What a week. And it’s not yet over. It’s the first week of class at my university, and I tend to forget how much energy that requires until I’m doing it again. Jude has been a kindergartener for three full weeks now, and we’ve side-stepped all the sickness until suddenly today after school, he started feeling really awful and it went downhill fast. He ended up curled up asleep on the couch and feeling feverish. I’m venturing to guess I won’t make it to work tomorrow. My eyes are heavy and my brain half dead right now, but I’m pushing myself to write tonight.
Life. It’s so exhausting sometimes. Single motherhood is no joke.
I spent a lot of time reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection last weekend when I was kidless, and I’m wanting to take a minute and reflect on what she outlines in this book before life moves me on to something else. If you aren’t sure who Brene Brown is, she is a scholar / research professor at a university in Texas and has a series of books on what she calls “Wholehearted living.” It’s the culmination of many years of her own research as she collects interviews and details about people and discerns what the qualities are that enable someone to move forward happily after a trauma or catastrophe and what prevents others from doing that. In short, what qualities lead to truly joyful, well-rounded, fulfilled lives where one can bounce back from disappointment. And likewise, what prevents us from accomplishing that?
I relate so closely to much of what she writes about, and I can see common threads within her work and other things I’ve read – Wild, When Things Fall Apart, and even my writing workshop I attended weeks ago. It’s all essentially the same message: Life is messy. It sometimes hurts really bad. Ignoring the hurt won’t help. You don’t have to be perfect. Be honest and authentic. This pain will be useful to you one day, and you will be a fuller person as a result.
But I do love how heavily her message is bolstered with research, and that makes her stand out from the crowd a bit. It’s easy to question yourself – Should I stop being honest about my own feelings in the midst of all this? Should I soothe my pain with distractions or another relationship? Could I just take the easy way like everyone else seems to?
Her answer to these questions is a resounding no. Or more specifically that you will not live a full and Wholehearted life if you take the easy way. As she notes, “the new cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast, and easy is inconsistent with hopeful thinking. It also sets us up for hopelessness.” I find myself getting a little better about this in recent months, but when my life first exploded and I was doing all of the grueling tasks that were necessary, I couldn’t help but hope that it could just be faster or easier for me. And watching the fast and easy route unfold for my former partner made it especially hard. But Brown reminds us that nothing good ever emerges without some toil and suffering or at least careful effort and slow thought, certainly not where self-development and relationships are concerned. It’s hard when you are in the thick of it though. I know it would be easier in the short term to rely on outside distractions.
It was not long at all for me – soon after Christmas – when I was already beginning to see the difference between a happy life and a joyful life. And as the months have rolled by, I will say that is something I’ve been getting pretty good at. Finding the joyful moments amidst the chaos has been a lifeline for me. I’ve written about this before, and my happiness jar serves as a diligent gratitude practice for me to see the silver lining. (That is also something she addresses. Gratitude as a concept you say you uphold is entirely different than the transforming power of a daily gratitude practice.) Brown explains that “a joyful life is not a floodlight of joy. That would eventually become unbearable. I believe a joyful life is made up of joyful moments strung together by trust, gratitude, inspiration, and faith… The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” It’s the same concept Pema Chodron addresses in the book I read this summer; it’s only when we feel the sadness that we really feel the joy. And the most joyful (not surface happy, but truly joyful) moments of our lives are often tinged with the tiniest bit of awareness that it is all fleeting, all temporary. It’s that happy-sad that hollows out your insides as it makes you smile. Brene Brown explains that the people she studies who truly live Wholeheartedly “were quick to point out the difference between happiness and joy as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that is connected to practicing gratitude.” I alluded to this in my bodhichitta post weeks ago, but the surface happy is not always tolerable to me in this season of my life. True joy is another story entirely.
Brene Brown steps out of the shoes of objective observer at moments in the book to explain that her research actually led to her own “
breakdown spiritual awakening” as she calls it. (That alone made me giggle as I see breakdown synonymous with spiritual awakening in my own life as well.) After researching her subjects and discerning what made them live Wholehearted lives full of purpose and resilience and promise, she realized that she was actually not doing any of these things they did and not living with the purpose she craved. Enemy number one, as she assures the reader, is comparison; “the comparison mandate becomes the crushing paradox of ‘fit in and stand out!’ It’s not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging, and authenticity; it’s be just like everyone else, but better.” That rang true for me in a number of ways. Fit in and stand out. The impossible goal and the exact command that is echoed to us from everywhere.
I think what has been so liberating about my past year is that I can no longer do that. I can’t fit in to the mold presented to me, and my family has a new shape. I am the only parent in my household. I am not creating some life that looks exactly like my old one, and I am unable to pretend my old one never existed. Things have taken a shape that doesn’t fit the mold, and it’s left me with two choices. I can hold shame and self-doubt and feel unfinished and broken, or I can look the world in the face and decide that I am enough on my own, and someone else’s inability to see my worth doesn’t dictate my value in any way. Brene’s reminder that “overcoming self-doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we are supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves” echoes so similarly to the major lesson I’ve learned in the midst of my changes.
I know for certain that there is a spiritual component to all of this – in whatever form you choose to swallow it. I’d read months ago about a researcher who studies resilience and discovered that there were two crucial components to resiliency after a personal tragedy: a sense of community (only possible by investing in them previously) and a belief in a higher purpose or power in life that is guiding your steps and unfolding your path. I can see the guidance of both of these forces for me. I don’t know how I would have made it without them, to be honest. And they continue to guide me. Brown illustrates, “Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we are all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives.” I can see this in my own life ten times over. Hopelessness, fear, blame, and pain pretty much summarize where this journey began, but I don’t feel them at all anymore. A belief in something greater is the only thing that releases those feelings, and as Anne Lamott says in another comment on spirituality that I love, “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness, and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” You just have to wait it out, and eventually you see the light emerge a bit. But you only get there by holding space for all the other feelings and trusting the light will return eventually.
I think my favorite part of Brene Brown’s discussion of this was when she stepped out of the research to explain the challenges she encountered when she began to change her own life on a fundamental level to follow a pattern of one who lives Wholeheartedly. Foremost in that journey, according to her research, is showing your vulnerability and embracing that softness. She explains she was scared to take that leap of taking about her feelings and fears as “most of us have shame triggers around being perceived as self-indulgent or self-focused. We don’t want our authenticity to be perceived as selfish or narcissistic.” I felt a kinship reading her fears as I’ve definitely worried about that in the past few months. Finding a balance between knowing yourself and focusing too intently on your own self seems like a difficult place to achieve. And she warns us that “the truth is that meaningful change is a process. It can be uncomfortable and often risky, especially when we’re talking about embracing our imperfections, cultivating authenticity, and looking the world in the eye and saying ‘I am enough.’ It’s an act of rebellion, really. I’m finding that to be true every day. Not making excuses for yourself. Not hiding behind some vague attempt at perfection. Not working hard to “fit in and stand out.” It’s a constant battle that not everyone is going to understand.
Brene Brown warns us of the fallout that can happen in our own lives when we stop playing the perfection game and start embracing vulnerabilities and truthfulness. “As we struggle to be authentic and brave, it’s important to remember that cruelty always hurts, even if the criticisms are untrue. When we go against the grain and put ourselves and our work out into the world, some people will feel threatened and they will go after what hurts the most – our appearance, our lovability, and even our parenting.” Yes, a million times over. It hurts but it’s worth it.
There’s no time like now. As much as I want to smooth over these wrinkles to save my own face a bit and pretend some things never happened and some feelings never existed, I know I can’t. It’s hard work but it’s getting me to the other side, and I can feel it changing everything about who I am and where I will go in this lifetime. As Brown says in the closing chapter of the book, “You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people – including yourself. … You’ll also wonder how you can so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time … brave, afraid, and very, very alive.” Is there any other way to be? I feel like my options are safe and small and trapped in the circle of blame and perfectionism or scared and transparent and alive. And it’s my life and mine alone. I’m voting for brave and alive.
Have you heard about “imposter syndrome?” If not, a quick google will show you. It’s essentially a fear that though you are accomplished or successful or admired, you are somehow a fraud and don’t deserve it. It’s especially common among high-achieving women, and I’ve read a good bit of commentary about it online in recent months. The term was first coined by two researchers who noted that women were often under the impression that they were not as intelligent or deserving as their position would suggest and they had somehow been over-evaluated by others.
I do this – as I think a lot of us do. I do it at work or when I am describing my job to someone else. I usually say I am an English teacher or “I teach English classes” at a nearby university. I hesitate to say “College Professor” as a title to someone in conversation. Feeling like an imposter or overblown somehow. I can remember being in graduate school at an excellent university with some challenging classes, and I’d think I was somehow an imposter. Like a “how did I get here?” feeling. Even in the days of teaching high school, I’d wonder if I was really all that great of a teacher. Do I really deserve the Honors classes? Am I actually succeeding in teaching them something? As a writer, I do this as well. I’ll hesitate to post something because I feel like it is boring or disorganized and difficult to follow, but then I’ll receive a kind email or comment praising that particular essay.
I’ve had so many outside confirmations that I am smart and capable and the real deal. Solid student evaluations. Recognition and compliments from bosses I see as far superior to me in intellect. I can remember when a particularly scary graduate school professor (He left one girl crying in the midst of her class presentation!) emailed me to ask if he could keep a copy of my essay as a sample for others who are lost or less inclined to write analytically. It was a compliment, yes. But I remember it was also a little confusing for me. Like he has to be kidding, right? It was just my essay; I’m sure there are better ones out there.
I’m not certain what it is about women that makes us do this. We are socialized in a million ways to always give someone else the credit for our accomplishments. We are made to think from a very young age that charm and looks are our currency, and I think it can make a lasting impact. We neglect to see what is in front of us and inside of us when everyone else sees it so clearly. I find I do this not only with professional accomplishments but with my personal traits as well.
I commented on this phenomenon a little when I wrote about the manifestation workshop I attended a few weeks ago — how we tend to focus on that one person out of 100 who doesn’t like us. It sucks so much life out of you.
On the list of a million other things I’ve learned in this season of my life is this: When someone tells you something about yourself that you don’t recognize, listen hard. Internalize it. And especially when more than one person says it and you hear that sentiment repeated, know that is is real. It is true. You are not an imposter or lacking in substance. Their reactions are valid and warranted. This is HARD for us as women. Admitting our faults? That’s easy. Taking credit for our positive traits? Not so much.
I’m open and honest in this space, but I am more tight-lipped on most social networks. Here you only visit if you want to and if you are interested in my life’s growth or the conversations happening in this space, but I feel like Facebook or Instagram followers are sometimes more surface level. I’m not going to bombard you with personal musings as you just want to scroll through cute kid pictures.
But this week, I was feeling especially challenged, and I opened up more than usual, and like always, people respond to honesty and vulnerability. (Another lesson that it has taken me far too long to learn.) As some heartfelt comments lifted my spirits so much, I started to think about all the other moments this has happened in my past year. It prompted me to go back and re-read emails and messages that pulled me through some very dark moments, and before long I found myself copying and pasting countless affirmations onto one document that I am printing and placing in my bedside drawer.
Some of these comments are long-lost friends from ages ago whom I hardly speak to much anymore as time and distance have separated us. The way you are handling this journey, in all of its weak and shaken moments, is so inspiring to me as a mother and a friend. You are stronger than you know. Or another old friend… I respect you so much for the way you’ve told your story. You’ve done so without painting her as a slut, him as a villain, or yourself as a victim. Your softness and wisdom comes through so honestly. As your sister from what seems like a lifetime ago, it is comforting to feel a feminist kinship with you from afar. Your children are so fortunate to have you shaping their lives. I admire your sincerity and grace.
Or for all of us, there are people we barely cross paths with, yet we make impacts we are not aware of. From the day I met you. I’ve always known that you were someone special and amazing, and it is no surprise to me that you have remained classy throughout this entire awful ordeal. I know that you are showing your children how to handle things with grace and dignity. — I don’t have anything worthy to say about how inspiring you are. The word “inspiring” alone doesn’t do justice to the way I actually see you through the little glimpses into the window of your soul that your writing reveals — I don’t know your struggles down to the details, Katie, but you’ve got grace and strength girl!! And you’re one hell of a writer.
I’ve got old college acquaintances and friends — I wanted to reach out and tell you that I think you are an incredible, fabulous, super smart, kind and graceful person. — Katie, you continue to amaze me in the best ways. Stay strong –– I know that real love is coming for you someday. So few people have the capacity for that kind of love (or friendship). But you certainly do, and I believe God/the universe wouldn’t prepare your heart like this and not answer. — Thank you for your willingness to express your pain and vulnerability to the world. Please know that you’ve helped other people by sharing your own journey. While our stories are different, I have found so much comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in many respects. Reading your piece has helped me understand so much about my value as a person and the beautiful self-awareness which often accompanies pain and growth. Thank you… — Darling, you are a BEAST….and I mean that in the best way possible. Bravo, Lady. So proud of you. Stand tall. I can feel your strength from 3000 miles away.
And even old grad school classmates from a decade ago who have reached out. You are smart and kind and strong. One thing that particularly sticks out about you is that you always approached life so gracefully. I’m sure this situation will be no different. — I’ve lived long enough to recognize rare beauty in the world. You are one of the rare and beautiful people we get lucky enough to meet in life. — You are one of the ones who thrives and doesn’t just survive. I was struck with how much growth and wisdom you’ve accumulated. … You will live a fuller and richer life because of it. You already are, dear. Breaking out of the molds others have made for us or the narrow minds of loved ones we once trusted is extraordinarily painful – and so necessary in order to become your best self. You have been saved. Keep going.
I’ve heard from former students I taught when they were so young, and now I see them as adults nurturing me with their words in the same way I nurtured their growth almost a decade ago. You’re a rock star and inspire me so much – I admire your positive outlook through the tough times. Thanks for being a wonderful mentor over the years, even if the last have been virtually. Norah and Jude are so lucky to have you as their mom! — You are an incredible human being, role model, mother, and friend! I have always admired you and know that there is no insurmountable task that can stand in your way of what you dream not only for yourself but also for your children. — You’ve always been such a role model for me and glad to say you still are.
And even distant family states away whom I never see anymore, but offer kind words and prayers and thoughts — I know that it’s been years since we’ve seen each other or even spoken, but I’ve always thought you displayed such strength and grace. Sometimes those two qualities are most obvious when we feel our weakest. I hope you can continue to see in yourself what so many other see as you begin a new path.
That last comment hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it? It’s so hard to see in ourselves what others see when they look at us.
And this is not an exercise in conceit or Katie-praise. Here’s the thing: if you are reading this right now, you’ve heard these affirmations, too. (Yes, you! I’m talking to you.) Somewhere, at some point, you’ve heard someone echo what is the very best about who you are. And though we have a hard time internalizing all that we are, I’m realizing that this many people cannot be lying to me or putting themselves out there on a limb after years of no contact to say something that is inherently untrue. These people span two decades of my life and do not even know one another. This many people cannot be wrong about who I am.
Say it with me friends. All of us: I have value. I’m strong. I’m capable. I’m loving. I am enough.
And this honesty and accountability? It works both ways. If I am doing something unkind or seeing life through some other distorted lens and a friend calls that to my view, I need to pay attention. If I’m in a relationship or engaged in habits that don’t serve me and a friend brings that to light, I need to listen hard. Let’s stop looking at ourselves through some weird distorted view and see our lives for what they really are in the faces of those who know us.
Your homework this weekend if you are reading this: dig up those comments and affirmations you’ve buried or neglected to give yourself credit for. Emails or text messages or Facebook comments or conversations in your memory. I’m not talking about someone’s compliment that you looked cute or baked a pretty cake. But the real stuff. Those moments of connection when someone has assured you that they see the very best parts of you. Dig that up, dust it off, and when you see a common thread, let me explain something to you. It is real. It is you. This is who you really are. Write those down. Hide them somewhere. And when you feel like you aren’t quite sure where you are headed or how to move on, take that paper out and read every single word. That is who you are.
And the best part of all of this is that the good traits just keep growing. When people tell you that you are strong? You just grow stronger. When people tell you they appreciate your honesty? You grow more honest and more accountable. And when people tell you that you’re loved? That one is the very best. You grow in every way. Bolder and bigger and more loving than the day before.
Jude’s start date was last Thursday, and Norah’s was 4 days later on Monday. My faculty start date is 7 days after hers, and then my students come 7 days after that. All that to say that we are easing into it and getting used to a new routine around here. August is never my favorite month, so many transitions.
Norah was so excited to move up to the “big kid side” of her preschool. There are two hallways and two playgrounds, and this year marks her transition to the older one. She was feeling proud and ready on that first day.
It’s an adjustment for me, too. It will take a few weeks to get in the rhythm of a new year and our new normal. I think about Jude often during the day, worry that he’s doing alright and getting used to things. I see him a little differently. I’m more mindful of the million things that can happen during the school day and the million ways I hope he stays safe and happy. (Like adding a sticker over the name of his school in the above photo because the internet suddenly even seems a little scarier, as does the entire world.) The hard truth about parenting is that if you are doing it right, you are just preparing to let them go. Preparing them to meet the big world outside without your help eventually.
In ways the world seems smaller than it did a month ago though. We are meeting more faces in the neighborhood during our bus stop chats and getting to know other families better through the shared experience of watching little hands wave as they drive away each morning. Norah’s little class has familiar faces she adores and a teacher who has known her for two years already. And though I’m exhausted from my first week back after a summer of leisure, I’m happy to see my colleagues and tread my feet in the familiar setting of my university.
It’s so weird how the world can seem big and small at the same time. There’s a lot out there, but really we all exist mostly in our own little orbits. I’m looking after my own two in all the tiny and exhausting ways moms come to know well – packing lunches, waking them from sleep, listening to stories about teachers and friends, baths, bedtime reading, all the planning of the weekday lives that give us rhythm. There’s so much life in the mundane though. This is where it happens, I’m finding.
I’ve got big hopes for the academic year ahead. Growth in my kids, growth in me, and the combination of burrowing in the comfortable routines we come to know so well and stretching ourselves to new unfamiliar places.
The kids are away this weekend, and I’m mostly using the time to be certain everything is ready for the first full week of the school year. Clothes washed, lunches packed, house clean. Come November, I’ll be drowning in term papers and laundry and ready for a break, but I love the clean-slate feeling of August. For a few shining weeks, everything is new and organization is apparent.
I registered long ago for a Jen Pastiloff workshop that took place yesterday, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Her workshops are so hard to describe – a combination of journaling and yoga and sharing and dancing. It was a bit outside of my comfort zone as I knew it would be, but I’m convinced that all the very best things lie just beyond our comfort level. I persuaded my friend Tally to join me, and it was the most amazing afternoon. An incredible experience.
I would describe myself as an inconsistent yogi. I’ve dabbled in yoga at various times of my life – some Svaroopa yoga before kids, prenatal yoga regularly during my first pregnancy, a month-long Bikram yoga challenge a couple years ago, meditation here and there to help with specific anxieties and challenges. But I am certainly not an advanced yogi by any stretch of the imagination. It’s something I’d love to make time for, but it can be a challenge to find the time among the rest of my life tasks and events. Jen doesn’t really demand a lot of challenging yoga in her workshops though. She simply uses the poses to get you out of your own head and into the body to strip away the ego. You are also much more likely to share with strangers if the room is sweaty and you are moving or chanting in unison.
This idea was echoed in something I was reading recently on Melanie Tonia Evans‘s blog which has been a healing balm for me in many ways. She discusses ways that we disconnect from our bodies and the reason that “coming home” to your body is necessary to self-fulfillment, especially when healing from past hurts. Our culture always encourages us to reach outside for fulfillment, and she explains, “No-one taught the value of coming home to ourselves in our bodies. Rather than our [culture] guiding us with, ‘Sit with your bad feelings, take your attention lovingly with full self-devotion inside your body, ask yourself what is this really about and heal yourself,’ they would have been more likely to tell you, ‘Don’t dwell on it – get up and do something else.’ … Because of being unplugged from our connection to ourselves we have been easily trained into a model of ‘getting’ and ‘doing.’ The trying to secure something from outside of self in order to feel at peace within oneself…. The reason why any of us wanted ANYTHING was to try to feel content and at peace – not realizing it had nothing to do with getting or doing – it is always to do with coming home to self-partnering and addressing our own state of consciousness….We also need to understand this: emotional peace has NOTHING to do what Life and others have delivered you – it is to do with your own state of consciousness.”
This resonated with me so much. It’s only been a few months since my divorce happened, and I’ve already been torn between a desire to sit with my own grief and use that to heal myself and the loud voices of some people who say that reflecting on your pain is simply bitterness and that you should “move on” and busy yourself with something else. The glory of Jen’s workshop is that you have to be in your body and commit fully to the self-exploration she is asking of you. Her journaling prompts cut through all of the false ego and get straight to what’s real: What would you be if nobody told you what you had to be? What do you fear? To be where I want to be, I have to be rid of… It is nothing short of a spiritual experience to be in a room with strangers, move your body in a way that mirrors everyone else in the room, and then answer these questions and share your reflections with others.
My recent essay on bodhichitta describes what I mean by this, and it was the first time in my life when I sat in a room and could feel that human compassion tangibly with people I didn’t know at all. As one person stood up to share, she commented that so many people in the room looked familiar to her and she couldn’t explain why, just some comfortable familiarity that she felt and saw in our faces. I think the answer for why she felt that way lies in bodhichitta. For a few hours we were stripped of the ego or judgment that normally guides each of us and we saw others with a lens of common compassion. You could hear in the conversation and what was shared that each of us is fighting our own battle, all so different yet exactly the same.
So many yoga or meditation instructors speak in these lofty terms and metaphors that are not always accessible to many of us. But Jen’s approach is different. She speaks in terms that we understand and she is “real” in every way. Her workshops are coined Manifestation Yoga, and you begin the workshop by writing down on a post-it a short list of things that you want to see unfold in your life. Meditating on, praying for, and visualizing those things each day can bring you closer to them, yes. But she also acknowledges that if that’s all we had to do, life would be pretty easy and predictable. Obviously it’s not that simple. Manifestation in her words is to “Make shit happen.” You have to identify what it is you want, give some intent and clarity to that goal, and then identify what stands between you and the life you want.
I found when I sat down to write what stands between myself and my goals, I heard so many others share what I’d written: fear, uncertainty, feelings of inadequacy, and allowing others judgments or opinions to restrict me. These answers were the same for so many of us. She spoke a bit about the “1 in 100” scenario – meaning if you are in a room with 100 people, and 99 of them love you and 1 doesn’t, whom do you focus on? The one that doesn’t. I know for certain that my recent months have allowed me to come so far in refusing to let others’ judgment affect me. I at least don’t let it sink in as deeply or for along as I did before. But I’m only human, and I can’t help but be somewhat affected by it.
And to be honest, when I reflect on the things said to me and about me in the past nine months or so, it’s enough to break anyone’s spirit. You don’t measure up. You were a bad wife. Your own actions are what led to pain and disappointment. You need to stop writing and you should be ashamed of showing your pain and sharing it with others. Everyone perceives you as bitter and angry. People tell me your writing is terrible and nobody believes any of it. You are a terrible mother. You are selfish. On my best days, I can rest in the love and acceptance of people I value, but on the worst days, these comments sink in and cast a shadow where I don’t want them to dwell. Jen’s workshop yesterday was a safe place to work through these things and cast them out of my consciousness.
It’s hard though, right? The mind is a powerful thing. On the one hand, thoughts can enlighten us and guide us, and there is tons of research to support the power of positive thinking. On the other hand, if I believed everything that my mind tells me in regard to my own self-worth, I’d be in trouble. It’s human nature. Fear and uncertainty is natural. Not only that, but I’m realizing that the only people who feel no fear at all and don’t care about others’ opinions of their actions in the least are defined as sociopaths and narcissists. (Jen Pastiloff touched on that briefly yesterday as well.) But to use her metaphor, when 99 people in the room see love and authenticity in you and recognize your gifts, to focus on the one who doesn’t see your worth serves you in no way at all. And I’m realizing that is precisely what is standing in the way of myself and my big goals: the criticism I still hear far too loudly. I ran across this recently online somewhere, and it made me smile. I need to tape it on my mirror.
It’s not as simple as placing glasses on my face. (I wish it were!) But I can drown out the influences that leave me feeling doubtful and unsettled if I’m very careful about what I let sink in and if I devote time everyday to focus on aspects of myself that are worthy of appreciation and value. I left the workshop feeling energized and ready to start a new academic year with a clearer purpose and more mindfulness to combat the outside voices that feed feelings of inadequacy. When we unrolled our mats and were preparing for the workshop, we were given temporary tattoos from Conscious Ink as a little favor. It will be gone in a couple days, but it’s on my forearm as a reminder to me as I begin the school year.
It’s impossible to recognize the sacred value of the present moment when you have a constant soundtrack in your mind of the million things wrong with you or the million reasons some people dislike you. I’m vowing this week to push those voices away as much as I can and listen to my own compass instead. And right now, my own compass says I am strong and capable and loving and exactly where I should be.
Today is the day! Jude started kindergarten. This morning, I put my baby boy on a bus. I can’t believe it.
Motherhood just changes you at your core, doesn’t it? I was saying earlier this week that it never stops feeling like one big change after another. Having a child who grew in your own body and rocking that baby in a dark, quiet house. Chasing those chubby toddler legs. Singing ABC’s with a preschooler. Those days feel SO LONG when you are in them, yet they all run together and race by as you look back. Here we are. Another change. Another new chapter on the horizon. I’m excited for him, and seeing growth in your children is so fulfilling. But it also aches a little bit. Being a mother is like forever seeing a piece of your heart running loose in the world, and sometimes you want to protect it and tuck it back deep in your chest where it belongs, but it doesn’t work that way.
He’s getting older, and I don’t feel like it’s my job here to comment on his feelings and his perspective. But I’ll say that he was all the things you’d expect – excited, a little overwhelmed, exhausted, and proud at the end of the day. It was only 8 hours, but it was the longest day of my life. Such a joy to see him step off that school bus with a look of pride and satisfaction.
It’s been a hard week. With all of the emotional intensity of preparing for today, it leaves you feeling unsteady anyhow. Being human is hard sometimes. I’ve come so far in the healing process, and I can see that on this journal as I look back at old entries. But here we are with a new chapter of challenges I didn’t anticipate. Watching someone who hardly knows my son come to open house events, school functions, teacher meetings, and all that this life entails. It is HARD to swallow that. There is so much more I could say, but that is already more detail than I usually write in this space where I try to focus on my own piece of the journey and not someone else’s. I just don’t want to be hypocritical in my reflections here, so I’m admitting that while I am doing well in many ways and melding somewhat gently into this new life, this was a bad week full of encounters I wish I never had to experience. It makes me angry to see someone push an agenda on my child and me. Life is full of hard things, I know. And this is hard.
Yesterday my awesome friend, Amanda, posted a fearless reflection on Facebook where she ripped the mask off and was honest about motherhood challenges and all that they entail and how they leave us wondering if we are doing the right things, if we are enough. Reading the responses she received was inspiring to me — just moms being honest about how hard this job is and how much we question if we are doing it right.
I have so many friends who are amazing and are not moms, so I don’t like to make big blanket statements on motherhood, but I’m just going to say that there are some things that you just do not get — you do not even remotely understand them — until you’ve done this. Everyone thinks they know everything about parenting until they actually do it. And those parents that — even after they have kids or after their kids are grown — walk around saying they are the best parent in the world? Those are the ones to really worry about and the ones you can be assured screwed up somewhere. It takes humility and authenticity to do difficult jobs, and parenting is difficult for certain.
Jen Pastiloff (who is leading a workshop this Saturday that I’m super excited to attend) posted this recently. It resonated, and I saved it.
I’m just going to be honest tonight.
I’m here to say that I am grateful for so many things in my life, but I’m also deeply hurt by some actions that were done to me and more than that by the complete lack of remorse or respect from those involved.
I’m inspired by my children every day, and they are the compass for my decisions and actions, but I still think motherhood is the hardest gig ever and I’m sure I don’t always do everything right. And sometimes I feel so tired and weary from the heaviness of this job and the responsibility of guiding two little people.
I’m confident and I know I am whole and capable of so many things, but I can also be shaken and broken so quickly by someone’s simple actions or one hurtful comment. It still surprises me how solid I can feel on the inside and yet still be broken so quickly with someone’s simple stab.
But that’s being human, right? Being full of lots of imperfections that you wish didn’t exist but they do. Thinking things that you shouldn’t take as the absolute truth but sometimes you do. Feeling things that you wish you didn’t feel but you do.
It’s all here – the doubt and the shining moments, the guilt and the satisfaction, the anger and the joy. There’s a line in an Avett Brothers song that says, “There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light, and I’m frightened by those that don’t see it.” It pierces me all the way through when I hear that song. Those who don’t see it – they don’t feel shaken or see both the darkness and the light – are the ones who frighten and intimidate me the most when I’m playing the comparison game. But really if you don’t have moments of self-doubt and hurt, I’m learning you don’t have much to offer.
So here’s my offering tonight. Life is full of hard things. And sometimes they feel too heavy, but on the other side of that heaviness, there’s always a joy and satisfaction tied to it.
My brave boy stepped on a school bus and began a new journey today, and it was full of fear and self-doubt but also full of joy and pride. I think I can learn a lot from him.
August is here. I can’t believe it. Then again, I can. This summer has been the perfect mix of slow sunny days and relaxation and some really fun and busy moments, too. I’ve learned so much and grown in immeasurable ways during these past few months.
I learned for certain that the most enjoyable moments for my kids are always the simplest ones. Bugs in mason jars, backyard play, lakeside exploring. We didn’t take off on any big trips this summer. We just used the time to slow down and be together in simple ways. After a year that turned us upside down and inside out in every way imaginable, it felt good to just be.
When our school break began, I was so scared and uncertain about how this summer’s custody schedule was going to be tolerable for me, and reading my earlier post about how hard it was in those early moments, I am honestly proud of the work I’ve done internally to grasp a sense of peace about all of this. And it has no doubt been work in the truest sense.
I was reminded recently of that Italian phrase referenced in Eat Pray Love, Devo farm le ossa. It means I need to make my bones. Italians use this phrase as a response to someone who is in a difficult time or starting from scratch in some way. And this summer, that is precisely what I did. I built my bones myself. I’m standing on my own two feet. I’m managing not to hide from the discomfort and to be honest about my own heart and how I’m changing. That honesty isn’t always easy. Sadness and brokenness erupt sometimes still, but they don’t permeate me the way they did before. They come; I acknowledge them; I have a rough hour or day or week, and then those feelings leave and I move on in the only way that I know how.
I’m grateful for so many moments of this summer. Many I recorded here, and some I did not – time with friends, concerts, poolside reading. I feel like not a single minute was wasted, and I used every second to fill my tank.
I’ve read countless pages this summer – books, essays, poetry. I’ve listened to podcasts. I’ve talked to friends. I’ve written and written almost every day. I’ve held every single thing up to the light to give it a good look and decide how it feels, or if it fits with my own ideas and experiences. I’ve learned so much.
One of the last books I read is Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. It’s a classic I’d never been turned onto in the past, but at the persistence of a friend, I finally picked it up it, and I’m so glad I did. Lindbergh reflects on her role as a wife and mother in 1950’s America, and her reality is so vastly different from mine, but the spirit of her challenge is the same. She writes, “When the noise stops, there is no inner music to take its place. We must re-learn how to be alone … Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I’m beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be found through solitude … Eternally, woman spills herself away in driblets to the thirsty, seldom being allowed the time, the quiet, the peace, to let the pitcher fill up to the brim.” Looking back, my pitcher was empty for so long. And this summer I filled it up.
I know for certain that nobody else can fill it up for you, and you have to do that work yourself. If you don’t make your own bones, so to speak, you suffer many times over — again and again until you figure it out. The sanctuary is inside, and there’s no other way. And the most surprising aspect of all of this is that the summer left me feeling more full and grateful than I was before and ready to give back what I’ve learned and face the future. Admitting my pain and vulnerability and resting in it somehow granted power to my strength. It’s amazing how that works, right?
Today was a perfect finish to this season — one of those exhausting, quintessentially summer days. We spent the morning at the lake with friends and packed picnic lunches. The kids explored, and moms chatted in between the usual interruptions. The sun was steady, the lake felt like bath water, and the kids found so many details to examine.
After that, we drove to my grandparents’ house where we spent time with family who are here from Texas for a funeral. It’s been years since I’ve seen many of them. You know time passes; it’s the only constant in life. But some moments, it just slaps you in a way that makes your heart ache. We ate and laughed and told stories. The kids played outside and climbed trees, and we stayed until dark so that Jude could gather fireflies. I drove home playing Patty Griffin on the speakers: When you get there you’ll know that’s as far as you go. When you get there you’ll see you were already free. Norah fell asleep, and I carried her tired body up the stairs when we got home. Now I’m sleepy and writing in the comfort of cool sheets after a day in the hot Georgia sun.
I feel different than I was in May. I don’t have the same taste in my mouth when I say I’m a single mother. I don’t see this house as our “new house” anymore – just home. I’m sinking my heels in and growing used to the view from where I stand. I don’t feel old and empty and tired and used up. I feel new and infinitely stronger and bigger than I was before. I’ve learned that life will be a lot easier if I just accept an apology that will never be given to me and understand that there’s a reason things unfold the way they do, and every experience of my life has worked to bring me to this moment. I have arrived where I’m supposed to be – not a stepping stone, but a destination in the present.
There are so many things I’m supposed to do, and I’m not even sure what they are, but I feel them tugging. I’m ready to say goodbye to summer and to this season of my life and usher in a new one.
It’s the final full week of summer vacation as Jude starts kindergarten in ten days. (I can’t believe it!) I’m wrapping up my summer reading, and I’m feeling grateful that I’ve read more of my own choosing this summer than I have in probably the past six years or so. It’s hard enough to find the time to read as a mom, but then add the fact that my job requires some intense reading as well, and I rarely get to immerse myself in my own books.
I’ve read all kinds of things in the past few months, and it amazes me how all of these seemingly different works are connecting into one big mural of meaning for me. There is so much power in the written word because of the immense power of human connection. It’s a concept I try to relay to my students as the central thread of why I’m teaching them to read analytically and to write clearly. As C.S. Lewis says, “We read to know we are not alone.” We learn through each other, and I have no doubt that God speaks to us through one another as well. In Christianity they call it The Holy Spirit. In other religions, they call it by a different name, but it is the same idea. I feel as though it’s only through the past few years of my life, and especially the past few months, that seeing the divine in all of us is made real and clear for me. Namaste in the truest sense.
Looking back again as the dust settles, I can see this was an element responsible for the disconnect in my marriage as well. Motherhood changed me at my core in a million ways, but namely it made me more spiritual, more grateful, more aware of the big picture. I always felt that everything happened for a reason, but after having children I felt the presence of the divine more than ever and could see that hand orchestrating elements of my life and reflected in even my small daily experiences. I don’t think that philosophy was matched in my partner at all – actually I know for certain it wasn’t because this is something we talked about in the final days. And that is okay. My path is not the same as everyone else’s. But in hindsight, I’m not sure that I could grow spiritually the way I have in these past months with such a mismatched mirror in my own home. I see that clearly now.
Everyone’s path is different, and mine is my own. Spirituality means nothing if you don’t hold it close, and it takes holding it up to the light, trying it on for size, and seeing what feels right to make it real. I was flipping through albums at a family reunion recently, and I found a beautiful image of an old baptism. This is the way of my family for generations, and I know Southern Baptists get a bad reputation sometimes for some things that are neither here nor there on this specific post of mine (for another time), but what I love about that blend of faith is that it is held close and personal. The idea of being born again into something new only happens if you believe it from the inside outward and do the work yourself to maintain a connection to God. Baptism in the water is meant to outwardly mark a change in who you are. You are emptied of the old and washed clean again by your relationship with the divine, and now the divine resides in you.
And sometimes those sacred waters of baptism aren’t reflected as a literal pool of water but a threshold in your life and your own experiences. A crossroads when you are out with the old and in with the new, so to speak. My path is separating from people I’ve known, not just from my former spouse. And I’m learning to be okay with that. There are lots of complicated reasons for some of these separations; divorce always changes your peer group. My core of closest friends is just the same, and I can’t explain how incredibly grateful I am for their help and encouragement. But there are a few on the outside of my close circle who have fallen away. They are another example of the things I’m letting go – as I’ve alluded to before. David Whyte has a poem that states, “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” And I think that sounds insulting somehow – implying I am bigger than someone else. But sometimes I think “too small” can just mean they are not what I need right now where I am on my own journey. And to be fair, I am likely not what they need either.
When thinking about how I am changing, who has fallen away and who hasn’t, who is “bringing me alive” and who isn’t, I didn’t really have words for how this separation has happened or why. But when I read Pema Chodron’s work I wrote about before, she has a chapter on the Buddhist concept of bodhichitta which is a Sanskrit word meaning a “noble or awakened heart” – or as she explains, “this kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to be able to observe it from afar” or “the discovery of our soft spot.” I’ve rolled that one around in my head often these past few weeks, and it illuminated a lot for me.
I was having lunch with a good friend and mentor last month and we were discussing privately one of these people I’m referring to and how hard it has been to regain footing in my life without someone who was once present often, and she revealed that she always perceived this individual to be “a lightweight” which I thought was a perfect description. Someone who treads in shallow waters because it’s easier or because it’s comfortable – or maybe just because they aren’t there yet on the capacity to process something greater. It’s far easier to distance ourselves from pain though, far easier to make it shameful and tell someone to hide it or move on quickly than to hold bodhichitta for a moment and let that pain penetrate your own heart. I can think of countless examples in my past where I listened to people shame others for showing pain and weakness or where I listened to others refuse empathy and compassion for someone else. These are things I’m now ashamed to even admit that I tolerated, and I simply don’t have the space or energy for that in my life anymore.
I think people awake to their own bodhichitta in their own time. I can keep people on the peripheral of my life when they see things through a lens of very little compassion, but I can’t maintain close connections with them anymore. And I’m seeing more and more each day that this idea has very little to do with our society’s concept of religion. Many of these personalities that have fallen away from me are seated in a pew every single Sunday, but somehow they haven’t softened their hearts. They don’t have eyes to see it.
And so often I think this relates to fear. So many people want to be seen as perfect with the house and the kids and the prosperity that they think defines them. To admit that you feel fear or hurt or embarrassment, to admit wrongdoing, and to feel in your core that there is suffering in the world and a battle within each of us – all of those things are uncomfortable. All of those things require admitting that you are not perfect and not always right. So few people are willing to step out of the skin they are wearing and own up to all of these things.
Chodron explains, “Because bodhichitta awakens tenderness, we can’t use it to distance ourselves. Bodhichitta can’t be reduced to an abstraction about the emptiness of pain. We can’t get away with saying, ‘There is nothing happening and nothing to do.’ … Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. … In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth, not the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt… We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.” The challenge is not pushing it away, not holding it distant from us because it makes us uncomfortable. I’m finding that seeing another’s pain, whether that is a close friend or a stranger, is so hard for many people.
And the reason it is hard is because it turns a lens on our own selves. It shows you where you are gripping too tightly, and it brings about the horrifying thought that the pain could be yours as well and that you are not safe from it. I know this because I have done it in the past as well. When you rationalize the million reasons that could never happen to you, it’s a way of trying so hard to convince yourself of a concept that is simply not true.
What I said before about these very different books working together to paint one big picture for me? I’m taking a big leap now from Pema Chodron to Amy Poehler which seems ridiculous, but bear with me. Poehler’s book (which you should read this very second if you haven’t yet) includes a chapter on friendship in your forties, and I am not quite there yet in age, but I related to her words so much in light of my changing landscape these days. She says when you are forty and have gained life experience, “You can read people’s energies better, and this hopefully means you get stuck talking to less duds….Gone are the days (hopefully) when you take everything personally and internalize everyone’s behavior. You get better at knowing what you want and need… Lastly, because you are a superhero, you are really good at putting together a good team. You can look around the room and notice the other superheroes because they are the ones noticing you. The friends you have over forty are really juicy. They are highly emulsified and full of flavor. Now that you’re starting to have a better sense of who you are, you know better what kind of friend you want and need….I am interested in people who swim in the deep end. I want to have conversations about real things with people who have experienced real things. I’m tired of talking about movies and gossiping about friends. Life is crunchy and complicated and all the more delicious.”
To me, these “superheroes” are those who are awake to the concept of bodhichitta, those who can drop the ego for a moment and let some discomfort set in. Those who have encountered past pain or disappointment or mistakes and aren’t afraid to talk about it. And as I form new friendships with people I am yet to meet and one day look at the prospect of future romantic relationships, that is my biggest test. Are you awake to bodhichitta and all that entails?
Because here’s what I’m finding, friends. Bodhichitta does not mean that you are sad and full of sorrow all the time as you reflect on the miseries around you and feel empathy for others. In fact, it brings quite the opposite. It’s only when you let in the sorrow of the world, when you sink into empathy, and when you embrace imperfection that you can find true joy. Happiness is something else entirely, and though this may sound strange, I’m growing tired of “happy” people who are not joyful. True joy cannot depend on outside circumstances at all, and true joy can only come when you let it all in.
In his lengthy work “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth writes that when “we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul: while with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.” He’s referring to transcendence through nature as that was his route to the divine, but I see those lines resonating in my own life as well. When we “are laid asleep in body” and strip down the ego and feel that harmony or kinship with someone else’s pain or imperfections, that’s when we see into the life of things. And at this moment in my own life, this crossroads in the journey, so to speak, I simply can’t maintain connections with those who don’t see it. Looking back, I see how this past few months has worked like a sieve for me. All the hindrances fell away, and those left are the real gems – the ones who are helping me grow bigger and propel forward to a life that is so much richer than the one I’ve left behind.