a different kind of happy

I don’t know how it’s been 13 days since I have written in this space. We acclimated to the post-holiday, real life schedule again. The semester began. It snowed last weekend, a rarity in Atlanta. And now here we are with a some springtime weather a week later. That is more or less the summary of my past few weeks with the details left out. And it’s always the details that matter anyhow, isn’t it?

There are pieces of my days that I want to write about, but I never sit down to do it lately. And there are pieces of my days that I am not ready to write about yet but know I one day will. I love writing and the clarity it offers me, but I am also finding that when you are writing about something, you’re standing on the outside of that thing looking in. This is something I love to do in retrospect, glance inward at something after it has come and gone and see it with new eyes. But lately I feel like I don’t want to ruin things in their immediacy by putting on my writer eyes to dissect it. Sometimes you just need to let things be. Breathe in and breathe out and whisper gratitude for what it is in that moment and do all the thinking later. I find lately that I might try to write about something, and the words stop short of where I want them to be. They aren’t ready to come yet.

Part of this could be that I have spent so much of the past few years writing about pain, and it feels good to do that – to search and try to find some kind of meaning in it. But when things are good, it feels different somehow. Like I don’t need to search for the meaning by digging through my thoughts word-by-word. With joy, you just have to be still….which is also hard sometimes.

I am (like everyone else these days) a huge Brene Brown fan, and I know she tells us, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience. And if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” I do this all the time. When things are good, especially after such a long season of hard, I dress rehearse tragedy in my head. I think of the thousand ways that the other shoe could drop. The million pieces of my life that could go wrong and create a mess to clean up. Joy is a terrifying emotion, especially after you have survived heartbreak in any form and you realize what the other side really feels like. It seems so ridiculous to type that, but it’s true. I don’t know why I can’t just let happiness be what it is without the worry. I am getting perhaps a little better at it, but I’m not there yet.

I do find my joy is deeper now though. The happy is a different kind of happy from what it was before. It can be big things or little things – the swell of a particular song I love on the speakers, the feel of home in the midst of a busy week, a leisurely walk with the kids in the woods. I feel every single second just a little bit deeper than before.

Life in general is more terrifying than it used to be because I know more intimately what pain feels like, and after these past few years, I think I’m almost operating from a sense of struggle as my norm. But now that the dust has settled and it feels like luck and quiet are starting to blow my direction, my joy hums in a deeper spot in my chest as well. It radiates and warms in a way it never did before. I guess that’s what people mean when they say life and age and experience can make you wiser. I feel it all. Good and bad and ugly and beautiful.

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It took courage to do what I have done in the past two years. To look pain and heartbreak and difficulty and even death in the face and muster the courage to know that I would walk through it stronger than how I began. But it also takes courage to do what I am doing now. To be happy without asking questions and without anticipating tragedy around the bend. Brown also reminds us, “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.'”

Courage is a heart word, no doubt. And I already know I have it, but now I get to use it perhaps for a different purpose. To be honest and speak openly about who I am and what I want. To look happiness in the face and know that I am worthy of receiving it with no strings attached. To know that this is my time and my season and my own life to mold any way I choose. To see the wide open space in front of me as opportunity for happiness and fulfillment rather than scary wilderness. Sometimes joy is just that, pure and true.

brave

I turned the page to a new calendar today, and I don’t remember the last time that felt so good. Actually, that’s not true. I said the same thing in 2015 and 2016. This last few years have left me like some molting animal, I think. Shedding, shedding, shedding continuously. By the time the year is over, I am so ready to shake it loose and let the layers fall.

The kids’ custody schedule this holiday has had them back and forth a lot, and I am not sure I like it that way. Every 3 or 4 days, they were packing up to head to the other parent’s house, so it felt like we could hardly sink in before they left again and again. They are due home any minute now, and we have a huge family gathering tonight followed by a few more days of leisure before school schedules resume.

I think I am ready to move forward to the hard work of getting started this year. I cannot look back at the last two years of my life and say I’ve been complacent…. This journal, above all else, shows me the ways I’ve grown immeasurably. But as I wrote here a few days ago, I’ve just been swimming along as best I can with a pretty strong current that wasn’t really controlled by me. I’m on the road to intention again now, I hope.

I took a while today to go through all the things I’d written in my gratitude jar this year. One by one, I pulled them out and read what I’d scribbled, and I am consistently reminded each year how only the very simplest things can bring me real joy. Any handful I grabbed to read brought the same message.

January 4 Driving, winter sunset. Black, bare branches against the sky. Patty Griffin from the speakers. March 3 Cold rain, fuzzy blanket. May 22 Norah running from the neighbor’s house to ours at 7pm. Golden light. Smiling. June 17 Talking with Grandmother as she lays in the bed. She sees me yawn and tells me to place a pillow next to her hip and lie down with her. Her wrinkled hands next to me. July 23 Winery with friends, outside table, north Georgia hills, sunshine, breeze. October 16 Singing happy birthday to Jude with a candle in the brownie pan. No ceiling above us in the kitchen. Laughing. November 27 Writing in bed, cold outside. Blanket heavy.

I think the hardest thing I’ve ever done is to stay open. I’m seeing this now again and again, and it never stops being hard. Open in the face of fear and uncertainty. Open in the face of what we’ve had to do before. It is difficult to soften instead of harden, isn’t it? The bravest thing, no doubt. The only way I can do it is to chase that beauty and find the light somehow.

What I see when I read these scribbled sheets of paper and I revisit the very best moments in my year and in my life is that I was open to it – whatever it was. I was paying attention and ready and waiting for love to show up in one of its many forms. Love comes in beauty, in comfort, in laughter, in solitude, in song, and most of all in the quiet. When I have the patience to wait for it and the willingness to perceive it, I see it everywhere.

In Tiny Beautiful Things, there’s a letter where Strayed urges the reader,“You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”

Intention is my word for the year. I am tired of being swept in the current. I want this to reflect itself in every facet of my life – my home, my bank account, my classroom, my relationship with my kids, my time and energy, my writing.

My life’s work, all of it, is to pay attention and know myself and do things on purpose. Piece by piece, it will come together like it’s meant to. I have no doubt.

To doing and being and stretching in the directions we are meant to stretch. To creating a life that is good and big and kind and forgiving and brave. To purpose and intention as we march forward to what’s ahead. Happy New Year, reader! Onward.

 

 

 

make it true

It’s December 26th, and sometimes I think this might be my favorite day of the year. I know a lot of people feel a Post-Christmas let down, but I love these days just after the release of the pressure of such a big holiday. Gifts are opened, schedules are still relaxed. We have no one to answer to, and everything feels a little looser and slower and more free in the very best way.

Christmas morning last year felt so strange to me, waking in a quiet house with just the three of us. This year felt as worn and real and true as an old sweater. Jude was the last of the two of them to finally close his eyes at about 9:45 after hours of cousin excitement on Christmas Eve. I double-checked how soundly they were sleeping, listening for the tell tale slowed pace of their own breathing. And then I ventured to the garage to uncover all I’d hidden and begin to set it up. I stuffed my own stocking with a book and some chocolates and some fun bath oils so they don’t think Santa left me out. I set up their separate little piles and a few shared gifts in the middle. I didn’t feel the twinge of strange and lonely that I wrote about last year. This house is mine and this life is mine, and the further I get on this path, the more I love it. I don’t feel any void or missing piece when I am inside these walls. Just love and just us, the only way we know to be.

On Christmas day, they woke early and ripped into the packages as quickly as possible. They played while I avoided the mess and started on breakfast.

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My grandmother’s absence is humming under it all this year. Christmas does feel a little different without her here to guide me through it. But I made her food and I hung a few of her ornaments, and though my eyes water sometimes with the sting of loss, I can feel her here in such a real way sometimes. It’s that unique knife of both joy and sadness that pierces in the deepest place. I think when you sink deeper into those scary shades of loss and grief, it opens you up to feel that love and presence in a way you otherwise can’t. Feel the grief pierce you, sit with it a minute, and then you can feel the flow of love and memory and nostalgia and presence that comes after that stillness. I breathe it in as deeply as I can, and I say thank you.

What a year this has been. The news broke last night about George Michael, and the list he’s joining is such a long one – David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leon Russell, Harper Lee, Prince, Merle Haggard, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen. Art never ends though, does it? After the news broke on each of those, I heard others reminisce on lines or films or songs or concerts or occasions that always reside in the back of our memories somewhere and firmly attach to our own life experiences. It’s wild, isn’t it? The way someone’s influence rolls into the million things that creates who you are and shapes how you see the world.

I was a dance kid in the 90’s, so of course I have my soundtrack of George Michael songs and moments buried in my own field of nostalgia. “Freedom 90” was such an anthem of joy and fun when I was younger. In dance dressing rooms or teenage bedrooms covered in posters or in cars with the windows down when we wanted a little nostalgia. I still never tire of that song, but I hear those lines now with a frequency I didn’t before as 35 years of life and loss have softened and weathered me. Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way…All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow.

Make it true, make it true, make it true. It’s the only way to freedom, and now I see that. The truth is in the center, and it always rises to the top eventually anyway. You cannot avoid it. But life is shaping me continually to help me get to that center with more ease than ever before, breaking the shell of whatever is on the outside and reaching the pocket of truth in the middle.

As 2016 is coming to a close, I feel so much gratitude for the life that’s lead me to this place and the ways I’ve learned to carve away the outside layers, reach what matters, and reflect that authenticity back to the faces of those I see everyday. As I look ahead to 2017, I think I can see that this is where it gets fun. This is where the reward comes. I have learned through life and loss how to create a life that is true, and now I get to watch it take shape in ways that are not always perfect, ever evolving, and always surprising. But they are all true and all real and all mine.

attention

It’s 9:42 pm on the winter solstice. The kids left this morning for a few days away before they come home to me again on Christmas Eve. I washed clothes and prepped holiday food and cleared shelves of things I don’t need any longer. At 5:30, as the sun was beginning to set, I lit a candle in a quiet house and got back to my yoga mat after far too long of an interruption. As I write this, it is dark and cold, and the dog is snoring at my side.

I have been thinking and journaling and reflecting and planning these past few days. There is something about writing things down that makes them real. I want so many things for the new year. This past year has been full of challenge after challenge, and they served me in ways I’d never expect  – always growing and always changing and always opening. But I have been on autopilot for this past three months, it seems. Life can do that to you sometimes. One foot in front of the other: pay the bills, do the laundry, tend to kids, clean the toilets, answer the emails. I’m ready to snap out of it and get back on the road of intention.

I am reading that many people are choosing one word resolutions instead of specific goals, like a theme word for your year. I have thought a bit about what mine would be for 2017 – purposeful, pursue, intention, attentive, persist. They all speak to the same thing, I guess. Pay attention. Do things on purpose. Shed what doesn’t serve me any longer.

I’m reading One Thousand Gifts again as someone passed it on as a present for me this week. I hadn’t looked through that book at all in something like 7 years, but I stumbled on her description today of exactly what has been ailing me lately. “It’s the in between that drives us mad. It’s the life in between, the days of walking lifeless… simply going through the hollow motions, the self-protecting by self-distracting, the body never waking…” It is a constant struggle in the world we live in to not self-protect by self-distracting, to find meaning in the motions. Writing helps me do exactly that, but even that takes time, focus, and discipline. I am ready to get back at it again.

I have also been delving into The Atlantic’s list of this year’s 50 Best Podcasts. I thought I listened to a lot of podcasts, but there are so many on here that are new to me. Number 26 is the Modern Love series spun from the influence of the New York Times’ Modern Love column – which if you haven’t read it before is worth your time, such incredible non-fiction. I was listening to an episode earlier this week about how you should always marry a man who fiercely loves his mother (wholeheartedly agree on that sentiment) and there was a line about sorrow that was mentioned in the interview with the writer, and it is an image I will never forget. She said something along the lines of “if we could see our sorrows hanging like fruit from a tree alongside everyone else’s – all the sorrows in the world hanging together… If we could pick any of them, we’d still pick our own.” As the weeks roll by here at the end of 2016 and I reflect on the year behind me, I am feeling that more and more. Even as I look at others who might hurt less in the face of their own challenges, who feel less and have less skin in the game, so to speak. I would pick my sorrows, my year, above anyone else’s. I wouldn’t trade places, even if it meant less challenge or less pain. These fruits are hard-earned, but there’s sweetness in the center.

You have to pay attention to find the sweetness though, don’t you? You pause and observe and feel it as it stings or warms or glows or washes away the things you never needed to begin with. Now more than ever, I am seeing that my soul has been washed clean this year in that very specific way that hardship and grief can bring, and I think it’s ready for the newness that lies on the other side.

In One Thousand Gifts, Voskamp also reminds us that “Life is so urgent, it necessitates living slow.” I read this, and I think of the most memorable moments that filled my year, the most meaningful ones. They were all so slow and yet urgent with their passing tide that disappears.

Flashes of memory from a year well-spent: kids splashing on the beach at sunset, my Grandmother’s hands on my face in those days when we were counting the hours, Norah lifting chubby preschool fingers to tip a soup bowl to her mouth at the dinner table, driving winding mountain roads alone with the cloudy rumble of an incoming July storm, shelling boiled peanuts in the fall sunshine on a wooden bench, wrapping lights around our little tree. The very best seconds only come when you are going slowly enough to notice them.

 

fire and ashes

I graded my last few final exams today and submitted my end-of-semester details to the registrar. I have a few summary tasks here and there, but it is a full four weeks until I have to tend to daily thoughts of grading and planning and prepping for class. I have lots of big hopes to complete neglected house tasks and do fun things with the kids – but mostly I just want to exhale from the mess that was 2016.

Perspective changes everything, and I am working hard to remind myself of that. There were some crazy moments and dismal details about my past year but also other things that were brighter than what I could have ever imagined and so far beyond my predictions.

There are things that have taken shape in my life this year that, simply put, I just didn’t feel ready for yet. Big things like time alone and my grandmother’s passing and less monumental things like a house renovation I didn’t ask for and publications I didn’t expect to come along. Sometimes you just want to put in an order to God to tell him to hold on a minute. I can do that later, but I am not ready. Not yet.

But we are never totally ready, I guess. Not for anything worthwhile. I know this to be true when I look back on the steps of my life that have brought me the most joy and delivered the greatest promise. The best details are always the ones I didn’t feel ready for. Life is all improv, isn’t it? I think that’s the thing none of us like to admit. We are all doing the best we can with any given set of challenges, and that is why, I’m realizing, it is so important to know yourself in a true and solid sense. Know your own limits and boundaries and priorities rather than checking things off some outside list and measuring yourself in someone else’s view. We make these decisions all the time, and one tiny turn leads to another, and you find yourself living in a reality you never could have predicted. When you make those decisions from a space of solid understanding and refined priorities, the results unfold beautifully. But when you make those decisions from a place of shaky ground or reflected sense of self, you will look around soon enough to wonder why your life feels so itchy and wrong. I thought 2015’s job was to get rid of all the itchy pieces, but as it turns out, 2016 kept doing that too. Refining, refining, refining all the time. Leaving only what is real.

Our little elf “brought” a board game from the North Pole today. (It helps to spread out the gifts with a couple of Advent surprises, I’ve found.) And we played a few rounds of Life Junior tonight after dinner dishes were put away and bath time was over. It’s the latest incarnation of the Life game I can remember playing growing up. This version has fun stops on the board like ice cream parlors and picnics and days at the beach. But the one I used to play had you check life milestones off the list. Remember that? Pass the university and collect your degree, get a job, pass the chapel and place a spouse in your tiny plastic car and ride off to get a mortgage and a baby with the next dial of the spinner.

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It’s what we’re told. Check the boxes and things will be perfect. But it doesn’t really work that way.

Here I am, two years out. And I am so grateful mine all burned down. I don’t see the same game board at all anymore. I see one with windy twists and turns and unforeseen corners, but not a specified beginning and end. And what a relief it is to see life like that, how it is meant to be. Poet David Whyte has a line I love that explains, “Sometimes with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out, someone has written something new in the ashes of your life.” How incredible it is when all we feel is fire and all we see is ashes, but then you find that the bones are left and they are writing something new.

I’m feeling the new emerge here at the end of what was once again a year of pain and grief and joy and transformation and space and air and warmth and darkness and light. All those nights of thinking I’m not ready yet have finally left room for the echo that tells me I’m ready for whatever is next. Open and able and willing for the next pieces to fall where they are meant to be.

the banister on the dark cellar stairs

It’s 36 outside this morning. The real November has arrived. This Thursday marks the first of December, and there are Christmas lights twinkling a little here and there when I drive after dark.

The kids and I pulled out our Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I’ve still got a bit to do around here now that the heavy lifting of the remodel is out of the way, but it is slowly starting to feel like the home we love again. And I really think nothing can make you love your home more than watching it get taken apart and put back together again. It feels good to be back where we started – but with a few improvements which I’m grateful for.

Our tree is quite a sight. It is dripping with ornaments, and I usually go along after the kids to rearrange in a more sensible way, but this year I didn’t. They’ll cluster 5 close together or insist that one particular one have a place at the top. Our mantle is adorned with kid crafts and not the least bit coordinated or symmetrical. But the way I look at it, I have so many years ahead of me where things will stay in their typical place, but for now, it’s important to me that they feel ownership here.

They are at this perfect age where they don’t require nearly as much hands-on constant involvement as years past – no diapers (hallelujah, never again), no bag of extra clothing when we leave the house, no strollers or carriers or special accommodations. They dress themselves and brush their own teeth and generally listen if I tell them to play for a while in the other room so that I can get dinner done. But they are also easily impressed and still at that age where they are curious and want to learn and genuinely like spending time with parents. I can finally exhale a little with them after 2 years of life’s outrageous demands. It feels easy when it is just the three of us, and it’s natural to take that for granted or focus on other salt on the melon like sibling arguments and messy rooms, but as I think back on life with a newborn and a two year old or those first months of single parenthood when my youngest was only two, I gain a lot of gratitude and perspective.

I’ve spent part of the holiday break alone as well, and I’m grateful for that, too. I’ve listened to podcasts, put the house back together, and read a good bit of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. I’ve cooked a lot as well – both for Thanksgiving and to stock my freezer for the weeks ahead. Thursday morning, I had some time alone before the kids got home, and I baked a sweet potato pie from a scribbled recipe card I found in my grandmother’s things this summer.

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Food is so much more than physical sustenance, isn’t it? A holiday that centers around a full table reminds us of this, but it is true year round as well. It can bring health and comfort and a nostalgic longing like nothing else. Certain dishes send me tumbling down a tunnel of memory. In Karr’s book, she tells us “Memory is a pinball in a machine — it messily ricochets around between images, ideas, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt, snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk — how did so much fit into such a small space?”

This happens to me all the time. One taste or one sight or one old photograph. The ricochet begins and the clowns pour out of the circus car. Sometimes it’s sweet and sometimes it is sad and hard. You have to wade through all the pieces before arriving at something true. And for me anyway, I only arrive there through writing. As the book opens, she tells me that for memoirists, “truth is not their enemy. It is the banister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.”

I have felt that so many times while writing. I think I referred to it once before as feeling the walls for a light switch. And it’s only when I land on that truth that I know that the writing did what it is supposed to do – for me and for you as the reader. And it is the moments when I have landed on an especially hard-to-swallow piece of my story that readers have reacted most strongly and sincerely.

I read something recently that phrased it as the truth has legs to stand up when everything else falls away, and I love that. As the dust settles from the last few years of my life, I am seeing this – that you cannot hide truth, you cannot run from it. And when you claim it for what it is, you stand a little taller inside and see things with a lot more clarity. I was poking around at the etymology of the word true and found that in Old Irish, it was referred to as derb, which sometimes also meant tree. How perfect is that? Getting to that tree can be hard. You have to be still and lose the impulse to protect your ego. You sometimes have to wade through past experiences and memories that make you ache to revisit them. But that image of a tree is precisely what truth feels like when you land on it – strong and steady and incapable of withering or arguing or comparing. It just is.

 

the light that lives

It is 10:26 pm on Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. I am alone in my house, and my eyelids are heavy, and it feels so good. I am allowed to say that, right? The best kept secret of single motherhood is that once you break through the painful, awkward first few times of being alone, it is such a welcome respite. In my case, it is only 4 days a month and a few extra days on holidays, and I crave it if I’m being honest. Just a little break. I need this solace so badly when it comes around, especially right now.

I attended a memorial service two days ago hosted by the hospice organization that cared for my grandmother. It was a sweet and thoughtful way to recognize those lost this year, and it is always comforting to be in a room surrounded by those on a similar walk with you. Grief is so particular for each of us, yet so universal for all of us.

As I drove home, it struck me how crazy the second half of 2016 has been for me. I can even see it looking back at this journal as well. My grandmother died. The world spun in that way it does in the weeks afterwards. Then schedules picked up and the whirlwind began. My ceiling fell in. The election happened. And here we are on November 22nd wondering how we got here and where the past 5 months of my life went.

We ate so much frozen pizza this month and went a full 9 days with my refrigerator in my living room as the kitchen was renovated. North Georgia wildfires have been raging for weeks, and on some days, there is a hazy smoke in the air here at home that leaves everything hazy and smelling of ash. It’s been such a surreal time.

I should have been grounding myself in yoga and meditation and prayer, but instead I have been soldiering on with one foot in front of the other and using the 15 minutes of story time at night to collapse into bed and  watch their little faces when they talk and sniff their heads as they fall asleep, and I still insist that is the best anti-anxiety medication I know.

I am here now. And I am surviving. And that is all I can do right now. Treading water with my head barely above the waves.

Life happens like this, doesn’t it? Or that is what I hear. A blog reader weeks ago passed along a Zora Neale Hurston quote that insists that “there are years that ask questions and years that answer,” and I am holding my faith there. This is a questioning year. So many questions.

I have so few answers, but I have a lot of gratitude. For the influence of my grandmother, the undying love that still hums in my chest. I’m grateful for it even as it illuminates the grief that results from what is left of love. Gratitude for these two kids who remind me of what is important every day and serve as that fixed center point and a counter to all my anxiety as they bring me to the here and now. Thankful for a warm house on windy November nights. For soup. For chats with girlfriends who know me as well as I know myself. Thankful for words to read and music to hear. Thankful for being here.

And I am thankful for this space and what it shows me about my own path in the past few years. It shows me that I have been here before, that I have seen nothing but questions everywhere I look but that a little ways down the road, I will look behind me to see answers, too.

I’m thankful for the light that lives in my chest and dims occasionally but never goes out. We might rest for a season, but we glow brighter later as a result.

More soon as I promise to return to this space and make time for it again. For now, I am holding my head above water, and I can see the faintest outline of what is ahead. More space, more room to breathe, more to hold in the next season.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.