It feels good to feel.

Last Sunday we hiked with the Boy Scouts. It was drizzly and foggy and 40 degrees and definitely not a day I would have left the house if I didn’t have a reason I had to. But we’d committed, so I packed the backpack with snacks and water bottles and extra scarves, and we set off – the three of us and the other three families who were there. Up the mountain, one foot in front of the other. The weekend before I’d hiked this same spot alone when it was 60 and gloriously sunny. (Thanks, Georgia winter.) And that day, my head was running all sorts of meandering directions which is a welcome moment sometimes, but this day, in the damp cold, it was hard to think of much else. Only the task in front of you gets your attention when it requires some physical discomfort it seems.

Untitled

We reached the top, and the boys completed a little lesson on pitching a tent and tying knots, and Norah and I found a large rock to perch on for a while. The view behind us usually stretches for miles, but it was all fog. When they were done, we walked down the mountain the same way we’d gone up – one step at a time. Then we got home, both kids laid under blankets on the couch for a while, and lentils simmered in the slow cooker. It feels good to feel something. Even when it is cold or some discomfort or some physical exertion. It feels good to feel.

Mary Oliver died yesterday. My writer-friend texted me while I was standing in line for our annual MLK convocation. I was in academic regalia and huddled in the hallway with other English professors, and then we all filed in the century-old auditorium where the university’s gospel choir met us as we walked in to take our seats. The rousing piano and the raised voices and the row of us in black. It felt like my own little funeral for her. There are memorable moments in each life that etch their shape on your mind forever, and this is one for me. Decades from now, I will say, I know where I was when I found out Mary Oliver died. And I will think of a gospel choir singing “Break the Chains.”

I think I have quoted her here probably more than any other writer. I’ve been reading so many online tributes, all of them beautiful, and one mentioned that she was always purposely ignored by a few high-profile literary critics because her work was so easily accessible. But I know that was with purpose, and I think this was one of the million things she taught me – that simple is perfect and that simplicity can stab you right in the gut where you need to feel it. Why embellish when what is here and real and simple is what pulses anyhow?

She taught me to, as she says, let the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to float a little above this difficult world, and to keep some room in my heart for the unimaginable.

I was flipping through one of my volumes of her work last night before bed, and Jude asked me what I was reading. I explained who she was and that she’d passed that day and that I just wanted to read a few lines to make me feel better. He asked to choose one to read, so I left him alone for a while with it and came back to his insistence that we read Alligator Poem. I read it aloud for us and he asked for another, so I flipped to that old favorite Wild Geese.  Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.

I bought tickets months ago to the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors exhibit here in Atlanta. I’m lucky that my university has a partnership with the High Museum, and we had the place to ourselves for two hours. We could bring ourselves and one guest, and I chose Jude as a treat for him and a rare day just the two of us. I emailed his teacher to explain why he was missing school and she agreed yes! go! It has been nearly impossible to get tickets in Atlanta, and the lines are typically long. I’m grateful for what feels like outrageous abundance allowing us to do this. It was an incredible morning.

Untitled Untitled

Untitled Untitled

Art touches that place that you cannot get to any other way. And I know this is a very cliché English teacher thing to insist, but the older I get, the more I see that there really isn’t much else that matters. That place, that indescribable space that is both tangible and weightless. People spend their whole lives trying to fill it, and it really is the simplest things that can occupy that hole. We all crave it. It feels good to feel something.

What I feel lately – despite the state of our national affairs and the weather and the early darkness and the weariness that bubbles up in my everyday life and the huge unknown territory in my future – is something like hope. I feel it fluttering in my chest when the gospel choir sings that repeated refrain of I hear the chains falling. I feel it when I read her line, for the millionth time in my dog-eared copy, asking me Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? And I felt it standing in the mirrored room with my favorite boy watching infinite twinkling lights. Beauty can propel me anywhere. It can float me on from here to there.

Mary Oliver’s gift was writing single lines that can slay you. But I want to share some full verses from her work “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” before I sign off tonight. She composed it years ago when she faced a cancer scare, and it speaks for itself in one massive breath that I cannot embellish or admire or talk about except to distract from it.

Thank you, Mary. For the words and the spaces between them. For teaching me how to pay attention.

______________________________________

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
life?

ordinary

I turned the last page of a book today that will haunt me for a long while, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. I usually come here to share snippets and quotes of whatever I’m reading, but I am finding it hard to do that this time. It is hard to slice this one up. I swallowed it whole in only two sittings, and even among the chaos of this week before the holidays, I made time for it. I will only tell you that you need to read it and let it sit with you awhile like it has with me. And that I am not certain where I am going with these sentences tonight, but I only know that I wanted to remember what it felt like when I first read it.

Do you do that? I find a piece of art – a book or a film or a song that is new to me – and I want to bottle that feeling that swells inside when I first consume it.

Nina Riggs, first known for this Modern Love column, faced down a terminal diagnosis at 37, and essentially spent the final year or two of her life racing the clock to write down everything she could and make sense of what was in front of her – the living and the dying. She finished the final manuscript a month before her death, and the result is this shimmering stretch of narratives that are as much poetry (she was a published poet before this book) as they are a story. Like moments and still photographs sewn together with connections and meaning. It illuminates without burning you on sentimentality. It’s quiet but urgent. Descriptions of the ordinary that rise to become sacred. I loved it so much.

I was chiming in on a discussion about holiday stress and holiday blues with some friends recently, and I said that I sometimes get this weird melancholy at the end of the year where I look back at the previous twelve months and feel like I didn’t do enough, like I am treading water, like I have been so busy with these trees that I didn’t see the forest and I have wasted a year of my life. I feel like (Do we all do this?) everyone else is ahead of me and I am running in place somehow.

We like to mark our years in big ways, don’t we? Like one day we will look through some photo album, real or imagined, and say oh, this is the year that I went on that exciting trip, this is the year I made huge professional strides, this is the year I got married, this is the year I became something radically different than I was before and all the exciting things happened for me. But real life happens differently for a lot of us (most of us?).

This is the year I wrote a lot of words that mostly stayed on my computer and no one else read them. This is the year I finally threw out that couch I hated and bought a cheap replacement but I still couldn’t afford much else, so the rest of the room was pieced together with hand-me-downs and second-hand finds. This is the year the dog got a little older and slower and the kids got a lot taller, and I mostly looked just the same as ever. This is the year I got a promotion that in all reality just feels like a single footstep up a ladder that I am not sure is reaching where I want it to go. This is the year I finally went to the doctor for a physical and listened to my dentist and got a night guard. I started using eye cream every night. I bought a gray scarf I love. All of these tiny, insignificant steps to some place I don’t know.

Maybe this feeling of a pause is a good thing – after a few years in a row of things that shattered the frame I’d built. But I am on some sort of treadmill that is not pushing me forward as fast as I’d hoped, and the end of the year always shines a light on that feeling.

But this book cracked that open for me somehow. It is so simple, really. She describes her days as they really are, her moments as they happen, her honest difficulty in letting go of everything that lies here in this life – none of it spectacular in the traditional sense of that word, mostly what we would consider mundane and ordinary. And somehow it leaves me with tears in my eyes, so thankful for this little life that is mine. Treading water or not, I am here. We all meet the same end eventually, but right now, I am here.

Things I can tell you about today: Jude sat up quickly when I woke him up, excited for his class party. He could hardly open his eyes to the lamplight though, and he has the thickest, darkest lashes. He always has since he was a baby. They are still the same. He just sat there in bed smiling with his eyes closed and his enormous lashes casting shadows, trying to open them in the dim light. Norah’s freckles are fading now that we don’t see the sun as much, but they will come back next summer. I know about these things – eyelashes and freckles – because I see them everyday, but I forget how perfect they are. How good it feels to know them well enough that I can see them with my eyes closed and know that I will see them tomorrow again. Will that stay in my photo album one day? 2018, the year I saw the eyelashes flutter every morning and the freckles fade and reappear.

Tonight after dinner, I needed to take the dog out, and Jude’s coat was closer than mine, so I grabbed it. I can wear it now. I can wear his shoes, too. Three years ago, that would have been unimaginable. Three years from now, he will have outgrown me. 2018, the year we met in the middle of where we were and I first discovered I could wear his coats. Norah asked (again, as she does every night) if I would take a bath with her when it was her time to get clean. This is weird maybe (Is it? She is six. I don’t know.) but also it is not weird for us because neither of us makes it so, and I know one day very soon there is coming a day when she will turn her head when I change my clothes instead of saying Mama, get in and pouring warm water over my shoulders. 2018, the year we sat in the bathtub where she pretended to paint my fingernails every night.

Sometimes I wince to think of my life staying just the same as it is now for all of eternity. That is the ultimate fear, I think. That nothing will change, that I will never do the things I am meant to do. That everyone will run ahead without me. That I will keep treading water forever with no mileage to show for it. But this book is just sitting on my heart after I finished it with a quiet whisper that you hear from an old, familiar friend. Like it is something I have always known, only I had forgotten it.

 

 

 

 

 

bottomless reservoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

witness

Where to start, I don’t know. July always leaves me this way. Feeling restless and maybe just the tiniest bit anxious for the start of the school year around the corner. The kids have 15 summer days left, and I have 32. We are trying to drink up every last bit.

I spent last weekend in a cabin on the Tennessee River with a few friends – near and far, old and new. We read and relaxed and explored bookshelves and coffee shops. I spent nearly half of the day Friday on a shaded porch swing with a book in my lap – something I haven’t done in ages. It’s so easy to lose the pulse of who we really are and forget the small pleasures that bring us the most happiness. We spent some rainy hours on Saturday exploring a warehouse of used books, and I came home lugging a bag with no less than nine new titles. One of them is Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass which I dove into first and am swallowing down in huge gulps when the kids are playing or sleeping. It’s her honest reflection on decades of marriage, and it illuminates big things about relationships through the language of everyday minutiae. It’s a timely read for me, and a fascinating look inside a marriage.

Shapiro focuses a lot on the passage of time and how it chisels and changes two people. As she reflects on her first date with her husband, she explains, “I want to deliver some kind of benediction upon them as – drunk on love – they meander the streets of Alphabet City. I want to suggest that there will come a time when they will need something more than love.” Or as she says later, “Our world will narrow as the storm of time washes over us. It will bleach us, expose our knots, whittle us down like old driftwood. … There is luck involved, of course. But not only luck.”

I think that’s a way that we change after divorce, especially when you take time off to be alone and think of what is next. We see that love is a choice, not luck or passion. That the long game is about decades instead of months, but at the same time, decades are made of tiny moments, tiny words that add up to something. That there are some things you can bear and some things you can’t, but that is always a choice.

Susan Sarandon’s character in the movie Shall We Dance insists that “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’” That line echos with me again and again. Especially now that I am alone. I think it’s the witness that we miss sometimes. The presence that is there in all the little everyday moments to say I see you and I hear you and you don’t go unnoticed.

I think witnessing someone in the real way is a choice, and a hard one, too. Shapiro’s book reminds us of that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways I can bear witness to myself when life feels like it is swirling and changing. It is not the same as having that steady shoulder and clear mirror of a forever partner. But there are ways, I think. Writing is one. Talking to friends. Holding on to your own center when you are the only one there.

The kids brought home some sunflowers Sunday night after visiting a sunflower farm nearby. Yesterday morning, we began the day with waffles and sunflowers and cherries. July at its best. Fresh corn is stacked in my fridge, and tomatoes line the window sill. I am doing what I can to bear witness to what is around me, to sink into what is here, even if I am the only one to feel it and see it.

Untitled

Sometimes I wonder if I will gaze back at this time, with all of its uncertainty and growing pains and lessons, and think That was it. You were in it. You were alive and real and growing and reaching. Or if I will just see it as a blur and be glad it’s over.

I hope not. The days roll by so quickly right now, and it can feel like I have no witness in these everyday storms, but even with my tired perspective, I can see that this life is something I want a witness to. A beautiful thing.

As Shapiro reflects on her own younger experiences, she says, “Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.”

I know it’s impossible to have someone sit down and tell you everything about how the story goes. But selfishly, I wish time worked that way. Some days it all feels fast and slow at the same time, stifling and loose, real and imagined. It’s so hard to bear witness to this story when what you really want to know is what’s on the other side.

rhythm and echo

We are two days away from the end of the school year, and our pace has been non-stop. In a two-week period, I’ve dragged both kids to swim lessons, hosted a birthday party, and attended a pre-k graduation, an elementary school field day, a ballet rehearsal and recital, and a first grade awards day. I guess this is how May works when you have school-aged kids. It’s a lot.

The Georgia weather is heating up, but every now and then, we get a break with some cloudy skies and cool rain. I love where I live always but especially this time of year with so many things to see and do. We’ve been planting summer herbs and flowers this week, and we have a little patio tomato plant the kids check on every day. When dinner time rolls around, I have to work hard to convince them to come in. Late sunsets are driving our rhythm.

Untitled

The Dog Days will be here soon enough, but right now, warm sun feels like such a novelty. I am bone tired though. I think the adrenaline of this past month’s events has worn off a bit, and now I’m just exhausted. I have a lot of goals for my own self, but life lately revolves around these two in a way that doesn’t really leave space for my desires. It’s an eternal conflict for moms everywhere, and I’m not alone in this. But boy is it hard to make room for me sometimes.

I’m reading a pretty incredible little book right now called On Living, a hospice chaplain’s reflection on stories her patients have shared with her and her observations of what matters as people ready themselves to cross that bridge. It sounds sad as I’m describing it, but it’s not at all. It’s a reminder in the best and clearest way about what matters and what doesn’t.

The author reveals in an early chapter that she was surprised when she began that role to find that dying people almost always just talk about their families – more so than some big, lofty conversation about spirituality and the great beyond. She claims that people talk about their families at the end because “that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. […] This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.”

This week marks the first anniversary of my Grandmother’s stroke, and the first year of any tragedy is so hard. All those what I was doing last year and what I didn’t know then thoughts bounce around every day. And I’m expecting it to be this way a bit for the next month or so. It was a year ago that I wrote this post, and every word still rings true even though everything has changed.

It seems strange and confusing to be sitting on my patio today watching my two with sidewalk chalk and listening to their laughter with neighborhood friends – knowing that one year ago I was at the hospital and so sad and confused and disheartened. Life moves on, and especially as a mother, it fills up with all these tiny moments like watering patio tomatoes and setting the table and listening to explanations of sidewalk art and playground games. I guess what you eventually figure out is that the little stuff is actually the big stuff.  It grounds us and restores us and even defines us.

Last summer, I saw first hand the role of family as a way to talk about God and meaning and the way we create our lives. I saw how my Grandmother had created hers over decades of all these tiny tasks that probably seemed meaningless in the moment as she was doing them but echo so loudly now that she’s gone. I still hear it everyday.  I want the echo I leave one day to be just as deep and wide.

 

 

the rushing lens of a microscope

I find myself falling down some black hole of time lately. I wonder where my hours go, what I do. I can’t always name much at the end of the day. I grade a few papers, read and prep for class but not as much as I would’ve liked, answer an email or two, run that lingering errand, pick up kids from school, make dinner, and then 6-10pm is swallowed up with all the things required at the end of the day, and my tired head hits the pillow.

Somehow things become more involved than you think they should. As is the case with all of life, it seems. In a current course I’m teaching, I begin the semester listening to Jenny Hollowell’s “A History of Everything, Including You” with my students. (It’s featured in New Sudden Fiction, but you can listen to her read it herself on this podcast here.)

This particular story feels like some rushing lens of a microscope zooming from the cosmic confusion of the dawn of the universe to the very particular pain of an individual woman. It’s a work I can read again and again, and it resonates with me more each time. How did we get here? And I can mean that collectively, as a society, as I watch the news unfold hourly these days. Or how did I get here? I can ask that personally and know that there is no short answer for the hum that is created from all the pieces that add up to what I have become. One thing leads to another and to another, and before you know it, your life has a shape all its own that has come to pass because of a thousand twists and turns, some intentional and some circumstantial.

I have the urge to simplify everything right now. Clean the closets and throw things out that I no longer need. Check my tasks off as quickly as I can without muddling them with too much thought. Read some bulleted list of news without the analysis I usually crave. The older you get, the more you see why that’s hard though. Things have layers of attachment and value. Tasks have more thoughtful ways of being done if we take the time. News has loads of context that you don’t get with a quick bold heading or summary. People have layers upon layers of meaning and history that construct who they are and how they see the world.

Tonight is said to hold a full moon, a comet, and an eclipse at the same time. An eclipse in Leo which astrology tells us is a fire sign – known for being bold and playful and confident and creative. I don’t chart my life by a horoscope, but I love the ceremonial spaces granted to us with the changes and cycles in the sky above. And I always need a reminder that things are bigger and grander and more complicated than I can ever imagine, but yet my tiny little life in this warm house is what I hold and what matters.

Eclipses are also often representative of endings and beginnings, closings and openings. They invite us to think about what can be left behind and what threshold we need to cross next. This one is reminding me that the layers are always going to feel messy and deep and too difficult to understand, but it’s still my job to walk forward anyway, to figure out what I am meant to do in this season and this place, to find what makes me happy and do more of it. I’m ready to close this season that’s left me feeling like I’m almost drowning. I’m ready to reclaim that creative energy and move forward through the muddled complicated layers to find something simple again.

David Whyte has a poem that says, “Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside of you. Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that first, bright and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.” 

The kids and I huddled under blankets tonight and ate take-out in the living room while watching a movie. Then upstairs for bed, and I can hear them snoring now with the perennial February sniffles that always appear this time of year. The moon is bright enough to shine through the blinds and leave some faded lines of light along my bedroom wall as I’m typing this. There’s something big inscribed across the heavens tonight three times over, but I can hear that one line written inside, too. Pulsing like a heartbeat. Here, now. Here, now. Ready to begin again.

 

 

 

the banister on the dark cellar stairs

It’s 36 outside this morning. The real November has arrived. This Thursday marks the first of December, and there are Christmas lights twinkling a little here and there when I drive after dark.

The kids and I pulled out our Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I’ve still got a bit to do around here now that the heavy lifting of the remodel is out of the way, but it is slowly starting to feel like the home we love again. And I really think nothing can make you love your home more than watching it get taken apart and put back together again. It feels good to be back where we started – but with a few improvements which I’m grateful for.

Our tree is quite a sight. It is dripping with ornaments, and I usually go along after the kids to rearrange in a more sensible way, but this year I didn’t. They’ll cluster 5 close together or insist that one particular one have a place at the top. Our mantle is adorned with kid crafts and not the least bit coordinated or symmetrical. But the way I look at it, I have so many years ahead of me where things will stay in their typical place, but for now, it’s important to me that they feel ownership here.

They are at this perfect age where they don’t require nearly as much hands-on constant involvement as years past – no diapers (hallelujah, never again), no bag of extra clothing when we leave the house, no strollers or carriers or special accommodations. They dress themselves and brush their own teeth and generally listen if I tell them to play for a while in the other room so that I can get dinner done. But they are also easily impressed and still at that age where they are curious and want to learn and genuinely like spending time with parents. I can finally exhale a little with them after 2 years of life’s outrageous demands. It feels easy when it is just the three of us, and it’s natural to take that for granted or focus on other salt on the melon like sibling arguments and messy rooms, but as I think back on life with a newborn and a two year old or those first months of single parenthood when my youngest was only two, I gain a lot of gratitude and perspective.

I’ve spent part of the holiday break alone as well, and I’m grateful for that, too. I’ve listened to podcasts, put the house back together, and read a good bit of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir. I’ve cooked a lot as well – both for Thanksgiving and to stock my freezer for the weeks ahead. Thursday morning, I had some time alone before the kids got home, and I baked a sweet potato pie from a scribbled recipe card I found in my grandmother’s things this summer.

Untitled

Food is so much more than physical sustenance, isn’t it? A holiday that centers around a full table reminds us of this, but it is true year round as well. It can bring health and comfort and a nostalgic longing like nothing else. Certain dishes send me tumbling down a tunnel of memory. In Karr’s book, she tells us “Memory is a pinball in a machine — it messily ricochets around between images, ideas, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt, snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk — how did so much fit into such a small space?”

This happens to me all the time. One taste or one sight or one old photograph. The ricochet begins and the clowns pour out of the circus car. Sometimes it’s sweet and sometimes it is sad and hard. You have to wade through all the pieces before arriving at something true. And for me anyway, I only arrive there through writing. As the book opens, she tells me that for memoirists, “truth is not their enemy. It is the banister they grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs. It’s the solution.”

I have felt that so many times while writing. I think I referred to it once before as feeling the walls for a light switch. And it’s only when I land on that truth that I know that the writing did what it is supposed to do – for me and for you as the reader. And it is the moments when I have landed on an especially hard-to-swallow piece of my story that readers have reacted most strongly and sincerely.

I read something recently that phrased it as the truth has legs to stand up when everything else falls away, and I love that. As the dust settles from the last few years of my life, I am seeing this – that you cannot hide truth, you cannot run from it. And when you claim it for what it is, you stand a little taller inside and see things with a lot more clarity. I was poking around at the etymology of the word true and found that in Old Irish, it was referred to as derb, which sometimes also meant tree. How perfect is that? Getting to that tree can be hard. You have to be still and lose the impulse to protect your ego. You sometimes have to wade through past experiences and memories that make you ache to revisit them. But that image of a tree is precisely what truth feels like when you land on it – strong and steady and incapable of withering or arguing or comparing. It just is.