we never know until we look back

How has half of June passed me by already? Summer days usually trail along a little slower than the rest of the year, but it doesn’t feel that way right now. I want to bottle it up and slow it down.

Last week was full of swimming lessons and sweaty outside play and sleepovers and late night movies and the first few red tomatoes from our patio. Then the kids left for Father’s Day weekend and the week ahead, and I am home with a long to-do list and suitcases to pack for our upcoming beach week. I’ve been reading Ron Rash’s Burning Bright which is painful and beautiful. He has an amazing talent for writing stories of struggle in ways that are honest and true.

I also ran across this photo piece and accompanying essay published in the NY Times for Father’s Day. The writer lost his father at 4, and I lost mine at 5, and so much of the details in this piece may differ from my experience, but the core of it runs parallel for me. He explains that “My friends’ fathers were present but seemed ordinary in comparison. Mine was absent but felt mythic.” That word, mythic, is one I haven’t placed on my own experience, but it is well chosen. I can remember once, years ago, a man I worked with was asking me about losing my father, and when he learned I was so young, he said something like “Oh, so it’s more like a void for you then?” I remember I responded with a pause and then “yeah, I guess, but I don’t know. Void doesn’t seem like the right way to say it.” But now that I have found mythic, that is it.

All those tiny, ordinary details become larger than life somehow. That he grew up on the beach and would happily swim much farther from shore than most sane people would. That he was a musician. That he had more culinary drive and talent than anyone else. That I ended up with a tattered copy of Srimad-Bhagavatam that belonged to him. That he gave me my middle name minutes after birth because I just look like a Katie Mae, he claimed. These little details would likely be inconsequential if he were still here next to me as I write this. But now they stand like mythic guideposts that sketch a frame of who he was.

We all do this with people when they die. They grow somehow to stand at more mythic heights. But I think we do this with certain periods of our lives as well. Hindsight filters our view. Memory is a curious thing.

I heard a RobCast episode recently where he was elaborating on that Old Testament moment in Exodus where God tells Moses you will never see my face; you will only see me as I go. The harsh reading of that almost sounds like God is taunting Moses, but Rob Bell’s discussion gave me a different perspective. It is only ever in the rear view mirror that we see the full beauty of everything.  We can try to feel it as it comes, and there is something to be said for presence and being conscious in the moment. But there really are just some things that cannot be fully revealed until later — as Cheryl Strayed says in that beautiful essay I love so much, “It’s almost never until later that we can draw a line between this and that.” It’s one of the most frustrating and the most incredible things about life, I think.

Bell says, “If it all came to you at once, it would fry your circuits. You’d be a wreck, a puddle on the floor. So the nature of a spiritual experience is that you want all the answers and you want it to be clear … the sense of where this is going or what to do next, you don’t want that. But what is the other option? That suddenly you have arrived? That would sear you to the bone. The way it works is that you are given the next thing that you can bear. You are shown enough to open you up … It’s a profound truth about the nature of spiritual experience. The way that it works is not big dramatic moments on top of a mountain… even that is just a glimpse … the day by day revealing.”

These might seem like two entirely separate things – the mythic portrait I carry of my father and the slow frame-by-frame revealing of the life I firmly stand in now, but in ways, I think they are the same thing. In both cases, it is only ever in the end that we see the whole mural, all of the colors and all of the lines and how each piece connected to another to build something beautiful. Parents do this when they look back at days when their grown children were younger. Long-term couples do this when they look back at their early days together and the little moments and stories that led to love. Eventually we see it in all of its beauty, but maybe right now one little glimpse at a time is enough.

I don’t know what this summer will be for me when I have the distance to see it for what it really is. Maybe it is when I am weaving my story on the page one line at a time or maybe it is when I am creating something else that it’s finally time for. Or maybe it is simply rest and sinking my heels in a little deeper and making slow progress on all of the tiny pieces of a life well lived that is uniquely mine. We never know until we get there, and for once in my life, I’m okay right here as I rest in the unknowing.

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being before doing

It’s the day after Memorial Day, and summer break is officially here for the kids. It somehow doesn’t feel like I’m on break yet, but they are away next week, and I’m sure my 7-day stream of solitude will let summer’s real feeling come soon enough.

For now, it has been end-of-the-year awards and Boy Scout ceremonies and pool parties and a revolving door of neighborhood friends coming in and out. Popsicles and bare feet. It rained most of the day yesterday, and it is still falling as I type this. The house is a mess of legos and crayons, and I am trying to remember how numbered these days are to prevent my going crazy about the tiny doses of chaos.  I have such high hopes for this summer. Books to read and lines to write and spaces in my life and my house that need a reset. And yet I haven’t done a single piece of that yet because I’m chasing kids and making lunch to clean it up and then making a snack to clean it up and then making dinner to clean it up. And rinse and repeat.

My Richard Rohr emails come every night while I’m sleeping, and I use them to center myself before the chaos of the day. Every week, he takes a different focus, and for a good three years now, I have watched my life unfold in ways that always seem to parallel what he is writing about that particular week.  This week’s focus is on purpose and vocation, and he’s been providing passages from Parker Palmer’s work.

Palmer says, “[My newborn granddaughter] did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. . . . Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person. The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price. . . .The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?'”

I know all of this and have heard it in so many forms and ways, and yet I still forget sometimes. It’s so easy to get caught up in the lists and the goals and the specific hopes and forget the essence of all of it, forget what runs underneath all of that. That who you are is the platform under what you do. That being comes before doing.

Palmer also references Frederick Buchner who insists that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” It’s a line that keeps running through my head as guidance for big picture questions – like what is my path – and little moment dilemmas – like how to find a happy balance in these four walls. Where my gladness meets what is needed is where the sweet spot exists. (I re-listened to Rob Bell’s “You Listening to You” last week, and he comments on this as well. My purpose cannot be different than what brings me gladness. God doesn’t design us that way.)

I’m not sure if it is a woman thing or a parent thing or just an aspect of my personality that I can sometimes be a little scared of following gladness for the sake of joy and nothing else. I have viewed it as an extra, a bonus, instead of a guidepost to determine if I am on the right track. I lean in and I exhale and I have fun in the moment, but then it’s easy to roll that soundtrack in the back of your head that tells you that it’s not that simple. But what if it is? I’m not talking about the low level happy pursuits that bounce in and out and don’t linger. But that hum where the real stuff is, that rushing current underneath, the one that’s quiet but real.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this today except to say that this season always brings out the urge to slow it down. Hot afternoons and late daylight and no pressing schedules or school night routines. I’m vowing now to remember the who before the what, the being before the doing. And I guess most of all, just allow myself to follow the gladness and let that guide me. As Rilke says, “Let life happen to you. Believe me; life is in the right, always.”

from this angle

There are 7 more days left in the school year, and my kids are on overdive. Something fun happens everyday – Field Day and end of the year countdowns and yearbooks and cupcakes.

Last weekend, I hosted 19 kids for Norah’s sixth birthday party, and somehow the house is still standing.  We had donuts instead of cake and invited kids over in pajamas for breakfast, sending them all home by noon. When two o’clock rolled around, my two were somehow ready to play again and headed out on foot in the neighborhood to see what was happening. 4pm found me in a rocking chair on my front porch where I could vaguely see and hear the lemonade stand to supervise but not have a heavy hand. Every now and then, I could hear Norah’s voice yell, “Come get your LEMA-LADE!” This is one of her last pronunciation errors to hang on, and I selfishly don’t want it to fade.

I have these moments where I cannot believe it is May already, almost half the year gone. Cannot believe that I have two elementary schoolers who dress themselves and have ideas and friendship dynamics of their own and see their own world as limitless and completely safe at the same time. This is a Golden Age for us, and I am not unaware of that. I am grateful for it daily. Time is the only constant and it is rolling faster than I’d like.

I was talking with a friend recently about the messes and the joys of summertime, and she explained her sentimentality with all things summer with her own son. I get it. When I look back at my own childhood, it is somehow always eternally summertime. Hours and days of no structure at all and playing in the woods with my cousins and my sister. Watermelon, popsicles, bright red tomatoes.

We have a nature trail that runs behind the homes in our neighborhood, and the kids love to walk it all the time. Jude and his gang have built a fort of sticks and limbs and an old tarp. When he described this to me over dinner one night a while ago, he told me it was “a proper fort, Mom, a real one.” I don’t ever use that word in that particular context —  proper. There are moments when you step outside the frame to see your kids evolving in their own worlds. He lead me over there a couple of weeks ago to show it to me, and he’s right. It’s a proper fort, complete with an entrance and stones to line its edge.

Two weekends ago, they invited friends over for Sunday morning pancakes, and we went walking along the trail after breakfast. We got to a clearing lined on one side with honeysuckles, and the smell took me right back to something like 1989 when I’d run along the path between my house and my grandparents. I stopped and showed them how to pluck and string a Honeysuckle to get a drop of nectar on your tongue. They were enthralled – all four of them – and stood along the edge of the vines for a long time, plucking and stringing for that tiny drop.

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My kids have a childhood so very different from my own in many ways. They have Kindles and know what a smartphone is and see a globe much smaller than what I saw. We are settled in the suburbs with a small green square of grass and only three of us in this house. But there are ways it echos my own childhood, too. Lemonade stands and long summer days and dirt under your fingernails when you finally come back inside after hours of play. Fort building and honeysuckle eating and other kids to explore with.

It feels good to stand here on the outside and watch them build a world of their own. And I can see from this angle how deeply colored the aisles of memory are, knowing one day they will walk past a patch of Honeysuckle and be taken right back to the place we are now. This is my middle and their beginning, and it is such a sweet spot when I look through that lens to see the rolling hands of time as something that both pushes us from place to place and sometimes dissolves into nothing. Some things are eternal.

truth

It is early morning as I type this. I have a full day of grading essays ahead of me, but I give final exams in the next week, and my academic year is winding down. This is the storm before the calm. I am almost there.

The rose bush in my backyard has been covered in buds for weeks it seems, but yesterday I finally saw three blooms bust wide open, and this morning it is covered in bright pink flowers. It’s strange how something as predictable and certain as the change of seasons can be so exciting.

There are certain truths in life – like that winter will become spring every single year without fail – that we tend to forget or ignore or somehow doubt. I feel like this message is chasing me lately. Does that happen to you, too? It’s like everything that I am reading or hearing or thinking is revolving around some center point whispering to be heard and then shouting a little louder until I pay attention to it.

Today’s culture values individual perspectives and stories, and I’m grateful for that. It’s important, and it’s the first step to empathy. But maybe what we lose in the process is the notion of absolute truth. There is the truth and there is my truth and there is your truth. None of those are exactly the same thing, but the absolute truth is the bedrock where you have to begin. We even have a term for this now when someone says truth-bomb. As though that real truth, that uncomfortable thing we try to ignore, is explosive.

I was listening to a podcast recently where someone was talking about this, and she said truth is like a reporter – just the facts, ma’am. The rest of it is stories that we pile on which can have some value but can also be full of false notions sometimes. I love gray area. I love the questions it brings and the changes it can inspire in me. But I lived in that space for so long that I am ready for solid ground, and maybe this truth concept is at the center of that.

I haven’t read any of Augusten Burroughs’ work. (Tell me where to begin if you have!) But I ran across a passage of his on Instagram, and it blew me away. He says, “Nothing you build on inaccuracy or mere hope or longing or lies or laws that oppose the nature of things can endure.” That is a statement of fact. How many times in our lives do we do this? We can build something on inaccuracy, and it can chug along for awhile, but it cannot endure. This is why people can drive expensive cars and file for bankruptcy soon after. Why you get shocking news of someone’s divorce when they appeared to be happy only a few months ago. Why friendships don’t stand the test of time when you don’t have all that much in common to begin with. It is why someone with a beautiful social media feed is often pretty unhappy in reality. The gig is always up eventually. That is not a truth we can change. It’s a universal law.

He also explains, “Whenever I have encountered a block or an issue in my own life it’s because somewhere, hidden in my life, is an inaccuracy and I have to find it. There’s an inaccuracy of the marriage, of the life I’ve built…being a little bit dishonest here and there created a disaster. When I think about all the times I’ve screwed up it was because there was a lie somewhere in my life.” That’s a pretty sobering thought. These lies are not always things that we tell others; in fact, I’d say it’s more likely that they are things we tell ourselves.

I tell my students that writing is like an excavation. You have to chip away at all the layers sometimes until you get to what you really think, what you really want to say. That’s where you strike gold.

Truth is the same way. It is not as subjective as our culture likes to think it is. If someone shows you who they are, you can add a thousand stories to it to explain it away, but what is the truth? Just the facts ma’am. What do their actions show you about who they are? That is the simple truth. If you have patterns in your life that keep reintroducing themselves again and again. What are you doing to create it? One long look in the mirror and all the hard questions. That’s where the excavation starts.

This is hard stuff, but the other side of that coin is that there are some beautiful truths that we can’t deny either.

What I know is true ……

That good things come to those who work hard.

That the life you create is made of a million tiny moments, the things you do every single day.

That patience is a virtue and you will always get better results when you respect the hands of time and withstand the urge to chase something shiny and temporary

That gratitude multiplies on itself and brings you abundance

That lasting happiness is built of your own hands inside of your own self

 

I think what I know to be true above everything else is that life always gives you what you want. Always. Not like some genie in a bottle delivering us our wishes on command. But what you pay attention to grows and grows. Maybe where we go wrong is that, with all of the other layers we throw on top of it, we lose that pulse of what we really desire, and we want something else instead. Then that thing comes true and we are left with unhappiness anyhow because we chased the wrong thing.

These are hard questions. But where you find the inaccuracies is also where you can follow that path to the truth. You find it, you ask for it, you work for it, and it will come to be. This I know is true. As sure as the earth travels around the sun, as sure as the seasons pass, what you desire will come to you. The challenge is to want the right things.

 

 

 

the long, infinite echo

The kids are away on spring break until tomorrow afternoon, so I’ve spent the last two days getting my own self ready for work in the quiet of early mornings and coming home to that same quiet after my evening commute. It is a weird feeling. I know I’d hate it if this was my norm, but it’s a good three-day break from the usual chaos that mornings can bring when they are heading to school.

I’ve spent a good bit of the past few days enjoying my house in a way that I forget to sometimes. Home is important. This week marks three full years in this space, and I love it more everyday.

I also caught a documentary on Netflix that I can’t recommend enough — InnSaei, a film about intuition and ways the modern word has lost it. (The trailer is here if you’d like to see it.) I keep turning it over in my mind, and I already want to watch it again to hear it a second time around.

You don’t have to work hard to convince me that intuition exists in a very real way or that it’s something valuable, but this film explores it from so many different angles – including the ways that science can measure it and the ways that we can cultivate it. One thing was certain across all of the resources and all of the interviews and all of the conversation about intuition – that it only shows up in the quiet.

I’m working on this, on letting the quiet settle in the space around me without looking for a distraction. It is hard though. It is against the grain of the world we live in. But it never ceases to talk to me a bit when I let it grow and expand in spaces in my life. Sometimes you know things and you don’t even know why you know them. Do you feel that way? I can hardly count the times in my life when I knew something and later saw such a clear line between this and that. I’m getting better at feeling it in the present moment now and not just the rear view mirror.

Saturday I went for a hike alone, and when I got home I repotted a plant my mom had picked up for me a few days prior. Since that weekend was followed by a few mornings of slow silence, somehow I feel more centered than I have in a while — even though work is crazy and there are a million things to do — somehow all of the spinning plates are moving a little more slowly. I heard someone say once that people always say I don’t know what to do about a given situation, but the thing is that you do know. You always know if you are quiet enough to listen.

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I am sifting through the pieces of what 2018 has brought me already and listening hard for what they have to tell me. I hear nothing at all in the midst of everyday noise, and I think nothing has changed or I am just treading water or I am not where I should be. But the minute I take a day or two to shut it all down and let the silence swell a bit and sit with it, I hear it. I always know what to do, always know where I am. The term Innsaei apparently translates to the sea within as well as to see within and finally to see from the inside out. We don’t exactly have an English word equivalent, but intuition is as close as we can get.

I can remember when I was a kid, my great-grandmother had this massive seashell that she used as a door stop, and my cousins and I would always do the trick of holding it to your ear to hear the rush of the ocean. I remember it was just one long, infinite echo. Loud and quiet at the same time. No matter how long you held it to your ear, the rushing just kept speaking to you in one long hush. I swear intuition works that way, too. There is a hum there if I listen. As vast as the ocean, loud and quiet at the same time.

Hafiz tells us, “This place you are right now, God circled on a map for you.” I forget that sometimes until something small delivers that message. It’s always something tiny — the way afternoon sunlight comes around the curve near my house in the early evening hours, the feel of my hands in a pot of black dirt, the silence that punctuates bird chirps when I hike alone, the way words flow when I string one sentence together with another. This is my spot, circled on a map. That quiet rush inside always talking to me like a compass.

Sunshine Blogger

I realized this month marks 8 (!!) years of this blog’s existence which is so crazy to me. I can hardly believe how much has changed and what this space has brought me. I haven’t been spending as much time here, but that is largely just because this time of the semester is crazy, and it’s also because I’m working on other projects taking up my creative energy right now.

So when Elizabeth forwarded this Sunshine Blogger recognition to me, I decided to play along. The “rules” are simply to choose a fellow blogger who inspires positivity and creativity in the online community. Then send them some questions and be sure to answer the ones sent to you. It’s a fun way to honor a fellow writer and to introduce readers to new spaces.

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Here were Elizabeth’s questions for me. I had fun answering them!

  • Is it difficult to write about true stories from your life?

Sometimes, yes it is. It’s weird for me because sometimes things just pour out – almost without my permission. (In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert refers to it as feeling like you are on a moving sidewalk.) And other times, a little essay can be so slow going and really just downright difficult to get out. Right now I have an outline for a book, and I am plowing my way through chapter by chapter. Some of these stories fly right out, and others take a while to shape.

  • When writing, how much attention do you pay to your audience?

For blog posts, I think I imagine my audience as a good friend. I’ve interacted with readers here and there over the years, so it’s become this safe and soft space where I can sit down and spit something out without judgment like I would with a friend over coffee. I know there are naysayers or haters or whatever lurking somewhere, and I’ve received some spiky comments here and there, but they are few and far between, and I throw that audience way out of my head when I am writing. If I didn’t do that, then I’d never write at all.

  • What do you avoid writing about at all costs, if anything?

I guess in a practical sense, I am careful to never write about anyone else’s challenges or motivations for their actions. I might mention how someone’s actions (as a statement of fact) affect me, but I don’t tread on the ownership of their perspective. I’m actually not sure that I have a good answer for this question though. I am of Hemingway’s belief that you have to “write hard and clear about what hurts.” I’m writing harder and clearer for my book than I do for my blog. But I firmly believe that place where it gets uncomfortable for me is that place where the magic happens.

  • What’s your favorite post from your own blog?

Oh this is a hard one! I love re-reading the birthday letters I write my kids. I’ve stopped doing that publicly with my son, and I soon will with Norah as well. I still write them, but I don’t share as much here because of privacy as they grow older. The post where I came clean about my divorce is on my list of favorites because now when I read that, it has such a prophetic tone. I had no idea the beauty that was waiting, and I was writing that through tears and shaky hands, right in the middle of the searing pain.  This post when my grandmother passed is also on the list – no doubt. That one was a moving sidewalk for sure. It came from somewhere else, and I wrote it so quickly. Lastly, I’d say “Sinking the Ship” is up there. That one came out like a manifesto that I didn’t expect when I sat down to write.

  • Do you have a favorite post from someone else’s blog?

I don’t know that I have one favorite, most memorable post. There are certain writers that have been really influential for me for lots of reasons — Dooce’s honesty was my first introduction to the idea that blogs can be powerful. I was obsessed with her blog back in maybe 2007-2010 or so. I used to read Lecia Phinney pretty regularly too, but she stopped blogging as she began working on her book. Glennon Doyle circa 2012-2016 or so probably put out the most powerful and memorable posts that stand alone for me. Her do-I-stay-or-do-I-go post was written after I left, but I loved that one so much.  She speaks my language. Anne Lamott “blogs” through Facebook posts every now and then, and every single time, I am nodding in agreement. She is incredible.

  • Do you ever wish you could take back one of your posts that perhaps an earlier version of yourself had written?

Well, ahem, this blog chronicles a totally normal, totally happy little family from 2010 when I started writing here until 2015 when it blew up. That is super weird to look back on. I’ve considered removing those posts because this blog became something else… because I became something else. But that seems weird — to strike years from my record like that. So I’ve left it. I also think, in general, that my early posts are boring because I am not at all writing about what hurts. When I got real is when this blog got better, and that’s when my audience began to grow as well.

  • Do you write more for personal or professional reasons?

Personal for sure. Even when working on this book lately, I’ve really had to look at it that way for it to feel true. Maybe only 20 people will read it one day, but who cares? I write to explain things to my own self that I otherwise might never understand.

  • What’s the most amazing thing about you?

Oh, yikes. I get weird imposter syndrome about everything in my life, so this is hard to answer. I guess that I stay open and that I have softened instead of hardened when some really terrible and scary things have happened to me. I think my very best days are ahead, and I always keep the faith that a larger thread is pulling my life every minute. I am very good at finding the sacred in the mundane. It keeps me going.

  • What is your greatest aspiration as a writer?

To write a book that more than a handful of people will read. To leave my children with my story.

  • What do you wish you knew about blogging before you began?

That it doesn’t matter if 10 people read or 10,000. Just write. The readers meant to find you will find you, and sometimes cozy is better. I’ve had days where my stats soared to 15,000 or higher in response to something on Huffington Post or Scary Mommy, but those are not my best blogging experiences at all. The times I poured something out here and heard a small chorus of “me too” are far better moments than tons of page views. Just write what you know. It’s your journal.

  • Do you ever get tired of the whole thing and want to throw in the towel (speaking of your blog here)? 🙂

I do throw in the towel from time to time in that I will go a month or two without a peep. But I know that it’s always here waiting for me when I get to it. It’s my little corner of the internet (for 8 solid years now!) and my happy place.

I nominate For the Love of Wonderlust because she inspires for sure, and I also nominate Memory Box Mom whom I’m lucky enough to call a close friend.

Questions – if you want to give them a try:

  • Why did you start blogging?
  • Why do you keep doing it? Why you keep coming back to it with so many other social media forms?
  • How has blogging changed for you since you began? Has your site somehow taken a different shape than you expected?
  • Do you envision a certain audience when you write?
  • Do you have a favorite post of yours?
  • What’s your best writing advice?
  • Describe your ideal day? Is writing part of the equation?

one long look in the mirror

Yesterday I turned 37. We celebrated pretty simply with sushi the night before, and I indulged in a facial while the kids were at school yesterday. We played a bit in the afternoon, and then they went to dad’s for the weekend, so now I’m in a quiet house and looking at a weekend that unfolds a lot a work I need to get done. This season of life is ever-busy it seems. I paused it all yesterday for a day of indulgence, but that means I have to somehow pick up the slack today.

I was talking with a friend a couple of weeks ago about the concept of aging. We went to high school together, so we are approaching 40 at the same pace, and she said, “Isn’t this age the best? I love getting older.” I think there would have been a time when I was surprised to hear myself say this, but I feel the same way. It continually brings me closer to some center that gets a little more solid every year.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of self-accountability lately, the ways I am good at it and the ways that I need to get better. There are countless floating pieces of that equation: boundaries, discipline, honesty, delayed gratification, perspective, drive, and self-respect.

I recently revisited that famous Joan Didion essay on self-respect published in Vogue in 1961. (First of all, wrap your head around that. That this essay appeared in a widely read fashion magazine years ago in America. Culture has changed a lot in fifty years.)  She tells us, “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues.” If that seemed true in 1961 – that character can lose ground to what is more “instantly negotiable” –  just think a minute about how much more true that is today in 2018. When instant is the name of the game every single day.

Didion continues, “Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.” Weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts is something I need to write a hundred times to imprint it on my perspective. Not just in my own life where I can constantly use some encouragement to keep my eyes on the long game. But also in terms of the comparison trap that 2018 living drops upon us. Immediate comforts are glorified everywhere — on our social media feeds, in glossy magazines, in storefront windows. Everywhere.

Self-respect runs out the door when you can’t see past the immediate. That is a harsh reality that finally, at 37 years along after some painful life lessons, I can see so clearly.

Maybe it is the changing air of spring that is opening up for us in small ways here already, maybe it is the newness of my 37th year, or maybe it is that after 3 years of survival mode living, I am finally getting to the real living part. Whatever the reason, I woke up two weekends ago, and I’d been looking at a room full of furniture that I didn’t choose, couches left from another life, for 3 years now with that tiny urge to wipe it clean. And I’d been ignoring that tiny urge or telling myself that I didn’t have the resources to change it – for 3 years now. More than one thousand days. But something clicked inside of me, and I could not look at it for one more day. Not once. I listed it that morning on a local sale site, and by 5pm someone had come to pick it up, and I went to bed that night with an empty room.

I had to do this on a dime, but I didn’t care. I got a new couch for cheap, a discount rug, and I moved a couple of chairs from elsewhere in the house. I spent that weekend scouring antique stores and found a little table and lamp I loved, and just a couple of days ago, I bought another used table for $28, and somehow we have all that all we need.

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I think when your outsides don’t match your insides, that incongruity can eat you up until it is unbearable. And this can work both ways – with an impeccable home and a stellar social media presence when the insides of that life are a mess. Or maybe, as it was in my case, you have come so far in the last few years, and then you suddenly wake up one day to open your eyes to some element of your life that doesn’t look like you at all. Stuff is more than stuff. It can cover up a lack of character and be used as armor sometimes. And likewise it can carry a heavy energy that just doesn’t belong with you anymore. I rid myself of all of it this month, and I feel like a two-ton elephant left my life.

Last weekend was sunny and 70, and I spent the afternoon in my backyard removing dead leaves and old stems from my flower beds, working pre-emergent in the dirt to ready things for the growing season come May. By the time I finished, my arms were sore from raking and digging. I swept the porch. I cleaned the front door. I left the windows open all day with the ceiling fan on and sunlight streaming through the house. Self-respect takes courage and elbow grease — whether that is selling something you don’t love anymore without a bundle of money to replace it yet, washing the winter’s dirty residue from your front door, taking an honest look at yourself and improving whatever makes you wince, or digging through overgrown flower beds.

Didion’s most famous line from that essay states, “character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.”

It can take a long time to accept full responsibility in every way. 37 years for me, I think. You eventually learn that you own all of your assets and all of your capabilities but all of your incompletions and your mess-ups, too. It is all only mine to reckon with. Aging, if you are doing it right, is one long look in the mirror. It is honesty and backbone —  and eventually it is hard-earned self-respect.