05/21/2011 06:38 am ET Updated Jul 21, 2011

Delightfully Gray: Embracing Life's Extremes

Like most of us in this online age, I have a Facebook friend whom I have never met, even though she lives only an hour away. About seven months ago, she buried her firstborn child after spending sixteen grueling days helping him fight for his life. I was introduced to her blog,, shortly after her son's birth, and after a late-night cram session catching up on her archives, I was hooked. I may not have met this woman, but I knew her. In many ways, I was her.

So, I wept and grieved just as I would for any close friend on the cold October morning I read that her son lost his battle. Clearly it was an ending that came far too soon. When a mother should be settling into joy-filled (if not sleep-deprived ) days, or rocking her son in the wee hours, instead this friend and her husband were picking out a 24-inch casket and selecting a tiny grave marker.

This chain of events is not how we imagine life should be. So, in our own grief and shock, I and hundreds of others have followed this woman's online journey of recovery, an intimate portrait in progress of how to live life again with amazing grace after such a tragic blow. We read and we know this could have just as easily happened to us.

I've been thinking a lot about this friend lately. Seven months after this life-changing event, she and her husband are soon embarking on a brave and entirely unexpected new life in Florida, about as far away as one can re-locate in the US from our Pacific Northwest home. He is already there at a new job, and she is staying behind for a few months to pack and wrap up her job.

Then, even more surprising news: Last week she posted that she and her husband are expecting again. Within an hour's time more than 100 of us chimed in to offer our congratulations, many of us mothers noting our growing sense that something was brewing. What a beautifully fitting Mother's Day gift.

And so I ponder one of life's delightfully gray mysteries: My friend is both grieving mother of a deceased child and the joyful, hopeful mother of a soon-expected one. We all know it is entirely possible for one person to embody emotions so vast, seemingly as far as the East is from the West.

Like most of us, like my friend, I am no stranger to such broadly flung emotions. I'm certain that if these were people, they would be in a constant tug-of-war -- one struggling and straining against the other, each refusing to loosen their grip on the taut rope connecting them. Yet, there I am -- the willing vessel offering safe harbor to these extreme housemates, saying, "Please, won't you stay for a while? I'm sure we can all get along if we use our manners and clean up after ourselves."

Two such housemates personifying this both/and-ness I speak of are the "Artist" and the "Analyst." If you've made it past the age of 30, I'm guessing you've shared space with them before. One flits around, humming and dreaming and sketching, a lyrical lilt to her posture. The other is quiet, self-contained, mental gears ever turning, the only motion to an otherwise stiff frame. Both serve a purpose. Both have a place.

The Artist ignited the yearning, the spark within me to find and rent The Pearl, the romantic home(stead) of my dreams to raise my son in his toddlerhood. (I named this place -- an egg-yolk yellow historic farmhouse on four acres of beautiful grounds and gardens -- The Pearl after its singular, feisty female owner. But that's another story.) The Artist nurtures my love of cooking, baking, knitting, gardening, writing, composing music, and dancing wildly with my son in our front parlor, as if this is what any sane family should do on a Tuesday night.

The Analyst makes it possible for me to afford life at The Pearl -- a different sort of passion directed toward engaging people, albeit among spreadsheets and formulas, policies and communication strategies.

I wouldn't be who or where I am without both housemates. For me, it's a simple equation of both/and. Not either/or. Not black/white. But delightfully gray, in all its varied hues. If there has been any constant in my life, it has been this. And if there's one thing I know, it's that living life with this tension between the two creates a certain resiliency of spirit. A deeper and higher understanding that makes it easier to bounce back and even thrive amid the mixed bag of events and circumstances we're handed to sort through in life. Best-selling author Mike Robbins addresses this concept beautifully in this post.

Think of it this way: We are called to embrace diversity in our communities. We ourselves rally for it, even. So, why not also accept and embrace all the wonderfully differing elements, solicited or not, within the much smaller constructs of our own lives?

As a community, we bear witness to this miraculous formula in broader strokes: It's grieving and rejoicing. It's working and playing. It's resting and exerting, supporting each other and retreating when privacy is called for. For my online friend, it's opting to write an East Coast sequel after a nail-biting West Coast page turner. For me, it's crunching numbers and creating new patterns, new notes, new recipes as fast as my cells will allow.

One might say it's also renting, and owning. Of living on the mainland and also on an island.

* * *

About seven years ago, I bought and lived in a home on a small Puget Sound island that, according to the wooden sign that greets you as you de-board the seven-minute ferry ride across the bay, is home to 816 people. Except for the past few years, it's been home to 814. I still own that little house that I call Cedar Hill Cottage -- nothing spectacular but certainly the house of my dreams -- which, until a couple of weeks ago, was rented to an islander who has recently moved "down island," as we say.

I've often thought of selling Cedar Hill when this renter moved out, hoping to capitalize on the niche market of those seeking an affordable island home, both landing space and launching pad for creating one's own dreams and adventures on the rock.

So, when she moved out, it was the Analyst who moved full steam ahead, mapping out a punishing home improvement schedule to make the house market-ready by June 1. "It's practical to sell. Offload the burden," the Analyst stated matter-of-factly, neatly ticking that item off the agenda. It was as simple as that, so I lined up my contractor to finish out the bathroom remodels, windows, and smaller improvements, while I got set to focus my energies on small inside repairs and painting, and larger exterior curb appeal projects.

And then the weather had to get all gorgeous on us, on a day when I was on-island, unloading extra furniture from The Pearl to stage Cedar Hill. There I was, standing on the front deck, envisioning potential landscaping plans for my front yard when the Artist sauntered up the stairs and said,

"Wow. Remember why you bought this house? Remember your dreams to live on an island, to raise a child here? To fill your days with beach-combing or lake-lounging or trail-hiking, far away from Internet and TV? Remember your plans to make this your private artist retreat? Your haven?"

"Yes," I said, "I do remember," as the beginnings of a smile settled at my lips.

The Artist continued, "Then why on earth are you so intent on selling this place to someone you don't even know, for them to realize their dreams?"

"Well," I sputtered, "It's silly to keep this house and keep renting in town. It's impractical. It's foolish. I'm not even sure I could afford it."

The Artist countered, "Stop the analyzing! What's foolish is you burying your passion. This place is small, the mortgage is a pittance. And, it's certainly not the right market to sell."

Hearing her words, I let them sink in. I started to smile more fully and I breathed in the ocean air more deeply. After some time spent figuring out how to re-arrange my life with some small budgetary and lifestyle changes, I determined to keep my little house, Cedar Hill Cottage -- at least for now. It is my baby, my first-born hope that was snuffed much too early as certain events caused me to flee the island in shame three years ago, for survival and for my sanity. As I became a "mainlander" again, I found some solace in the rigidity of living by the Analyst's rules. I chose this either/or scenario, which actually seemed like a prerequisite for my survival. I knew it wasn't sustainable -- extremes rarely are without the counter-balance of another -- but it worked for a time.

* * *

Now, some years later with work and motherhood providing a steady back-beat to my days, I have sensed for some time now that the Analyst is lonely, weary of retreating to its room in solitude after a long but honest day's work. Returning to the scene of the Analyst-Artist tug-of-war, I'd like to imagine that the Analyst would loosen her grip just enough for the rope to go slack, and then start pulling it close, drawing the Artist toward her until they meet toe to toe, eye to eye -- realizing that indeed they can co-exist as partners. And make each other stronger in their extremes.

And, there it is, this common challenge for us all. It's about maintaining this tension of living life in the balance. But balance brings with it both good and bad that makes life, well, life. We vow it in marriage, but why not vow to embrace this better and worse-ness in life, just for ourselves? It's about not letting circumstances define or destroy us. It's about channeling these rigid opposites to create a buoyant spirit.

I urge you take some time today or this week to think about how this life balance, and resulting call for hopeful resilience, resonates for you. If you need a starting point, reflect on the wise words from our own Randy Taran, Karen Talavera and Tara Sophia Mohr.

So, how have I netted out with this, you ask? It's a fresh decision, but it's settled. I will keep my little house, the island siren that calls out and reminds me to walk away from my laptop and reality TV, and start living and dancing and creating and dreaming again. I will continue to be both the home owner of Cedar Hill, visiting it on weekends and summer days with family and friends -- and also live at The Pearl on the mainland during the week, close to my son's daycare, my friends and family and in-town conveniences.

This equation won't necessarily be easy (I never said it would), but right now it feels totally necessary. One might say almost inescapable. And while life can be hard, I know it is harder still without hope -- that quality that forces us to pick up the reigns and expect a better future with confidence.

And, like my online friend, I am ready for this new adventure, decidedly turning my gaze away from past tragedy and setting my sights on new horizons, and even returning to some old ones -- my two housemates tentatively holding hands, stealing sideways glances, always and ever faithfully at my side.

* * * * *

Kristi Anderson's varied AOL career has taken her from freelance writer, to managing editor, to her current role in freelancer and talent acquisition. She's become an expert at embracing the extremes. So, while she plans her next PowerPoint presentation, she's also formulating her next tattoo design -- a visual portrayal of this "both/and" concept she's happily come to live by.