this is how

Hi. Remember me? Apparently I have only written here four times this year. I think back to the months and years when I poured words here weekly, and it seems like another planet.

What planet are we on now? I cannot tell. Not the one we were on last year. I’m writing this on the eve of this election, four years after the last one, and I remember four years ago I was another mom with other (younger) kids and another job and what seems like another person entirely. Whoever I was last year feels that way, too.

2020: the year that molted a thousand skins for us.

I had the weekend alone, and I used up every possible minute doing only the things I wanted to, fortifying myself for whatever comes this week and whatever is coming in the months ahead. All of the molting that 2020 is bringing to us requires enough of me that I cycle in and out of this place that feels like a bone-heavy weariness I don’t remember feeling before. I think truthfully my 2015-2016 was a harder period of time than what I’m living through now, but the difference was that while my own life fell apart in those months, and it took enormous determination to put the pieces back together in some new shape, the rest of the world held its place firmly.

This feels different. I am holding on alright, all things considered, but the rest of the world is cracking. The center cannot hold as Yeats tells us. Everyday feels like spinning.

But yesterday as I soaked in the last few hours of a quiet house before the kids got home, I started thinking about all of the iterations and evolutions of my own life, all of the shapes of the generations that came before us, all of the shades of a whole world full of people who somehow plow on regardless of circumstances that they didn’t agree to or sign up for. I don’t know what is coming, but I know I can do it — whatever it is. I am turning inward to that place that is untouchable, regardless of the result of tomorrow’s election, untouchable regardless of how dark this winter gets. The place where connection and art and pleasure and solace live.

Lots of things died this year for me, even before Covid and election heat. A sense of safety faded, but with that came a recognition of vulnerability. Not in that soft and fuzzy way everyone is using that term lately, but in that piercing way that makes you want to cross your arms over your belly and pull your knees up. My sense of control, whatever was left of it anyway, has faded entirely. But with that came a softening and surrender that is flexible enough that it cannot be broken.

I was reminded today of that Sharon Olds poem that I held onto for most of 2016 when shame and sorrow brought another kind of molting to me. She closes with the reminder of how close death and rebirth are and how many deaths are required of us in one lifetime.

Something
has died, inside me, believing that,
like the death of a crone in one twin bed
as a child is born in the other.  Have faith,
old heart. What is living, anyway,
but dying.

I cannot yet paint this year in some soft and beautiful nostalgia. I cannot say oh look what we became! It was all worth it. Right now, in the middle, it feels like a spinning chaos we cannot get out of. But I know in some place beyond my worry brain, some other place that feels quieter, that something else will eventually be born.

So this is me, stringing words together the night before I know what happens so that one day I can read this again and remember what the in-between felt like. After the storm began and before we had enough heart to yearn for what is next. That empty space in between when all that was with us is whatever space we could find inside. Have faith, old heart. This is how, as Sharon Olds says in that poem I love, people go on without knowing how.

human being, human doing

In the onslaught of texts I passed back and forth with two friends of mine this summer, one of them said And just think, we’ll remember this as the easy part. We were trading questions and worries about the upcoming school year, and though I knew she was right, I couldn’t truly swallow that fact and sink my heels in the pace of summer like I usually do. As a teacher, my years are marked in summers, and it feels like this one was stolen from me. I “borrowed troubles” from tomorrow as some people say. I was too consumed with questions about what was coming to see the relative ease of what was in front of me. And yet here I am, writing this post hurriedly among the frantic pace of an August weekend when I should be reviewing The Scarlet Letter instead so that I feel ready for Monday.

I started school July 31st. My students came back August 6. My own two kids in the public school system here began the week after that. We are in Georgia, with the highest per capita infection rate in the country, and for the first few days back at work, I felt violated by so much human contact after five months of relatively intense caution. I was watchful of my body temperature and every tingle in my throat. But now, to be honest, I never even think much about getting sick because I’m just too busy moving from one task to another to ruminate on it. This is good, maybe? I’m focused on other things. Or maybe it’s not good at all, and it’s ridiculous that I’m chugging along as usual when most epidemiologists say this isn’t the best idea. Masks are encouraged at my own kids’ school, and most students there wear them. Masks are mandatory at my school, and I enforce them in the classroom. There is extra sanitation and a large portable plexiglass shield that I teach behind. There is that bit of added protection, but at the end of the day, is this a sustainable plan to be in classrooms full of people when infection rates are spiking? Probably not. Right now it just feels like I’m waiting on the other shoe to drop.

We are all having a hard time in this, every single one of us. I am not saying anything you don’t know. It feels pointless to be writing about it when we all know what this chapter feels like, and I’m telling you nothing new. But half the reason I write here is for my own self to look back and know what happened and hopefully see the thread through the larger story that connects all these months and years. So here we go.

This is hard. I have been through hard times before, lots of them. Like that time I started over all together, or that time I lost someone irreplaceable, or that time the ceiling fell in, or just a few months ago when my son was so sick. But this is hard in a different way because I cannot see the end of it, and none of us can. I can’t say when we get to that next season around the corner, things will be fine. Or well things are hard now, but at least we have that trip planned soon or those concert tickets or that dinner with friends next weekend. There is no now and later. There is just now, and it stretches to some unknown end we cannot see yet.

That is hard enough, but add the parenting piece of this equation — the school decisions (or not even truly a decision if you’re a working parent) and trying to constantly choose between their physical health and their mental health as we decide whether or not to participate in an activity or play with a friend. It’s so much to carry everyday.

I heard someone in a podcast this week say that this time is the “Great Pause” that we can use to sift out all the things we don’t need in our own lives. Usually that way of thinking is helpful for me, and I cling to those ideas as a way to search for meaning. But when I heard her say that, I felt an unfamiliar resistance to it. Covid landed in each of our lives at its own time, and like grief, it’s affecting each of us a little differently depending on whatever other things are circulating in our lives. But for me, I can’t help but feel that I paused enough. I’ve sifted enough. I have spent the better part of 2015-2018 pausing and sifting and rearranging my whole life and then spent 2019 doing the heavy lifting and beginning to stretch my arms wide enough to take in whatever was coming for me. When I look back at last year and the amazing ways I stretched and moved — traveling internationally with the kids, spending a monumental week with other writers, finally securing a literary agent, taking a leap of faith to start a new job — it feels like some other lifetime, some other person, some other world where new things were not only possible but the momentum was building and new things were coming. And then this abrupt stop. It feels like I was cheated which is such a selfish thing say when I am healthy and my kids are okay, and as I write this 176,000 Americans have lost their lives. It is selfish to say that, but it is the truth of this moment in time and the way this landed on my particular life, so I will say it anyway and lay it all down here.

I am not sifting and reordering my life much these days, and maybe I’m missing the point by not doing that. But I feel like I have done what I can long ago in that regard, and I know where my priorities lie and what I want. Instead I’m beauty hunting as Jen Pastiloff says, I am looking anywhere I can for inspiration and that nameless feeling that happens when your heart moves a little. I’ve binged television (Outlander and Poldark and then Sex Education and Better Things) and I’ve played new albums on repeat. I’ve tried new recipes. I’ve pulled out old paper journals and read through my ramblings on past years that felt hard, and I have added new words there to mark this one. I’ve stretched creative muscles in lesson planning this past few weeks to try and make each day something fun. Sometimes survival mode is laying on the couch under a weighted blanket for a day and sometimes it’s voraciously searching for artistic inspiration like I’m starving. I seem to waver between those extremes at all times.

Everything about me is changing shape to something without structured edges. I cannot pin down my calendar with any certainty. I cannot tell you where I will be on that spectrum between weighted blanket and artistic hunger. In January when I scribbled in my 2020 journal that my words were allow, soften, create, I didn’t expect to arrive at it this way. I thought it would look a lot more graceful, like some beautiful surrender. But I arrived here nonetheless.

For once, I am not searching for meaning in this challenge. I’m sure it’s there, and maybe one day I’ll see it, but I am not looking for it now. Instead, I’m being more forgiving with my own self. I didn’t accomplish my usual summer list of tasks, and I’m okay with that. I spent July watching more television that I have in years, and I’m not ashamed to write that here. I’ve generally been outrageously cautious, but there were a few times this summer that I broke the rules of distancing to forget, just for a moment, that we are in this chapter of history where we fear closeness to other people and to remember what it feels like to be human. And I don’t regret those moments at all. The kids had a summer that felt a whole lot like 1988, climbing trees and riding bikes, and coming in with layers of dirt caked on their hands from playing in the creek in the woods. It was the summer of no rules and of finding pockets of happiness anywhere we could. For the first time in years, my body feels softer, and my pants feel a little bit tighter, and I think I’m done with resenting that and decided to embrace it instead.

We are in the waiting and life is hard enough outside with the unknown and the scary and the relentless news cycle. I guess in hindsight, though I resisted the urge to search for meaning here, I found it anyway by writing this, and I can see that now that I am arriving to the end of these words. I’ve jumped off the train of productivity because it’s going nowhere right now anyhow. I’ve dropped down from my head space to my heart space and sometimes further still until I’m back in my body again and I remember what it feels like to be a human being instead of a human doing. It is not here to stay, but maybe it’s alright for this one moment in my life to just let it all go.

Witness

I said goodbye to Tucker yesterday, our 14 year old Labrador – although by the time I post this, a few more days will pass. The kids are at their dad’s until Friday, and it feels weird to tell others before telling them, so I’m writing now and posting later. But, as usual, I’ve got to write it down to bring all the threads together in a way that makes sense for me and to build a narrative of what happened so that I understand it for myself.

I got him from a rescue organization when I was 26 and he was a year old. I was young and married and had no children yet. We had one puppy together already, and I wanted one more. Sometimes in a family, a pet will attach himself to a particular family member above all others. Our terrier had done that with my ex-husband, and so when we got Tucker, he somehow did the same for me. He followed me for 13 years, from room to room around the house, from house to house to yet another house, from whatever I was before to the new terrain of motherhood to what I became, and eventually from a marriage to a life on my own.

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When a couple divorces and moves through the inventory of things in the home, you see what matters to you and what doesn’t, and sometimes the answers surprise you. I moved into this house without a single plate to eat on and without a television, but I brought tea cups from my parents’ 1979 wedding registry, my stand mixer in the kitchen, stacks of blankets, shelves of books, and my dog. In the storm of the divorce itself when we were sorting the details of what was next, my ex explained he didn’t have the time to care for a pet with his heavy travel schedule, and I knew my limitations. Single mom with a full-time job and two preschoolers. Two large dogs would tip the scales financially and in every other way, so I found a rescue organization to re-home our terrier, and then I took Tucker with me without hesitation. I suppose their situation soon changed because by the end of that year, they’d adopted a puppy together.

So while they started over, I took Tucker with me and watched him grow old. He got even better with age, and we tried our best to love him well. He was patient and slow always, but especially at the end without much energy left. He would curl up next to the kids as they watched television, and every time I rolled out my yoga mat, he’d lay down wide right next to it, and I’d watch his belly rise and fall with my own breath. He would follow me from room to room just as he followed me from house to house and from one life to another.

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He’s declined a good bit these last few years, and I knew this was coming. He had laryngeal paralysis, and his breathing became labored.  A couple weeks ago, he had an episode that led me to an emergency vet with him (and with both kids and lots of tears), but he recovered. When I followed up with our regular vet a couple days later, we had the conversation. I knew my choices were to do the inevitable during a scary and desperate moment or during his good days in between. The kids wanted to be home when I took him, so I was holding out for the first of July when they are here, but as fate would have it, he had another episode on Father’s Day, and as he stumbled around in the back yard, I tried to calm him down, and I promised him if he made it through that one, I’d call the vet in the morning.

I just finished Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and the night before Tucker passed, I read the narrator’s description of helping his own grandmother to the other side. He says, “We try to preserve life– even when we know it has no chance of enduring its body. We feed it, keep it comfortable, bathe it, medicate it, caress it, even sing to it. We tend to these basic functions not because we are brave or selfless but because, like breath, it is the most fundamental act of our species: to sustain the body until time leaves it behind.”

The vet gave me the option of going in the room with him or staying outside. I wasn’t sure what I could bring myself to do, but when it became an actuality and I arrived at the vet office on Monday afternoon, it seemed there was no other choice but to sit with him until the very end. I thought it would tear me apart, but it didn’t. Animals have a presence and an instinct and a way of knowing. And perhaps Tucker knew it needed to end this way. As he’d walked with me from room to room for years and then from one life to another, now he wanted only me to walk that last bit with him, and so I did. It was fast. He just fell asleep, then deeper still until he was gone. I cried a lot, of course, but they were tears of release and not of resistance. I can feel that this is the end of more than just his life, the subtle end of some kind of chapter for me as well. But as it always goes with endings, you cannot tell what thing is beginning and where these sliding doors are headed until much later when you piece it all together. Even still, I feel it. Plates shifting like fault lines, refiguring some piece of me.

I know I’ve written about this before, but the hardest thing about being single is that you lack a witness to your life. There is no one there every day to say I see you — all the hard things and all the little things, too. There is no one to assure you that the details of your life are not going unnoticed. I know he was only an animal, but I am feeling so clearly in this loud stillness of an empty house without another breathing thing that his presence has been my witness across countless evolutions and especially in this last five years. So I guess in the end, I am grateful that I was a witness to him as well. Just there and patiently watching and waiting and assuring him that his presence did not go unnoticed.

In Vuong’s book, he also explains that as a writer, “I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’ but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.” That is all I am doing here today, I suppose, as I write this. Preserving that physical presence, that witness that Tucker was for me, to know he was here inside this work and inside my life, lending his quiet presence to all of the evolutions, the big days, and the little things, too. All of it.

 

on day 64, even here

I’m writing this 64 days after the world shifted here. I’m thinking of all the things that usually happen in a span of 64 days and the ways those things haven’t happened. Just an expanse of days behind me and in front of me that look mostly the same.

The weather in Georgia is shifting from spring to summer. Last week we had chilly temperatures overnight, but this week we are looking at highs in the 80s. Most of spring passed in this place, and now none of the usual summer things are happening. We aren’t celebrating with cheers and screams for the last day of school. We aren’t crowding in with neighbors at the pool. Norah’s birthday is on Monday, and I bought candles and made a cake, but there won’t be the usual party. No end of the year recitals or last day hugs with my own students. It still feels so strange. Not just the loss of the events themselves, but what they do for us. I think we use these occasions to mark time. Like that fairy tale of the girl in the woods dropping breadcrumbs to find her way home, it is all gobbled up by this pandemic, and it’s hard to see a way out.

I’m writing tonight mostly so that I can look back and say yes, that thing happened, that expanse of time felt like it would go on and on and yet we made it to the other side eventually.

I spent the first weeks shocked and terrified and refusing to go anywhere at all, relying on click list grocery pick up. Now I brave the store with a mask, and the kids ride bikes with their neighborhood friends. I am loosening up in some things, and tightening my grip in others. My only mantra was survival the first few weeks. Work as best I could at home, keep kids on track, sanitize and clean, and feel no guilt when only these things were accomplished.

But I feel a shift this week, both a recognition and a stubborn insistence. So many of the details of my life these past few months were sucked up by illness (Jude’s) and then by fear of illness (the whole world’s). And now I feel the need to shake off this stagnation and resistance and lean into the flow of whatever this is.

I pulled out my 2020 journal this morning, and I read my words for the year – Allow, Soften, Create. I couldn’t settle on only one this year, and I went for those three in efforts to find that nameless thing that exists between them. That greater yin, that feeling of receiving whatever comes to me and then turning it into something else as an act of creation. When I sketched those words in January in my journal, I did not expect the challenge that was coming to my life or the global pandemic that was coming after that. But what if even in this place I can allow and soften and create whatever is meant to be?

I’ve been thinking of that Rilke poem lately. The one where he tells us to go to the limits of your longing and to let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. I think it has been hard for me to even discern what my longing is, much less follow it to its limits. Survival mode doesn’t leave room for any longing except security. But now, on day 64, I find myself maybe revisiting some of those longings that are beneath the surface of the will to survive.

Things that are keeping me sane: I just finished Untamed, and I have Ocean Vuong’s novel on my night stand lined up next. This podcast with him was like taking a deep breath and a long exhale. I’m addicted to Taryn Toomey’s The Class which is some weird hybrid of pilates, dance, and Osho meditation. I have binged all four seasons of Poldark available on Amazon, and I am tempted to rewatch them already. The new Secret Sisters album and today’s Jason Isbell release. Banana pudding dropped on my doorstep from my neighbor and my freshly baked baguettes I delivered to her. Zoom calls with friends and monthly sharing with my writing group. I know I am not the first one to say this, but I hope when all is said and done that we remember the ways that art kept us sane and grounded and hopeful in this season.

On that note, I ran across this poem from the new Sugar Calling podcast, and I wanted to close by sharing it here. He says what I want to say in 14 beautiful lines. There is beauty in this mess, even here.

 

“When” by John O’Donnell

And when this ends we will emerge, shyly
and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace
loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those
it gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture, this longed-for
laying on of hands, high cries as we nuzzle, leaning in
to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,
although a time will come when we’ll forget
the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh
of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;
a time when we may even miss the old-world
arm’s-length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,
the drifting, idle days, and nights when we flung open
all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices
reaching out, holding each other till this passes.

Echo

It’s been so long since I’ve written here that WordPress has changed the dashboard a little, and I didn’t even realize until I just logged on. This is a long one, so buckle up in your quarantine nest or wherever these words find you. Nearly three months, the longest break I’ve taken in the ten years I’ve had this space. But for most of us, it’s the last few days that speak the loudest. Life always happens that way, years of a record sailing around and around with a needle tracing a line smoothly, the rhythm predictable. Then scratch, that noise, that halt.

My halt came a couple of months ago, even before COVID-19 landed on America’s shores, but tonight, everything feels magnified.

Just after New Year’s, both of my kids got some nasty respiratory bug and within a few days (first Norah, then Jude) they were both diagnosed with pneumonia. With the right meds, Norah’s healed quickly, but Jude’s did not. It hung on and on and he was on two rounds of antibiotics and oral steroids plus two different inhalers. It was a much heavier handed medical approach than I usually have to take with him, but his breathing was so coarse for weeks. Then on January 29th, he got this odd complication where he started vomiting numerous times a day as his body was healing from the respiratory stuff. It wasn’t exactly typical stomach bug behavior; instead it was almost constant … gagging? retching? dry heaving? From the beginning, I knew it was something odd because in a decade of parenting, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Long story short, after countless pediatrician visits, an ER visit where they swabbed him and gave us a confirmed diagnosis of Rhino-Enterovirus, and two GI specialists, he was misdiagnosed twice and then finally diagnosed with something called post-viral gastroparesis. It’s essentially when the vagus nerve becomes damaged because of a viral infection, and since the vagus nerve wraps all the way around your digestive system, it affects stomach nerves as well. In literal terms, it translates to “stomach paralysis.” In reality, it has meant 6 solid weeks of vomiting. We are on day 50 right now.

Parents, you know what life feels like when a stomach virus hits your kid? Imagine that + 6 weeks of it + a full time job + single parenting + a little sister to also tend to + scary research that told me it could go on and on and on for a very long time, sometimes incurable. Then all the practicalities — homebound instruction for him while I was working, occasional IV fluids, isolation from his friends and activities, carrying vomit bags everywhere, running out of PTO and working a job I only just began in August. To say it has been the hardest few weeks of my life is no understatement. There is nothing worse than worrying for your kid’s health, and I guess I always knew that abstractly in my head, but now I know it in my heart and in my bones in a way I can never forget.

Because it is nerve-centered, there is no reliably effective medicine. We got something from the GI that helped for a few days but wore off. Then about three weeks ago, a student in class asked how he was doing and I explained the diagnosis, and another kid raised his hand to say that he had the same thing in 6th grade and this parents found a chiropractic / injury rehabilitation center nearby that essentially rehabilitated his vagus nerve. This coincidence is pretty crazy (Thank you, God) because it’s a rare thing. I made an appointment that day and I’m happy to say that our protocol there (a combination of chiropractics, craniosacral massage, microcurrent therapy, and a hyperbaric oxygen chamber) almost has Jude back to normal.

About a month before the vomiting began, he had a suspected concussion that the local children’s urgent care cleared us on, but the assessments we’ve done through this injury rehabilitation clinic suggest that perhaps that is where it all began and the virus simply further inflamed the nerve. Who knows? The human body is incredibly amazing and complicated and unpredictable. He is currently down to only occasional episodes when he was vomiting 20+ times a day a few weeks ago. It feels crazy to say that I am seeing a chiropractic practice to treat my kid’s GI condition, but after a wild goose chase for answers, that is exactly what I am doing, and it is working. We are not totally healed yet, but it has improved. There are tests lined up for the coming months to rule out misdiagnosis and new complications and to take a closer look at any nutritional deficiencies that may be left behind after so many days of improper food absorption.

I said to my friend a couple of weeks ago that once my family was past this health complication, I would never again complain about my regular, busy, messy, sometimes overwhelming life.

Then last week came, and I began the week with some abstract worries about Coronavirus and ended it here inside these four walls with the same task that confronts all of us right now, waiting and watching and praying and sitting through this fear and discomfort.

This is such a weird season in my life. I’m just coming out of a dark period of a lot of tears and a lot of frustration with the medical system and a lot of worries about my son’s health only to see the same things playing out on the world’s stage now. Frustration with a system that is failing us and so much worry. I feel like one day I will look back and this timing will make sense and I will see what God was doing, but I do not see it yet.

All of us are learning lessons right now and absorbing this news in different ways, but it feels like for me, the same experience I have already had this year is echoing louder and louder to say Can you hear me? Do you see me? I’m thinking of that Pema Chodron quote again. Nothing goes away until it has taught you what you need to learn.

To be honest, I have mostly been on quarantine since January anyhow. I have been in the midst of a total paradigm shift in my own life, and now the world is requiring all of us to do the same thing. What if all you had right now is the space you are sitting in, the one you call home? What if you had to stop shopping and stop running and stop everything and just be still? What if you had to strip everything down to the basics and sit with all of it? What if the point is not to be productive but just to be here? What if you had to rely on others for help and remember that we are all connected, all of us, all the time?

Jude’s extended illness has forced me to strip everything down to the root, but here I am stripping it even more bare. I cannot shake the feeling that the America on the other side of this is not going to be remotely the same. It is scary now as we look to the unknown, but what if there is something good there? The recognition that public schools are completely necessary to the functioning of a thriving society, the understanding that all service workers need a safety net of insurance and sick time, the realization that maybe families need to be fed when they cannot afford it and not just because their kids are going to school. And look at how we have come together, how we have picked up pieces of this mess to coordinate community efforts from six feet apart and from the reaches of the wide internet. We can do so much more if we choose to. Why haven’t we been doing this already?

Health is such a gift. Nothing else really matters. I think maybe that is what we are all realizing, and what I’m understanding on both the personal and also the national level right now. What was my own little family’s health scare somehow paved the way for this global one to make its path into my life.

I can say with confidence America will be different on the other side of this massive health crisis because that is what crisis does for us. It shifts and moves all the pieces and makes us create something new of our lives. I am not sure what is on the other side of this scare for me, but I am determined to make it something good. And in the meantime as I wait, I am determined to keep chiseling away at what is here — to play board games or read, to clean out that space I have been avoiding in the extra closet upstairs, to write and create, to paint with the kids and take walks and watch movies and maybe remember that we are not what we produce or what we buy or who we are perceived to be when we are out in the world. Just being here is all that we are created to do, and that alone is a gift.

 

Create

Rest assured I am writing when I can but not here. There are only so many words I can compose, and I know my limits, so I don’t prioritize this space like I used to. Today is December 21st, the Winter Solstice. The darkest day of the year. This is the week that we celebrate but also, for me, it is always the week that I put things to rest. I shut off some part of me, as my friend likes to say. The mom brain and the teacher brain and the long to-do list.

In the past ten days, I’ve had a sick child, well, then sick again. Elementary class parties, dress up theme days, gift exchanges, and teacher gifts. Two Nutcracker dress rehearsals with two Nutcracker performances coming up this weekend. Final exams for my own students with piles of grading. And another issue that is weighing enormously heavy on my heart and mind, but I cannot write all of the details here simply because it involves other people. (Nothing mysterious or dramatic or even personal, just part of the million surprises and stresses that compose a life.) It’s been a perfect storm of stress.

I was feeling it heavily on Thursday, and I texted my longtime best friend asking “Is it possible to raise two kids solo and be away from home 6:45am – 4:30 everyday?” I expected soft talk back to encourage me, but she responded with a one word NO in about 2 seconds flat. I feel this sometimes — that I’m doing the impossible and I can’t keep doing it. But look, I am. And a million other women in my situation are doing it, too. I have holidays and spring break and summer break to recalibrate which is more than many people have. I have family 25 minutes down the road when I need help and am in a pinch, and that is more than many have as well. My kids go to Dad’s four days a month, and I get that time to reset and recenter. I get child support payments on time, and many women don’t. I have lots of things that I’m grateful for, sure. But you can be grateful and also exhausted at the same time, and this is me. Raising the white flag right now to say that I’m carrying too many things, and I’m laying it down here with lines on the page.

I haven’t slept soundly in weeks. I’m out like a light every night without a problem, but the worry brain wakes me around 2am, and I have a hard time turning it off. Then the alarm rings at 5:00, and the marathon begins. Rinse repeat. I am using this last stretch of the year to let that tightness subside for me. It takes a while; I know this because I have done it before. But by the end of this week, it will fade, and I will feel human again.

I’m thinking a lot about my word for 2020. The last few years have brought Write, Intention, Trust, and Persist. I persisted in 2019 in ways that astound me in hindsight. I made things happen with sheer will and determination. The things I wanted that felt so impossible — travel with the kids, a new job, and a literary agent — happened because I wouldn’t stop until they did.

But now I am feeling the need to soften it all, to recenter and find again that pulse beneath all the madness. I’m leaning toward Create as my word to begin this new decade. I want to see 2020 as a space where I can create experiences that inspire me, writing that holds true to the promise I’ve made to myself and to others, and even create space in my life where there was none. It feels like so much of my day is a marathon, and there is no room to breathe. But stillness has to be there if I look hard enough. I’m determined to create room to breathe this year somehow.

Earlier this week, I ran across a Joyce Sutphen poem that did that thing poetry can do — harness a feeling you forgot you ever had and make you nostalgic for it.

“Those Hours”

There were moments, hours even,

when it was clear what I

was meant to do, as if

a landscape had revealed itself

in the morning light.

I could see the road

plainly now, imagining myself

walking towards the distant mountains

like a pilgrim in the old stories —

ready to take on any danger,

hapless but always hopeful,

certain that my simple belief

in the light

would be enough.

 

I miss the light so much this time of year. I wake to darkness, and by the time I am home to stir dinner on the stove, it is back again. I’m ready to see the road again, to harness that simple belief in the light and know that it’s enough. Merry Christmas to you, and if these words are finding you in a dark place, my wish for you is to find the light again in 2020. I’ve passed an entire decade writing in this space. (Which is crazy to reflect on!) So many moments and so many things recorded here. Both darkness and light. A whole landscape revealed itself here for me, and there’s more to be illuminated down the road. Let’s keep going.

 

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Possibility

I’ve sat down to write here a few times — or composed ideas in my head at least. I never seem to make it here to string things together into something cohesive. I am still here and doing a million things, but just not updating this blog or social media much these days.

This week has been our Fall Break — in a school system where we start on August 1st, this makes sense. I’ve been swimming, swimming, swimming for the past seven weeks, and I am finally coming back to the surface to catch my breath. We were holding steady at 94 degrees every afternoon here in Georgia until yesterday when suddenly fall arrived and brought us 75 and cloudy. I think maybe the very best feeling in the world is the feeling that change is coming.

Possibility is more energizing than the feeling that comes when you actually arrive somewhere.

The kids left last Friday afternoon to go to their dad’s, and they didn’t come home until Wednesday morning, so I had a glorious five days alone. I completed all the usual “vacation” tasks that teacher-moms do (like cleaning out closets and washing the car and catching up on grading) but I also got eight hours of sleep on those nights, and it felt like there was nothing but space around me and in front of me for that few days. I needed it badly. August came like a freight train, and did September even happen? I guess it did, but I can hardly remember. The new job is going well, and I’m so glad I made the switch, but it is also busy from my 5am alarm until 8pm when the kids go to bed. Not a moment left unattended in that time at all.

I was listening to the latest Rob Bell podcast last weekend, and he said something about “building a cathedral of time” and that phrase just stuck inside of me, fluttering around a bit and letting me hold onto it to claim that idea. Time is the most precious thing in my life right now, that thing that I can never quite get enough of somehow. It will not hold; I cannot keep it. But I think the thing I am getting far better at as I age is making use of the time that I do have and just letting go of all the rest. We can sink deep in only a few hours, if we try.

The second half of the week flew by, of course, as it always does when kids are in the house. They played with neighbors and built forts made of boxes and towels. And then yesterday we drove an hour northward to the mountains to go apple picking and followed that with a stop at our usual pumpkin patch.

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Autumn is such a welcome change in Georgia where summer drags on and on and the heat begins to feel like a wet blanket that will never leave. It’s hard to believe we are heading into the final stretch of 2019 already. This year has been big for me in ways that, in hindsight, seem pretty unbelievable. I saw a meme the other day that referred to this as the last 3 months of the decade, and it woke me up a bit to a perspective I did not see before. Where was I ten years ago? A whole different life. But I cannot even begin to count the ways that this one is more fulfilling or the gratitude that I have for the way my path has meandered to unforeseen places and is still moving with a force of its own. Next week will mark a decade of motherhood for me, and above everything else, I feel so thankful that these two have shaped me and that they are the center of my story.

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Autumn always feels like a rebirth. I cannot believe this year. A job change that signified a monumental shift for me, some travels just the three of us, an incredible writing workshop that has given me an ongoing community I feel lucky to have and destined to find, and (though I haven’t mentioned this yet here) a literary agent for this book that is trying to be born. These big things were made of the tiniest steps in the smallest moments. My progress toward this life I want has been so slow and steady that it’s easy to forget that I am moving somewhere. But then I take the rearview of the past decade and wow. How could I have ever imagined?

Building my cathedral of time one step at a time, and the life that called to me for so long is taking shape around me. I am not so sure that time heals all wounds. But what I know for sure is that time will eventually reveal to you what is yours when you listen to what calls for you and stay true to that voice. This is only the beginning, but already I am feeling it again — that possibility is sweeter than arrival when you are on the right path.

naming our own

As 2019 began, I set a goal to attend a writers’ workshop and took a look at my options. I threw applications at a couple of different places and decided that I would land wherever I was meant to be. As it turned out, that place was deep in the hills of eastern Kentucky at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop. I arrived home last night road-weary but still spinning from such an immeasurable experience.

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I posted a handful of photos on Instagram and wanted to have words here too so that I can record this for my own self to somehow bottle the feeling. I feel like I was a million miles away for much longer than a week, but it also felt like coming home to a community of people so similar to myself that I didn’t even know they existed.

I met Dorothy Allison and watched her put aside a planned speech and instead begin with tears and enlighten us about the power of voice with all of its hard and gritty edges. I ate dinner Thursday night seated across from George Ella Lyon, Kentucky’s Poet Laureate, and listened to her tell me she’s been thinking about creek beds and how they overflow their own banks and the ways she sees our current political landscape as a place that has overflowed its bounds to drown the rest of us. I talked with Silas House, one of my favorite living novelists, about why I love his work and about his travels through Atlanta.

The south can be a lonely place when you straddle that line – as I do – of both loving and hating it at the same time, when you feel it so deeply as home but also see the ways that you have outgrown it. A fish out of water. But last week I met so many new friends like myself who are writing their own stories of home and finding their way through lines on a page – from Alabama to Ohio, those who love this region enough that they never want to leave it and those who left it but still ache for both the ways it is beautiful and the ways it needs to change. I ate more food than I have in ages — fresh corn and boiled peanuts and tomatoes and peach cobbler. I listened to a protest song performed with a washboard. I recited “The Brier Sermon” standing in a circle with people I’d only just met and felt my eyes water when, in unison, they began to sing “Amazing Grace” under the night sky. I heard from gay hillbillies and black hillbillies and young hillbillies and old hillbillies. Those who left home never to return again and those who, like me, have no intention of ever leaving.

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As I’m thinking about what made this place so magical, I realize that there are no hard lines there between “real” writers (What does that even mean?) and the rest of us. No designation about which stories matter because there is a recognition that all of them do. Everyone gets a shift of dish duty there. Seated across from George Ella Thursday night as we ate squash casserole and barbeque chicken, I listened to her talk with me earnestly about the book I’m writing and where I’m from. Then she asked a kitchen worker if they needed help with the dishes. That’s the kind of place this was – where you can find yourself washing dishes alongside someone whose work you’ve always admired and mentored by voices you’ve been reading on the page for a long time.

Growing up close enough to Atlanta to be well aware of social class, this week exploded those barriers for me. I descended more from sharecroppers than plantation owners, cow pastures and trailers instead of debutante balls. A first-generation college student who found myself teaching in a college classroom by the time I was 32. I can see in my own life a change that mirrors the change of the region I love – fast and unexpected and sometimes disorienting when you try to integrate all of these disparate pieces. I think one of the hardest pieces to fully examine in this book I am writing is exactly how the place I sprouted from has both limited and empowered me. In “The Brier Sermon,” Miller tells us, “You’ve kept the worst and thrown away the best. You’ve stayed the same where you ought to have changed, changed where you ought to have stayed the same. Wouldn’t you like to know what to throw away, what to keep, what to be ashamed of, what to be proud of? Wouldn’t you like to know how to change and stay the same? You must be born again.” This isn’t just about region. I think all of us have to look closely at our own selves, refuse to let the world tell us what is shameful and what to throw away. We all have to be born again everyday to decide for our own selves what we choose to keep and to share.

Writing is the only way I have come to integrate anything at all in my life. All the pieces that don’t make sense find their rhythm on the page. Sometimes you have to reach way back to find those missing pieces you need to make a full circle. Though she is most famous for Bastard Out of Carolina, I had Dorothy Allison sign her memoir Two or Three Things I Know for Sure when I met her on Thursday night since I had spent the week working in the memoir classI recovered from the workshop today by taking it slow this morning with coffee and a reading of that short but powerful book with a pen in my hand. In a line I underlined two times over, she says, “I would rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me” and it gave me a lump in my throat. How many times has the world tried to make a coat for me that I was not meant to wear? Too many to count. Why does it take us so long to fully love ourselves? 

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In that same book, Allison also says “If we cannot name our own we are cut off at the root, our hold on our lives as fragile as seed in a wind.” I’ve known that feeling. I am betting we all have and know people who feel it right now as I am writing this. That feeling of cutting yourself off at the root to begin something new without understanding what happened deep down in the soil to make you what you are. I’m feeling eternally grateful for last week — the roots it illuminated for me, the stories it holds, and the ways it taught me to name my own.

 

Nunca Solo

The kids and I returned from a trip yesterday. As I type this now in my quiet house, they have gone to dad’s for the week, and the laundry is humming with more piles to be done. Suitcases are unpacked, and the refrigerator is restocked. It’s funny how you return from a week away and things are exactly the same as you left them (of course) and it makes you wonder if those days even happened. Our days, all of them, come and go only once – whether we are home or far away.

Mexico 2019

Travel is something I have loved since I spent a summer in England in college and was bitten by the travel bug, as they say. When I was married, we were always going somewhere or planning some excursion. Most of this was simply because my ex husband traveled excessively for work. I was a stay-at-home-mom for three years, and Jude and I would tag along and entertain ourselves in an unfamiliar city while his father worked during the day. Then when Norah was born and I went back to work full-time, that wasn’t so easy, but we’d still cash in travel points every summer to see a new place. It was an interesting season of my life. (Interesting, that annoying word I tell my students not to use because it really means nothing at all.) To clarify – it was a complex time in my life. We got to go on luxurious vacations once a year, sure. Nice resorts and plush hotel beds and new scenery. But the price I paid was a husband who was never home and [free] accommodations that looked nearly the same, no matter what location we were in.

My travel bug has not really gone away, but my household exists on less than half the income it did at that time, and I do not have a pile of frequent flier miles or hotel points at my disposal. I’ve found creative ways to see new things and make memories with the kids while stretching a dollar. Tiny beach condos and yurt camping and cabins on the river. I assumed that a bigger trip was not in the cards for me for quite some time though, so much so that my passport sat unusable for nearly 4 years in my locked safe at home with my old married name still on it. But in January, I ran across an unbelievable deal for a resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (So good, in fact, that I contacted them after booking it asking if it was indeed true that all three of us can stay and eat there for that price.) I booked the hotel thinking I may have to cancel if flight prices didn’t come down. Then I got an alert from Google that flight prices were cut in half for a few hours back in April, so I jumped in with both feet and booked it. Even as I packed our suitcases the week before we left, I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

We landed in Mexico last Monday around 5pm and had no trouble at all getting out of the airport and to the resort. We arrived at the hotel to check in and went straight for our balcony overlooking the pool bordered by blue ocean as far as we could see. It was a long travel day and so much planning and preparation. Once we were settled, the kids wanted room service nachos, and I was happy to oblige.

Mexico 2019

In the past few weeks, I prepped for every possible disaster scenario. I’d read numerous reports of seaweed overtaking the Yucatan and much of Quintana Roo this summer. I worried incessantly about it, but as usual, my worry was unnecessary. There was more seaweed than we usually see in Florida, yes. But the bright colors, fun food, kind people, and that special magic sauce of what it feels like to see a new place more than made up for it. We spent lazy mornings in the pool, and the hotel location lacked the isolation of a lot of Mexican resorts and made it easy to see the town itself. It was the perfect mix of relaxation and a little adventure in the unfamiliar.

I came to see firsthand on this trip that we are in such a great season with their ages and interests. They are old enough to maneuver their own luggage on and off planes and through customs lines without complaint, but they are young enough to find enjoyment in the simplest things, like tacos and ice cream and the rhythms of an unfamiliar language. The stress of traveling with them alone is that it is only me to plan and problem solve. But the reward is so much freedom. And I’m seeing how well we know each other and how close we are in this shape of three. As much as I would love someone else to share this load and help me do the necessary tasks every now and then, I can’t imagine what I would have missed in these few years if we didn’t have this time together just the three of us. Last week was a reminder of that more than ever.

Mexico 2019

We took a day trip to swim in the cenotes, and it was definitely the highlight of the week for me. We snorkeled in a salt water lagoon and then ventured further to Cenote Pakal Nah where I didn’t get a photo that does it justice, but it was the most beautiful clear water I’ve ever seen. You could see all the way to the bottom, and we watched tiny fish give us pedicures.  It’s a gravel road that leads you there, and it feels like an oasis in the jungle. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and a different view of Mexico than I expected.

Mexico 2019

After that, we went to one last cenote in a limestone cave where the water was freezing, but we braced for it and jumped in anyway. The kids were shivering and laughing the whole time. Once we got out and dried off, we ate lunch from a buffet in a screened pavilion surrounded by Mayan jungle. Rice and beans and guacamole and fresh pico de gallo and bunuelos draining on a paper towel the way my grandmother would serve her fried apple pies. As we walked out, a stray cat crossed Norah’s path and laid down for her to pet it. I swear it seems that no matter where we are, animals always find her. Of course what followed was, “Mama, can we take him home?”

Mexico 2019

We crashed early that night, bone tired from swimming and cuddled in bed in the hotel room watching a movie until our eyelids were heavy. The rest of the trip was mostly just relaxing and exploring at our own pace and enjoying the novelty of things we cannot get at home.
Mexico 2019

 

Mexico 2019

I think sometimes growth happens in ways that sneak up on you. It comes along in increments and then you do something you never would have done before and realize you have come such a long way. This trip was one of those things for me. I have done a million uncomfortable things on my own – from buying a home to making job change decisions to dealing with car repairs or negotiating with home improvement contractors. But I know with certainty that I would not have taken both kids across the ocean alone a short while ago. All of the fear stories that play in your head — what if I get sick while we are there and I am the only one to care for them? What if I get us lost? Is it safe for a woman to travel alone with kids like this? These stories still played in my head, but I just turned the volume down on them so that they didn’t drown out all of the other beauty that was there for us.
Mexico 2019

Mexico 2019

I read Jen Pastiloff’s new memoir while we were on this trip, and it was the perfect medicine. I’ve met her before through attending her workshops when she comes through Atlanta, and one journaling exercise she has us complete is “If I had no fear, I would…” I still have my journals from both times I attended the workshop. Pages and pages of what I’d do with no fear. We all have fear though. It’s there and it’s normal. Acknowledging it and allowing a little space between it and myself is the way I have learned to move past it. It’s still here and still present, but it is not all there is of me.

Mexico 2019

Jen also talks in her workshops about what she terms bullshit stories, the things we tell ourselves that just aren’t true but we act as though they are. She mentions this in the book, too. She tells us, “I’ve had (and I have) so many bullshit stories. It’s all part of this being human thing. The way out? Recognizing them and eradicating them so they don’t rearrange your DNA and live in your body as truth.” That distance between my fear and my real self is what allows me to eradicate them.

This trip imploded some of my own bullshit stories and exposed them for what they are. The story that I cannot travel on my own. That I cannot make it happen on a smaller budget, or that it is somehow less enjoyable when it is less expensive. The story that I don’t deserve to see what’s out there. The story that this small piece of the world is all that is for me. The story that I cannot make an experience happen when I truly desire it. The story that we are somehow less complete in this shape of three.

I think the biggest bullshit story that it eradicated for me is the one that says I am all alone in my care for these two kids. That was my biggest fear as I embarked on this trip — that it was all me and only me and what if I can’t handle it?

When we landed in Mexico, I found the longest customs line I have ever seen before. Swarms of people winding through ropes at the airport and it seemed it was hardly moving. It was hot and crowded, and I was bracing the kids for a long wait. We waited maybe 20 minutes with at least three times that much in front of us when an immigration officer walked up to me and asked how many we had and I pointed out there were three of us. He said “follow me” and I was unsure where this was going but obviously didn’t say no. He walked us out of the line and across the room to open a new checkpoint. We were through in two minutes after that. Things like that happened again and again all week. Bracing myself for the pushy sales pitches as we left the airport when instead all I got was one taxi driver asking who my transportation company was and when I told him, he pointed me in their direction to help instead of hassling me to use him instead. A driver who hardly spoke English but offered Norah a life preserver in the cenote and smiled and said, “Taxi?” as he motioned for her to hold on and swam her faster to the edge of the cold cave. So many kind people there to help and to guide.

We are never fully alone, but somehow we forget this. I know so many moments of this trip will stick with me for a long time. Colors and flavors and images and sounds that I hope will live somewhere in the depths of my memories for years and years. But I want to remember that lesson as well — Nunca solo. I am not alone. You do not have to measure your life by what it lacks. The world will rise to meet you when you have the courage to move in the direction of trust and curiosity.

Notice that.

Week Two of summer vacation is nearly over. By now, I’m used to the rhythm of my summers. One week “off duty” with a quiet house and no demands other than those I impose on myself. Then the next week is a whirlwind of kids and neighbors and pool time and crafts and noise. Rinse and repeat, alternating between both extremes all summer. It’s the perfect balance, and I’m grateful for both extremes — the noise and the quiet. I guess in hindsight I’ve come a long way since that first summer of restlessness. It’s our fifth summer in this house, and we have settled in another layer deeper this year. The kids remember nothing else, and lately neither do I.

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I’m juggling too many things at once (my own doing) in my weeks away from the kids. I get excited about the empty time in front of me to accomplish what has been on the back burner all school year. A few house projects happening at once and a few writing efforts, too. And of course reading two books at the same time as well — Only Love Can Break Your Heart for a dose of fiction and The Body Keeps the Score for my non-fiction itch. Both of these, when I think about it, carry different hues of the same message: the many ways the past can still talk to us and what choices we are left with when we don’t want it to invade the present.

I’m moving faster through the non-fiction work than I expected. It’s an incredible read. Van Der Kolk somehow manages to present his scientific findings and his own valuable experience as a psychotherapist in a way that’s grounded in complex research but readable for all of us. I’ve seen this book mentioned in a million places for years, but I think I needed this particular moment in my life and this specific amount of space from my own past experiences to dive in.

This topic is too huge and too complicated and too personal to paint all of it here for you, but there are small take-aways in his book that are useful for any one of us. His basic premise is that trauma resides in the body and that you can’t think your way past it. You have to look to the body for the gateway to move former trauma out of yourself and reclaim your relationship to the present.

So many of us think of trauma as only the kind with a capital T, the one terrifying, catastrophic moment that happens. Sometimes it is exactly that. But small traumas are stored in the body as well. There are endless examples of these kinds of things — relentless stress in a period of your life that places unreachable demands on you, battling an illness, bullying, betrayal, childhood neglect, the death of someone close to you, situations where someone was deliberately cruel to you or deeply humiliating, etc. Van Der Kolk walks the reader through stories from decades of his own practice that have demonstrated this brain-body connection and given him the tools to help patients move past their own traumas.

We all know that these mind-body-spirit connections exist. You get a stomach ache when you’re anxious. Your pulse races when you’re angry. Your cheeks get pink when you’re embarrassed. But to read his volumes of research and experience on how trauma hides in the body illustrates it in a new way for me. He says, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?’ Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

Curiosity over fear is a mantra I’m working towards in 2019 anyway, and lately I’m trying to be especially mindful of that concept when looking at my own self and even my own body. Instead of holding self-judgment about something, I’m leaning in with curiosity.  When my pulse races about an imagined future outcome that hasn’t even occurred yet or my heart sinks with that heavy feeling of sadness, I don’t resist it anymore but instead I say notice that and then what happens next? It’s amazing how losing that resistance lessens the power of the thing that was causing me pain to begin with.

I suppose Notice that and What happens next? are good phrases for nearly every challenge in life. I’m in a transitional space this summer as I move from one job to the next. That major change began with my own subtle discomfort and then a few months of giving myself the space to notice what was beneath it. I have no idea what will happen next in the big picture of my life. But I can watch what happens in small moments when I pay attention to what is brewing in my own heart and head.

I’m stretching wider than I have before in the next couple of months with some travel in June and a writing workshop in July. I feel the familiar gnawing voices of fear and anxiety when I stretch wider than a familiar, prescribed circle. I’m working to notice those voices, give them space and look at them with curiosity. But then I just wait with patience for what happens next as I reach beyond what I’ve known before. The beauty always lies just beyond the fear.