Year 5: A Letter

Dear Norah,

You are five today. Five! I say this all the time, but I am not sure where the time is going. In ways I feel like you were just born, and in ways I feel like you have always been here. I don’t remember much of what life was like without you, and your constant enthusiasm and curiosity never leaves a dull moment. You are always observing, asking questions, and exploring anything you find that piques your interest. You never slow down, and nothing is beyond the scope of your imagination.

UntitledI can count on you to make me laugh, everyday and without fail. Every time I feel overwhelmed or disheartened or just exhausted (which is pretty much everyday in this season of our lives together), you find a way to show me the light. Unlike your brother and me, it is pretty rare that you are serious about anything for very long, but I think God knew what he was doing when he placed you in our household because your sunshine brightens the room and lightens my load, and I am forever grateful to you for that. I can’t stay discouraged for long when you are here to cheer me up and remind me to see the good and find the playful in any situation.
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Sometimes you and I are like oil and water. I look at you with frustration and wonder who this creature is and how she works because we are so different. But I think our differences are what make us work well together. I know I have a lot to teach you, but I think you have a lot to teach me, too. How to lighten up and laugh and say hello to strangers. How to ignore my best laid plans and be a little spontaneous sometimes. How to stay up late. How to laugh with your mouth wide open and touch frogs and worms without shuddering. People say we look alike, but in reality we are not mirrors at all. You are the yin to my yang, and sometimes I think you are a lot wiser than I am. Your demeanor always shows what you believe on the inside – that everything will be alright and that life is mostly good and fun and play. Grown-ups are quick to forget this, but I feel like with you I have this reminder every day.

Katie-13For all your fiery energy though, you are still sweet and gentle. Your teachers tell me when other kids fall on the playground, you are the first to check on them. You are kind and earnest. You are easily impressionable and want so badly to please those around you – your peers and your teachers and your brother included. The sibling bickering feels like it will kill me on most days. (Mom, he’s touching me!) But every once in a while, I get to see a glimpse of how it used to be before you guys reached this age of competition – and how I hope it will be again one day when you are grown. He doesn’t admit it often, but he loves you just as much as I do.
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This was a big year for you – you learned how to write your name and how to identify all your sounds and letters.  You sort your own toys in a way that makes no sense to me, but it does to you. You dress your dolls in their clothes and throw them on your hip when we walk in a store like you have a real baby. You create these ridiculous scenarios of imagination and ask me to participate… Mama, pretend your name is Millie and mine is Hallie and we are kids but we live by ourselves, okay? Pretend you are cooking for us now and we live in a treehouse and this doll is our baby sister. You have a whole world inside your own head, and it is my favorite thing about this age.

Last week you learned to swim. I decided that my nerves could not handle another summer of two non-swimmers, so I enrolled you and your brother in a week of private instruction. By day three, you were jumping off the diving board into 8 feet of water and swimming to the edge of the pool. I’ve seen you do it with my own eyes, and yet you panic now when we swim and the water reaches above your own head. So here I am again for the summer – not teaching you to swim but teaching you to believe that you can swim. If that isn’t one huge metaphor for what it’s like to exist in the world as a woman, I don’t know what is. (And you know your English teacher mama loves a good metaphor to teach me the lessons I need to learn.) So let’s make a deal now, okay? I will remind you who you really are and what you are capable of, and you do the same for me. We both have what it takes to swim, even when the water gets deep. Sometimes people are the last to recognize their own power, so I am telling you now that I see it already in you – when I watch you explore or listen to you talk or even just see you sleeping at night in your bed. I know that what lies in front of you in your own life may feel insurmountable in the moment. I know because I’ve been there.

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But I can also see so clearly that spark in you that tells me you can do anything you set your mind to. Five is just the beginning, and every day I find a new reason to love you. Happy Birthday, Norah.

Love,

Mama

 

** I write letters to my kids on their birthdays to give to them when they are older, and I post some of them on this blog. You can see past letters here.

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ordinary time

Friday was weirdly cold and rainy — for a May afternoon in Georgia anyway. I attended the university’s graduation ceremony as I always do, but it felt out of place and so strange as I piled on my academic regalia and walked across campus in a cold drizzle. We usually have spring graduation on the front lawn in the sunshine, but it was moved indoors.

I drove home in the rain listening to an episode of On Being that I heard years ago and remembered well, but it was replayed this week, and I couldn’t help but listen again. (It’s no secret I love this show – likely my favorite podcast. I highly suggest subscribing if you don’t already.) Krista Tippet interviews poet Marie Howe, and I can distinctly remember listening to this in something like 2014 when it first aired. I was folding laundry in my son’s room in a house I no longer live in, and I remember dragging the phone with me from room to room to continue listening as I put away everyone’s clothes. It’s always such an interesting experience to listen to music or read a book or see a movie years after you originally did. We hear things differently as we evolve to become different people, I think.  Much of what Howe discusses in the interview relates to her weeks spent with her younger brother in his final days, and that was before I’d had a mirror of that experience with my own grandmother. There are things I hear differently in that interview now.

In the episode, she talks a lot about ordinary time, as she calls it. The moments that are nothing special and easily missed but are also the key to unlocking happiness. She reads her short poem “The Gate” (link here if you want to see her read her own work) where she says, “I had no idea that the gate I would step through to finally enter this world would be the space my brother’s body made.” It’s strange, isn’t it? The gates we step through to finally enter are never the ones we expect. I was thinking about this as the graduates walked to proudly receive diplomas Friday night, that these big moments – graduations and weddings and new jobs and big moves – these are always the ones we assume will most shape us, but it rarely works out that way. It’s the ordinary time that does it. And sometimes the heartbreak, too.

Tippet also asks her in the interview about the process of using writing to break open instead of closed, and I hear echoes of my own story and what I’ve learned through writing in this space. Howe says, “I mean, things are going to happen all the time. The unendurable happens. People we love and we can’t live without are going to die. We’re going to die. … Art holds that knowledge. All art holds the knowledge that we’re both living and dying at the same time. It can hold it. And thank God it can because nothing out in the capitalistic corporate world is going to shine that back to us, but art holds it.” And how true that is, right? I feel like all I ever hear around me is messages of permanence. That what we buy or hold right now matters and will matter forever. Art is the only thing that reflects the impermanence of our everyday lives – which is a thought a lot of people don’t want to let in. It makes you begin to question the race we all run and what it’s really for. The long hours to make the money to buy the things that you don’t have time to enjoy because you are working more to buy more. Nothing about that scenario admits that we are all living and dying at the same time.

She goes on to talk about the connection that happens with writing, saying “So I think that we join each other. It’s easier. We’re not alone. And I feel like that’s the only answer. Otherwise, we’d just think it’s only happening to us. And that’s a terrible and untrue way to live our lives. And I think art constantly mirrors that to us, whether you’re reading Thomas Hardy, or Doris Lessing, or Virginia Woolf, or Emily Dickinson, it’s just holding the human stories up to us, and we don’t feel alone. It’s so miraculous.

I’ve seen that miracle in this space, and I am so grateful for it. For every comment or email that says I get it; me, too. Thank you, thank you. Sharing our stories in all their raw honesty is really where it’s at.

Listening to this interview again almost three years after I initially did makes me grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. I know last summer, hard though it was for me, illuminated things I can never un-see. But also this time I’m in — this liminal space as theologians call it, this in-between where I don’t know with any certainty what is next and I don’t owe anyone anything — it forces me to see the this that Howe refers to. This moment, whatever it may be, is what I’ve been waiting for.

The kids were away this weekend, and though I was tired and it was cold and rainy on Friday, sunshine showed up on Saturday, and I decided to take advantage of it and head a few minutes north to spend some idle afternoon hours at a nearby winery.

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Dating when you have kids is weird and hard. There is a lot I could say about that and likely one day will, but I will say that when you are in it, you just do the best you can. I tend to forget the perfection that exists in simple quiet hours where you do nothing but eat and drink and talk and pay attention. What I value now isn’t the same it once was. Just be honest and true and make me laugh and listen.  And be willing to throw a blanket and a picnic basket in the car and spend a few hours with me doing nothing at all.

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I noticed things on the drive up that I usually don’t as I got to show him the landscape I love so much that has shaped my life. And this whole experience with him has worked that way in me as well. I’m seeing things in my own self that I never noticed were there or things that I had forgotten in the layers of all the other stuff that structures my days. There are so many pieces of my life that are deeply rooted – job and house and kids and immovable pieces of who I am. But I can feel myself bending here and there to notice what I haven’t before or to see things from a different angle, to stretch just a little beyond what I would normally do.  And there it is again – that same command I hear from every yoga instructor – stretch just beyond where you normally would and rest there; don’t force it or rush it. Let it be.

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I’m still in that liminal space and have no indication of what the future holds, but I’m learning this is where the gold is anyhow. No demands or expectations. Just being grateful our paths crossed as they have and taking what is offered to us on a sunny afternoon in May. Being grateful for what is here and not questioning the rest.

Mary Oliver tells us, “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely of attentiveness.” Who knew how perfectly imperfect it all can be when you push aside every demand and just slow down and pay attention.

the time it takes to paint the canvas

A few days ago, my son came home with a paper invitation in his backpack that explained his artwork was featured in an exhibition at a local church’s annual Festival of the Arts. He’s in first grade, so I’ve only had a school-aged kid for a couple of years, but I have already figured out that it’s really impossible to tell with some of these functions if they are a big deal, so to speak, or if you will rearrange your schedule and drag kids out for something they would’ve hardly missed. There was no teacher email or mention on this one either, but I stuck it on the fridge and figured we’d go.

Wednesday rolled around, and it’s speech therapy after school which makes for a long day anyhow. Plus it’s the end of the month when my finances are always extraordinarily tight, so I didn’t want to splurge on dinner out when we had food at home. We race home, I make a quick dinner, and we turn around to race back out in the same general direction we came from. My mom was at my house the day before and saw the invitation on my fridge, so my parents wanted to check it out and were a little ahead of us and already there. She texted that there were A LOT of people there, and she wasn’t kidding. We arrived and took a while to find parking and shuffled in a line with everyone else to see the student exhibitions with work from 21 different elementary schools in the county – plus middle and high schools. There was visual art and ceramics and fashion design and sculpture. It was pretty amazing. And amazingly crowded. But we did spot his work along the wall with the others.

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At 6:45, they shuffled everyone upstairs to the sanctuary to list award winners, and they read a long list of 20 Honorable Mentions for elementary schools. They didn’t say his name, which did not really surprise me given the volume of art and participants, and he seemed a little disappointed, so I was whispering that it was an honor just to be included and don’t forget that your teacher chose only you for this event. Only you.

Then they listed winners for elementary school, and when they said his name for third place, both he and I perked up in surprise! I have his art cluttering my fridge and my coffee table and the back seat of my car and nearly every surface in my house, but that is mostly just because he’s my own kid and he loves to draw and paint and create. I never compare his work with others. It is such a fun experience and a rare moment of genuine surprise when you hear your kid’s name called and see them recognized in such a big way. He was competing alongside kids years older than him from 21 area schools, and it was such a special moment of pride for him. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

I emailed his art teacher early the next morning to say thank you, and she explained that she “knew it was special when she saw him painting it.” And Jude’s only mention of it weeks ago was to tell me that they were studying Van Gogh, that he kept working, working, working on it when all the other kids were done, and that his art teacher let him work slowly and take a long time to finish. (How seldom we do that, right? Such a reminder to have patience and let the canvas take shape — which is one big metaphor for raising kids and for watching your own life take shape, too.)

I’ve written a lot lately about being exhausted and pulled to my limits, which I am. The long days are the longest. But the good days feel like such a welcome break in the monotony sometimes. Wednesday was a really great moment.

As any divorced parent will tell you though, these moments do not ever look like what you’d once expected them to.

Jude’s dad was on the other side of the country, so neither of us told him when the initial invitation came home as there was no point. As we were walking out the door though, I think it dawned on Jude that this was a big deal and dad wasn’t able to see it, so he sent a hurried text message to his step-mom detailing the time and location. She dropped whatever it was that she was doing and hurried there, baby in tow.

I let him contact her without asking otherwise. We slid over in the crowded pew for her to have a place to sit. My family flagged her down in the crowded sanctuary so that she would feel less alone. We waved her off at the end of the event so that she felt included. I say all of this not to say look at me, I am amazing. I am not. We are not best friends. I say this to say that after months and months of practice, it really is not impossible to look at someone like a human being.

I wrote a little last fall about seeing her in a different light and feeling commonality and even sympathy for her in many ways. I do. And yet the hardest part of this is that, though she and I have stepped up to drop the bitterness and rise to a higher calling for the sake of my kids, there are bumps in the road beyond the two of us. My parents and I will sit down at a soccer game with folding chairs near my ex so that kids see us as one unit, and my children’s father and his own parents will stand up, fold theirs, and move to the other side of the field to make it clear we cannot do that. I will greet with a hello and get nothing back. When we are passing bags of clothing back and forth between households, I reach my hand out, but it gets placed on the ground at my feet though I am standing 3 feet in front of him and an outstretched arm would be the most respectful and least awkward way to do this. There is so much more I could say, but I will end there.

I worry a lot about how my kids absorb this as they are growing old enough to watch and observe with their own thoughts. I don’t write a lot about that dynamic here because it feels weird to do so, and I always write with the intention of revealing my own heart, but sometimes someone else’s actions and the effects on your own heart are so tangled that you cannot unwind them to talk about one without the other. I know so many readers here are coming from the same story, and I’m being transparent for the both of us. If you are in it too, I see you and I feel your sadness. If you have emerged to the other side where you are treated like a real person and a human being and not a ghost, please tell me how to get there.

Sometimes I think it’s just that women are capable of seeing complexity in a situation and rolling with it in all its gray areas so that we can put or children first. Sometimes I think that it’s because I took the time to clean up my own heart after my divorce so I can make eye contact and say hello and sit in a chair near them and it doesn’t hurt like it did at first. I know how it was in the beginning when I couldn’t look at them without tears in my eyes, but I don’t feel that anymore now that we are 2 years out and I did the hard work of cleaning up the mess inside my own self with time and reflection. If you cannot make eye contact or pass a clothing bag with an outstretched hand or answer a hello, is your heart anything but messy? Sometimes I wonder if I can be my own self without bitterness and shame and anger because I was not the one who stepped out of the marriage before it imploded. Is it actually easier in the long run when you are the one left behind in the beginning? That seems so ridiculous and counterintuitive to say, but there are ways I think it is true. I have nothing to hide or explain.

And in a literal sense, I know if I never once wrote the first word here, it would be very different. I have laid out all my fears and my sadness and my hurt and my confusion in this space, and it has only ever been my own perspective and my own heart. I have always said that. Many, many times, I have been told to be quiet and stop writing anyway, and yet I never did. This space has evolved to something else entirely where I have written about a million more things but always with the simple intention to tell the truth and lay it all bare as I feel it inside – whatever it may be.

I am revisiting some Marianne Williamson this week, and she says, “Women are still in emotional bondage as long as we need to worry that we might have to make a choice between being heard and being loved.” That passage slays me because I can glance back at every moment in my life when I felt that being heard did not equal being loved and feel how painfully that suffocates you. I think I finally realized that love is not real love anyway if it comes with the condition that you cannot be heard, so here I am still writing. And here I am still loving – even those who are hard to love. I can know that someone made choices I would not have made and maybe still has some mess left to work through, but my only ability to change anything at all is to be responsible for my own actions – whether that means making room on a church pew, recognizing my son’s desire to reach out for love from his other household, or looking someone in the eye to say hello. I think I will have to wait on the hand of time to soften all the rest, and if it doesn’t, it is still softening me. Maybe that is the other side I am meant to arrive at — not some sitcom reality where divorced parents have dinner together with their kids.

It’s our small daily choices that paint the whole canvas in the end. And though my kids don’t fully understand everything now when they see someone move a folding chair at a soccer game or decline a birthday party invitation or leave a hello hanging in the air between us without an answer, I know that they will look back and see that if nothing else, mom stayed open and soft and honest and real.

wide open

It’s been 16 days since I last wrote something, so here I am with no agenda but with a determination to mark this month somehow so that I don’t forget it happened. It’s still dark out, and I’m typing as fast as I can before the kids wake up. The only way to get it done.

I proctored my final exams yesterday morning – which means I am only about 240 paragraphs of grading + one long assessment report away from my summer break. My composition exams are always at 7:30am (university schedule dictates that, not me) which means I leave the house at about 6:30, Norah in tow. It takes a lot of coordinating. My mom always stays with us the night before to get Jude off to school since his bus comes a full hour after I leave. Then we drive, I check Norah in, I proctor, I grade, and I scribble our other spring priorities on the planner — dentist appointments this Friday, birthday party coming up, pediatrician visit, graduation ceremonies, and the list goes on.

Spring is crazy always, but the older they get, the busier life feels. And I wish there was a way to change that, but it mostly just comes with the territory. We have all these lofty ideals of what parenting will look like, and then we have the reality. These two pictures are generally not all that similar to one another.

I spent Friday night at a international festival nearby with countless food trucks and vendors and entertainers from all over the world.  After doing these sorts of things alone for the past 2 years, we finally have someone tagging along with us every now and then, and thankfully he has what seems like endless patience. There were a few sibling spats, some occasional long lines, and a little whining. But there were also some memorable moments and big smiles and full bellies. Jude climbed a rock wall and has watched my video footage repeatedly to relive his fearless pride. Norah charmed a few high school football players who were selling bottled water, and she lugged the bottle home and to bed with her that night. After one, long, exaggerated sip, she explained, “That ‘festibal’ was so fun, mama. This water is so good. I think it’s from China.” (This coming from the child who requested a hot dog over dozens of delicious international options.) Their imaginations are wild and unleashed these days, but their excitement and pride is, too.
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I decided to forego the occasional summer camps that I usually use to break up the routine. Instead, I figure we can do things together nearby and maybe squeeze in a road trip or two and a weekend away.  They have private swim lessons lined up in May so that I can finally exhale at the pool every now and then. (They are both so close to swimming efficiently, but one mom and two kids is not getting it done as securely as I’d like.) I find these sorts of things bouncing in my head a lot — that they cannot swim yet and that we still use training wheels and that my first grader can’t tie his own shoes. There are so many life skills I know they need, and it stresses me to remember that I am the one who needs to teach them when truthfully laundry + homework routines + mealtimes and bedtimes take up every ounce of time and energy lately. Do other moms think about this sort of thing? Envisioning some future where your adult child cannot ride a bike and knowing that it is all your fault for not teaching him?

I’m in a weird place in my own life and in the life of my little family. I’m used to being independent and managing a household and all of the things necessary to get us from day to day. But then sometimes I realize with such weight and truth that I really could use an extra set of hands. I think families come in all shapes and sizes, and we are happy and feel complete in our comfort and routines. But I also think there is a reason it takes two people to create human beings – because it takes two people to tend to their growth if you intend to have any energy or sanity left. I try to do the job of two, and sometimes I am pretty good at it. But sometimes I fall short. I’m human, and I have a full-time job outside of this house, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

I tend to look at motherhood like project management these days, employing the village where I can to get us where we need to be. Delegating what I need to – like swimming instruction – and playing on my own strengths, trying hard not to worry about the rest and knowing that it will come together when it does and they will be okay. Eventually, we all will be. I give them a lot of wide open time to play and explore on their own, and even though that is mostly out of necessity for me, I tell myself that has its advantages, too.

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Among all the chaos and the sibling fights and the demands of the calendar, I do see so much independence growing among the both of them this year. I can see that kids need space and autonomy to grow and find their own way. I’m praying the goals and milestones will happen somehow in this stretch of time.

When I think back to my own life, I see how many times I have met goals this way, too. I chug along in the regular mess of life and look back to see I ‘ve actually learned something and crossed that big item off the list and somehow arrived at the goal along my own path. I’m hoping it’s the same for them – that they will look back and see the safety net of my own arms and our food on the table and our home and routines — and that wide open space of childhood everywhere else.

invisible notes, recorded

My kids slept until past 8am these past three days, which is beyond rare.  Even in the slow pace of summer, that doesn’t happen much. They both made their way to my bed in the middle of the night last night, so I woke up under a pile of heavy heads and limbs with my own back a little sore. The outright neediness of baby and toddler days has passed, but it sometimes doesn’t feel all that different now. Still always someone or something needing something from me. Kids or the dog or the job or the house. Or my own self which is the last thing I have time for in the frenzy of regular life.

Neighbor kids were over two weeks ago playing hide and seek, and my living room curtain rod was a casualty. One bracket came down, and the wall left behind seems a little crumbly where it was drilled in before, so it’s not a straight-forward fix. Add to that my apprehension on using a drill, and it has been abandoned for the past two weeks, along with a large box of self-assemble furniture sitting in my dining room for a full month now and at least three large piles of clean laundry upstairs that need to be put away.

Do you ever feel like the piles of unattended tasks in your life somehow take up real estate in your brain so that there is no fresh air there to move around? I prioritize what is first, squeeze by and turn sideways among all the lists and piles, glance the other way, and do all I can to function despite the unfinished mess. But sometimes it just reaches a point where I cannot do it anymore. As my students say, I can’t. [As one complete sentence.] I just can’t. I can’t do much of anything. It takes a lot for my brain to reach overflow status, but when it does, I’m done.

I think motherhood is a challenge because so much of our work is invisible to everyone else — the meals that appear magically on the table 3 times a day and the laundry that is cleaned and the school schedules that are recorded and the million other minutiae that are pulled together somehow. But when you are the only adult in the house, you can feel even more invisible somehow. Invisible to your own self, too. Treading water all the time.

Last week I tried and failed to set up my cable television myself. Then last night, I tried and failed to put the furniture together myself.  Then I drove 2 kids at 8pm to purchase heavy duty Command strips and pray they’d hold up my curtains because I had also tried and failed to drill the bracket back in the wall, and there is only so long I can stare at the fallen curtain before losing my mind when what sits in front of it is a cable box that doesn’t work and what sits above it is a water stain that I should have attended to weeks ago but haven’t.

I had a ten minute span of time this morning as I finished my coffee where I thought my curtain solution would hold and felt mildly successful, but then it fell. And I consequently cried in the shower for a good 30 minutes while hiding from my kids. The little things feel big sometimes. And I think everyone always says just ask for help, but I do that in nice or subtle ways that no one hears. Or maybe they do, and they have their own agenda to tend to which is entirely understandable.  But whatever the reason, it just sinks in sometimes in that particularly heavy way: you are alone. entirely. on your own. man up. figure it out.

I’m so exhausted from figuring it out. I feel like I am out of creative solutions, and I’m spent. Done.

The truth is I’m not done, of course. The truth is that I have felt this way a million times before, and I just keep moving and the wheels keep turning, and it works out. Every time and always. Frederick Buchner says, “Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day’s chalking.” Grace always comes along last. Just a little last bit, just a little more room to breathe deeply and say thanks for what is here and what shows up for me. Then tomorrow is new.

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We went to the park this morning. I was knee-deep in laundry and wanting to finish it, but a neighbor knocked at our door with a last minute invite, and both kids started jumping. So I dropped the laundry [again] and said let’s go. Jude took a notebook for his “field notes” and numbered his observations with his first grade penciled lettering. Seeing a blue bird, rubbing two sticks together to try and make fire, watching “a butterfly in spring,” and seeing a large ant.

He takes so much solace in these observations, like our time outside only really happens if these things are recorded for him to see and feel. I get that. Writing does that for all of us, I think. In so many ways, that is exactly what I do here – write my observations and experiences as they happen, not always trying to do anything with them, just writing them here to see them staring back at me and know that they aren’t invisible.

Sometimes I do that to reflect on what’s good so I can say yes, remember when? And sometimes I do that with the hard stuff, too. So when it gets better, or when it comes around again, I can say see, hear that? You’ve been there before and you did it. Just hang on; grace always comes last.

long uphill climb

I’ve had a few days alone as the kids are on spring break and on a trip with their dad. Truthfully, I’ve got neither the cash nor the time for a trip right now, and I am always a little anxious with them away, but I’m so happy they get the chance to go. I am in full swing at work with only about 4 weeks left of class this semester. Student meetings and a visiting poet today and papers pouring in and reports to complete for administrative purposes. I’m almost drowning, but I don’t mind since I’ve come to associate this frantic April pace with a long rest that is coming soon enough.  Summer is around the corner.

Yesterday my friend indulged me in a belated birthday treat that we’ve had on the calendar for weeks. I went to a traditional Korean sauna, and it was outside of my comfort zone in ways (gender segregated nude areas), but it always feels so good to push myself to do something new. I don’t do it enough. I ended up getting a “body shampoo” which actually means someone scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed every dead skin particle off my body and left me feeling like a baby. It was a perfect ritual to mark spring and newness. I need to shed so many things, I think. And so often our bodies are the tools through which we can get to something else. I see that idea reflected more and more as I age.

After that, I spent five hours lounging in their various saunas – lined with anything from amethyst to charcoal to clay. As we walked out into the Atlanta spring sun, it felt like nothing was left in my skin that was there when I walked in. Newness is good.

Life has evened out in a way that, to be totally honest, makes me feel really strange. I spent the last two years shedding layer upon layer, and now what? I am just here and moving along at a usual pace and there are no scary surprises or catastrophes or major adjustments. I think yesterday’s experience felt so good because it has been too long since I jumped out of my comfort zone (after two solid years of living every single second outside of it). It’s easy to fall back into that human desire for complacency and consistency, isn’t it? Sometimes we need experiences – little or big – to shake us up again.

Two summers ago, I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea at the recommendation of a friend. It resonated with me in a major way, and I like to revisit it every now and then. Lindbergh says, “It isn’t for the moment you are struck that you need courage, but for that long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.”

I think I am on the long uphill climb now. The part where I am out of the woods, but now I figure out what I want and how to get it and do the hard work of plowing ahead to get there. I want so many things — stability and comfort and solid ground but also persistent renewal and new challenges. I’m grateful for the wide open road in front of me, and the different sort of stability that I feel having spent two years on my own feet in some rocky waters. I don’t want those same kind of rocks again, but I do want some new terrain on this uphill climb. I want to see new places and have the faith to pursue what I know is coming for me. More.

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Our back patio is overflowing with so much green  – thanks to my grandad’s generosity and my inherited love for homegrown food. The kids help pick greens every night now – lettuces and chard and kale that make their way to the dinner table. We’ve created this place somehow with neighbors and friends and our own little village of sorts. I was making dinner one night last week to glance up and catch a glimpse out the back patio door of my two playing with a crowd of neighborhood kids with bare feet and short sleeves and late daylight. It was the simplest of moments but the one I scribbled on paper for my gratitude jar that night. Here we are in a home we love with predictable routines and a solid foundation.

I’ve heard that saying “what you take for granted someone else is praying for,” but now I see it in my own life in a different way. What I have now, this little life with all of its routine beauty, is what I so desperately prayed for years ago when I really couldn’t see my out to the other side yet. And here I am. But now I want more, and I can feel it just out of reach. That’s the secret perhaps – to always be reaching for more and pausing in between to listen to that voice that tells you what you really want.

the dirt in the corner

I turned 36 this week. I am not sure how that happened. I was just 33, I thought. And before that just 29. Then 27. I am doing that thing where I double-check my age by glancing at the calendar and then doing the math from the year I was born. I can remember hearing adults do that when I was a kid and thinking, how do you not remember your age? And here I am. But somehow the second digit gets fuzzy when the years fly by quickly. I am 30-something and nearing closer to 40, I suppose. That is specific enough.

I went to a funeral the week before. My great aunt passed, and the service was in the same chapel where I sat almost 9 months ago to sing hymns at my grandmother’s goodbye. Time is a weird thing, sometimes dragging slower than we thought possible and sometimes rushing and sometimes doing something in between that still somehow surprises you.

As I sat in my seat adjacent to the wall, I could lean a little as I listened to the eulogies and the pastor’s message. He spoke a bit about her last years and how difficult they were and what a testament her husband’s love and attention was. I think he quoted I Peter 4:12 which reminds us “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Hardship somehow feels like a surprise though, doesn’t it? Is that an American thing? A modern thing? A middle class thing? A human thing? I don’t know. But even now, after all the lessons I have learned, I am still sometimes surprised and exhausted at mishaps and trials of any kind.

A couple weeks ago I was off on midterm break while public schools were still in session. Jude woke first that morning and headed downstairs before I did. As I fumbled out of bed to make coffee, he came racing back up the stairs, Mama! There’s water dripping!

After what happened 5 months ago, I am ridiculously paranoid and react with almost PTSD panic about any water issues, so my heart jumped and I ran downstairs in emergency mode. As it turns out, the one bathroom that was not touched in the renovation had a leaking supply line. It was only a trickle, but it left a water spot below and a slow drip in the living room. I turned the water off at the main valve in the house, then at the street, then calmly called my plumber.

He came later that day and replaced it quickly and inexpensively, but in that process, we discovered that my hot water heater was slowly leaking a bit and on its last leg – which probably explains why my bath could only get half full these days before turning lukewarm. I took a deep breath. Here we are again. Two days later, I was $1700 poorer but have hot water and new valves throughout the house in every single sink and toilet.

It’s just life. This house is almost 12 years old, and it’s simply time for some wear and tear to be replaced. But it’s so easy to get frustrated with what Peter called the fiery ordeals, the flies in the ointment, the salt on the melon. Anne Lamott writes in Small Victories that “Life can just be so lifey. Life on life’s terms, which I don’t remember agreeing to.” Amen to that. Me either.

But at 36, I’m learning to change my expectations a bit. Leaks will happen, and funerals will too. Hot water heaters will break. Siblings will squabble. Laundry piles will grow more quickly than you want them to while bank accounts grow more slowly.

But we still have sunsets, thank God for that. And chocolate cake and music. And snoring dogs, laughing children, hot coffee, soft sheets. And occasionally I have mornings like this one where I am alone in a quiet house with a minute to be here without demands and expectations. I read Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” with my students this week. She claims “Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.” I think if we are being honest with ourselves, all of life might be what you find in the dirt in the corner. Those little bits of time are the only way I ever get from here to there, the only way I put it all together.

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I have so many hopes for my 36th year. Big ones, like a book proposal. But lately, I just keep swimming as best I can, and these goals are pushed to the back burner. I woke up at 5:15am on my birthday and set my intention with a yoga session before I began my day. I’ve got to carve time somehow to sift the treasure from the dirt. Books don’t write themselves.

Spring is here in Georgia. Ripe strawberries are making their way to grocery stores, and birds chirp at us in the rush of our morning routines. I’m trying hard to squeeze out every ounce of energy spring offers me. God is in the details, no doubt. And life is in the tiny pieces of time we carve away from the bigger picture.