctors and I and my husband decided together about my body was that they’d have to remove the burst tube and terminate the baby, which was not viable anyway since it landed outside of my uterus. When we talk about blanket outlawing abortion, we’re talking about situations like mine, and the decision we made was clearly the pro-life choice. Had abortion been illegal at that time, what choice would the doctors have had but to shrug their shoulders, say “Congratulations! A baby!” and then let me internally bleed to death. We need so very much more nuance in conversations around women and their unborn babies.


Another from my original 52 week project, these are the words I started thinking about as I approached my first due date. Here’s what I wrote back then:

“I used to joke when I was younger that I hoped that by the time I had kids, they’d have figured out a way for a woman to be unconscious for her whole pregnancy and then just wake up with a baby in her arms. I was very, very afraid of childbirth. For most of this pregnancy, I was still very, very afraid of childbirth and whenever I’d get anxious thinking about it, I would push it out of my mind and say “I don’t have to think about that today.” Until I did have to start thinking about it. And making a birth plan. And packing a go bag. The more I read and learned, the more I realized that this was something I could not control, just like getting pregnant in the first place, and so I let go. I let go and decided all I could do was show up. And that helped. My labor was long and difficult and though I wanted to, I couldn’t do it without an epidural. But, what happened happened. Oh, that works in the past tense, too! Que paso paso.”

[text]

SIDE NOTE: Apparently I had not been properly educated about childbirth up until this point, because when I finally did start thinking about it, there was a point at which I thought “Wait a minute, they cut the umbilical cord, and THEN WHAT HAPPENS?! DOES IT HAVE TO GO….BACK IN!??!” In case you have the same question (and if no one else does, then this is terribly embarrassing) the answer is no. I will not go into further detail, just Google it.

For Mom, who held my life together while I fell apart

My mom raised me on the phrase "This too shall pass".

When Rowan was a newborn, I leaned into this truth as much as I could in two different ways. Most often used in seasons of adversity, this can also apply when you find yourself in the midst of something beautiful. In the middle of a long wakeful night of feeding a newborn every couple of hours, I often reminded myself that "this too shall pass". The sleeplessness, the exhaustion, the pain from breastfeeding - it would all pass. But along with it, the snuggles from a sleepy baby, the quiet hum of the sound machine, the warmth of my dog Lady snoozing by my foot. Those things would all pass too.

Another phrase my mom often says is "you take the good with the bad." When the pandemic hit, and we didn't see my parents for months, this phrase became extra important to all of us. I think we could all be comforted by the fact that these hard times will indeed pass, but while we're in the middle of it, let's hang on to the good stuff that will pass with it.

For Rowan, my promise to you

Okay, if you became a parent before me and you're reading this, I have a serious bone to pick with you. Nobody told me how much babies and toddlers SCREAM! Why did none of you prepare me for this? A quick "Congratulations! Get ready for screaming!" would have been nice. Babies are LOUD and toddlers are somehow even LOUDER. Or maybe it's just mine? Please tell me your babies scream a lot. I need to know if this is normal.

I didn't realize this until fairly recently but apparently I've got some noise sensitivity. Sometimes when we're watching TV, Keith will start watching a video on his phone or computer at the same time that the TV is on, and I don't understand how he can hear two entirely different noises at the same time and his brain doesn't feel like it's splicing in two. That's what it feels like to me.

The other day, I was home with both kids, trying to get lunch on the table. Finn was crying for a bottle. Rowan was screaming "I don't want to eat lunch" over and over again. A timer was going off on Alexa to tell me the noodles were done. The smoke detector batteries were low so it was making that incremental high-pitch beeping sound, which Lady apparently CANNOT HANDLE, so she was sitting at the door panting and scratching to go out. Layer upon layer of chaotic noise, threatening to send me into a full-blown panic attack.

I'm learning to be still through these storms. Sometimes I can do it. Sometimes in the middle of that noise, I can still my brain enough to sequence the order of events that needs to happen: 'Alexa, stop'; change smoke detector batteries; let Lady outside; get Finn a bottle; get lunch on the table so that Rowan stops screaming about how she doesn't want lunch (but actually she does); and then only a few moments later like a switch has flipped, we're all sitting at the table quietly enjoying noodles.

It's hard though. I'm not always able to get still enough to hear my own thoughts above the noise, and I'm not always proud of how I react when I can't find my still. For those times, I am working on forgiving myself quickly.

Rowan is a brilliant little Tasmanian devil of strange sounds and giggles and shouts and screams and whines and songs and joyful nonsense and explosive anger. I expect Finn will be the same way when he reaches toddlerhood. My task is to be still, and meet their beautiful chaos with calm. Wish me luck.

For Finn

It blows my mind that these were the words I drew and carved right before I gave birth to my little boy, Finn. It was the perfect note from my prepartum self to my postpartum self. I made this on the due date of my second pregnancy, while I waited for labor to begin. My second pregnancy, unlike my first, was difficult, painful, and exhausting. I used these words to remind myself that there was relief from pain and discomfort once we split from one human into two, that there was a light at the end of the tunnel if I could just hang in there. I would jokingly say to people in my last semester “I am FULLY AWARE of the difficulties of the newborn stage, and I CANNOT WAIT to get there.” I would need these words far more after Finn was born than before.

Finnigan Nicholas Walters was born on January 12th.
My husband and parents admitted me to an inpatient psychiatric unit on February 2nd.

Well holy crap! That escalated quickly! Here’s what happened in the space between: Labor and birth were difficult but ultimately uncomplicated. Finn arrived safe and sound, a beautiful healthy baby boy. Keith and I, alone with Finn in the hospital, in one of the worst months of the pandemic, masked all day with no visitors allowed, were surprisingly feeling just fine. And then I FaceTimed with Rowan. And everything spiraled downward from there.

A rough overview of the sequence of my thoughts:
"Oh my God, I love her so much.
Oh my God, I miss her so much.
Oh my God, we have another one.
Oh my God, how can I love them both as much as I love Rowan?
Oh my God, I’m not going to be able to love her as much as I have until now, because now when she wants to play or read, I’ll need to feed Finn.
Oh no, I’m not good at multitasking. I’m going to get frustrated and yell at her.
Oh no, I’m so clumsy and not careful enough! I’m going to change Finn’s diaper and while I’m not looking, Rowan will surely fall off something and hit her head and die!
Oh no, I can barely handle one, there’s no way I can handle two.
How the hell do other people do this?! And make it look so easy?!
Oh no, oh no, I don’t think I can do this.
Oh no, this is all too hard. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this."

A voice in my brain fed off the words “I can’t do this”. It feasted on my anxiety, growing stronger and stronger until it started telling me worse things, like “You aren’t a good mother. You can’t be a good mother. You shouldn’t be a mother! In fact, you don’t even want to be a mother.”

And then another voice popped up. This voice searched through all of my memories and surfaced the ones that provided evidence for the claims of that first voice. "You aren't a good mom, remember that time Rowan rolled off the camper bed when you looked away for a second? Good moms don't let things like that happen. You're not a good mom."

Then another voice saw everything that was happening with me and the other voices and this one, entirely uninvited, charged through the door and started trying to solve the problem for me. This voice pinned it all on Finn. “You weren’t like this before you had Finn. It’s his fault. We just have to figure out a way to go back.” Sweet, innocent, baby Finn. “Maybe he won’t wake up from his nap today and everything will go back to normal.”

Enter another voice, this one maybe my own: What kind of absolute monster thinks that about their own precious child? The child they had hoped and prayed for? Rightfully shocked and appalled, my spiral of downward thoughts would always end here, where I told myself “These two precious children deserve a different mother that loves them far better than you ever could. You are a terrible person. You don’t deserve to be here.” Because that thought about Finn? That was too far. That was sick.

And yes, indeed, I was sick! My brain was sick. It happens. It can happen to anyone. Today when I write this, I can see these thought patterns as ridiculous voices born entirely from fear that I can observe and cast out and triumphantly reject or apathetically ignore. But at the time this was happening, those voices seemed real. I couldn’t disentangle fact from fiction. And with so much noise inside my head, I couldn’t focus on anything happening outside of my brain. Sometimes I would just stand there, eyes glazed over, lost in a sea of thoughts. I specifically remember standing in our kitchen, paralyzed and gazing at Keith from underneath a sea of scared thoughts, saying to him "I don't know what to do next." And on top of that, I was supposed to be caring for two small humans!?

Soon the brain that used to be a relatively calm and friendly neighborhood street was a terrifying 8 lane highway of unstoppable traffic, each lane hosting patterns of thought that got progressively worse. From “I don’t think I can do this”, to “I definitely can’t do this”, to “I don’t even want to do this”, to “I don’t want to do anything at all”, to “I don’t want to be here anymore.” The only time that chorus of voices stopped talking was when I went to sleep. And that's when I started imagining ways to, um, hang onto that nothingness. And that’s how I ended up in the hospital.

This was someone in my head that I didn't recognize. I'd never had thoughts like that before. And that's when I knew I needed to start saying these things out loud. So someone could help me. They were embarrassing and shameful and incredibly difficult to say out loud. PLEASE, if you are having thoughts like this, go tell someone you trust. If I can do it, you can.

For Alice, to new beginnings

On that cold snowy day in February, they took my unresponsive self from my bed to my doctor and then by police-escorted ambulance to a bare holding cell. They took my phone. They took my wedding ring. They took the strings out of my sweatpants. I stayed in the dark cell all day, waiting for transport to the psych unit, alone with a chorus of terrible strangers inside my head, curled up on a hard couch praying for it all to be over. The me that was real thought “How is this happening?” while the other voices said cruel things like “You did this to yourself. You deserve this. There is no way out of this. Your life is over. You’ll never see your family again.” My parents and husband were so hopeful, telling me via a phone cord that stretched out from the nurse’s window: “This is going to be good. We don’t know what else to do. But there, you’ll get help from experts that see this kind of thing all the time. We wish we could be there with you.” I had no hope. I was numb.

I wasn’t entirely wrong to have no hope. When the psychiatrist and social workers came into my room to talk to me and find out what was going on, they laughed amongst themselves recounting stories about bringing up their own children. I explained how anxious I was about not being able to simultaneously care for two kids and the psychiatrist replied “Oh, you just need a double stroller and you’ll be fine.” It became clear to me quickly that no one there would be able to help me sort out what was happening in my brain. Just as soon as they had diagnosed me with postpartum depression and anxiety, they assumed they’d cracked the case. Prescribed some random meds and figured it would just get better over time. This was just a place people went where they could be safe from themselves. Blank walls and empty rooms and nothing to do but puzzles and join group therapy sessions that my new numb and cynical self could only roll my eyes at. I found a torn copy of the sixth Harry Potter and started reading that, but I couldn’t hear any of the story above the chaos in my brain. And the noble characters that I once loved somehow seemed ashamed of me. I agreed with them.

I was in the hospital for only three days. I knew it wasn’t going to help me, so I did what I had to do and said what I needed to say to get out. I pretended I was feeling better and then promised to attend group therapy via Zoom, from 8 to 3 every day for 3 weeks. Just thinking about the logistics of that stressed me out. I checked out and let my parents and Keith basically run my life. I was still on maternity leave, so I lived at home with my parents while I went through the program. Keith would struggle through weekdays and newborn night shifts with help from my mom and his mom and our dear friend Amanda. On the weekends, Keith would bring the kids to my parents’ house, and I would fight off panic attacks and hide from them whenever I needed to.

One of the things they suggested to do in my therapy program was to try to revive a once-loved hobby. I thought of the artwork I used to love to make. I searched through my own Instagram posts from time to time, trying to reconnect to the person I used to be. The words and quotes that I used to live by and draw and pore over had lost all meaning. Everything had lost meaning. I couldn’t believe in any of the quotes I used to love, and many of them made me roll my eyes. But the two simple words “begin again” seemed to mean something. I would have to rebuild myself from scratch if I was going to get back to my life and my family. For the first time in a long time, I picked up a pencil and doodled this design on a stray piece of paper while I half-listened to a group therapy session via Zoom. There was a mother of four young kids in the group, dealing with some similar issues as me, and I fully listened every time she talked. This piece is for her, wherever she is now, I hope she's been able to begin again too.

I took Lady for long walks in the bitter cold of February and I listened over and over again to the audiobook chapter called "Day One" from Glennon Doyle's first book. Though she was giving a pep talk for a first sober morning, the messages translated well to my situation:

"Friend, we need you. The world has suffered while you’ve been hiding. You are already forgiven. You are loved. All there is to do now is to step into your life. What does that mean? What the hell does that mean? This is what it means. These are the steps you take. They are plain as mud. Get out of bed. Don’t lie there and think- thinking is the kiss of death for us – just move. Take a shower. Sing while you’re in there. MAKE YOURSELF SING. The stupider you feel, the better. Giggle at yourself, alone. Joy for its own sake . . . Joy just for you, created by you – it’s the best. Find yourself amusing."

I was forgiven. I was loved. All there was to do now was to step back into my life. To begin again.

For Amanda, who heard every wild thought in my head and loved me anyway

It took me a while to find the right medication, and it was excruciating to be patient for it to start working. Anti-depressants take weeks to start working, which is kind of inconvenient when you have had a complete mental breakdown but you also need to care for two small humans. I think I said "I wish I could just snap out of this and go back to my old self" probably about a hundred thousand times. I wished I could go back to being the mom who spent hours up on Christmas Eve just weeks earlier hand-painting wooden Mr. Rogers toys for Rowan because they don't sell them anywhere. Instead, I just wanted to hide and nap most of the time.

They say the only way out is through. There are no shortcuts through life. Through pain. Through suffering. The only way out is through, one foot in front of another, one action at a time. You have to stay the course.

My mom or Keith would drag me out of bed each morning, and I'd make it through each day, joyless, exhausted, and numb. My friend Amanda came to visit me one day while Rowan was at daycare and I stayed home and just barely managed to care for Finn. We talked all day. I led her along every single racing highway of wild thoughts in my brain, and not once did she flinch. She just said "Girl! It's just wires! Your brain is all twisted up! Just gotta get your brain wired right again. It's just wires!" She went on to tell me about how long it had taken someone close to her to find the right medications to keep them steady. This somehow gave me hope and flattened me at the same time. How much longer would I be this weak, self-conscious, incapable shell of a human?

As the days wore on, every now and then I would get bursts of my old self. Usually it would happen after a walk with Lady or a talk with my friend Kerry. A little flame would light, but go out as quickly as it came. One night I stayed up late and painted Rowan's entire closet and thought "I'm getting there!" but then the next day would come and crush me. I kept a calendar of good days and bad days. It was mostly bad days. Not much was changing on my current medication so I kept talking to Keith, to my mom, telling them I was stuck. My OBGYN had run out of answers for me. They had been so supportive and helpful but it got to a point where my condition was more than they could handle. Keith searched frantically for a psychiatrist that could help. In the wake of the pandemic, mental health care had become overburdened. And postpartum cases seemed to be shrugged off with a prescription for Zoloft and a note: "will resolve with time." But time was ticking, and I didn't feel like my brain was getting any clearer.

That day she came and sat with me, Amanda asked me to make her a carving that said "stay the course" to help her push through some things she was facing at the time. I agreed to, although truthfully, I didn't really want to. I was so depressed, I didn't want to do anything at all. But I pushed myself to make this for her, and I think that started to pave some new roads in my weary brain.

I wish everyone in the world had a friend like Amanda.

For Tacianna, Brittney, Sherri, Kate, Lauren, who helped me make sense of my brain

Brains are weird. They are strange, terrifying, incredible, beautiful, complicated machines. And when your brain gets sick, it's so different than when any other part of you gets sick. My family and my doctors kept telling me "This isn't your fault." But it deeply felt like my fault. Shouldn't I be able to control my brain? It felt like since I was the one in there thinking all the thoughts, I should be able to just stop thinking them. It doesn't work like that.

It turns out that you are not your thoughts. I struggled really hard with this concept. If I am not my thoughts...well...who am I?

One of the many therapists I saw during this time explained to me a concept that would help me make some real progress. A huge part of my struggle was that I was reacting so strongly to the scary thoughts that were passing through my head. I would have a thought I didn't like and then I would punish myself for it, piling mass amounts of anger and hate and shame on myself, which would inevitably send me into that downward spiral of terrifying thoughts. This therapist suggested that when I had that thought, I could try just...letting it be. Not reacting to it. Just let it cross my mind and keep on moving through without giving it any more attention than acknowledgement. Take for example the horrid "Maybe Finn won't wake up from his nap" thought. This thought horrified me to my core, and every time it would surface in my brain, I would immediately go to "What is wrong with you!? How can you think that!? You are a terrible person..." and on and on.

One day, I had that thought. I remember it clearly. I was running down the stairs to the basement to grab something, and it crossed my mind. Instead of reacting to it, I just looked it right in its ugly face and thought "Okay." I didn't give it any weight. I let it be, and then ran back upstairs and went on with my day.

That was a huge breakthrough for me. I started doing this for other thoughts of the same nature. Looking at them, observing them, acknowledging them, seeing them, but not feeding them. Slowly but surely, as I stopped reacting and my brain filled back up with different thoughts, like the responsibilities of work and other projects, those intense triggers took up less space and started to lose their power over me.

Rowan asks me to sing "Orpheus" by Sara Bareilles to her at bedtime every night. It's an absolutely beautiful song and the lyrics go like this:

Don't stop
Trying to find me here amidst the chaos
Though I know it's blinding
There's a way out
Say out loud
We will not give up on love now
No fear
Don't you turn like Orpheus
Just stay here
Hold me in the dark and when the day appears
We'll say
We did not give up on love today

This design is a representation of what my brain felt like back in the earliest days, the few months after Finn was born. A maze of errant thoughts darting this way and that, with a reminder to keep coming back to the center, to stay here. And I end each day, singing my daughter to sleep with the words above that remind me to stay here, to do away with fear, and to not give up on love.

Don't stop
Trying to find me here amidst the chaos
Though I know it's blinding
There's a way out
Say out loud
We will not give up on love now
No fear
Don't you turn like Orpheus
Just stay here
Hold me in the dark and when the day appears
We'll say
We did not give up on love today

This design is a representation of what my brain felt like back in the earliest days, the few months after Finn was born. A maze of errant thoughts darting this way and that, with a reminder to keep coming back to the center, to stay here. And I end each day, singing my daughter to sleep with the words above that remind me to stay here, to do away with fear, and to not give up on love.

For someone, not sure who yet

I drew this one to help myself let go of the things that I had been gripping so tightly to. There's a C.S. Lewis quote, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” I was white-knuckled clinging to what I knew. I knew how to take care of one child. I knew what it was to be a family of three. Our whole family dynamic had been uprooted, and I was so terrified of that change that I desperately wanted to go back to the way it had been. I remember after FaceTiming with Rowan, many of the things that ran through my mind were things we wouldn't be able to do anymore now that there would be two of them.

I had loved being able to put Rowan in her bike seat and ride around our small town with her, running errands and retrieving cake pops from our local bakery. Wouldn't be able to do that anymore.

I had loved the office space I had created for myself in our third bedroom, and now I had to sacrifice that to be a bedroom. Would have to find a new place to do my work.

These are obviously very small silly things to grieve. Other people have real problems. These are not real problems. But these are my favorite examples of how letting go of something loved turned into even better things. This year we bought a cargo bike, and now I can put Rowan, Finn AND our dog Lady in the cargo bike and run errands with them around town. I didn't even know that was possible until the need to put two kids on a bike presented itself. And we converted our three-season room into a year-round heated space and moved my office to there. I have an even better, brighter, more beautiful workspace now. We never would have done that if the need hadn't arisen. Thanks, Finn. Love you buddy.

The first time I sketched this specific design out, Rowan scribbled all over it.

After that, I ended up making an even better version of the same design.

These are all very trivial things. Letting go is now a daily practice for me. Every day, we let go of our babies a little bit more. The first time Rowan opened the refrigerator and took an apple out and started eating it, I FREAKED OUT. WHAT?! She can DO THAT NOW?! Loss of control is terrifying.

For Stacey, who saw my strength

Fear #1
I was terrified about going back to work. I was convinced that with all the noise in my brain, I wouldn’t be able to focus, and I would obviously inevitably lose my job. I mean, I could barely manage to make a grocery list and then retrieve the items on that list. How would I be able to do the job that I once did, which, for sure isn’t rocket science, but is demanding in its own way. On top of the unrelenting noise in my brain, my self-confidence was entirely shot. Three months of incessant tearing myself down had carved deep neural pathways of self-doubt in my brain. I once confidently sat next to the CTO of NASA, helping him design slides for a talk he was giving. The idea of doing that now made me feel sick.

Luckily, the company I work for (Article Group - we're hiring!) welcomed me back, asked no questions, was extremely patient with me as I eased my way back in, and assigned me to a perfectly comfortable project alongside my most familiar and trusted colleagues. I had one conversation with my colleague Stacey in my first week back where I told her a bit about my leave, and she spent the rest of the conversation telling me about her own struggles and then building me up. Truthfully, I don't exactly remember what she said, but I remember the way she made me feel. She made me feel normal, capable, valued. Gosh, I wish everyone in the world could work with someone like Stacey.

Fear #2
One morning, I was on a conference call, both kiddos were at daycare and Keith was puttering around outside in the garage. There was a crash. But no sound after that, so I kept on with my meeting. Then the door to the kitchen opened and Keith hobbled in. "I just...fell..off..the roof." The ladder had slipped out from under him.

An ambulance came to our house, picked Keith up and brought him to the hospital. In the middle of the pandemic, of course, I wasn't allowed to go with him. I didn't know what else to do but to call back into my conference call. "So...Keith just fell off the roof and an ambulance came to get him and took him away."

It was so strange. He returned later that day with broken ribs, unable to lift our children. After months of taking the backseat to caring for our children, I was now forced into the position of lead caretaker in the house. The thing I swore I couldn't do. The thing I was too afraid to do because I was sure I would mess it up.

And guess what? It was fine. I just...did it. I didn't do it so well at first, but we got through. I joke now about how Keith falling off the roof was a horrible thing, of course, but ended up being one of the best things to happen to me in my road to recovery.

Fear #3
A month or so after that, Keith and I got an unexpected opportunity to go up in a hot air balloon over Letchworth State Park. I wrote this post on Facebook the day after:

I started sketching this design shortly after that beautiful hot air balloon experience. Three fears conquered had won me back some of my self-confidence. The narrative in my head was starting to shift, from "I absolutely can't do this and I should not even try" back to "I maybe possibly can do this." What a relief.

"You can't really love someone else unless you really love yourself first."
-Mr. Rogers

Something really weird happened to my brain. I spent so much time beating myself up and punishing myself for the intrusive, depressed thoughts I was having, that I started to absolutely hate myself. In turn, I started telling my mom that I didn't even love my children. That I didn't want them. Didn't want to be around them. Didn't care what happened to them. None of these things are remotely true of the person I really am - but my depressed self was really truly sick. And it confused me why I all of a sudden felt this way about my sweet, precious babies. Especially since I spent the entire day after Finn was born sobbing because I missed and loved Rowan so much. Until I read this quote from Fred Rogers.

It turns out that if you treat yourself terribly, it will be hard for you to offer kindness to others. The more you love yourself, the more love you have to give away. I'm not really a religious person, but that sentiment is also right in the Bible:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Notice he doesn't just say to love your neighbor. He says to love your neighbor as yourself. You have to love yourself before you can love your neighbor! It's the whole "put on your own oxygen mask first and then help your neighbor" thing.

Well, what does it mean to love yourself? I am certainly not the expert because I'm truly still working on it but I'll tell you a few things that I think it means.

How do you talk to yourself? Are you gentle with yourself? Do you punish yourself when you mess up? Or do you forgive yourself quickly and move on? Do you do things that you know are good for your health and wellbeing? Do you bury your feelings or do you let them out?

I had so many miscarriages that I put up walls to protect myself from possible grief. The walls that I put up stayed up when my babies arrived. I had a hard time bonding with them both. I didn't let myself feel the joy because I was so afraid of what possible grief could follow it. When you numb the bad stuff in life, or try to avoid it, you numb and miss out on the good stuff too. A lot of times, we feel things that conflict. We feel a mix of good and bad and pain and joy and sorrow and grief and happiness. We never land. The sky is always changing. It never looks the same for very long. Whatever comes up, we need to remember that because we are human, it's gonna roll right through. Feel it all, embrace everything, let it wash over you.

“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke