This weekend, I heard an interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor on the radio. I became a fan as I learned of her similar reading habits and fellow love of mysteries. The Martha Grimes mystery next to my bed gained a special weight and I smiled at the knowledge that such an accomplished person also loved “genre” reading.

She spoke of her difficult upbringing—alcoholic father, often-absent mother.

This morning, while I listened to NPR’s coverage of Obama’s inauguration, Nina Totenberg referred to the Sotomayor interview as they anticipated watching her swear in the President. They all wondered aloud at the depth of Sotomayor’s self-revelation in her memoir. They asked Totenberg if she thought Sotomayor would be nervous about the inauguration. And she said yes, probably, but that in the interview, she had said that though her life had been difficult, if she had allowed herself to be overwhelmed, she would never have accomplished anything.

And I wondered exactly what Sotomayor meant. Did emotion never overwhelm her? Did she cut if off, as so many do, ratcheting down the spigot of human feeling? She sounded so fun, interesting, and emotive in the interview. It didn’t seem to make sense.

I thought of the waves of grief that crash over me without warning these days, tears making it ridiculous to wear eye makeup (when I’m wearing eyeliner, optimism has risen). It happens while driving and I get stuck behind a semi; when I fold my clothes and recall Mom’s admonition to take better care of the dress she gave me. “Hang it UP, Jene!” (I have a folding problem…meaning, I rarely do, though clean clothes never go on the floor, and dirty clothes go only in the hamper.)

Longing for things to be different, for Death not to have come, floods my senses and tears flow; and I must pause, sometimes for hours. I get overwhelmed.

And I thought of those moments and days as I listened to the radio, judging myself, wondering if I’m just weak, the rest of my life seemingly stretched before me, never reaching peak potential.

And then I recalled all the times I’ve sung or spoken in front of an audience. And I realized what Sotomayor meant.

Everyone gets overwhelmed. During some times of life—like losing a mother—it happens more often.

But the key is in the difference between getting overwhelmed and being overwhelmed. The first is a stage; the second, a state.

And I realized that the trick is to move through getting overwhelmed without becoming overwhelmed. If I became overwhelmed before singing or speaking, I would never step onstage. If Sotomayor had become overwhelmed by the valid emotion of abandonment, she would have allowed the loss to take over her life, allowed it to win. The getting most definitely affects the being, but they are not the same.

So I must give myself the grace to get overwhelmed, however long it takes to move through it. But I do not choose to stay there, to become overwhelmed and let it take over my life. Wish me luck, as I wish you well in this process, too.

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