It’s easy to forget the way life used to be as we sit in the comfort of 2016’s America. I was talking with someone the other day about the McMansion trend happening in the suburbs. The vaulted ceilings, enormous shiny kitchens, three fireplaces in one home – all of which are rarely used and operated by a light switch. Look back even one generation ago, and these traits would have been rare and now they seem commonplace or stale.
My grandmother grew up in a tiny house with her four siblings. Two bedrooms and a kitchen whose walls you can almost touch with both arms if you stretch far enough. Her mother lived there until she died at the age of 92, and the house is still standing. It’s adjacent to my grandparents’ home, and I noted when I wrote her obituary that she was born and died on the same family span of property – a story that almost never happens anymore.
In the front of that tiny house, stood an old tree that shaded the yard and stands central to my childhood memories of family gatherings and Sunday lunches. Shade in the thick Georgia heat as we’d gather with long tables strung together, one right after the other, and food all the way to the end. Homemade ice cream and cousins and games of tag. Afternoons when we’d begin spread all over the yard and slowly move folding chairs to the shady spot as the sun spread a little higher and hotter overhead when the hours wore on.
A limb fell from the tree last week, and as it turns out, much of it was partially rotted, as trees often do with the passage of time.
It was taken down on Thursday, and I drove by yesterday. It’s a weird sight to see that house without its tree out front. The whole landscape I know so well altered and feeling exposed, naked. Raw nerves left open when they haven’t closed yet anyway. Change after change after change. It’s only a tree, I know. Except that it’s not.
So many ancient cultures saw trees as more than wooden branches. They’ve been associated with prayer and spirit and protection for thousands of years. It’s easy to see why that is when you look at an old tree. Its wisdom seems to predate and outlast our own. We watch seasons change and colors come and go on the branches. And after every change and loss in the landscape of our real lives, they just seem to watch and listen patiently – a reminder of both what is temporary and what is eternal.
I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about how I was raised, the things I learned without knowing I was learning them, the truths I absorbed. You don’t really think about these things because they become so second nature to you. But as is always the case with death, my grandmother’s passing has me digging back through the loads of memories buried in my own mind and realizing the ways they taught me what I needed to learn.
Do people do this anymore? Do they raise families in tiny homes and see abundance around them instead of need? Do they know third cousins as well as they know siblings? Do they sit on porches and under shade trees for hours on a Sunday afternoon and talk about things other than work or money or pop culture? I think the answer is mostly no, and that makes me sad but also grateful I’ve led the life I have.
I woke this morning to my daily Richard Rohr Meditation in my email inbox, and his subject line read “Rise Up Rooted Like Trees.” Yes, God, I heard you. I’m listening, I’m listening.
Rohr happens to include Rilke, who has guided me so much lately and tells us, “If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees. Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused. … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly.” The Earth’s intelligence tells us that things rise and fall, live and die. It tells us that we can’t control what is before us, even with vaulted ceilings or three fireplaces. We forget this though. It is a daily struggle for me, in our modern world, to know that you don’t have to be happy all the time, that sorrow and grief have a place in our lives, that our inner landscape is far more important than our outer achievements.
Rohr expands on Rilke a bit by explaining that in nature, “Nothing stays in the same shape or form for long. Plants and animals seem to accept this dying. All of the natural world seems to accept the change of seasons. Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. It learns gravity’s fall, as it were. Only one species resists this natural movement: humans—you and me. … We are free to cling to our own egoic resources, to climb instead of to descend. But we must fall if we are ever to fly.”
You have to descend before you can ascend, don’t you? Reach deeper inward before you can expand outward. Walk through sorrow with honesty before you can feel real joy. You can only rise when you are rooted.
I’m grateful for the memories I have of lazy summers spent under the shade of that tree, the shelter it gave us for the conversations that shaped my life and who I’ve become. And I’m grateful for it still, as it fell and was hauled away in pieces. It’s teaching me the most important lesson in its absence. Let go, let go, let go. Life makes us shed our skin again and again. It hurts to become something new.
It is 6:30 pm, and the kids are gone this weekend. The dryer is humming with the week’s laundry and it’s pouring outside. That summer rain that comes down in buckets through the August heat and washes everything away for a while.
Tomorrow marks 8 weeks that my grandmother has been gone. When my phone rang just after 5am that morning, I knew. I didn’t have to hear what was coming next when I answered my mother’s voice. When I drove over to her house, it was a couple hours later. Mid-morning after a Sunday sunrise, and I listened to Patty Griffin sing all the way there. I can never hear that song again without my eyes stinging and my throat tightening. Open your eyes, boy, we made it through the night. Let’s take a walk on the bridge, right over this mess.
It always feels like you’ve made it through the night. For a minute. But then you see another one on the horizon, another bridge you have to scale. Grief ebbs and flows. I’m missing her today.
One day, I will stop writing about this. But not today. Not on day 55. I can remember years ago, someone I knew lost her brother to a brain tumor, and her friend said to me that she was hard to talk to anymore. It’s like it’s all she wants to talk about, but eventually, you just have to get over it, you know? But do you? What does “get over it” even mean?
In Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood says, “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it to yourself or someone else.”
I’m in the middle of my story, and I cannot see my way out yet. But I can see the narrative forming already. I know a day is coming when I will look back and think, remember that time when I was alone and writing, writing, writing my way out of some hole like words were a shovel? Loss after loss and unfamiliar terrain everywhere. Remember that time when I spent Saturday mornings alone in bed with books and words in front of me and ate alone and slept alone and ran my hands along the walls of my unfamiliar grief until I found a light switch?
We are still sorting through her things, little bits at a time. I had an empty afternoon today, so I went to see my Grandad and cleaned a few closets of her clothing. I found my wedding dress in the back of a closet left from a time when I was a newlywed in a little house learning to cook from the back of a Campbell’s soup can, and she had more storage than I did, so I left it there. It seems like some unfamiliar relic when I take a close look at it. All I can think as I see it is if I knew then what I know now. If I knew then what I know now. If I knew then what I know now.
Today I found, among folded sheets and towels, one of the gowns she wore while home on hospice. It is gray with pink flowers and a slit cut straight up the back so that we could easily keep her clean and comfortable. It still smells like her. If I knew then what I know now. If I knew then what I know now.
But we never know now what we will one day see in retrospect, do we? Some days, I still can’t believe that this is my life, that these are my hours. That this place is where it’s led me.
I miss her so much, but as I look through her things and think about the 35 years I spent with her, I also find myself doing that thing humans always do, missing the way it used to be – all of it. I miss childhood and barefoot summers with afternoons spent in front of the oscillating fan on her living room floor. I miss knowing that she was there in the periphery of my life, like a permanent piece, though of course she was never meant to stay. None of us are. Once you break, you can’t go back. But it’s easy to miss what it felt like to be clean and whole.
I’ve seen art made from shattered pieces of glass, and it’s incredible. It glints and shines and takes a new form so much more interesting and beautiful than something solid and flawless and predictable. I think people are the same way. After you break and put it all back together to something new, you glint and shine in an entirely new way. I’m getting pretty good at knowing if someone has broken before and put themselves back together in a more beautiful way. It’s an obvious glimmer like no other when you learn how to recognize it. My grandmother had it. She broke and put herself back together again and again, and now I get it.
In that same Patty Griffin song, she also sings, It’s hard to live. But I still think it’s the best bet. It’s hard to live. It’s okay that it’s hard. It’s okay to not be okay. I know all these things, I do. But I’ll be glad when this becomes a story.
Our weekend was busy with celebration. My younger brother got married at a north Georgia winery, and as Norah and I drove over on Friday afternoon after school, I was reminded of how much I love my home state, even in the sweltering heat of August.
North Georgia is so beautiful, and I never tire of it. Rolling hills as far as you can see and pines everywhere. I feel lucky to live where I do and have a web of family spread across a landscape that I love so much. I know the south has its quirks and limitations, but it is home like no other place on earth for me. Beauty everywhere.
The rehearsal dinner was at a historic restaurant in a tiny town and featured fried chicken and mashed potatoes and squash casserole. The next day was full and busy with wedding prep. Both kids were part of the ceremony, and it’s sweet to see them dressed up and feeling special for occasions like this. As usual, Norah was ecstatic and energetic about her role in front of a crowd, and Jude was more reserved.
There was a time in my life when I went to a wedding every month, I think. But it’s been a while, and as I reach my mid-thirties, these are fewer and farther between. I forget about all the preparation and excitement and jitters and tiny details. It was fun to be reminded of what it feels like to plan for such a special day.
The kids didn’t have a clue, of course, about the tiny choices like flowers and music and bridesmaids dresses and the million worries that go into planning an occasion like this. But they did feed on the excitement which was fun to watch.
I couldn’t get enough of my tiny groomsman. Little girls love to dress up any chance they get, so it’s no shock to see Norah running around the house in a dress for no reason at all lately. But to see Jude in a suit with a boutonniere pinned on? Slay me.
After the ceremony, the crowd moved to the tasting area of the winery to eat and drink and talk as we watched the sun go down over the mountains. Norah danced and twirled with her cousins and stayed up way past her bedtime.
The bride lost her grandmother just a few weeks ago, soon after my grandmother passed. There was a moment of silence for the two of them at the beginning of the ceremony, and the absence was tangible. We felt it. It is still so incredibly fresh and, in a weird way, it is actually becoming more painful these past couple of weeks. Like a wound that gets worse before it gets better. The surreal feelings wear off along with the high of the funeral and the million visitors and condolences. And then you are left with the reality that the person you loved just isn’t there anymore. It’s the weirdest thing, isn’t it? That this is how life works. That we lose people we can’t imagine living without and life just keeps happening anyway.
I’ve been revisiting Rilke a bit again lately, and in one poem, he explains “God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks us silently out of the night …Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” It’s such a comfort to know that no feeling is final, to know that everything passes eventually.
This last two years of my life have felt like beauty and terror again and again, sometimes in the same moment. I’ve become a beauty chaser, I think. Look for it, find it, squeeze it for what it’s worth. Squeeze out every last drop you can get. It’s there in the tiniest spaces when we are open to it.
It felt good to celebrate that this weekend. I know that beauty lies all around us all the time, but on some days, it’s easier to see than on other days.
You just have to wait out the rest of it sometimes, don’t you? I think it’s also Rilke who says, “Don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”
Life never forgets us, and I know this. You just have to trust and wait and let it go on and on and on to whatever comes next.
It’s finally Friday of our first week back. We did it!
It feels so much easier this year. I know both of their schools and the parents and the communities present there. With kindergarten behind us, the hard transition is out of the way. Even though it takes some getting used to again after a few months off, the old drill seems comfortable and worn in.
Both kids are hard to get out of bed in the morning though, no matter how early I get them to sleep the night before. And August is that weird few weeks of late daylight and sweaty summer temperatures set against the harsh demands of the school schedule. It’s like the dress rehearsal for what’s coming next, the prologue to fall.
I’m having to constantly remind myself that it is okay to lean into what is comfortable. It’s okay to feel that things can slow down now. The last few years have been nothing but change, and then this summer with my grandmother was a huge shift in what I have known for the entirety of my life. It is not debatable that I need the rest and familiarity – as anyone would. But it makes me feel like I am always forgetting something, like I should be doing something more than keeping the pulse that strings our days together. I’m not used to standing still and having no major transition in front of me.
This isn’t new anymore. It’s me. It’s the three of us. Life as we know it with a comfortable rhythm.
I read a thoughtful commentary this week from Parker Palmer expanding on a Marge Piercy poem, “The Seven of Pentacles.” She explains, “Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground. / You cannot tell always by looking what is happening. / More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.” It seems that way in certain seasons, doesn’t it? You cannot always tell what is happening by looking, but you can feel those roots deepening sometimes. And sometimes you can’t – even though the growth is there. I know the work I do now, in the still seasons, is giving my kids a sense of certainty and a solid ground to stand on, but in our society of make, make, make and productivity measures and checking things off a list, it can be hard not to see yourself as some sort of insufficient factory when your output slows down.
I’m not sure how much sense this is making to others, though I am writing for myself as I always do – so that I don’t forget that there were moments when it felt steady and easy (easier, that is) and simple. I’m working hard to “Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses” as Piercy encourages in that poem.
She is so good to remind us that “This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always, / for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting / after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.”
Every time growth feels slow, I’m reminding myself again and again: half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
This week hasn’t gone as expected, but I feel like that concept more or less applies to my entire life as it’s unfolded. You learn to roll with it, I guess.
We spent the earlier part of the week getting ready for the start of school with fresh haircuts and new shoes and unopened boxes of shiny new pencils. Jude’s orientation was Tuesday, and we met his teacher and a few classmates and even indulged in some shaved ice. (Starting school in early August as we do down south, we need it!)
Then after all of our preparation and excitement and best laid plans, Jude came down with some mystery virus the day before school began. I pulled out all the usuals with rest and water and smoothies and Thieves oil, but it was no good. He missed the first two days of school, which is probably not such a big deal when you are six, but it feels that way to your mom. Yesterday was such a shuffle: sick Jude missing his first day, Norah’s orientation scheduled that night, and nobody nearby to help easily. My mom dropped by to sit with Jude just in time for me to race to Norah’s orientation, and we walked in the door just 6 minutes before it ended.
It sometimes feels like I run circles around us like a loose chicken to put together all the moving pieces, and my kids are completely oblivious about what it takes to get us from A to B. That’s the way of childhood though, and I hope they don’t realize how precariously our house and schedules and weekday moments were strung together until they are old enough to understand all of it. Family is work. So much work. The weekends and holidays can feel sweet, but the minutes it takes to get you from one weekend to the next? So carefully orchestrated and planned so that we all arrive in the right place.
I’m getting better at accepting that things do not always unfold the way I expect them to. It’s pretty unbelievable to me to take a look at the countless ways that life is teaching me this lesson in the last year. Over and over again – the delivery is different, but the message the same. It’s that constant reminder that things change. People don’t stay and circumstances are not predictable. But I have everything I need in that tiny, still space inside if I can quiet the outside noise and less important stuff. Strength and stability mean something very different to me now than they did years ago. I know I am the only one who can create it.
I tried to make the most of Jude’s extra two days of summer with couch cuddles and reading another installment of The Magic Treehouse. It’s hard to turn off the worry and the picture of what you expected and be in the present instead. But we tried.
I’m reading Krista Tippet’s Becoming Wise right now, and though I just started it, there is so much it has to offer. She insists “that we are made by what would break us. Birth itself is a triumph through a bloody, treacherous process. We only learn to walk when we risk falling down, and this equation holds — with commensurately more complex dynamics — our whole lives long … You have your own stories, the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
Dramatic and ordinary moments alike, they can all teach us wisdom if we are paying attention. I know with certainty that what has gone wrong opened my gift to the world in a way I didn’t expect. And I guess that’s the good thing about the unexpected is that it works both ways. The heartache and trials can surprise you, but the rewards can, too.
It’s been a week or so since I sat down to write, and though I hate the term “writer’s block,” that is what it feels like a little this weekend. But I make myself come to this space regardless of what I have to say. Most of the time, the biggest truths come along between the written lines anyhow.
We are wrapping up the summer with only 4 days left until school begins for Jude. We’ve been swimming with cousins and playing with neighbors and staying in our pajamas for hours after waking up. I don’t feel ready for the start of the school year, but it’s almost here anyway.
Jude spent hours yesterday chasing butterflies while we were playing with family. I joke that he is the Butterfly Whisperer. He will quietly sneak up behind them as they pause on a flower and gently grab their wings. It takes so much concentration, and then he’s proud of his accomplishment.
We played with them a minute and watched them flutter in a Mason jar for a few hours and then had a butterfly release on the back patio just before dinner. Both of my kids are growing so fast, just like every mom says, but I am astounded at how much they comprehend. How much they observe and the conversations they have with me, the ways we understand each other and know each other well. Motherhood is not easy, but they are getting easier, no doubt. I’m grateful we are hitting our stride.
There are so many things swirling in my head that I haven’t mentioned here because I am not sure how to say them gracefully or how much to say. I don’t talk much about my former life circumstances because it feels so, so far away. Like another lifetime. But that little TimeHop screen on my phone shocks me back to reality sometimes. Two years ago this summer, I was cooking out with friends for the Fourth of July in my married home without so much as a hiccup on the horizon. Two little years ago, we vacationed in Mexico together. But I look at those photos now, and only my children even look familiar. I have changed a million times over, and it looks like a stranger next to me.
It has changed somehow. Instead of the overwhelming shock and heartbreak I felt a year ago, it just feels like some weird sense of disconnect. Like that could not really have been my life before. I hardly remember it somehow.
He is welcoming another child in two months. The kids told me, nonchalantly, back in March as I stirred dinner on the stove one Sunday evening in the late daylight. I expected as much, but the speed at which it all has happened is still enough to make my head spin sometimes. Two little years after we were vacationing in Mexico together without a hiccup on the horizon, and I am writing this sentence on a couch in my own home with my own life and dreams unfolding as I watch my two gain independence. And he is likely in a baby aisle somewhere surveying pacifiers and buying breast pumps and diapers. Life is stranger than fiction indeed.
My close circle in day-to-day life knows this, of course, but I have not mentioned it here. It’s a weird thing to be — this nothing to the other child. Not a step-mom, of course. Or an aunt, or a side mom. A stranger really. But one whose children are half-tied. The thing about divorce is that it never really leaves you. It’s not a cheating boyfriend you can be angry at and avoid the rest of your life. As it turns out, it’s a whole other family who shows up in your driveway twice a month for weekend visitation. If you have any chance at all of inner peace, you have no choice but to face your shit, as people like to say.
That’s precisely what I have spent the last twenty months doing. facing my shit without distraction or avoidance. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. Like most things in life, you have to somehow just figure it out, though there is no roadmap. I’m figuring it out pretty well, I think. But I do often think about how much time it takes to get it all sorted out. How much I change from month-to-month. How much I learn with every experience, every conversation. How much every challenge leads me inward, inward, inward to what I alone can offer.
Life is just one big, long unfolding, isn’t it? You really don’t know where it’s going to lead and what will happen in the meantime. I’m grateful for the freedom to figure it all out in this season without demands or expectations, but I can’t help, in my flawed human nature, to wish I had binoculars to somehow see what lies ahead at the end of the road. I think the answers almost always surprise us all.
My friends and I have had this weekend on the calendar for a while as a chance to catch up and do something fun. In the past few days, we decided maybe a North Georgia winery would be a treat, and we made plans for a tasting followed by dinner followed by staying the night at my house.
I wish I could somehow reach back to that person who was so itchy and uncomfortable in a house by herself. That person who was so scared and intimidated at a new life alone and trying to fit in new boxes. There’s this thing no one tells you about single motherhood after a divorce which is that it absolutely sucks sometimes and you think you might not make it out alive, but then once you get past the transition, your solitude will feel like a gift. You wake up. You suddenly have time again to do anything you want – to catch up with friends, to try something new, to dream and plan for what’s next, to invest in yourself. When you sink your heels in instead of trying to fly as fast as you can to the next chapter, you see it’s actually such an incredible place to be.
I woke up yesterday to the usual sound of the dog whining to go out. I let him out, brewed coffee, and took it back to bed with me. I read a little (a book that is not typical for me but I loved it) and drank a second cup of coffee in the bed, cuddled under my covers and surrounded by the quiet of a house that is clean, for once. I traded funny texts with a friend for a while and eventually got out of bed to do a little yoga and get in the shower.
When friends showed up in the afternoon, we piled in the car for a drive to the mountains just north of where I live and indulged in a wine and chocolate tasting at a small winery.
After we finished, we sat outside for a while with breezes that were more generous than the usual July heat and then eventually headed into the small town nearby for dinner and hours of conversation. We laughed a lot. We walked around in the blue summer dusk after dinner and then piled in the car to head back to my house.
This morning, I made waffles with sliced strawberries and we talked about big and small things until well past noon before realizing what time it was. After they left, I headed to my neighborhood pool to sit alone in silence, swim a bit, and finish my book. This afternoon brought a few house tasks and a quiet dinner alone and now some time to write so that I don’t forget all these tiny pleasures.
I wanted to round out my summer by reading a book about goal setting and “manifestation” which is a term that understandably makes people roll their eyes. It’s not as easy as claiming you want something and having it delivered on your doorstep. But when I dusted off the journal I used at the Jen Pastiloff Atlanta workshop last year, I see this list of things that felt so incredibly far away for me that have become my daily reality now: writing for an audience of connected readers, deepening my friendships, feeling comfortable and authentic as a mom on my own with my two, a sense of home and community for us, comfort in my solitude.
These are things I lusted after a year ago as such far away goals, but when I look at my life as it is now, every one of these things is my daily reality. Every one.
I’m not done yet. I have more to do. I’m ready for the next chapter, and I think it’s going to be a big one. I wrote a list today in that same notebook, and I trust that these things are coming for me. Moving in the direction of joy is the answer, I think. When you feel that stir of curiosity, that voice that says yes this is it, you have to do it. There’s that famous Rumi passage that claims, “What you seek is seeking you,” and you can feel it push, push, pushing when you follow your own calling. It’s incredible to see the way your heart finds its purpose, bit by bit.
There are so many things I will never be because that is not who I am, and the older I get, the less afflicted I am by the list of things I am not and the more interested I become in the list of things I am. There are so many dreams I’m fulfilling that only unfolded after a long, meandering path that no human could ever have orchestrated. If I made a list of all the seemingly random occurrences that led to my life unfolding in the way it has, I would never stop writing. One tiny thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. And eventually you arrive at a destination that feels like home. I had no idea this season would feel like such a gift.