I celebrated a birthday this week, and as always with milestones and big occasions, it makes you realize where you are and how far you’ve come and reflect on the year behind as well as the one in front of you. Remember when I posted a list of 33 goals last year? That list got abandoned in the chaos of my past 5 months, but I had no idea when I wrote that post that life had bigger plans on what I needed to learn in my 33rd year.
Last year on my birthday, we ate dinner as a family on the back porch to inaugurate daylight savings time and spring and another year for me. I posted a photo of Norah and me on Instagram, and I captioned it with a quote by Jarod Kintz that I’d run across which says, “The year of your birth marks only your entry into the world. Other years where you prove your worth, they are the ones worth celebrating.” I intended that as a reflection on the previous year and the challenges that I faced in motherhood and work and the whole work-family balance I began that year. It’s so weird to look back on that now – knowing I had no idea the challenges that lied in front of me.
But this year, friends, I really proved my worth. I’ve got a mountain left to climb in the coming months, but I’m on the way. I celebrated this week in a big way. Lunch with a friend on my actual birthday (with cupcakes!) followed by an impulse buy to a concert on Friday night with some former coworkers who have become like family to me. (For Hozier, and people, if you have not heard that album go buy it NOW. I have been obsessed for months.) The setlist was just what I wanted it to be, the venue was great, and he closed with a couple of my favorites as the audience sang along. I love those connected moments you get with strangers at events like plays and concerts. It felt like church in the most real way.
Then Saturday afternoon my closest girlfriends of 16 years treated me to a facial and a private spa party at our favorite place to chat and treat ourselves. The older I get, the more grateful I am for my truest friends. I cannot begin to explain the struggles we’ve encountered in the time we’ve known each other – and I won’t because some of those struggles are closely held and deeply personal for us. But it has all shown me that life is so scary and unpredictable and that most importantly, the human spirit is stronger. The strength I gather from these women and their perspectives and stories is like no other. I’m so lucky to know them and to be loved by them. After that, we went out to dinner and met up with my other closest group (whom I saw Friday at the concert, so it was a double treat). I could not have made it through year 33 standing on my own two feet without this crew. And I mean that with absolute sincerity. There were days, weeks even, that I really just wanted to roll over and cry a river and did not understand what the next step would be to move forward. But these girls and their constant contact and honesty with me, their acceptance of me and their listening ears when I poured everything out in all its ugliness, they are the force that pushed me forward. It’s such an irony that the year I learned I was so dearly loved is the year that I lost the person who was supposed to love me, so to speak. He was expected to and bound to by vows and legal trappings and societal expectations, but these women emerged as my tribe this year. My people and my family. I cannot write enough words of gratitude to express what that has been for me, the way it has healed me. I am loved and valued, and I truly don’t know that I would feel that without so much support from so many people this year.
We followed up dinner with a spontaneous decision to walk around a bit and stop for cookies. Can’t help but laugh at the deja-vu of a mall cookie experience with a group of thirty-somethings. It was in an outdoor shopping area, and we saw groups of middle schoolers walking together. We struck up a conversation with a few of them and reminisced on what those early days of independence felt like for us, when parents would first allow you to go on an outing alone with friends and the thrill of possibility it brought to you. And now, at 34, my life is so different than it was at 14, of course. But I feel that sense of possibility emerging a bit despite the pain. My perspective is shifting in the slightest way, and I am realizing that a whole world lies ahead and I don’t know what it holds, and that is both terrifying and thrilling. But it is mine. All mine. With my decisions and my own ideas and my own future waiting. I don’t know where or to whom it will take me, but it is a blank canvas right now, and I think I’m ready to start painting it as I begin year 34.
Another birthday treat came last weekend with a handwritten card (oh, how I love real mail!) from a graduate school friend who knows my love for Mary Oliver and reminded me of the joy in the journey, so to speak. The joy of possibility and self sovereignty. There is another line from that poem that I adore which says, “there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world.” And I’m hearing that voice now. When I am still and quiet and allow myself to listen to it, I’m hearing my own voice.
It sounds like an old friend.
The kids and I enjoyed Disney World last week with my mom as my university was on midterm break. It was a trip planned and paid for ages ago before everything changed, and I feel grateful that we got to enjoy it together.
Disney is not a vacation for parents. (I’m not sure how many ways I should say that to make it clear, but really and truly, it is exhausting.) But there is something magical about seeing it all through your kids’ eyes and watching them get lost in all the fantasy. These two had such a great time.
It was a good lesson for me to live in the moment. I didn’t take as many photos as I “should” have – not one single picture of all four of us together, which I kind of regret. (Remember the days when we were little, and our parents would take a handful of pictures on vacation and that was it? Expectations are so different these days.) But at the same time, there’s something to be said for just throwing your things in the car and hitting the road to forget everything else for a while. It’s liberating in our current world of Pinterest and planning and iPhone sharing.
I booked a few character dinners for them ages ago, but that is all the planning I really did. Other than that, I just let them hold the reins on this one, and we followed along – which meant riding Buzz Lightyear too many times and walking most of Disney World with my almost-three-year-old strapped on my back in the Ergo, but it was worth it. It was a good reminder to live in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of you without thinking ahead to tomorrow or next week. They are growing into such incredible little people these days. It makes my heart beat a little bigger to see them interacting and growing and learning.
As we arrived home, we were in negotiations with some potential buyers on our home, and it looks like we are officially under contract now. It’s both exciting and terrifying. I have no idea where I am going with the kids, but I’m trusting something good will fall in my path. Send good thoughts our way as the kids and I begin the next chapter in this journey.
I’m finding so much comfort in the little things lately. My happiness jar is a fun way to reflect on what makes me feel joy. But another great distraction lies in my kids. The funny things they say and do, the way they interact with each other. Every little bit of it heals me lately.
Atlanta weather, as usual, is nuts. It’s icy this week with school closings, and a couple Saturdays ago, we were at the park with a sunny 68 degrees. I take what I can get these days though.
Jude’s class also celebrated 100 days of school earlier this month with “Dress Like You Are a Hundred Years Old” Day. He loved it. Such an old soul, this one.
And Norah is pretty much always my shadow lately. Never a private moment away from her, but I do love this stage. So much curiosity and observation. And a lot of joy.
I’ve always heard that the divine is felt most in everyday moments, and I’ve written before about how I’ve known that to be true. I’m finding healing begins with these everyday moments, too. Perfection is never found when I think too much or look around. There is so much chaos and disappointment happening in my life right now. But in these little moments here and there? A glimmer of peace and contentment.
I’m working very hard to trust the timing of my own life and know a bigger plan is in store with brighter things ahead. I don’t feel it all the time or everyday. But sometimes it’s the slightest little tug, like a knock at the door. A whole new world on the horizon when I get there.
I remember when I was pregnant and nearing the end of it, I’d always have a moment in the grocery store when I bought something with an expiration date after my due date. It was always a scary realization, knowing that the milk or yogurt could potentially last longer than the inside kicks I was feeling.
I keep doing that retroactively lately with so many things around my own home. The huge bag of bulk brown rice I bought at Costco? I had no idea when I bought it that I’d be divorced when we reached the bottom of the bag. I had no idea when we bought this dream home that life events would force me to sell it before we even put down real roots. I had no idea when we adopted our lab 8 years ago that he’d follow me to a new chapter alone with two children while my husband began his own new life with a woman ten years younger than I am.
But as another thing that outlasted my marriage, I also vastly underestimated the role of friendship in my life. Over the holidays, I had dinner with a friend who only knows me from my work life years ago, and I was in a bad place of fear and confusion and self-pity, and I remember saying that I felt like nobody even knew me outside of my husband. No one sees me as a separate being. But in reality, I’m learning that nothing is farther from that truth. Even when I didn’t see my own self in the mirror very much and I only saw a wife, others were seeing the real me tucked away inside.
Lately, not a single day goes by that I don’t receive a call or a text or an email from someone close to me. Someone who graciously continues to think of me and check in and give me words of encouragement. As word has leaked out on social media, something I feared for a long time, I have been so surprised at the people who have reached out with some really specific and genuine words in my time of shaky ground. Graduate school classmates I’ve hardly talked to much in the last 8 years, former teachers, former students, so many I forgot that I’d once been closely connected to.
I dreaded telling our neighbors for quite some time. I don’t even know why. It’s just such an awesome neighborhood as I’ve mentioned before, and I’m sad to leave it. But it’s also ALL married families with children here. And everything always looks so pristine on the outside when you are looking in. It’s intimidating to let someone know that yours doesn’t match. (I think we all know what I mean with that feeling.)
So finally last week, I had to tell them the day before the “for sale” sign emerged in our yard. I emailed the three I am closest to with very few details and a lot of tears, and what happened? They rallied and sent such words of encouragement and invited themselves to keep me company last Wednesday evening, sneaking over after kids were asleep with bottles of wine and gifts and food. My only contribution was s’mores dip and a lot of conversation.
There is a line in Almost Famous (anyone else love that movie?) where Phillip Seymour Hoffman says to the young protagonist that “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” I’m learning that lesson in all of this. Every time I open up and share the real vulnerability, the real pain or sadness or confusion or whatever overflows, the result is real currency, so to speak, real friendship.
It’s such a lesson for me, and for all of us I think, to be genuine and real and stop the game of pretending we don’t have worries or sadness or doubt or fear. This problem is worsening with Facebook and Instagram and blogs and every other avenue for posting polished photos and catchy captions. Let’s be real, for once. Say what bothers you, say what you need from a friend, say what you need from your own self. Express your sadness and doubt and fear and disappointment. So much good happens when we finally just say it.
I’m so grateful for friends and real conversation and relationships that span time and distance and reach out to comfort us when we need it. Life is funny. I’ve connected with a lot of people, at times closely or intensely, and then you move forward and time separates you. You forget you had that connection once, and yet if we are willing to put ourselves out there, it can still shine through unexpectedly when you most need it. And at this time in my life, when I am feeling so doubtful and less steady than ever, it soothes and encourages me more than I can express to hear someone say that I have what it takes to move forward and begin this new chapter for myself and my kids alone.
So to any of you – if you are reading here though I know many of them don’t – but if you are reading this and you sent an email, a text message, a card in the mail. If you listened to me cry on the phone, if you sat across from me at lunch or dinner or over coffee and listened to my rambling as I worked through the hard weeks and hard moments. Thank you. Thank you for seeing me as I really am and looking beyond the mess to exchange real currency, so to speak. It’s been a life raft for me, and I’m still clinging.
And I’m promising to become a more fearless friend in the future as well. I think we sometimes fear being too connected with others, judged as too forward. We might hear that someone is in a rough patch, or likewise hear about something good in her life, and stop ourselves from reaching out to comfort or encourage or congratulate. But having been on this end of the equation, I see how much it means. Putting yourself out there with a quick note or comment or call – even if it’s been years since you’ve seen the person - it feeds the soul in a way nothing else does. I’m vowing to put some of my own encouragement outward again and really observe and listen, in the truest way I can.
I’ve missed this space so much in the weeks that have passed. I’ve wanted badly to come here and string words together in this familiar spot and gain encouragement from those of you who read. But because of the details that exploded in my life last fall, I’ve resorted to an old pen-and-paper journal until I felt ready to come here and strong enough to begin to tell my story. I feel like life during these past few years has been one reinvention after another. From grad student to young married. From high school teacher to motherhood that consumed me full-time. Then to college professor with one foot in the working world and two preschoolers to look after. And now to single motherhood. I read Anne Lamott’s Small Victories this past December, in efforts to make sense of anything that was happening and to link together my fumbling attempts at reframing my whole perception. As always with the written word, the perfect thought was trying to find me, and a beacon was shining already on page ten when Lamott explains the process of forced change that happens in our lives:
“Redefinition is a nightmare – we think we’ve arrived in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence that is malleable, fluid. Everything we lose is Buddhist truth – one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from death or decay. It’s gone. We can mourn it, but we don’t have to get down in the grave with it.“
I’m here to finally tell you, friends, that in the weeks of my absence from here, I was in the grave, so to speak. In the darkest reaches of a grief that gripped me so completely it sickened me from the inside outward. I wish I had words to explain what it feels like to have one perfectly sculpted idea of your future, and in a matter of days, that image disappears completely. But I know so many of you know exactly what I mean by that – whether it is a wandering husband, a scary diagnosis, a death of someone you can’t live without, a change in your life or career or family that is irreversible …. We all encounter it at some point. And after that initial heaviness of grief, I’ve seen women emerge stronger and better and wiser because of it. But how they get to that new place, I am not really sure yet.
I won’t be the same me I was before. It’s weird to look back and hardly recognize who you were in your last life. I’m embarrassed in ways – of how I loved without question, married at 24, so sure that I would never be in this position. Of how unbelievably hysterical I was for weeks when this erupted. Of how I made excuse after excuse of all the things I found last October and November and blamed myself for someone else’s actions. Of how I still wonder what I could have done differently or how I could have been better, and I know that list is long. Marriage is a partnership, a work in constant progress. And I think anyone in my position tends to look back and wonder when it all started to unravel, how I could have predicted the future and intervened sooner. Why I didn’t see it coming. Sadly, you reach a point when these questions don’t even matter anymore because what’s done is done. Irreversible. The only place left to go is forward.
I wanted so badly to believe the best, and I think I also feared what life is like on the other side. And I am still a little scared, to be honest. But I’m flailing – ungracefully but purposefully – to make it to the next shore. I lost my center and my backbone in the mess that was left when it all fell apart, but I’ve found it now.
A new adventure awaits, and I’m losing my death grip, as Lamott calls it. Piece by piece, I’m letting go of what has no place in my life anymore. It still hurts, and I know I’m gripping some of those pieces a little too tightly even now. But I’ve heard it said that “Ruin is the road to transformation.” I’m ready.
I usually make long, elaborate lists of goals or resolutions with the dawn of a new year. This year, I have only one.
It’s so easy – in the roles of wife or mother or teacher or whatever your title is – to become consumed with what others want for you, what others ask of you, what makes them happy. Sometimes I neglect to think about what makes me happy, what motivates me to reach for bigger and brighter things. That is my simple one-statement resolution for 2015. Find what makes my heart sing, and do more of it.
On January first, I began a happiness jar, which I already mentioned on Instagram a few weeks ago if you follow me there. The idea is to reflect on your day for a few minutes before bed and decide what the happiest moment of your day was. Then you just write that down and place it in the jar. It’s a daily gratitude practice that serves two purposes for me. It makes me see the good in life, no matter how messy it gets. But it also makes me pause to think of what really makes me happy, what drives me.
So far, the notes I’m scribbling in this exercise really surprise me. Some I knew I loved – cuddles with my kids, a good dinner with old friends. And others are things I forgot I loved so much – a sweaty mile or two at the gym, a new music discovery (like this one or this one I am loving lately), and connected moments in the classroom with engaged students and eager ears.
So that’s it. That’s my resolution. To see what makes me happy, and to do more of it. If it stirs my heart, I’m going to say yes in 2015. If it doesn’t I will say no.
It’s a selfish notion, but self-care can be a radical idea during some seasons of our lives. I can’t wait to listen a little more closely to my own soul, as Anne Sexton says. To fill it up and wash it clean.
Thank you for all the kind words, emails, and texts since my last post. I do hope to be more specific in the months to come, but for now, keep holding me in your thoughts as 2014 comes to a close. I am not certain I’m ready for all the changes 2015 will bring for me.
I’m realizing we had family photos done almost 2 months ago, and I never shared here. I’m sharing a few of my kids for you to see.
It’s so crazy seeing them grow older and change with every passing month. This feeling that time escapes me is something I am getting used to, and it’s something I want to focus on countering in the coming year. I feel like I’ve missed so much with them these past few weeks as I focus on other things. It’s a heaviness that I only feel in retrospect. … Realizing I was not listening to that conversation or question Jude asked me because my mind was elsewhere. Knowing I didn’t hold Norah as closely and as long as I could have because I was ready to move on to the next task on my list. Just the sting of realizing after the moment has passed that you have not been present for it as it deserved. That has happened far too much lately.
And these two? Of all the gifts I have received, the lessons learned, the grace I’ve been rewarded – they are the thing I am most grateful for. In all my life. I sometimes think that absolutely anything – any pain or sacrifice – is worth the reward of knowing and guiding these two. I hope I can treat that role with as much respect and dedication as it deserves in the coming year.