There are so many reasons I’m glad I have this little corner of the internet. I’ve spent more than 5 years of my life writing things down in this space, and I’ve written myself through a number of hard transitions and some of my happiest times, too. But I also love that things are written here at all – because otherwise I’d forget them.
Like when it’s the end of July, and the kids are going a little nutty, and it’s hot as Hell outside, and part of me is scared for summer to end, but the other part of me is ready for a schedule again and just generally feeling exhausted and languid and unmotivated compared to usual me. I think we’ve all gone completely nuts and that this is like no other year ever in the history of mankind until I look back to see that this is every year. Every July. Forever and ever, amen. So that makes me feel better. It’s just the general late July insanity back again as it always is.
I joked last night that my week included 3 bee stings, a trip to the periodontist (with a recommendation for an expensive and unpleasant surgery), an escaped pet worm, and an emergency that required 4 staples in Norah’s head. Every last bit of that and more is true. It has been A WEEK, y’all. To say the least.
Jude has been enrolled in “Nature Camp” at a local nature preserve close to home, and he loved it! I’d pick him up each day at noon covered in caked-on dirt and gabbing about the size of a dragonfly’s mouth or the responsibility of picking up litter or what kind of art you can make with pine cones. Norah and I filled the time doing a few things at home, playing at a playground where I got stung by a wasp, and eating donuts not once but twice this week.
On Wednesday, we got together with old friends of mine who now have kids of their own so our little group has grown to a big group and babies have grown to kids and it’s crazy. In the best way. But it’s crazy. We never finish sentences. Or food. Or remember to leave with whatever belongings we arrived with because we are so busy tending to questions or to cries of “maaaa-maaaaaaa” that we all turn our heads to because we can’t tell whom that voice belongs to. Jude also got stung by a wasp that day – two tiny side-by-side stings – and I know it hurt. I do. But when I asked if I could rub in a little first-aid cream my kind friend offered, he ran and screamed and looked so fearful, like I had dynamite in my hand and I was asking him to hold onto it. Frantic “NOOOO! Mom, NOOOOO!” and full on running. So we ditched the cream and opted for Lego distractions instead, and he was fine.
Get home to rinse, repeat for the next day – and nature camp leaves him dirtier than ever before, but he had fun. I persuaded the kids to go for a drive and head to a farm about an hour away to get peaches and blackberries, and it was our one moment of zen for the week, I think.
It was cloudy driving up, and we got inside just in time for the perfect summer afternoon rain. Heavy downpours, but sunshine peeking through, and the doors of the market were open so that you could smell that summer rain smell and feel it blowing in a bit. Add boiled peanuts and homemade ice cream we bought there, and it was perfect for a few tiny moments.
Once the storm passed, I loaded both kids in the car with our peaches, cherries, plums, and the best blackberries I’ve ever had. (I’m rationing them from the fridge now that we are home, wishing I’d bought more.) I gave the kids the quart of boiled peanuts to split among them, and we headed home. One hour trapped in a car with two chatty kids on a summer afternoon is both hilarious and ridiculously annoying – if I am being totally honest here. “Hey, mom. Did you know it’s not littering to throw peanut shells. We can do that. Let’s roll down the window.” [Cue the window rolling up, down, up, down, up, down. Each time they have a tiny shell.] Sister laughing hysterically, steamy wind and searing heat pouring in the car because seriously July in Georgia is almost miserable. Fast forward twenty miles or so, and Norah accidentally dumped the rest of her boiled peanuts in the car floor, and I am not ashamed to tell you most of those are still there now.
We get home, and Jude flies outside to get his neighbor friend to play, and they both come back to my house for a game of hide-and-seek until they get bored with it and decide to opt for an iPad. Somewhere in here (not sure when) Jude’s pet worm escapes, and we discover him hours later in the kitchen floor.
Norah asks if she can watch Mother Goose Club which if you don’t know what that is, you can see it on YouTube when your kid is not near because they will develop an undying loyalty for it, and now Netflix carries it much to the dismay of at least one million parents out there who have to hear it every night like I do. So I’m starting dinner, and I see her dancing on the couch and at least three times I tell her to get down and be careful, and I probably should have been more forceful about it, but it is 6:30pm of a very long day, and I am making dinner and it’s a couch and we have carpet, what can go wrong, right?
I’ll spare you the details – screams! blood! traumatized neighbor child! – and I’ll tell you that she is fine but has four staples in the back of her head.
The doctor asked her what happened, and she responded that “the hard floor fell on my head.” Which I guess is pretty much the same thing as “I was practicing ballet on the couch and got carried away and lost my balance.” For the record, she did not flinch a bit when they inserted the staples, and she woke this morning to ask if she can “do a flip on the couch? Please, Mom? Because flipping is not the same as dancing, right?”
We are fine, all of us. The last day of nature camp was today. It’s 10pm and both kids are asleep, and my floor is cluttered with Legos and naked baby dolls. But we are fed and happy and loved and had some fun moments this week, despite the insanity. But KIDS! Motherhood is no joke, is it?
I follow Momastery on Instagram, and a few weeks ago, she said something that made me laugh and also made me nod my head, “I spent time in a mental hospital, and I am here to report that every single one of the beautiful folks in there with me was more reasonable than the small people I live with now. Truth. YOU ARE GOOD AND REASONABLE AND NORMAL. IT’S THEM. The crazy is not in your head. IT’S IN YOUR HOUSE. We have to wait them out. We just have to smile and wait them out. We have fought too hard for our sanity to lose it now. Repeat after me: It’s not me, It’s THEM.”
Many days, it is all I can do to smile and wait it out. So much of my day is spent directing them or correcting them or putting smiley faces on a calendar chart just to make bedtime happen reasonably smoothly. Or making dinner and sitting down to eat only to hear “I’m not hungry.” They are crazy little people, and it is never boring. But I’m keeping my head above water over here somehow – knowing I will laugh and look back and wonder how on Earth I managed keeping my sanity and their safety and my house intact in these years. But also knowing I might look back and miss some of the insanity. So much life in these little people. So much surprise.
I’ve considered myself a writer in the general sense for years and years, but it’s only recently that writing has become such a guidepost for me and a lifeline as I figure out what I’ve learned in these past few months and how best to move forward. If you follow Sweatpants & Coffee on Facebook, you might have seen that I had an essay published last week as the first installment of their “Right Time, Right Place” series. You can read that here if you’d like.
I’ve been writing a lot this summer, and I’ve collected all sorts of efforts and first drafts – some of which I post here and some I don’t. A little of what I write about is concerning my background or parenting thoughts, but much of what I reflect on right now relates to the recent few months of my life and what has occurred. It’s natural that I’d focus on that given that the whole idea of memoir or creative non-fiction is that it is your personal history and your own perspective, and so much of my perspective is growing and changing and taking shape as a result of this year’s events and, more than that, as a result of my willingness to sit down and write it out.
It was HARD for me to hit the send button on my submission with the essay written above. It is by far the most personal thing I’ve ever written, and it deals with some inner thoughts and subjects that are hard to discuss. I admit I felt things I wish I didn’t feel, and truthfully that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Writing is difficult, I’m finding. — not just because of the craft itself and the act of sitting down to write and having to flesh it all out, but it’s harder still when you consider being truly open and honest and putting your whole heart on the page. It’s like being naked in a crowd and asking people to point at what is wrong with you.
It’s terrifying and liberating at the same time.
I’ve started listening to the Magic Lessons podcast this week, and there was an episode recently with Cheryl Strayed (whose book I wrote about a few weeks ago) discussing this idea of putting yourself out there. Her advice to someone who felt stuck but wanted to write?
“Write. See what’s there, and see what comes. There’s the fear of revealing others, and there’s also the fear of revealing our own hearts on the page. For that, I say you don’t get to duck behind anything. You do get to delve into the deepest, darkest, most interesting waters. And it’s a really fun thing to do and it’s a little scary, too. But the best things are a little scary or a lot scary.”
It’s harder than you’d think – not ducking behind anything. I heard a writer give this same advice once with the reason that a reader can always tell when you are holding back and not being completely forthright. You don’t want to feel that guarded sense of ego when you read; you want connection with the writer. I agree with that for certain, but it’s hard to put it out there.
But as difficult as it was and as intimidated as I felt, I’ve been rewarded tenfold with the feeling of liberation to finally share such a heavy experience and also the kind messages I’ve received from friends and even from people I don’t know who say they see their own selves a little differently after reading my words and my shared experiences. Isn’t it amazing when something broken becomes something beautiful?
Have I received harsh words, too? Of course I have. Not from strangers but from those directly involved, and it’s just an equation I have to continue to weigh and consider as I decide what to share in my writing. My aim is not to drag anyone through the mud, but to share my own piece of the journey, and I hope that is evident in what I write and how I approach it. I will never know someone else’s motivations and thoughts on my experience. That is not my job and not the role of memoir.
The older I get and the wiser I become, the more I realize not everyone will like me and that’s fine. As Jennifer Pastiloff wrote recently… (wow, she resonates with me lately!) “You ABSOLUTELY cannot make everyone happy. (So stop trying.) It’s a no-win situation. It’ll drain you and leave you like a pile of coffee grinds. People will be disappointed for various (often weird) reasons. Sometimes those reasons will make sense, sometimes not. …So stop worrying so much. There is most definitely someone out there who doesn’t like you or feels you’ve failed them. But, on the bright side, the really blinding bright side, the I-need-my-glasses-this-sh*t-is-so-bright-side, there are many people who love you, who think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, who could’ve never made it through X, Y and Z without you, who trust you, who care for you … So let’s do our best to keep moving forward with less second guessing and worrying, less ‘I-wish-everyone-loved-everything-I-said/did/wrote/wore.’ Less, ‘I am a bad/mean/awful person because I had to say NO.’ Let’s try not to intentionally hurt others but for the love of sliced bread (with gluten), let’s give up worrying so much, people pleasing, and all the other time-sucking, love-wasting, energy-vampirish things we do.” Amen and amen.
I’m working on abiding by this idea in my writing life and my regular life as well. I am not everyone’s cup of tea maybe. But to others, I am loved fiercely or connected with intensely or appreciated uniquely. Moving on from those who don’t love me – for whatever reasons – is the greatest gift I can give myself and the hardest lesson to learn for this lifetime “people pleaser.” It’s an ongoing process that requires you thicken your skin on the outside so that you can soften up on the inside. And for now, I’m getting better at it.
I have every intention to keep on writing.
I just got home from a quick trip with some of my favorite people, my very closest friends. And it always amazes me how little time it takes to renew yourself when you are surrounded by the right people.
We decided to book a suite at a winery and resort in north Georgia and pile in it together, and though it was incredibly close to home for most of us, it somehow feels far away when you unplug from your usual responsibilities and surroundings and go somewhere new.
A little wine and sunshine don’t hurt either.
I’ve thought a lot these past few weeks about the perfection masks we wear all the time, the “performance mode” I’ve written about here before. I’m so done with that and the loads of energy it entails, but it’s still scary to show the real face or any trace of vulnerability and pain when I’m with people who don’t know me well. But these women are the exception. I share things with them that I share with no one else in my life right now, and I think we lean on each other in a way that only becomes even more valuable as time marches on.
In short, I love them. And I love who I am when I am with them. I don’t know if there’s anything else better than that really. To make someone better and stronger and to say to that person’s real self, I see you and I hear you and I feel it, too.
I read recently that psychologists say if a friendship lasts seven years, it will likely last a lifetime. And by that rule, I have a number of people who knew me when and know me now and will know me in the distant future when I’ve evolved to something else, too. We are lucky – all of us – to have each other and to have weathered the storms together.
Their stories are not mine to tell, but they are in many ways much harder than the one I’ve weathered this year. I’m beginning to see that everyone is shaped by her own experiences and everyone is fighting her own battle most just never know about, and I feel lucky that this group just keeps fastening even closer together as we change shape with our own life experiences.
As we packed up today and began the ride home, I was thinking about how little of summer is left and how close the school year is. I have anxiousness a bit about Jude starting kindergarten. (Big changes are always a little scary.) But I think in a weird way, I’m ready to begin a new year with a new routine that will soon feel worn and comfortable.
People are always changing, always in a time of growth – if you are doing it right anyway. I don’t want to become complacent. That said, I feel like the intense period of transition is coming to a close for me. I’m something very different from what I was a year ago, but I’m feeling more settled now. I’m finally feeling ready for regular life to take hold again and excited to see what’s ahead.
This summer has been the perfect finish to all of it. Resting in the discomfort a bit, embracing it for what it is, and feeling my way around all of it. This trip was the perfect finale for it as well, resting and renewing my spirit with my favorite people. Onward and upward. I think I’m ready.
As I’m looking at the last few weeks of summer, I’m seeing that I’ve focused most of my reading efforts on non-fiction this summer. That’s a change from what I used to read, but I’ve gained a better appreciation for it in the past few years as I’ve been teaching composition classes. In addition to that, it helps me to write better as well, I think. And of course it encourages me beyond measure to read about someone’s life challenges and how he/she overcomes it and evolves to be better and stronger.
This week, I’ve read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed — which is part love story and part history of the institution of marriage. I found myself underlining so many passages and nodding in agreement. I feel some guilt for saying this, and I am fully aware that it casts a shadow on my former marriage, but I was just telling some friends days ago that I know with all certainty that my life is easier now than it was a year ago. Easier. Think about that. I am a single mother, the only adult in the house with two children under six years old. It’s the dreaded outcome for so many, and there are things that are undoubtedly heavier – finances, the lack of security in reference to my future as I have no idea what lies ahead – but speaking strictly in terms of my day-to-day life, it is easier without a husband.
I can’t believe I just wrote that aloud here, but that’s the truth as I’m experiencing it right now.
I’ve been rolling this realization over and over in my head trying to make sense of it. I mean all relationships (and especially marriage) are work, right? So is it a bad thing that it was more work when I was with him? Do all wives feel this way and if I remarry, I just have to get used to that? But as I’m reading this book and talking with friends about their own experiences, I’m seeing that the answer to those questions is an undoubted NO. A relationship is work, certainly. But it should not be a constant demand for more work and effort on your part with little payoff for emotional connection and happiness. That’s the hard truth of it as I reflect on the past few years of my life.
I know many people think it doesn’t really matter if the child-rearing and domestic chores are unbalanced in a relationship, and to be honest, I didn’t used to think that mattered either. It makes it even more complicated for me because I love so many aspects of domesticity – I love to cook, I love making a home, I love tending to sick kids (well better than the alternative of having someone else tend to my sick kid). But in hindsight, I established this pattern in my former life when I did every single one of those tasks every single day along with other things that became my” duty.” It began with the insistence that these things were my “job” because I was choosing to quit work and stay at home with my son, but of course as a whole new person was added in the mix with a second child and then a full-time job was added as well, no responsibilities changed at all. They just grew and grew. Combine this with some very heavy work travel for the other adult in the house, and I can’t believe I made it as long as I did, frankly, and with my mental fortitude somewhat in tact. If I am being honest here about some things I have never written about before, my mental fortitude was hanging by a thread.
My anxiety had slowly increased in the last two years of my marriage, and it would flare and subside with no easily identifiable pattern. I thought it was because I was a mom of two small children and every mother must feel that way. I countered it with healthy approaches like meditation tracks on my podcast queue and natural supplements and unhealthy approaches like trying to control my food to an almost extreme obsession which I can even see here in my archived posts as I look back. It came to a head last fall when I ended up with a mild (as ulcers go) stomach ulcer and an almost constant quivering in my belly that made food hard to keep in for long. I was up at night unable to sleep, crying in the bathroom at 2am. Or crying to my spouse on the phone at 7:30 am as he was states away in a hotel with the woman he’s now set to marry, and I was driving to work and looking at another string of days caring for kids alone and trying to do all the things I was expected to do. It felt like living in a vacuum.
It ramped up so severely and so quickly that I sometimes feel like perhaps my body and intuition were warning me early last fall of what was set to explode in November, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that mystical, and I was just a nervous wreck.
But here’s the weird thing: I am not a nervous wreck now. Our bodies talk to us and the brain manifests itself in a physical manner often, and if you don’t respond to a whisper, the universe sends you a scream. I had whispers for years I never responded to. That’s the honest truth.
So friends and family are sometimes commenting recently –and especially back in the spring –that they can’t believe I am doing so well in my current situation and seeming to adjust quickly, and the missing piece that answers that puzzle is that I cannot think of a single daily activity that I do now that I didn’t do before. Not one. [Emotionally I am a different story; I’ve had to paddle my way through some deep waters to start the process of figuring it all out and healing.] But in regards to the simple daily routines? It’s exactly the same. And maybe even easier because I get the occasional weekend to reboot and catch-up when my kids are gone, and I don’t have to satisfy someone else’s demands for what he wants me to be on top of the motherhood tasks and domestic lists.
I don’t want to come across as pointing fingers or blaming all of this on my former spouse either. I take full responsibility for establishing that pattern and allowing it to leave a trail of stress and emptiness behind it without seeing it as the issue it was. Writing something down always grants it power, and I’m giving that weight by saying it here. I hold myself accountable for not seeing and addressing that the little things were crushing me, and in all honesty and in hindsight, they were making me feel less valued and appreciated and increasingly disrespected in my own home. It was my job to show up for my own life and address it, and I didn’t.
But back to my original direction with this post, Gilbert’s book left me feeling validated on my feelings about the role of the little things in a household and the effect it can have on marriage and happiness. As Gilbert sadly concedes, “To get anywhere close to unraveling this subject – women and marriage – we have to start with the cold, ugly fact that marriage does not benefit women as much as it benefits men. I didn’t invent this fact, and I don’t like saying it, but it is a sad truth, backed up by study after study” (166). She then goes on to explain that married men accumulate more wealth, report themselves as happier, suffer less from depression, and even live longer than single men. Married women? The reverse is true…. They accumulate less wealth and do not thrive in their careers as much as their single counterparts, are more likely to suffer depression than single women are, and are less healthy and do not live longer than single women. All of this is supported by research and sociologists even have a name for it: The Marriage Benefit Imbalance. And if you think this research shows grim results in other god-forsaken places, but not in modern America, you are wrong.
Ladies! Can we think about that for a minute? Am I saying marriage is terrible and I never want to do it again? Absolutely not. But as a societal institution, even in the modern world in these modern times, it is not beneficial for us in the traditional model. And maybe you are okay with poorer health and less happiness and a greater propensity for anxiety and depression because you are blinded by love for that incredible husband and will do anything to make him happy. I am not in that position at all.
It seems as though when you are young, or when I was young anyhow, I was blinded more by youth and idealism than anything else. The thought that if you love one another, the marriage will never falter and that someone will never betray you and you will never betray yourself by getting lost in all of it. Truthfully, I think there are couples who go on like this for eternity. They are either the lucky ones or the blissfully ignorant ones – I’m not certain which way I see it yet. Or maybe they don’t exist, and these women lie in bed at night counting the ways they threw away their own fulfillment on that particular day and turned themselves inside out to make others happy. I am not talking so much about career vs children here (the debate that gets all the attention), but about true partnership and true equal ground that allows another adult to see you as you really are and value your contributions to the world and to your own household. It felt like infidelity issued some unforeseen blow on my marriage like a sledgehammer with no warning, but now as the dust settles and I look back, I see I had no partnership. Nobody to talk to everyday who saw me for what I really was and weathered the little moments with me. Much of this was circumstantial as I was the lone adult much of the time and had no one to talk to everyday about anything at all for that matter. But circumstantial or not, it is what it is.
So where does this leave me on the prospect of marriage again? I don’t know. I know I won’t take it lightly or impulsively, and I won’t enter into a partnership with someone who does not contribute daily to all the million tiny things it takes to run a family. I guess you can never say never, but it would shock me beyond all belief if I ever embarked on a marriage again with someone who traveled regularly for work. Marriage is not the highs and the holidays; it’s the Tuesday night dinners and the Thursday morning coffee, and the million tiny moments that happen in daily life. And to be frank and hold myself accountable for the past few years, let me say without question that by that definition, I had no marriage at all.
It’s a fine line taking responsibility for your role in something yet refusing to beat yourself up about it. Should I have been clearer in my cries for help and been honest that I was drowning under the weight of someone’s expectations and feeling unseen and disrespected? Absolutely. Does that justify all the injustices done to me? Probably not. But both sides of the committed sins have illuminated lessons for me.
In Committed, Gilbert states, “To ask a twenty-year-old girl to automatically know things about life that most forty-year-old women needed decades to understand is expecting an awful lot of wisdom from very young person” (105). Or as Maya Angelou said so famously, “When you know better, you do better.” And next time I will. Next time I will show up for my own life from the very beginning and expect someone who sees and respects me for who I am and what I do and helps me pull the weight of life because he wants to, not just because I ask it.
Some lessons take time, I think. And Gilbert alludes to this as well when she explains falling in love with her second husband and how that was different from her marriage at 25 years old. …. “It was not an infatuation and here’s how I can tell: because I did not demand that he become my Great Emancipator or my Source of All Life, nor did I immediately vanish into that man’s chest cavity like a twisted, unrecognizable, parasitical homunculus. During our long period of courtship, I remained intact with my own personality and allowed myself to meet Fellipe for who he was….To this day, I refuse to burden Fellipe with the tremendous responsibility of somehow completing me. By this point in my life, I have figured out that he cannot complete me, even if he wanted to. I’ve faced enough of my own incompletions to recognize that they belong solely to me. Having learned this essential truth, I can now tell where I end and where someone else begins” (106).
There are so many things I am learning for sure in my current season. First is that you cannot learn and grow in the truest sense without time alone to reflect. And secondly, you cannot love someone else or even be loved in return in a way that truly fulfills you when you don’t recognize where you end and where that person begins. It’s my responsibility to see myself for what I truly am, call it what it is (even if those words are ugly like anxiety and unhappiness), and show up for myself in the truest sense.
Last weekend, we went early on Saturday morning to a local blueberry farm, and I planned to arrive at 9am to avoid the hot Georgia sun. We arrived at 9:15, and it was already hot, but that’s the way it goes this time of year. And after a lifetime in Georgia, I’ve learned to embrace it.
The bushes were tall and tangled, and every now and then you could find some shade. The kids wandered in and out of them trying to find the darkest berries.
They both took the task pretty seriously, only choosing the best ones and getting excited when they found a surprise blackberry or two hidden among the blueberries.
When we pick apples or strawberries, it only takes us a few minutes to get more than we can easily consume just the three of us. But tiny blueberries are a hard-won prize. We can pick and pick and still only have little to show for it. Especially when Norah crouches low to hide and eat them rather than take them home to share.
She then found the irrigation sprinkler and decided to go for a run to cool off, and who could blame her? July in Georgia is no joke.
I love this time of year for so many reasons, but July and August at a roadside produce stand is enough of a reward to pay for any amount of heat or discomfort. Our plates are colorful and vibrant, and I always think about how much I’ll miss these tastes and smells — sun-ripened tomatoes, sweet corn, mellow peaches — when winter hits and soup loses its luster.
We’ve been playing around with a little backyard gardening as well. I’ve frozen so much pesto from my over-producing basil and will do another round this week. And we’re trying our hand at beans for the first time this year. A tiny effort for a tiny patio for a tiny family, but it feels good to let both kids have a hand in what makes it to the table and understand the idea of seasons and growth and where food comes from.
And, of course, I can’t neglect to mention my grandparents’ amazing garden only a half-hour away which they share with the rest of us. I’ve got big plans to freeze gallons of this squash soup tomorrow for us to enjoy this fall and winter.
The kids are mostly with their dad this week, but I had them for a few hours today, and I was disappointed to find dozens of worms on my bean leaves. (The perils of organic gardening, I guess!) But Jude and Norah were fascinated, of course – placing them in a vented mason jar with leaves to keep them fed and happy.
There was a time when I would have focused on the inconvenience of a garden pest and the potential it holds to ruin the beans I’m spending effort tending to. A time when I would have been too distracted by the sweltering heat to enjoy picking berries. Disheartened by “the small irritations like salt on melon” as Linda Pastan says in that poem I love so dearly.
But the upheaval of my previous year, among many other things, put these annoyances in clearer perspective for me. It’s never perfect. None of it is seamless. But these things come so seldom, and I’ll miss it if I’m not paying attention because I’m distracted by discomfort or reminders of what could have been. This is now – tomatoes, berries, sweet corn, cold cucumbers, fresh beans, bright basil. It only lasts a moment before time moves us to another season.
I can’t believe July is nearly halfway over. Every teacher I know gets a little panicked as she sees August draw closer, and I am no exception. August is official back-to-school mode (here in the south anyway), and July always feels like I’m in a race somehow. You can only handle the notion of carpe diem a little bit before it can drive you crazy. Am I doing as many things as I can to hold on to summer? Am I moving fast enough on that list of house tasks I was determined to complete? Am I providing enough fodder for memories for my own kids to reflect on one day? It’s enough to make you feel tired sometimes – just thinking of what you want to accomplish before the academic year begins and wondering how summer is passing by so quickly.
I spent yesterday at the lake with my kids, and we had the best time. Just the three of us and a lot of stillness… which to be truthful is not a word I typically associate with my time with these two. But yesterday was about as close to relaxation and serenity as you can get with two kids under six and one adult tagging along.
They loved exploring the shore to find sticks and smooth rocks and a few swimming minnows and drifting feathers.
You can get overwhelmed with the to-do list when you’re parenting kids of any age, but especially kids this small. Last week had us at the ENT office for a consultation on a tonsillectomy, communicating details about an upcoming summer camp for Jude, and working to find a new speech therapist as a result of a pending kindergarten schedule – plus the usual balance of books and naps and meals and sunscreen and laundry and miles of other regular daily routines. But for once, I ignored most of it for a day, packed a bag with towels and snacks and drove somewhere simple that I know they love. We arrived before it became crowded, and watching them watch the world around us granted me the biggest exhale I had all week.
It was such a great day, and I left feeling full and grateful for a lot of things – my summers off, where I live, and these two. I’m thankful for all of it, and I’m trying deliberately to avoid the hurried feeling of not enough to rest in the right now.
My kids are home with me after a week away. For once, the time without them did not drag by slowly last week. I took dance class two nights in a row (sore muscles to say the least), finished up an editing project I’d taken on for extra income, and did a little reading and writing of my own choosing as well. I got some incredibly encouraging news on the freelance writing front with a submission that was accepted quickly, and I hope to expand on the details for that when it is published. It’s been a goal of mine to submit some personal essays to a few publications for quite some time, so this gives me the motivation to keep writing and keep submitting. On the whole, it was a really great week.
I’ve heard of Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart for years, and a good friend of mine mentioned it yet again recently, so I decided to pick it up this weekend. It’s a quick read, and I settled in one afternoon to read most of it in one sitting and then finished it up Sunday morning. I’m getting better at enjoying the perks of solitude. A quiet house, cooking a solo dinner of my own choosing, reading for pleasure more than I have in ages, or even small gems like having a house relatively clean and listening to music at my own whim. These things don’t make up for the kids being gone, and I am happiest for certain when we are together, but I’m finding that recognizing the positives of my situation is helping me to ease into it a little deeper and not long for this season to be over. This summer is also affording me so much time to think and reflect on the past decade of my life, and I can’t begin to describe the difference that is making in my ability to process things positively and move forward to make things better.
This recent change of perspective relates to Chodron’s book as well. It’s hard – especially now with social networking to let us know what others are up to – to rest in your own imperfections and your own transitions and not feel lame or worthless. People are in performance mode almost always, and I know that. But I fall for it everyday and have to shield its impact a bit from myself if I can. I see it with friends and acquaintances – and yes even strangers – on the internet. I see it with my children’s father who is excitedly planning a wedding that is only three months away and relishing in a lot of happiness right now. I see it everywhere. But the point Chodron makes so well in this book is that change is the only constant in life and that suffering serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things. When you rest in your discomfort and use stillness to do that, you truly evolve from your pain or experience.
She explains near the beginning of the book that “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy” (8). Allowing space is the hard part for sure. I’m working hard in my current life to include fun experiences that take my mind off things for a while. Dinner with girlfriends, fun outings with the kids, trips to the bookstore, late night Netflix, weekends away, and lots of other things. But these past few weeks, I’m also letting myself sink into the loneliness and the feeling of being completely not in control, completely clueless about what lies ahead for me. Before I read this book and could give a name to it, I could feel what Pema Chodron is talking about already – the healing that only comes from allowing space for it all to be felt in the truest sense.
This idea of admitting and feeling suffering without fighting it is contrary to our nature. Chodron speaks at length about our culture’s tendency to avoid pain and suffering by covering it up with a multitude of things – alcohol, excessive spending and a desire for worldly attention, new romantic relationships – and more specifically, she explains how ineffective those distractions are if we really want to grow from our pain and become fuller and richer as a result; “We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated … When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart. We do everything we can not to feel anything threatening … When we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armor. The way we guard ourselves is getting softened up” (89). I’ve seen this firsthand with friends of mine who have suffered unimaginable losses or pain or disappointment. They have emerged as completely different people than they were before. Life softens and deepens you if you let it, but only when you allow yourself the time to sink into your suffering a little and learn your way around what it all means. And though it is really inconvenient, I’m seeing more and more that you really can’t do that at all when you try to fill up the pain with something else.
I’ve let go of so many things this past few months. Material things – my car and house and leisure space in our family budget. But also I’ve lost so many assumptions about people and about life and about myself. It’s crazy to look back at the first post I wrote six months ago when I finally explained what had been happening for me, and even then I alluded to this act of letting go and the things I was still clinging to. And though that was only about six months ago, I feel like I’ve changed so much at my core. It’s like being completely emptied of everything you had and everything you assumed only to start filling yourself up again in a totally new way.
I wish there were other ways in life to experience this groundlessness as Pema Chodron calls it, but it usually only comes in these painful experiences of loss or profound disappointment. As she says, “We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure because sooner or later, we are going to have an experience we can’t control. … We can give up on being perfect and experience each moment to its fullest. Trying to run away is never the answer to being a full human being. Running away from the immediacy of our experience is like preferring death to life“ (72). There are so many ways we “run away from the immediacy of our experience,” and they seldom look like running. They often look like distractions or like “moving on,” “staying busy,” or “having it all together” as I hear people say from time to time.
The biggest change that has happened for me is that I’m done with that. I don’t have it all together. I am not starting some brand new life that will align perfectly by my expectations and look just like my old life but with a different person. The perfection veil was pulled away for me. I didn’t choose the actions that began that avalanche. But in the aftermath of all of that, it feels so liberating to have it removed and simply be in a moment in my life when I have no master plan and no grand storyline I’m trying to write. All there is in front of me is the here and now. I worried so much in these past few months that I was missing life with my kids because I was so overwhelmed and busy with life tasks and cleaning the mess in front of me. But now, in a weird way, I feel like I am missing less than ever because I have no idea what is ahead and I have nobody to answer to but my own calling and these two little people. That’s it. I woke up to that new lens as I finally reached the other side of all that has happened. I’m here, right now. I don’t know about the rest, but the rest doesn’t matter.
And I feel as though it has taken a lot of internal work to get to this statement, but I am finally beginning to feel genuinely grateful for it all – every moment and where I am now. I’m starting to look less at my current situation as a stepping stone to something else and see it as simply life and what I am. Yes, it is all part of who I will be and where I will go and forever changes the way I see the world, but really it’s just the path I’m on to learn what I am meant to learn in the only way I could learn it. I am exactly what I feared when I made decisions seven months ago – alone and completely unsure where I am headed next. But ironically, now I don’t fear where I am at all. I’m almost beginning to fear the other end because I don’t want to lose this lens if I move forward to something else.
Everything is at its most essential and distilled moment. Everything is immediate right now. It’s like waking up, and I want to remember these lessons and these moments – even the hard ones – in my years ahead. In hindsight, I had years and years of ease and happiness, and I was asleep for so much of it. As Chodron says, “When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, even you and me” (54). I’m awake to all of it now, it seems. Awake to the bravery and the kindness and the softness and all of it. I’m seeing it all in a way I haven’t witnessed when things were easy. I’m becoming grateful for the hard part, and I guess what I am trying to say – if this makes any sense at all – is that I’m enjoying the middle way as Chodron calls it. There’s so much good I’m uncovering, and even more waiting down the road if I can keep these eyes to see it.