witness

Where to start, I don’t know. July always leaves me this way. Feeling restless and maybe just the tiniest bit anxious for the start of the school year around the corner. The kids have 15 summer days left, and I have 32. We are trying to drink up every last bit.

I spent last weekend in a cabin on the Tennessee River with a few friends – near and far, old and new. We read and relaxed and explored bookshelves and coffee shops. I spent nearly half of the day Friday on a shaded porch swing with a book in my lap – something I haven’t done in ages. It’s so easy to lose the pulse of who we really are and forget the small pleasures that bring us the most happiness. We spent some rainy hours on Saturday exploring a warehouse of used books, and I came home lugging a bag with no less than nine new titles. One of them is Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass which I dove into first and am swallowing down in huge gulps when the kids are playing or sleeping. It’s her honest reflection on decades of marriage, and it illuminates big things about relationships through the language of everyday minutiae. It’s a timely read for me, and a fascinating look inside a marriage.

Shapiro focuses a lot on the passage of time and how it chisels and changes two people. As she reflects on her first date with her husband, she explains, “I want to deliver some kind of benediction upon them as – drunk on love – they meander the streets of Alphabet City. I want to suggest that there will come a time when they will need something more than love.” Or as she says later, “Our world will narrow as the storm of time washes over us. It will bleach us, expose our knots, whittle us down like old driftwood. … There is luck involved, of course. But not only luck.”

I think that’s a way that we change after divorce, especially when you take time off to be alone and think of what is next. We see that love is a choice, not luck or passion. That the long game is about decades instead of months, but at the same time, decades are made of tiny moments, tiny words that add up to something. That there are some things you can bear and some things you can’t, but that is always a choice.

Susan Sarandon’s character in the movie Shall We Dance insists that “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’” That line echos with me again and again. Especially now that I am alone. I think it’s the witness that we miss sometimes. The presence that is there in all the little everyday moments to say I see you and I hear you and you don’t go unnoticed.

I think witnessing someone in the real way is a choice, and a hard one, too. Shapiro’s book reminds us of that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways I can bear witness to myself when life feels like it is swirling and changing. It is not the same as having that steady shoulder and clear mirror of a forever partner. But there are ways, I think. Writing is one. Talking to friends. Holding on to your own center when you are the only one there.

The kids brought home some sunflowers Sunday night after visiting a sunflower farm nearby. Yesterday morning, we began the day with waffles and sunflowers and cherries. July at its best. Fresh corn is stacked in my fridge, and tomatoes line the window sill. I am doing what I can to bear witness to what is around me, to sink into what is here, even if I am the only one to feel it and see it.

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Sometimes I wonder if I will gaze back at this time, with all of its uncertainty and growing pains and lessons, and think That was it. You were in it. You were alive and real and growing and reaching. Or if I will just see it as a blur and be glad it’s over.

I hope not. The days roll by so quickly right now, and it can feel like I have no witness in these everyday storms, but even with my tired perspective, I can see that this life is something I want a witness to. A beautiful thing.

As Shapiro reflects on her own younger experiences, she says, “Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.”

I know it’s impossible to have someone sit down and tell you everything about how the story goes. But selfishly, I wish time worked that way. Some days it all feels fast and slow at the same time, stifling and loose, real and imagined. It’s so hard to bear witness to this story when what you really want to know is what’s on the other side.

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ebb and flow

I spent most of last week on a little trip with the kids. We were only a three hour drive northward. But it felt like some place else entirely. How easy it can be to forget the beauty just outside your own backyard. It feels so good to rediscover it.

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We spent a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, near the national park that straddles the line between Tennessee and North Carolina. The idea for this trip began a year ago when I realized that I have loads of memories in these mountains with my grandparents and cousins, filed deep in the back of my very best pieces of nostalgia. We went almost every summer, and yet my own kids still hadn’t seen it and experienced it like I did. I decided this summer was a good time to take them, and then my sister decided to bring her two along as well, and my mom and grandad even drove up for the last night. We found a perfect cabin on the river in the foothills of the mountains and more or less let the kids run wild.

We unloaded our things on the afternoon of the first day and indulged in s’mores that night. Campfires and cousins in a cabin are the very best ingredients for summer memories, I think. It doesn’t take much at all to make something feel special.
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Something unique happens when you get away as a family. Kids sense the tension easing from your own back, I think. They walk lighter, just like you do. Happy with the littlest things – porch swings and smooth river rocks and open windows when we sleep. Vacation always feels like such an indulgent place, even when it’s close to home.

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We braved an amusement park one day to appease the kids, standing in crowded lines with countless other travelers at Dollywood. I can remember loving thrill rides when I was growing up, but it’s been something like 18 years since I’ve been on a roller coaster. Jude dragged me through the line for a coaster that shoots you like a cannon at 73mph high above the rest of the park. I didn’t love it like I used to; in fact, I sort of clenched my teeth and my belly and went for it to please him, but it felt terrifying in this way that I definitely didn’t experience as a kid. Maybe it’s the time and distance between then and now? Maybe it’s the adult worry mind inside me? I don’t know. But I held my eyes shut the whole time and felt relief when my feet were firmly on the ground afterwards, holding an anxious fear I don’t remember feeling when I rode them before.

Both of my kids are daredevils on these rides, and I definitely used to be. But somehow it feels different to me now. Time and experience can have unexpected effects on our own sense of fear, and it can change what scares you. We ended the day with the drive back to our little cabin, and my kids were elated from the bustle of the park, but I was mostly just tired and relieved to be back to a slower pulse.
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The next morning we spent slow hours in the national park, touring Cade’s Cove, an isolated valley with a few preserved historical structures and some beautiful wide open spaces. Life feels so quiet when you are there, like there is nothing to fear at all. But as I walked through old family homes with rock chimneys and one room for 12 people or looked at cemetery markers to find countless children and infants alongside each other, I thought a lot about how their fears were completely different than mine are today but were more real than I will ever understand.

We ended the tour there with an hour-long horseback ride through the wooded trails in the national forest. These are trail horses with a guide, and the pace is a leisurely trot, so those of you who grew up riding horses will laugh at this for sure … but this is another thing that was outside of my comfort zone to say the least. (Which is extra ironic given that only one generation ago family property held horses, and my 82-year-old grandad hopped on the horse with us last week like it was no problem at all.) But even so, an hour on the back of an animal 10 times your size in the depths of a national park isn’t something in the realm of my usual experience, and I was jittery as we waited to get on.

Once again though, it was the urging of my own son who pushed me there, and it’s not the first time I’ve done something scary for my kids – and likely not the last either. So we mounted the horses and set off in the woods, crossing a rushing creek at the start of the trail and listening to the clop, clop, clop through the ferns and fallen trees. With every step that I went beyond my own comfort zone, it got easier and lighter until it didn’t feel scary at all.

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That’s the way it always goes, I’m finding. The definition of scary may be different for each one of us. What terrifies you may not bother me, and what gives me butterflies may not register on your list of worries at all. And even within my own mind, time has changed what my fear responds to. But all the good stuff is on the other side of what I fear. Always. Sometimes it’s a place you can only get to when you cross that bridge. And sometimes it’s just that quiet hum of satisfaction when you know you did what you’d thought was impossible.  But if I just push myself past that space I fear so much, it is never as scary as I’d imagined.

I am home to mounds of laundry and loads of pictures I am weeding through from our time away.  But I hope this is the lesson from our trip that sits with me for a long time – the value in that tension of bravery and rest. The satisfaction that comes from doing what you feared and pushing past your discomfort and the quiet space of rest that we need just as much as we need courage and challenges. The truth is in the ebb and flow between those two things, knowing when to forge ahead with courage and when to slow down and feel the solace that grows in quiet familiar places.

flashlights and nachos

There are two days left in June, and as it always goes with kids and summer, I don’t know where the time is going. The days blow away at a pace that makes me uneasy. Here we are anyway though – looking at a new month on the horizon. The calendar doesn’t wait for anyone.

Last week Norah participated in a little “ballet camp” that she specifically asked for by name when I was attempting to let summer camps and entertainment fly under the radar. It was a lot of juggling back and forth with other responsibilities piled on top here and there. But it was worth it to watch her at the little showcase they gave us Friday afternoon. She was so proud of what she learned and came home with Moana songs and memorized choreography on repeat for days.

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Saturday we followed up the ballet time with an all day play date and some afternoon lake time with friends. It was cloudy all morning long, but the sun suddenly appeared around three in the afternoon, and we hurried to the lake to catch what was left of the day. As it turns out, we caught the magic hour by accident. Low-lying sun, shimmering water, thin crowds, and a cool breeze. The kids swam and splashed for hours. Eventually it was nearing dinner time, but we didn’t want to leave. When we finally loaded up the car to drive home just before dusk, the rains came back. The whole time felt like a little gift for us – in the midst of an otherwise dull and humid day. It was there for the taking when we jumped on the opportunity.
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The night before brought storms as well. It’s been a rainy summer in Atlanta. I’d just finished dinner and then sent neighbor friends back home to their own houses before I chased my two upstairs for their showers. Jude was getting dressed in his room and Norah soaking in the tub when the power went out. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but it was about to be, so we gathered flashlights and spread a blanket on the floor. I pulled nachos from the oven, smashed a few avocados, and we sat down together for an impromptu living room picnic by flashlight.

I don’t know if it was the darkness or the coziness or the novelty of it all or what, but the kids were happier than I’ve seen them in ages. Like deep joy happy, belly laughs and silliness and kindness and not a single sibling jab. As we finished up, Jude asked to sit in my lap on the floor for a minute and then said with every bit of serious sincerity, Mama, this is the third best night of my life. It cracked me up, the things we do for them and the ways we stretch above and beyond to create memories and happiness for our kids. Then here we are, just the three of us — eating nachos from our own oven, in the dark in our pajamas, piled on top of Christmas blankets in June. It’s not really half as hard as we make it, is it? It’s these stripped down moments without any real planning or pretense or forced orchestration from me that work like glue to hold us together.

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This week I’m alone as they are at dad’s. I’m checking tasks off the list like crazy, working on freelance, and diving headfirst into projects I’m dying to finish, or at least solidly begin. But I’m also making time for Brene Brown’s online course on parenting with COURAGEworks. I’m only halfway through, but I can’t say enough great things about it. There are so many activities I’m excited to show the kids when they get home and open up some important conversations.

In the first lesson of the course, she reminds us that “Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow.” She talks a lot about love and belonging and how to create a home that encourages those two things. I tend to worry a lot at this season of my life that I don’t give them enough or that I don’t have the time or resources to give them what they crave. But in reality, I think it’s just this sense of belonging that they love most. A place where we can be imperfect together and know it’s okay. It’s here in this space that we thrive and grow in the best way, all three of us.

I’m seeing so clearly as I move a little further down this parenting path that love and belonging are best nurtured in these messy, imperfect, everyday moments.

the long view

I’ve thought a few times about how I needed to sit down to write here, but it is always in passing. When we are in the car and headed somewhere, when I’m chasing them at the pool, stirring something on the stove. Summer is a different kind of busy.

I went on a quick beach trip last week with my mom and my sister – a stretch of coastal highway I have vacationed at a million times before. Every year, it looks different than the year before. New buildings everywhere you look, but a few staples remaining the same. And the ocean never changes, which is why it’s always so soothing to us, I think. Big and vast, inhale and exhale. Farther than you can see.

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It’s weird how much things change, even when parts of them stay the same. I am late to the party on this film, but I finally watched Boyhood while the kids were away as well.  You’ve likely heard by now, but it was filmed with the same actors over a period of 12 years.  The director apparently had a general idea that he wanted to capture one boy’s coming of age from a first grader to a college freshman, and he had the ending shot in mind. But the pieces in between were written as they went along, meeting once a year to review previous footage and film new pieces. All of these moments that are ordinary childhood milestones – birthdays and classrooms and graduations and vacations – seem the opposite of ordinary when you see them presented on the screen like this as part of one boy’s life.

I think part of the reason the movie is so extraordinary is that it forces the audience to take the long view, so to speak. How seldom we do that. It’s human nature to look around at wherever you are and see it as permanent and immovable. Sometimes you look in the rearview mirror and see major moments that unfolded change for you, and sometimes it just creeps up more subtly. But life is changing all the time.

I was revisiting some Pema Chodron last night before bed, The Places that Scare You this time, and a few passages I’d underlined before caught my eye with new meaning now … “Everything is in process. Everything — every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate — is always changing moment to moment. […] Our natural tendency is to seek security. We believe we can find it. We cling to a fixed idea of who we are, and it cripples us. Nothing and no one is fixed.” 

I see what she means when she tells us not to look at ourselves as set and secure and permanently what we are right now, and I’m getting better at that these past few years as changes have forced me to grow and move and transform to something else. But I’m realizing what I need to work on is the realization that others are not fixed either. Who someone was yesterday is not who they are today, and tomorrow will reveal something else. It’s so hard to just leave room to let life move and change around you without gripping tighter to whatever your current perception is.

Yesterday was summer solstice, but the weather was not typical for late June in Georgia. The longest day of the year was clouded and dim and hardly 80 degrees. I woke up this morning to more steady rain outside my window. We end up with a few tomatoes everyday, brought in from the patio and lined up on the windowsill side by side. There’s so much that is good and fresh and lazy and easy about summer. So much time to just be and just rest. But it teaches us patience a little as well. You wait on peaches to ripen until they are exactly where you want them to be before you indulge. You tend and water and pluck and prune and know that your efforts will pay off when it’s time.

I think the thing about getting older is that, even as you sink your heels into wherever you are right now, you know there are other seasons around the corner. You can feel them tugging a little just ahead, reminding you to find what’s good right now because it’s always unfolding to something else.

 

 

summer story

I’m refusing to do that thing teachers do – that summer countdown that we have in the back of our minds that chases us throughout July and August.  It is June 9th around 6:10pm — that’s all that matters, not how much time has passed already or how much we have left. Just right now.

As I type this, the dog is snoring at my feet, and I hear the dryer tumbling with sleeping bags I just unpacked from the car. I spent some time with the kids at a state park a couple hours away, and now I’m home to loads of dirty laundry, sore legs, and a cooler to clean. But it was worth every bit of trouble.

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We arrived just after lunch and unpacked our things and then took off on one of the waterfall hiking trails. I was a little nervous about Norah’s tiny legs handling the rocks and stairs required, but she did so well. It’s funny how something you don’t foresee as a problem brings a meltdown when you least expect it, and every now and then, they can surprise you equally on the other side of things and completely exceed your expectations. Parenting is so unpredictable. I’m learning that more and more as the years roll by. You just jump and hope for the best.

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We spent hours in the woods exploring Cloudland Canyon, making our way over wooden bridges and around rocks piled high and lush green everywhere. The breeze from the water plus the shade made it such a welcome break from the Georgia heat. When we made it to the end of the trail, we decided to stay a while. The kids claimed rocks as their own to sit on while we watched and listened to the falls, and they collected moss and snails in little bug jars before letting them go again on the way back.
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At one point, Jude said, “Mama, this feels like a movie.” It made me laugh, but I knew exactly what he meant. That way that nature can catch you off guard for a minute with just the perfect slant of sunlight or a breeze at the right moment. It makes you want to pinch yourself in that surreal beauty.

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We made our way back to the campsite to roast hot dogs and s’mores and wait on the sun to set. I reserved a yurt, and it was pretty magical for them, I think. Our own little space to hunker down for the night with a few games and toys they brought along. There was a playground in the middle of the campground, and I could see it from where I stood when cleaning up after dinner, so I told them they could go play. There were other kids there from Florida, passing through for a night or two. I could hear them making little introductions and sharing details about their day.  Crickets were loud, and the big full moon was rising, and it was such a simple moment of perfection for me. Here we are – the three of us. These two little humans with their own personalities and their own memories forming.

You can’t always predict what will stick on the surface of their own nostalgia years from now, and who knows if this week’s little adventure will stick for them, but I know it will for me. Sometimes what it takes to find the magic is to strip everything else away, and we did that this week in a way that delivered beyond what I expected.

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We slept to the sounds of the forest and woke up when the sunlight came through to meet us. It was 60 degrees or so this morning – which feels like a vacation from southern heat, even when it only lasts an hour or two. I’d packed some strawberry muffins I’d made earlier this week, and we ate them bundled up on the porch with a little iced coffee I’d packed for me.

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Once we got moving, Jude was begging to explore an attraction or two in nearby Chattanooga, so we spent a little time there before coming home. Sometimes the very best seconds of a summer are the ones you didn’t plan that carefully.

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I ran across a post on Instagram the other day that said something like every summer tells a story, and I reflected a minute to let that sink in and realize it was true. Most of us can look back on childhood or adolescence or college years and define time by certain summers and what they held for us.

Two summers ago, I was flailing through this new life alone and hardly coming up for air in all the itchy discomfort. Last summer was spent with my grandmother, and I have so much gratitude it all happened when I was away from work and could be there, but it swallowed up everything in those months, and I will always look at summer of 2016 as a time defined by her. So now here I am — just here, with these two and the life we know. It took me a long time to get here, and it is not a final destination, but it just feels like such a welcome oasis. It doesn’t take much at all to make it magical these days. I’ve made it through a storm that lasted long enough that I don’t ever think I’ll take for granted times of shelter like this.

The full moon rose to meet us last night as we put out the campfire and went in for bed – another serendipitous event I didn’t expect or plan at all. In old Farmer’s Almanacs, the June full moon is called the strawberry moon, a marker for all the sweet ripening fruit that’s there for the picking this time of year. I couldn’t help but see the connection in my own timing as I laid down alongside Norah last night, her little head on my shoulder and our tired bodies resting after a long day.  This life, this season, feels good and strong and real and true and like nothing else but its own self.  I’ve waited a long time for what is simple and ripe and sweet.  It feels so good just to be here.

the right kind of loneliness

I’m on day 5 without the kids – something that only ever happens in the summer – and so far I’ve taken a yoga class, cleaned out my garage, completed two books, watched a full season of something on Netflix, hiked a nearby spot, cleaned out the kids’ closets, made a few trips to Goodwill, begun my book proposal, and accepted a freelance writing job. Today I have another yoga class and a lunch with friends on the books.

I guess as it turns out, I am not all that good at relaxing. I say I’m fine with being alone, but as always, the body keeps the score, and I’m up early every morning with more energy than I should have — all that end-of-the-school-year exhaustion hardly palpable this week as I suddenly have the fire to complete every task under the sun.

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I know I’m tired and craving stillness on the inside, but you have to carve away the layers to get to that spot, or I do anyway. I hope to get faster about that eventually, but for now, I can remember that this is how it works for me always. I squirm a lot and try to move to the right or the left instead of just sitting with it. I self-medicate with busyness. And then the buzz slows its pace little by little until the stillness finally arrives.

I can remember what this was like the first summer I was on my own, and it’s not nearly that bad anymore. But I’m surprised to feel that anxious fire still there a bit even now, two years later. You think you have mastered something and moved beyond it, but there it is again. I’m remembering what Pema Chodron wrote in When Things Fall Apart, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. if we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. it just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter…”

I think part of this, if I’m being honest with myself, is that since I’m seeing someone, it’s been months since I’ve had an extended time of being alone like this. He’s on a big trip across the country with family this week though, so I have to sit with it awhile again. Timing is never accidental, and I think I needed this. (We all need it from time to time.) There is no barometer that can allow you to check in with yourself except stillness and solitude. It’s also Pema Chodron who reminds me, “Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”

This is the ultimate test of joy and contentment, I think. Can you sit with yourself without distraction for any period of time? Strip the roles away piece by piece – mother, wife, girlfriend, employee, friend, sister – whatever they may be. Strip it all away and stay awhile with the person underneath all of that. Sitting in the loneliness, the right kind of loneliness, for a minute, an hour, a day. It shines a light on all the places where you are holding something too tightly.

I can remember writing something in the early days when my life exploded, and I said I knew that there are women who grow stronger and wiser from life’s heartache but that I didn’t know how they got there. Now I know though. It’s that time alone to feel the pulse of what you need and want and what life is teaching you. That’s how you get there.

I’m recognizing the value of it all and trying to be grateful for it, even in the itchy silence of an empty house. Stillness and solitude always show me what I need to know.

rhythm and echo

We are two days away from the end of the school year, and our pace has been non-stop. In a two-week period, I’ve dragged both kids to swim lessons, hosted a birthday party, and attended a pre-k graduation, an elementary school field day, a ballet rehearsal and recital, and a first grade awards day. I guess this is how May works when you have school-aged kids. It’s a lot.

The Georgia weather is heating up, but every now and then, we get a break with some cloudy skies and cool rain. I love where I live always but especially this time of year with so many things to see and do. We’ve been planting summer herbs and flowers this week, and we have a little patio tomato plant the kids check on every day. When dinner time rolls around, I have to work hard to convince them to come in. Late sunsets are driving our rhythm.

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The Dog Days will be here soon enough, but right now, warm sun feels like such a novelty. I am bone tired though. I think the adrenaline of this past month’s events has worn off a bit, and now I’m just exhausted. I have a lot of goals for my own self, but life lately revolves around these two in a way that doesn’t really leave space for my desires. It’s an eternal conflict for moms everywhere, and I’m not alone in this. But boy is it hard to make room for me sometimes.

I’m reading a pretty incredible little book right now called On Living, a hospice chaplain’s reflection on stories her patients have shared with her and her observations of what matters as people ready themselves to cross that bridge. It sounds sad as I’m describing it, but it’s not at all. It’s a reminder in the best and clearest way about what matters and what doesn’t.

The author reveals in an early chapter that she was surprised when she began that role to find that dying people almost always just talk about their families – more so than some big, lofty conversation about spirituality and the great beyond. She claims that people talk about their families at the end because “that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. […] This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.”

This week marks the first anniversary of my Grandmother’s stroke, and the first year of any tragedy is so hard. All those what I was doing last year and what I didn’t know then thoughts bounce around every day. And I’m expecting it to be this way a bit for the next month or so. It was a year ago that I wrote this post, and every word still rings true even though everything has changed.

It seems strange and confusing to be sitting on my patio today watching my two with sidewalk chalk and listening to their laughter with neighborhood friends – knowing that one year ago I was at the hospital and so sad and confused and disheartened. Life moves on, and especially as a mother, it fills up with all these tiny moments like watering patio tomatoes and setting the table and listening to explanations of sidewalk art and playground games. I guess what you eventually figure out is that the little stuff is actually the big stuff.  It grounds us and restores us and even defines us.

Last summer, I saw first hand the role of family as a way to talk about God and meaning and the way we create our lives. I saw how my Grandmother had created hers over decades of all these tiny tasks that probably seemed meaningless in the moment as she was doing them but echo so loudly now that she’s gone. I still hear it everyday.  I want the echo I leave one day to be just as deep and wide.