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.

 

widening circles

The house is quiet in these early morning hours. My final grades are in, commencement ceremonies are over, and I can feel the slow pace of summer around the bend even among May’s madness. Its been 6 weeks since I’ve written here, and such a shift has happened for me in that time.

Six years ago, I had a crawling baby and a preschooler and no real desire to go back to work just yet, but a former contact from a decade prior reached out to me and nudged me to apply for my current position at the university. I’d been a stay-at-home-mom for three years, and there were a million pieces of me that were terrified of that leap, but also there was something else beneath the fear that felt like a solid yes, so I jumped and applied. I got the job. Fifteen months after I went back to work, I found myself as a single parent, a development I never saw coming. I have thought about that chain of events many times —  the way that the entire universe seemed to be moving to line things up for the next chapter even though I wasn’t aware of it. The way that one thing leads to another and another. It was a God-Send in the truest way. It saved me. Not just that I had an income but that I had colleagues and community and a purpose outside of my home when my life was blown apart.

The kids and I are in a new season now. One mom and two active kids and school schedules and extra curriculars, and though my core group of friends has remained unchanged for 20 years, our family is also deeply rooted in a different community than we were a few years ago — a natural result of kids at these ages. Jude commented this weekend that “it seems like all moms know each other” when I was chatting with someone else, and it made me laugh but also it seems to be true at this stage of parenting when we are orbiting the same small universes.

Anyway, among all this growth and changing shape, I began to see that there were things about my current position that just weren’t working for me anymore. The long (very long) commute, first and foremost, but other things as well. I could feel that desire for change simmering beneath the surface, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

This is making a very long story very short, but essentially I reconnected with a colleague from 14 years ago who is an administrator at a school here in our own community, and it began with lots of questions over coffee, then a tour and a class observation, then meeting others there, and now here I am with a new job and a new classroom welcoming me in August.

Nearly everything about my life has changed in the past 5 years, but my place of work was the one thing that didn’t change. I think I hadn’t really considered that stagnation, hadn’t recognized what a security blanket it was for me, until this last few weeks as I’ve come to the decision to close that door and begin something new in another place. Regardless of how sure I am that this is the right decision, it still means leaving my comfort zone behind. This last month has brought a lot of sleepless nights and that slight internal tremor that always comes with the territory of immense change.

There are a million other things I could say about all of this but won’t say it here — Career moves are always sensitive and personal and particular to one person. But I will say that the way this all unfolded and the way I responded illustrated so much growth for me, and I even surprised my own self. I advocated for myself in ways I haven’t before, and it felt natural rather than terrifying. Maybe here I finally am at 38 seeing my own value clearly. It takes courage to look at something that was once perfect and see that it just isn’t working for you anymore — whether that is a relationship or a job or a place you live or anything at all. Cutting that cord is never easy but always the right thing to do.

It’s strange how a life circles back on its own self, isn’t it? The way we revisit old problems and reconnect with old friends and are given a chance to approach the same problem with new eyes and a more solid backbone than we had before. I keep thinking of that widening circles Rilke verse lately. My circles are ever-widening and always moving but still circles nonetheless.

My friend Chyla (another circular connection as I met her years ago at Jen Pastiloff’s Atlanta workshop and we’ve remained friends) has an online group that I’ve been supported by this spring as I laid the groundwork for this transition. The whole workshop has been built around that one big yes that lives inside of each of us. We all have it, and it can change with the seasons. But Chyla prompted us to consider what it is for us today. What is that flame burning inside and wanting to grow to something bigger? What is that dream you cannot shake? What is it that you want to see come to fruition in your life right now?

Mine was simply to follow my own bliss to create a bigger life. I don’t mean bigger as in notoriety or success in the world’s terms perhaps, but just bigger and bolder for me. I want to listen to my own calling and be braver with my choices and lean into what creates joy for me, knowing that it always lights the way to what you are meant to do next, that next widening circle.

In our last session together, Chyla led us in a guided meditation and we journaled a bit. We had to write in answer to the prompt “I pledge to the most high in me…” (that highest form in each of us, that one who holds all the potential and possibility).  The first thing that emerged for me was that I pledge to always keep moving, always evolving, to trust the flow of widening circles. In this season, I’m trusting that if I leap and do the hard thing, the road will rise to meet me. The right people, the right timing, the right experiences are here. As Rilke says about his widening circles, I don’t have to know where it’s going and where it ends, but I give myself to it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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freedom

I am in a stretch of 5 days alone as the kids are on spring break. I’m not on break at the same time, but somehow that makes this time even sweeter. It’s strange for me to get my own self ready for work and focus on only that without the constant hum of school bus schedules and packed lunches and homework in the background. I’m grateful for this few days in front of me.

Friday night I saw Patty Griffin in concert in Atlanta. I sent a hurried text to a friend a couple months ago when the tickets went on sale, and she said yes, so we jumped on it together. It took some planning and last minute rushing to get kids squared away just in time to head downtown and grab dinner before the show.

I’ve been a fan of hers for so long, and I can’t even count the lines that have echoed in my head and on my speakers when I need a little direction. I was listening to “Forgiveness” as I drove to my grandparents’ house that sunny Sunday morning when I got the phone call that my grandmother passed. I had that song on repeat so much during my grandmother’s last weeks. It hit the spot for some unknown reason, as music always works that way. And I raised my voice to the air, and we were blessed. 

And a couple of years before that, “Let Him Fly” was on repeat in the earliest weeks, when I was still living in my married home and couldn’t get a minute to think or be alone. I’d take the long way to the grocery store or on the road to an errand and listen to it on repeat like a mantra. It would take an acrobat, and I already tried all that.

She has been my nearly constant soundtrack for these last few years. Something about the solid simplicity of her voice and the call of her lyrics tell me everything is going to be okay. Let the rusty nail no longer hold this world together.. I’m going to let it hear the prayer, no matter who is there, no matter who is listening. Lately it’s “When It Don’t Come Easy” that tears me open and takes me somewhere I can’t get otherwise. I don’t know nothing except change will come, year after year what we do is undone, time keeps moving from a crawl to a run, I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home.

When we left the show, I said to my friend that Griffin is just so solid and real and true. Those were just the adjectives that came out at the moment, but they are also the most fitting ones to say. In a world of Botox and airbrushing and constant reinvention to appease whatever is trending, I think it’s so beautiful to see someone who knows herself well enough to deepen what she creates in the way she has. (This quick PBS interview is a great commentary on that, too.) It was such a great night – and a reminder to me that, at the heart of it, truth and beauty are the same thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about aging – about the ways I feel old and the ways I feel young. Most of all, I’m just feeling like I’m only now getting started. I think it is that first half / second half idea that Richard Rohr speaks so much about (and Jung wrote about it  before he did). I’m only now beginning my second half, so to speak, and everything just feels so vast and wide and deep and true in a way it wasn’t before. What a gift it is that the magical second half really doesn’t depend on how much time has passed or how much time is left, but it’s a change of perspective. It’s not guaranteed for everyone, and it is usually brought about through pain and surrender, but it’s so worth it.

Last week, in passing, I heard someone talking about life and growth and the way she phrased it was that she is “doing so much better in life than they are” and that line rolled around in my head for a while – I don’t even know who the specific they refers to exactly, and this was just quick passing conversation. But it just made me think about that whole better in life perspective that I don’t understand at all anymore. (And to be fair, no judgment. This person is young and square in the middle of those early years where necessary score-keeping and comparison are your ways of life.)

I was reading through some of my daily Richard Rohr email meditations last week, and he elaborated on Jung’s theory of individuation – “the lifelong project of becoming who we were meant to be.” This resonated with me and what I see around me. Rohr says, “How counterproductive our popular culture [in the United States]—with its fantasies of prolonged youthful appearance, continuous acquisition of objects with their planned obsolescence, and the incessant, restless search for magic: fads, rapid cures, quick fixes, new diversions from the task of soul.” I think the thing I’m realizing, and the example I see in artists like Patty Griffin, is that you cannot participate in that chase while also participating in your own individuation. The two processes are mutually exclusive. Rohr continues to explain that if you can pass that threshold to the second half, you “will be freed from having to do whatever supposedly reinforced one’s shaky identity, and then will be granted the liberty to do things because they are inherently worth doing….Ultimately, our vocation is to become ourselves, in the thousand, thousand variants we are.”

There’s so much freedom to be had when you stop playing the game. I could feel that in Griffin’s presence and you can feel that in the art produced by others who do the same. You can feel that in the lightness that illuminates people who compose their own lives in that space of freedom, too. When you aren’t playing the better at life game and you just do your own thing and pause long enough to hear that still and small voice, you stop keeping score. You stop comparing. You draw closer to your vocation and your life starts to take its own shape around you – solid and real and true. Truth and beauty are the same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Stretch

I’ve passed another birthday on the calendar since I last wrote here. 38 now. A year away from the 9-number which always seems heavier somehow than just flipping the official page to the next decade.

I started this blog when I was just celebrating 29. I divorced at 33. I have shed at least a thousand skins in this span of time. To me, that is the strangest thing about aging (so far) — that you just keep becoming these new versions of yourself, refining and evolving all the time. We really have no clue what we will become in another ten years, if we are doing it right.

I felt such a shift this year, though not much changed on the outside. It’s ironic how some years work like that. Things can change on the outside in huge ways and you pass your birthday and feel mostly the same. Or years like this come along where things look mostly the same from the outside view, but I’ve evolved more inside than I have in quite a while — an enormous shift beneath my skin, like pieces of a puzzle moving closer to where they should be or the plates of the earth settling tightly along fault lines. I commented last weekend on my birthday that this is the year that I learned that no ship is coming to save me because I’m already on the boat. It is the closest I can come to explaining what this feels like.

I didn’t set out to be particularly brave as I turn the page to my 38th year, but that is what has happened this past few months anyhow. As the year closed, I finally felt ready to send my book proposal out to literary agents, and that process continues now. In January, I submitted some other writing to a few publications that are a tier above what I have aspired to before. I applied for a couple of summer workshops which is a terrifying concept if I think too much about it — to travel alone to a place where I know no one and sit in a room with writers and instructors and revise my own work according to their observations. But I just took a leap and decided to lean in to something scary. Acceptance rates are low, and it is extraordinarily competitive, but I figured why not. This weekend I’ve worked a little on a submission to a new (to me) academic conference as well. I’m just casting a large, wide net out to the edge of what I’m comfortable with, stepping out on a limb a little farther than I usually do. And now I guess I just wait to see what sticks, see where it all lands me.

This theme is following me everywhere — courage and risk. I’m taking an online course with a group of women, and last week’s focus was on courage and fear. I attended a work event on Friday, our annual Women’s Leadership Colloquium, and heard an author and business expert speak about the behaviors that transform careers and create leaders, and as expected, a willingness to take a risk was the thread that ran through much of the data she presented. The event closed with a chamber choir singing an arrangement of that Eleanor Roosevelt passage where she tells us, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I think the thing you think you cannot do looks different for every one of us. And it has looked different for me at different chapters in my life. I can think back to all the moments in my life that rise to the top for me because of their joy or their ecstasy or their beauty or their strength or their reward or just the amazement of it all. Most of them occurred as I did the thing that I thought I couldn’t do. When I pulled my daughter to my own chest in the dimly lit water of a hospital tub instead of a bright operating room. When I went back to work with two toddlers at home and wondered if my brain had shriveled too much to work in academics any longer. When I left a marriage behind, a relationship of 15 years, without any plan or idea of what was ahead for me. When I swallowed my own sorrow long enough to sit with my grandmother in her last weeks and watch with real eyes what was unfolding as she transitioned. And little moments too, the smallest things that can bring the biggest shifts — the conversations I have mustered the courage to have, the essays I have mustered the courage to write and submit.

Spring is here finally. The window is open behind me as I’m typing this, and I can hear neighborhood kids on the trampoline next door. My own two will walk in the door in one more hour, and my quiet house will be noisy again. Every night, the sun is hanging on for just a little longer before setting, and summer is on its way eventually. I am ready to shed another layer — that hardest one perhaps. That one that hangs on longer than you’d like, the fear and trepidation. I want to stretch as far as I can reach, and then stretch a little more, just beyond what is comfortable and one step closer to the horizon beyond what I can imagine. I want to stretch everyday, relentlessly, just one inch at a time, until my span is wider than ever.

rocks in the pockets

It’s been more than a month since I have written here. The summary is that it won’t stop raining in Georgia. I mean days and days and days in a row of constant hazy clouds and rain. We all had the flu at the same time in early February. And it’s that general stretch of the year that is hard to plow through anyway. I feel tired all the time, and I am struggling to find the beauty. I have been in that space lately of one foot in front of the other. Just limping along and knowing that the sun returns eventually.

When I write that all in one paragraph it sounds like a lot of dramatic complaining, but really it is simply life. As life happens. Ebb and flow. As I’m typing this, it is early morning, and I can see that there is finally some sky behind the clouds, a sun trying to shine today.

The hard part in seasons like this is that life is rolling on anyhow with all of its demands. I hardly left my couch last weekend as I caught up on a heavy grading backlog from my sick days. Then this weekend has brought two hours of taekwondo belt testing, a scout meeting to work on building a pinewood derby car, hosting a crowd of neighborhood boys for dinner, and attending a memorial service yesterday afternoon.

It was for the mother of a friend, an old friend dating back more than 20 years. As I expected, I saw loads of people yesterday I hadn’t seen in decades. Time is such a strange thing. I’ve been listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle lately, and I’m trying, though it’s hard, to lean into this idea of losing my story of the past, present, future timeline and see the now instead. I think it is in my anxious personality to be “future oriented” as my therapist kindly put it once – in other words, to always be looking forward to what is next and lining up all the pieces to make that next thing happen. But the problem with that, in addition to creating loads of anxiety, is that I miss the now.

This service was for a family I was close to in my adolescence, that period when it is developmentally appropriate for you to distance yourself from your own parents or see yourself as so very different from your friends’ parents. But one of the things that struck me so deeply as each of them spoke yesterday of who she was as a mother and the legacy she leaves is that somehow we all get to that place that once felt so far away – because there I sat, looking around to see each of us grown with families and lives and heartbreaks behind us where once it was all naive optimism and teenage worries. Truth be told, we are not far from what our parents were when we first became friends.

Time is such a strange illusion, and it feels like a carousel sometimes – the way one life can circle back on itself again and again. Past and future are just this story I have in my head, but occasions like this are one of those weird times where the past collides with where you stand today in a tangible way and you are reminded how much of an illusion time really is.

I’m still thinking of my friend this morning, having seen his family’s heartbreak so fresh yesterday. And I’m thinking about all of the times that pain pushed me through to the other side, to that next thing I was meant to become, that next skin I was meant to shed. It’s Eckhart Tolle who says, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” It’s a passage I have held onto when something is not the way I wanted it to be. But I forget that maybe that is true for little things, too. The thousand ways that everyday life can teach you if you let it.

Watching years roll by on a calendar is painful when you think too much about it. It aches to see my kids grow older and know that this year is one we are leaving behind.  Last week, as we sat in the pediatrician’s office for Norah, she was sitting on my lap and pulled out a rock from her pocket. She has this habit of collecting small rocks on the playground and smuggling them home, and I usually only find them when I hear the loud thunk beating a rhythm in the dryer. I was telling her this – that I always find them in the dryer – as she pulled it from her pocket to show me. I didn’t realize the other mom in the waiting room was listening to us, but as she stood up to lead her teenaged son to an exam room, she stopped and said to me, “I miss those. I miss finding rocks in the pockets.”

How many details in my life right now are rocks in the pockets that I will miss one day? I don’t even just mean with my children but with everything. These details I fail to notice everyday will be softened with that lens of nostalgia one day as I look back.

Toward the end of the service yesterday, they showed a slide show of sorts that ended with an Anne of Green Gables quote that I somehow didn’t note before. I haven’t thought about those books since childhood when I was obsessed with them – another nod to the carousel of time as I sat in the service. Montgomery writes, “It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.”

How close that enchanting realm is, just beyond the commonplace. Rocks in pockets and dinners at our little table. My soft and steady sleeping dog. The view of a bright sky after so many thick clouds. The smile of old friends with decades between here and where you began. When I push back the illusion of time and lose my storyline, I move that thin veil aside to see the glimpse.