the charm of the ordinary

Wednesdays are our long days. The amount of orchestration it takes and the marathon from my morning alarm to when my head hits the pillow that night is almost funny. It starts on Tuesday night when I pack Norah’s ballet bag with her clothes and shoes for dance class. I leave it on my table and make sure to have all of Jude’s soccer gear in my car. Then Wednesday morning has me throwing food in the slow cooker at something like 7am. My mom comes to the bus stop (thank God for that) on Wednesdays to meet the kids as I’m finishing up work. She takes both of them straight to the ballet studio – where I stop on the way home to relieve her and send her on her way. Then Jude and I wait until Norah’s class is done, and he changes into soccer clothes and shin guards in the ballet studio bathroom. All three of us load in the car and drive straight to soccer practice where Norah plays on the sidelines in her dance leotard and I grade or read to prep for class. By the time we make it home, it’s something like 7pm.  We eat whatever the slow cooker has ready for us, and the kids head straight up to bed soon after. It is a carefully constructed marathon with all of its moving parts and pieces.

All of life can start to feel this way sometimes, no room for spontaneity. This is beginning to get a little better for me as my kids age and are more capable of embracing flexibility, but the weekdays still fly in a frenzied blur most of the time. All work, no play – for all three of us.

Wednesday night when I was cleaning the kitchen while the rest of the house slept, I found an envelope Norah brought home from school weeks ago with tickets to our county fair. They did one drawing for each grade level, and she was the lucky kindergarten winner. We got rained out last Sunday when it would have been more convenient to go, but I didn’t want to lose our chance to use them. When the kids woke up on Thursday morning, I told them we were going to the fair after school, and I’ll never forget the excitement – and also the confusion – on their sleepy little faces.  One of the things I am best at in life is routine, and I think they didn’t quite know what to do with my insistence that we were going to shake it up a little that night. I left work as quickly as I could on Thursday afternoon to pick them up at 4:30. We came home to decompress a minute and tend to the dog, and then we loaded the car to arrive at the fair by 6.

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What is it about that smell of funnel cakes and cheap nachos that takes anyone back about 20 years? We had 50 ride tickets to blow through, so we hopped on a ferris wheel soon after we walked in. Norah saw her teacher as we were standing in line and shouted her name above the crowd. She got a smile and a hug, and we boarded the ride where Jude insisted on his own seat to prove how brave he could be. Where we live is a classic example of a small town morphing into a suburb. Population growth is crazy around here, and new neighborhoods are popping up everywhere. But sometimes it still emerges with that hometown feel. Bumping into your teacher at the annual fair is one of those moments, and fall is full of so many more of them – neighborhood chili cook-offs, pumpkin patches, and fall festivals everywhere.

The fair arrives for two weeks every October. There’s a small amphitheater in the center of the fairgrounds where you can find country music every night, and they’ve got local craft exhibitions here and there and a working cotton gin on display. It’s hometown Georgia at its very best. I feel lucky to center my kids in a place that feels solid and steady – planting little seeds of memories in their own minds that will bloom to nostalgia one day when they are grown.
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We stayed until the sun went down – my promise to them. And we left with full bellies and balloons and tiny toys they won in a carnival game. We rode the sky buckets just before we left, and they carried us high above the crowd and the lights. Poor Norah was scared, and I’m always relieved when my feet hit the ground, too. But I’m learning that it’s important to push yourself to do things you wouldn’t usually do. Sometimes that means eating a corndog for dinner and spending two hours at the county fair on a random weeknight when mom lets you stay up past your bedtime.

Little things are, in fact, the big things sometimes. I am inching my way through a great book right now, but midterm madness at work leaves me with so little energy that I only turn a few pages each night before I am sound asleep. It’s Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, and so much of what she says about the writing process can be applied to life in general, too. In the chapter where she explains the importance of detail, she insists, “I’ve learned that it isn’t easy to witness what is actually happening…But my days are made up of these moments. If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I just may miss my life.” How true that is, right? There is nothing extreme or extraordinary about funnel cakes at the county fair on a Thursday night, but I wanted to sit down to write about it this afternoon to say here I am refusing to dismiss the charm of the ordinary. I’m grateful for every little mundane second in this life I’ve got.

Jude turns eight tomorrow. I can hardly believe it. Eight years of motherhood have changed me almost beyond recognition, and to be honest, even glimmers of who I was when he was a baby or a toddler seem pretty far from who I am now and from what I know to be true.

This is what year eight looks like for us. We are celebrating with pizza and his choice of chocolate birthday cake and a door wide open for any neighborhood friends who want to join us. My fancy invitations this year consisted of a text message essentially saying Come on over, and tomorrow 16 of his little friends will come walking down sidewalks and across yards to sing Happy Birthday and play some backyard games. I expect that it will be like most everything else in my life lately – simplified to its most basic level so that I can actually get it done. But it will also be honest and true and real and a perfect celebration of a boy who has somehow grown to stand even with my chin and amazes me everyday with his curiosity and insight and his honest observation of everything around us.

My kids may think I am the one leading the charge here, but in fact it is always them. They are the ones teaching me everyday, reminding me of what is real.

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refugee

As I type this (or try to), I’ve got a house full of kids playing hide and seek while the rain pours outside. I hear screaming and laughing, and I’m guessing I will throw a few words here and then leave it alone for hours and return to it later tonight when the kids are sleeping and the house is quiet. This is the way everything works in my life lately – half finished bits and pieces that eventually get done, but never on the timeline I prefer or expect.

There are five straight days of rain in the forecast here, but it held off for us yesterday and we took advantage – a soccer game followed by a visit to my granddad’s place followed by a trip to our favorite local pumpkin patch. I always over-plan fall Saturdays, but they come and go so quickly around here. I just want to be sure we get every last drop.
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What a week it was. The news is killing me – from Vegas to Capitol Hill to Tom Petty. One foot in front of the other is the only way I slog through it lately, and sometimes it looks like the entire world is on that same page with me, none of us really knowing how to do this.

I also ran across this dense and lengthy article online this week. A few points in it reminded me of what I touched on in my last post – that thing that happens to women when we pass 35 and inch closer to 40 and don’t see things the same way any longer. The author tells us, “I think of what my friend who grew up in Mexico once told me: ‘The 30s are the adolescence of your adulthood,’ she said, ‘and when you reach 50, it’s a restart—empieza de nuevo—a second chance.'”

I’m wondering if my empieza de nuevo might begin a little early. Sometimes it feels that way. Not that life isn’t still hard. It is. The same pressures the article emphasizes – from kids to career to finances to single life with no confirmed expiration date – are all true for me. But I don’t know; sometimes it feels like I just got used to facing stuff I didn’t want to face, and now I’m not scared of much of anything anymore. Life is hard. But I know I can handle it somehow.

I’ve been revisiting some Tom Petty this week – like most everyone else I know. I can’t help but think of my favorite of Petty’s songs, one that felt like an anthem for as long as I can remember, but especially in this season of my life. When I hear Everybody has to fight to be free. You don’t have to live like a refugee in his voice, it leaves a bigger mark than just reading those words or hearing them spoken. Art and music continually amaze me in how they capture what we can’t quite say in our everyday lives but always feel just the same. And this week, I’m reminded again with his passing that what we create outlasts us – whether it is art or music or words on the page.

Petty apparently wrote that song about music business pressures and recording label arguments in the 70’s. Whatever the case, I feel its defiant message in my own way and always have when I hear its melody. Life pushes us here and there, but we can refuse it, too. Refuse the feeling of being evicted from our own space and lay claim to what is ours anyhow. It can take a long, long time for some people to own up to every bit of their lives without fear and without that ever-present human reflex of distraction. But the closer I get to that place of honesty and accountability, the more fearless I become. I can think back to moments that I felt like a refugee in my own life, running from myself. But once you find that center to call home, you can stop running. It is the best gift my life has given me.

We wrapped up yesterday’s busy schedule with a showing of The Jungle Book with the university’s theatre program. I wasn’t so sure it was the best idea, to be honest. Sometimes things go awry when you ask kids to pay attention and be still after such a packed schedule all day long. But the minute we sat down in our seats and they saw the set, they were hooked. They waited excitedly and passed the fifteen minutes before curtain call playing I spy, taking blurry selfies on my phone, and counting the twinkles and lights on the stage.

 

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The minute the house lights went down, both kids were following closely and watching for the next character to make an entrance. We followed Mowgli through his journey from a crying baby to a man who is finally ready to leave the only place he’s ever known. The play closed with the main character crying into his own palms as he began his journey to another place and wondering what the salty water was falling from his eyes. The character of Baloo uttered those words (straight from Kipling’s version as well) Let them fall, Mowgli. They are only tears.

It’s only ever tears, right? Though it always feels like ours are unique and somehow harder to bear than anyone who has come before us. But really, we are mostly all the same. Every single hardship in our lives teaches us the same thing – that we don’t have to feel like a constant refugee, that we can learn to stop running and eventually come home to ourselves. And when we are really lucky, we find the empieza de nuevo on the other side.

 

 

 

sinking the ship

The sign of a good date is always when you return home to pour yourself a glass of Cabernet and take it to bed with a handful of Pirate Booty stolen from your kids’ lunchbox stash, right? Then you open the laptop to write a few words and wonder if you will ever even post them.

I don’t write a lot about dating. There are lots of reasons for this. First of all, there are the privacy issues. This blog is public, and anyone can read it, and nothing emotionally intimate grows between two people when it is shared with the whole world. You have to draw that sacred circle around the two of you pretty tightly until you get solid roots – or that’s my opinion anyway. Dating is something I like to experience in the moment. And to listen to my own wisdom, I need to be present enough to hear my gut. For me, that sometimes means not stepping out of it to write about it. Writing makes me take a step back to get the panoramic view. It makes me leave the moment. When I am with someone else, I like to be there in the truest sense.

Then, of course, there’s the simple issue that there are more important things to write about. Sometimes I date. Sometimes it’s really fun. Sometimes it’s not. I have some funny stories and some boring ones and some sweet ones, too. But frankly there are more meaningful things in my interior life to talk about and to chronicle here.

But sometimes it feels disingenuous to leave it out entirely when I share so much more in this space. So here I am, trying to string a few words together and tell you the truest things I can say.

I read an article earlier this week about emotional labor in domestic partnerships. I posted it on my personal Facebook page and was surprised by the resounding YES I heard through likes and comments from plenty of happily married women and single ones, too. There was another essay on Huffington Post titled “The Default Parent” that ran a couple years ago with a similar concept. I can remember reading “Default Parent” when I was still married at that time, and thinking I’d never read anything else that summarized my family life so perfectly.

I am still the Default Parent, the one responsible for 100% of the mental and emotional labor in my household – because I am the only adult in my household after all.  But it’s not as heavy now as it was when I had that mirror of another adult in the house who somehow got to live there without all the stress a Default Parent carries. Resentment. I had it in spades.

Fast forward three years, and here I am now. And I cannot begin to describe to you the degree of change I have undergone in reference to nearly everything in my life, gender roles especially. I will never do that again. I will never carry it all and remain in a partnership that drains every ounce of me like that. I’m not scared to walk away.

I feel powerful in a way that I never have before. I am independent in my own everyday life which is a liberating thing, but I have an unprecedented freedom in my future planning as well. I don’t ask anyone’s permission before I make plans on a Saturday night. If I feel like it, I dance in the kitchen with my kids while making dinner, and I don’t have to listen to someone else tell me to turn the music down. On the weekends my kids are here, yes, it is exhausting, and there is no one else to get up early and make them pancakes, and sometimes the string of 14 solid days with no one else to share the load makes me want to pull my hair out.

But on weekends I’m alone, there’s also no one else to tell me to take my toast downstairs before I get crumbs in the bed. Right now, as I type this. It is 10:48pm on a Friday night, and there are pillows piled in all the empty spaces on my bed. The sheets are soft, and in a little while, I will tuck them under my chin and scoot over to the very center of the bed with no worries about where my arms and legs end up by dawn. I will sleep until I want to get up, and then I will do what I want to do for hours and hours.

This is my life now. All mine.

Sometimes I am filled with this almost tangible longing to share it with someone else. Where is My Person? Where is he? I want someone to lean on.

But for every time I long for someone else, I think about how lucky I am to do whatever I want to do, and sometimes, to be completely honest, it feels like maybe I want to stay in this place for a long, long time. I cannot tell which I want. Maybe this means I have not met the right person yet, and maybe this just means that this is what it feels like forever after once you have finally arrived at that place where you enjoy your own company.

Do you know how many times I have have sat across the table from a man with all of the right credentials – attractive and successful and everything he should be – and heard every little word he’s saying with a resounding clarity telling me I’m better off alone? Is this where 36 finds you? Maybe so. I know he’s out there somewhere, but I’m willing to wait rather than settle. This is the thing I didn’t expect – that I’d feel so good here. So comfortable and real and solid in a way that I think makes it really hard to mold myself into a new shape to fulfill someone else’s desires.

Something happens for women when we near this spot in our lives. When we pass 35 on the calendar and our kids grow out of diapers and sippy cups. I felt so alone when I divorced at 33, but here we are a few short years later, and I am surrounded. I’m watching marriages drop like flies through the layers of my social circles. There goes another one. Here it comes, I guess. That time when the statistics tend to rear their heads and the one in two begin to fall away.

I hear it when I go out with girlfriends who are happily married with no real intention of leaving. They talk about changing. About seeing him differently now. About feeling his reins a little too tightly sometimes. About changing and seeing their own reflection a little differently. About how it feels like a lot to try and figure out sometimes. All these layers of a life well-planned built on the underpinnings of their own character at the age of 25, and now they feel the weight all these years later.

My inbox is full of it, too. There’s nothing I love more than hearing from readers who reach out across the wide internet to tell me that something I’ve written resonates with them. For most of 2015, the emails were from women who were in the wake of divorce or infidelity, and I still get those as well. But more so these days, I hear from people who feel that thread of self-discovery and reinvention in a more universal way. They find pieces of my own path that feel true to them, even if the details are different. Just last month, a California reader tells me, “I am in an itchy time.  It’s uncomfortable and confusing and just plain not fun.  Even within a good marriage, individual growth can be so hard.” We corresponded back and forth a bit with some ideas and solidarity and reading suggestions, and she explains something I know so well, “I was telling a friend recently that I feel like I’m molting, whether I want to or not, and it’s leaving me feeling so soft and tender and vulnerable and scared.  I think I’m trying to find myself again, the same way you had to after your divorce.” I hear this all the time. Face to face with friends across a table. In comments and emails with people I’ve never met before who find me across the internet. The story is the same. Growth and discovery and trying to find a place for a partnership in the midst of all that.

I know these women worry about how their marriages can possibly grow and change and leave room for who they become. And judging by the wave of divorce that seems to come as we near our 40th year, I guess a lot of marriages don’t survive that. In ways maybe it is easier for me with all this space to grow and no one to judge or tamp it down or box me in. But likewise, I worry that I am growing too big, too solid. The cold hard truth of the matter is that there aren’t many men who will fit the bill now. When you reach a place where you aren’t willing to settle, you have to swallow that hard truth that this could take a while.

Sometimes it’s character that drives me away from someone. He reveals something in conversation that doesn’t settle well with me. (A gift of divorce is seeing those red flags so loud and clear.) Sometimes it’s talk about him that makes its way back to me through mutual circles we share. Sometimes it’s timing when underneath it all, I can see an incredible well of potential, but he’s not where he’d have to be for this to work. Not enough time and space between his last relationship and this one, not enough individual accountability and clear-sightedness to make solid choices and be someone I can lean on. There’s character. There’s compatibility. And there’s timing. Each of which is no small feat. All three together? A unicorn. But every person I meet is my teacher. I observe, I listen, I pause there a moment if I feel I should, and I move on when it’s time. Sometimes I am up for the challenge, and sometimes I go months and months without any desire to share as much as a coffee with anyone. It ebbs and flows.

I’ve written about Richard Rohr before. I get his daily emails, and so much of what he writes speaks straight to me and straight to these common refrains I hear from friends and strangers alike. He talks a lot about the “first stage of life” and the “second stage of life.” The first is when we are obsessed with playing the game – the education and jobs and titles, the house and the things we fill it with, the money. The second comes when we have something that shakes us enough to lead us to see how empty the first one was. That is when we reinvent and love as we are meant to, when we make it real.

I remember reading him once when he was cautioning that not everyone wakes up. Some people reach the last months of their lives still stuck in that first stage of life. He explains that usually happens from people who never encountered that much heartbreak to begin with and those who just rush through a potential awakening by “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” I love that metaphor. You can rearrange those chairs all you want – buy a new house, get a different job, attach yourself to a different partner. But that boat is still going down.

I think what has happened to me in my mid-thirties is that I decided to sink the whole ship. No rearranging anything to mimic what was there before and do it all over again. Something brand new has to emerge in its place if it’s going to somehow float me safely through the remaining decades of my life.

It’s the same thing I hear from my single friends and my married friends, too. From readers far and wide. I don’t fit in that box anymore. And I want to be seen.

 

 

 

bottomless reservoir

It is finally the weekend after what felt like the longest week ever for no real reason at all. My kids and I were both out of school a few days the week prior – due to Irma’s storm path and power outages – so maybe that interruption threw us off a bit. For whatever reason, it’s been hard to keep the rhythm and forward motion this week.

I flew through JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy last week on Audible. (As a side note, this year marks the first time ever that I’ve had a kid-free commute as a working mom, and I am loving it! Catching up on audiobooks and podcasts makes it fly by and feel like a bit of an indulgence instead of a chore.) There are a lot of varying opinions on this book, and it’s received a ton of criticism. It has its weaknesses, no doubt. But on the whole, I loved it so much, and it won’t leave me alone – which is the best measure of a book well written. I’ve been tumbling its scenes and lines in my head ever since I finished it, and it will stay with me a long time.

It essentially tells the story of a man not much younger than I am who grew up poor in Appalachia and is now a Yale-educated lawyer. There is a lot in between those two pieces, and therein lies the story. There were things that I related to as a southerner, and there were things that seemed like far-reaching generalizations that were nothing at all like my own childhood. But I think it is a brave and unflinchingly honest look at his own family and at the difficulties of rising from one social class to another.

He makes it clear that were it not for his Mamaw and Papaw, as the calls them, he wouldn’t be where he is today at all. Though the personality of his feisty Mamaw could not be farther from my gentle Grandmother, I share that common thread of owing much of who I became to my grandparents.

Vance tells us about his grandparents’ insistence that he work hard to rise above his current place in life and that “Mamaw often told a parable: A young man was sitting at home when a terrible rainstorm began. Within hours, the man’s house began to flood, and someone came to his door offering a ride to higher ground. The man declined, saying, ‘God will take care of me.’ A few hours later, as the waters engulfed the first floor of the man’s home, a boat passed by, and the captain offered to take the man to safety. The man declined, saying, ‘God will take care of me.’ A few hours after that, as the man waited on his roof—his entire home flooded—a helicopter flew by, and the pilot offered transportation to dry land. Again the man declined, telling the pilot that God would care for him. Soon thereafter, the waters overcame the man, and as he stood before God in heaven, he protested his fate: ‘You promised that you’d help me so long as I was faithful.’ God replied, ‘I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter. Your death is your own fault.’ God helps those who help themselves. This was the wisdom of the Book of Mamaw.”

That was the wisdom of the Book of My Grandparents as well – that God helps those who help themselves. It’s a concept I continue to think about, and I can trace that line to where I am now. I still think I have a ways to go, and I know that it is entirely up to me where I end up. My final destination is up to my own stubborn ambition and determination to help myself – and to the choices I make and the karma I create which follows all of us eventually.

I’ve always believed it was a combination of fate and choice that gets you where you are, and this just gets clearer and more defined for me as I steer my own ship now – a privilege I never really had until I was 33 years old and fate pushed me off that seemingly comfortable boat into some rough waters that have smoothed out now to give me more space and freedom than I’ve ever had.

Something strange is happening these past few months  where instead of seeing this season of my life as a storm to weather, I’m feeling its very best pieces passing so quickly that I’m a little scared to let them go one day. My main fear, as I wrote about a few weeks ago after the Jen Pastiloff workshop, is that I won’t finish the work I know I’m meant to do because I drown in the little things. I know this season I’m in is ripe for my own ambitions, and I guess the challenge is to hold onto that even when life moves me to another page. This season might be one for my own ambitions, but it’s also ripe for drowning in the responsibilities of single parenting, and I feel that, too. My intentions and ideas are clearer than ever, but unfortunately, my pace is more frenzied than ever as well.

My kids have this thing about sleeping in my bed. If they had their choice, they’d be there every night, but they are getting bigger, and it just gets too crowded, so I bribed them a year or two ago with a sticker chart and a grand prize of a 5 dollar bill to get them out. It worked for the most part, but they still beg or use any special occasion (Mom, I had a fever today, so I need to sleep in your bed, right?) as an excuse to sleep there. It’s not that I even care all that much, but I just sometimes want some tiny piece of the day to be mine, some tiny space in this house to be mine. I try to limit the indulgence when I can.

But Jude read some ghost story last week that completely frightened him worse than I have ever seen, and every bit of it was real to him. You could tell by the way he described it and the expression he wore when he was telling me. He begged to sleep with me, and I said yes – which of course elicited It’s unfair! tears from sister, so there we all were. All three of us huddled in my bed with the last blaze of September heat outside my window, heavy heads and limbs all over me all night long. Three nights in a row last week.

I feel like this is the dance we constantly do over here. Sometimes it is me pushing them away for a little freedom and sometimes it is them doing the same to me. We are all trying to spread our wings a little wider and needing one another to give us space, but then also needing each other a little closer sometimes. I think that is the magic sauce in any good relationship – to give that person space to breathe and be but also be willing to drop everything to listen and just be there when you’re needed.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells us about his sister’s tears when his Papaw died, how she suddenly felt that she’d taken advantage of him. What he said when reflecting on that is something that will stay with me for a long time: “To this day, being able to ‘take advantage’ of someone is the measure in my mind of having a parent. For me and Lindsay, the fear of imposing stalked our minds, infecting even the food we ate. We recognized instinctively that many of the people we depended on weren’t supposed to play that role in our lives, so much so that it was one of the first things Lindsay thought of when she learned of Papaw’s death. We were conditioned to feel that we couldn’t really depend on people—that, even as children, asking someone for a meal or for help with a broken-down automobile was a luxury that we shouldn’t indulge in too much lest we fully tap the reservoir of goodwill serving as a safety valve in our lives.”

My kids see me as a bottomless reservoir, and I know this for certain. It is the thing that drives me crazy sometimes. That feeling like an invisible stagehand as I’ve written about before. The one packing the lunches and washing the ballet tights and checking off the homework charts that no one else in the world sees at all. But it’s still my greatest privilege and my greatest responsibility.

I’m writing and planning and dreaming in tiny pockets of time when I can. But for now, it still feels like the three of us here and the whole world out there – waiting for me to find it when I can.

the hum and rush

Something is brewing in the air here in Georgia, everywhere it seems. Our neighbors to the south and the east are prepping for Hurricane Irma, and we are prepping for whatever is left of her when she makes her way a few miles northwest to us. It’s always hard to know exactly how anxious we should be in situations like this. Truth be told, we never really know what’s coming.

Against this backdrop of potential disaster, we are doing the everyday things required of us. My school year is in full swing. I know many of their names and faces by now, and the first set of essays will come pouring in this week. The kids have settled into their routines as well. Wednesdays have us going straight from school to ballet to the soccer field with no time in between.

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I pack snacks and water and rely on the slow cooker to have dinner ready for us when we walk in at 7pm. It’s so hard to find that balance between being sure they are enriched and active and pursuing what they want yet not overbooking us to the point of exhaustion. I rely on little things to set the pace and give us routine in the chaos – dinner at the table and nightly routines and leisurely walks to the bus stop in the mornings. But I think I need to just accept that some seasons are busy. Late November will slow us back down when soccer games are behind us and chill is in the air with earlier sunsets and soup on the table.

A longtime friend of mine created an online retreat with seven days of journals and meditations, and I have been making my way through it this month in the early morning quiet hours before the rest of the house is up. It’s structured around 7 women who made history turning their own struggles to something beautiful for the rest of us, and day 6 focuses on Anna Julia Cooper. I wasn’t all that familiar with Cooper before, but she published a book in the nineteenth century that characterized her idea of God as a “Singing Something” and a divine spark in each of us. This idea resonated with me so much – that song we can all hear if we are paying attention. I even wrote about this before in the last days with my grandmother, how it can sometimes feel like there are two tracks playing in our lives, the everyday tasks and the real melody that creates the whole dance to begin with.

It’s harder to hear in seasons of relative ease and routine, but disaster of any kind – whether it is personal or global – tends to wake us up to that song. It’s also Anna Julia Cooper who tells us “One needs occasionally to stand aside from the hum and rush of human interests and passions to hear the voice of God.” That hum and rush is loud sometimes isn’t it though? I’m realizing that I need to carve that space of silence in my days somehow or it’s not going to happen. It’s been two weeks since I’ve written here for that very reason.

I’m looking ahead at the season in front of me as a challenge to listen beyond that hum and rush of the everyday, determined to find pockets of silence in my day to write or read or think. Or maybe just listen to that Singing Something that always steadies us with the vastness of the whole perspective over the busy tasks of everyday life. There’s always something bigger when we listen.

on being human

I spent yesterday afternoon sweating and writing my way through Jennifer Pastiloff’s Atlanta workshop titled On Being Human, and I was still humming a little on the inside this morning as I sat down with my coffee in a quiet house to flip through my journal and put all the pieces together.

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Jen at Form Yoga here in Atlanta, photo cred @nadenoughyoga on Instagram

This is the second time I’ve attended one of Jen’s workshops, and the last was two years ago when I was in the midst of such major and difficult transitions. It was enlightening to be there again in this next chapter of my life where I feel so different than I did in August of 2015, so much stronger.

I managed to recruit two friends to join me because I’ve bragged on Jen so much and explained the transformation that happens when you attend one of her workshops. But even so, I find it hard to really explain the alchemy that happens in the room. 76 women in attendance yesterday, yoga mats laid parallel and touching one another. Jen explains the rules when she walks in — only two things: tell the truth and listen. And somehow it works and people do just that.

Though she is a yoga teacher and it was held at a yoga studio, there is pretty minimal yoga involved. She uses the poses (and the warm room) to break through the shell of the body, so to speak, and come back to ourselves so that we can write the truth instead of the buttoned up version of the “truth” we carry when we are dressed in our finest and sitting comfortably in an air conditioned space. Before you know it, the magic comes along and it’s 76 of us laughing and crying and sharing and nodding in that way you do when real resonance happens and you can say yes, me too. The thing that astonishes me as I sit here putting the pieces together is that it is such a simple formula and yet so transformative because we never get this in our daily lives. You shed every last bit of your ego and look someone in the eye – a stranger no less – and tell the truth and listen. That is all. And it is somehow so terrifying at first, but unbelievably liberating when you drop into your body and out of your head and get out of your own way.

Some of her journaling prompts were the same as when I took the class in 2015 and some were different. I used the same little journal I’d carried to her 2015 workshop, so I can flip back a few pages today and compare my lists when she asked us to write what we were afraid of. Some things ring that bell both times, then and now. But I also see ways my life has expanded and some things that were overwhelmingly terrifying to me then have completely fallen away. I can see it so clearly in my scribbled handwriting.

What I fear (2015)

  • love
  • men
  • judgment
  • failing my kids

 

What I fear (2017)

  • messing up
  • not making the time to focus on the big things because I am always drowning in the little things
  • waiting too late
  • not finishing the work I know I am meant to do, the book I know I’m meant to write

 

What a shift that is, right? I think sometimes we change in huge, monumental ways, but they happen so incrementally that we don’t feel it in real time. It’s only when we look back that we see that staring back at us in undeniable ways. It’s one reason I love writing and one reason this blog has become one of the most cherished things I’ve created in my life. I can get caught up in my own bullshit stories, as Jen calls them, and I can neglect to see what is actually written in the beautiful details of my own life. You know the bullshit stories; we all have them. The ones that say You should already have this figured out. You are always failing. You’ll never get where you want to be. You’re just a ___ (fill in the blank – just a mom, just a teacher, just a woman.) But as I look at what I’ve written and recorded here and in scribbled notes from Jen’s workshops and other raw journaling I’ve done, I can see these stories for the lies they are.

I left feeling so full and inspired and curious about the faces I encounter everyday. Everyone in that room had a story, and everyone in that room echoed the fears or worries of someone else. Here we all are, slogging through the difficulties of our daily lives and feeling alone in our struggles, and as it turns out, so many of us have the same things tumbling in our hearts all day long – the same fears and bullshit stories on repeat. We all need friends who will tell us our stories are false, and I’m lucky enough to have a few people like that – one of whom came with me yesterday. Both of us left feeling full and happy and ready for whatever comes next. (Also ready to stuff our faces with Indian food at a local favorite spot.)

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One of Jen’s prompts yesterday asked us to write what we are saying yes to. Mine is a list I think I need to read every morning in this season of my life, a daily charge to do what I am here to do. Today I say yes to sweating, listening, feeling, dropping judgments, letting go of expectations (and of my bullshit stories), working harder than ever, new pages, better chapters, what I sometimes think I should have been doing all along, but it took there to get here. And here is good.

What is it about a pen and paper that offers something so magical? I don’t know. All I know is that when I lie to myself in my own head and offer these untrue assessments of my life or untrue evaluations of what is in my heart, I can sometimes take them to be the truth. But the second you write something that is not the truth of the matter, you can tell. It literally jumps off the page for me and feels stiff. When you write that truth inside, it feels soft and real and puts all the pieces together. It clarifies my intentions and my feelings every time. That’s the power of the pen in getting to the heart of the matter for all of us.

 

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I’m opening registration in October for my online writing workshop designed for women who want more insight and clarity and offering some guidance patterned after my own journey as I’ve written through my life’s challenges. I’m so excited to get started with this new project! Details here, and get on the email list for upcoming news and free journaling prompts by signing up here.

 

 

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making it up as we go along

The semester began with a bang, as it always does. I assumed I’d get started a little more gradually, but it didn’t work out that way. I’ve still got another week before students are sitting in front of me, but in the meantime, there is so much to do. It’s hard to feel anything but overwhelmed. Even as I type this sentence, I am thinking about how I really should be working on a syllabus instead. But I know the value that comes from sitting a minute to write, so I’m ignoring the screaming to-do list for just a little while today.

The kids are more or less settled into the groove of their school year, so now it’s my turn to move past that rocky transition. Working + mothering is crazy-making, and I know that. And yet still here we are always, wondering how it will all get done and if I can juggle all of the things all of the time.

I caught an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson this week during my commute, and her words have been tumbling in my head ever since. She spoke a bit about her book, Composing a Life, and a bit about her background growing up as the daughter of famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.  So much of what she said had me nodding in agreement and feeling a little light bulb inside, but I know better than to pick up a new book in August when I am knee-deep in reading for classes. (I did find a little summary and commentary over here on Brain Pickings that you can check out if you find a quiet moment.)

We always hear about moms “juggling” working life and home life, but Bateson insists that word evokes a “terribly anxiety-producing metaphor” to her ears, and the more I think about it, she’s right. It’s how so many of us feel though – and how society tells us it works – like we are just barely holding all these balls in the air and if we look away for a minute or don’t move fast enough, we drop something and it all comes crashing down. Bateson suggests that she decided to use composing a life rather than juggling a life because she “was looking for a metaphor that would allow [women] to realize that the effort they were making to work out a new kind of woman’s role was creative. That it was an art form.” What a difference that one perspective makes – to compose rather than juggle.

I’m composing all the time, and most of it is improvisational. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, that I’ve never lived this exact life before. This phase for my kids, this season, these demands. I respond to each challenge as I feel I should with the energy and resources I have in that moment, and I learn new skills along the way. But I think I do the same thing that a lot of other women do and feel like maybe things are less valuable if they aren’t working in a predictable straight line. In my married life, I assumed I’d be on the way to a PhD by now, but that is a remote and distant thought in my current world.  But other paths and opportunities have opened up that are far beyond anything a classroom or dissertation could give me, so sometimes I wonder if derailed plans are really all that bad, or if they have a way of showing us what we need to see in order to create our most fulfilling lives. Maybe interruption and unexpected detours are the very best thing that could happen.

In this age of women-can-do-anything pressures, Bateson claims, “It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. … How does creativity flourish on distraction? What insights arise from the experience of multiplicity and ambiguity? And at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? These are important questions in a world in which we are all increasingly strangers and sojourners.” 

Let that sink in for a minute if you are juggling composing like I am. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. I move from project to project, it seems. My typical approach lately is to sit down on a Sunday and assess what my short list of priorities are and try my best to tackle them. It changes week-by-week, and I flutter from one thing to the next, but as she reminds me, at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? I feel like I am desperately improvising all the time, but as I look back at the past few years of my life, I still see something taking shape. Maybe even some significant achievements.

Aging is such a gift. As my kids are growing a little more independent, and I finally have the time to think about what I want for my own self professionally and not just personally, I think I need to continually remind myself that perhaps circles and winding paths are better than straight lines and that composing is always better than juggling. Who knows what the final piece of music will sound like, but what I’m picking up along the way promises it will be some version of beautiful.

It reminds me of that Parker Palmer quote, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” None of us even know, do we? Or if you think you do know, maybe you should shut off the external noise and listen a little harder to the ways you can bend and flow.  Otherwise you wake up living someone else’s version of success which is not success at all but misery instead.

It is early Sunday morning, but the sun is already bright outside my window. My list is a mile long today – laundry to finish and soccer gear to buy and meal prep to do and a syllabus to write. But I’m vowing to let that subtle internal miracle happen when you change your perspective. Changing my lens from juggling to composing, moving forward to create something beautiful among the chaos.