that second song

My summer is rushing by faster than I’d like. We’ve been off three weeks, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. I left a couple of cereal bowls in my sink for what I realized was three days, and I haven’t properly grocery shopped since we’ve been home from vacation. As it turns out, there is a lot to do to ready things for the end of someone’s life, a lot of choices to make and a lot of family to weigh in on those choices. I was with her all day yesterday, but I am staying home today, I think. To breathe and to clean a bit and to do a few rituals in my own quiet home to bring me back to myself.

As always, I am knee-deep in a lot of reading — bits and pieces scattered everywhere. And all of it is working to speak to me on some level. This week’s theme in my Richard Rohr contemplations is all about the contrast of the first half and the second half of life, as he calls it. Something always happens to shake us up, doesn’t it? Lots of things do that job if we are listening, but something is always the big one that comes at the right time to unfold something entirely new for you if you are listening.

My divorce was that for me, no doubt. My life will forever be viewed in the before and after lens of that moment. It is only after that brokenness when I became full and real and whole. But I also can see so clearly how this chapter with my grandmother is working to further that work.  I see without question, when I look in my rearview, how suffering has helped me to evolve, and I am seeing it still. Rohr claims, “The transition from the first half of life to the second half often involves a stumbling stone. […] Until you can trust the downward process, the Great Mystery cannot fully overtake you. It’s largely a matter of timing. Some of us put it off until the last hour of life. But the sooner you can do it, the better. Almost all spirituality teaches you the secret of dying before you die. If you can face your mortality and let go of this small self early on, you’ll experience heaven here and now.”

I died a small death about a year and a half ago. The shell that held my identity was completely emptied and refilled. But now, it feels like I’m dying another one – which I guess is how life works… emptying and refilling, again and again. This time is showing me, even more clearly than before, how to surrender and how to swallow whatever is given to me, no matter how bitter it seems in the immediate moment. It will nurture me eventually, and I can already feel the softening that happens before I’m molded to something else. I can remember this from before: the grief, the softness, then the light.

I’m also finishing up Bird by Bird, and a passage when Lamott is talking about spending time with her terminal and cancer-stricken friend caught me enough to note it and read it again and again late last night.

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Time is never as long as we think, is it? I guess at 35, I am not quite considered mid-life yet, but I’m getting there. And the closer I get, it feels like a shedding of something, a fire that is refining my clarity in ways I haven’t seen before. I’m tired of holding my breath, as Lamott says. There are things I am meant to do and to be, and I don’t want to miss the call to do them.

In another reading from Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, he further explains, “The first half of life is all about some kind of performance principle. And it seems that it must be this way. You have to do it wrong before you know what right might be. … In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being. But this wisdom only comes later, when you’ve learned to listen to the different voices that guide you in the second half of life. These deeper voices will sound like risk, trust, surrender, uncommon sense, destiny, love. They will be the voices of an intimate stranger, a voice that’s from somewhere else, and yet it’s my deepest self at the same time.”

It is so hard to hear that voice instead of holding your breath, isn’t it? Especially in light of crisis or even the daily demands of everyday life. I’m trying to find ways here and there to still hear it.

A couple of days ago, I went to my grandparents’ house to ready a few things to bring her home, and I was there by myself for a minute and caught her blue hydrangeas in the late afternoon light. Just that perfect slant through the trees with the contrast of the blue blooms against the dark green leaves. That second, short and fleeting in the midst of such a sad time, is what it means for me to fill up, to stop holding my breath. Her flowers that she planted ages ago that bloom in the same spot year after year. And that moment that I will no doubt remember for the rest of my life as one that managed to mix beauty and fear and sweetness and sadness all into one. Sometimes the line between what is temporary and what is eternal is not as clear as we think.

I had some time alone with her yesterday, and she’s not always making sense. But she still says I love you and I’m proud of you, and even in her delirium, she is referencing past moments and rituals we’ve known together my whole life – places we’ve gone together, dishes she’s made for me. And the sound of her voice this week is one that will stay with me forever and forever. There is such a fine line between this world and the next, a sheer curtain. I felt it so certainly in the hours and days when my babies first entered the world, and I feel it now.

I ran across a poem yesterday by Annie Lightheart that resonates with me right now. I feel lately as though I am living on two planes. One that is temporary and full of all the necessities that life demands of us — bills and laundry, and dishes, and daily actions. And one that carries a thread somewhere else, that mysterious chain I’ve written so much about lately.

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“The Second Music” by Annie Lightheart

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

When all other things seem lively and real,
this one fades. Yet the notes of it

touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound
of the names laid over each child at birth.

I want to stay in that music without striving or cover.
If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,

the telling is so soft
that this mortal time, this irrevocable change,

becomes beautiful. I stop and stop again
to hear the second music.

I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.
All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.

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It’s a second song playing underneath the daily noise. It’s faint sometimes. As she says, If the truth of our lives is what is playing, the telling is so soft that this mortal time, this irrevocable change, becomes beautiful. Can you hear it playing? I can.

 

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written by the same hand

The week has plowed on somehow. My grandmother is still in ICU, and she is recovering so well in many ways. But as it always goes with things like this, it is two steps forward and one step back sometimes. The neurologist is astounded at her progress, but she also contracted pneumonia – a common occurrence for elderly in the hospital. So while her spirit is strong in many ways, her body is still weak and recovering but showing signs of strength and promise. We are still in the space of in between, unsure what the future holds.

The human spirit is an amazing thing, isn’t it? As is the human body. I’ve spent some time with her this past week, and my kids are away for the next 6 days, so I hope to see a lot more of her in this week ahead. It is hard though. All of it. I’m seeing why people turn away from suffering. It hurts to face the truth: that all of us have limited time here, that life is completely out of control, that pain happens and you can’t run from certain truths. It all shines a bright light on where you are gripping too tightly.

I know I wrote a bit in my last post about Richard Rohr, and another passage of his caught my eye this week and resonated in a big way. He tells us, “The first step of the journey is the admission of powerlessness. It is where no one wants to go and no one will go voluntarily. We have to be led there through our own failure and experience of death. In men’s work, we call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross. We’re all talking about the same necessary step.” Wisdom only comes from hardship, doesn’t it? Real transformation and understanding only come from a place of absolute nothingness and uncertainty. I wish there was an easier way to get there, but there isn’t.

I have such little tolerance for bullshit right now. I wish there was a kinder way to phrase that, but there it is. I’ve written at length before about how it felt to have my former life removed piece-by-piece and as Anne Lamott says, when we lose these pieces, it is “one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from death or decay. It’s gone.” I’ve grown in immeasurable ways from this continual process over the past year or two. It’s like dragonflies or cicadas who molt as they transition from one form to another. I see so clearly what I’ve shed and left behind, and this chapter in my family’s history – wherever it may lead in the immediate future – is the same for me again.

My grandmother is in and out of understanding right now, depending on how tired she is in that given moment. But her eyes are the same. And family has been in and out all week to see her. Each of us holding her hand and helping in any small way we can and speaking gently to her worn out body like a little baby. Every time I leave the hospital, I feel both sadness and joy, worry and peace, confusion and understanding, defeat and victory.

And I want to scream so loudly that none of it even matters, none of it.

The things that fill the minds of people all day long in their cars and at their jobs and in their homes at night. How much money is in your bank account. How shiny your car is. How large your home is. The list of professional accolades that follow your name. Whose name is stamped on a handbag or what you look like. None of it matters at all, and though I thought I saw that in these months that have passed in my own life, I am seeing it even more now. I’m losing tolerance for people who just don’t get it. So many of us walk around our whole lives avoiding the real truth and leaning on these tangible signs of worthiness and never truly seeing into the life of things.

I finally picked up The Alchemist as my first summer read, and I’ve blown through 142 pages in the past couple of days. Paulo Coelho’s main character is on a journey of his own, and he finally learns that “We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it is our life or our possessions or our property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.”  I’m feeling that hand with certainty in this chapter of my life, and I know that there is more written that I haven’t seen yet. In moments of stillness, it really feels like a tugging to something ahead and almost a tangible feeling that there’s a very specific path I’ll walk that is written by that hand. A whole new place I am not aware of yet.

Any time I feel fear or doubt, I can find so much comfort by looking at my life in the rearview. Every step and every turn and everything that appeared to be a coincidence at that time wasn’t a coincidence at all. Now I see how it molded and changed me and chiseled away the pieces to reveal something I never knew could take shape before. Why would I doubt that life is still revealing piece-by-piece what lies ahead? Coelho calls it “the mysterious chain that links one thing to another.” It’s the white fire of the great mystery that I wrote about before. Some things in life cannot be understood logically or explained, but they are somehow more real than all the other mess that guides our days.

I’ve known my grandparents were loved by their family and community, but this week, that is evident beyond what I ever expected. The messages and comments are overwhelming as people check in with us or send well wishes. It’s expanded beyond the usual sentiments you hear when someone is sick or suffering to reflect the central role she played in the lives of so many people and the incredibly rare person she is. One woman who is not her daughter but paid her a visit on Mother’s Day with a small gift for someone she explained “is like a mother to me.” Childhood friends of mine who call her Grandmother like l do. People who know her well and cite the countless ways she blessed their lives in the decades they have known her.

And it is simple really – when I see what she’s spent her life doing, the way she’s become so cherished to other people. She loved. The real way. Without attention to outside signs of worthiness. She has known that someone’s worth is inherent, that it cannot be bought or earned somehow. And though it is so painful to watch the hand of time and see it this closely and personally, it fills me up in the best way to see others returning the love she delivered to the rest of us for decades. That mysterious chain that links one thing to another just stretches on and on, doesn’t it? Forever and forever.

 

the way everything is met in me

So many ideas, so many things I am reading, are swirling around the same center lately. I’m sure the realist would suggest that it’s because I am just looking for the same central ideas so I notice them more, but I am such a mystic about this sort of thing. I never think it’s an accident when words make their way to me at a specific time.

I’m a fan of On Being, and I shared the latest episode yesterday. It’s an hour-long conversation with poet and philosopher David Whyte, and it is definitely worth your time if you get a chance to listen. I first ran across him about a year ago with his poem that states that “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” It’s a passage I turned over and over in my own mind in the earliest days of being by myself for the first time.

Krista Tippet’s conversation with him touches a bit on that poem and on a lot of other things as well. They talked a bit about the “conversational nature” of life and where things intersect and take paths we don’t expect. I loved his discussion of genius when he explains that “in the ancient world, the word ‘genius’ was not so much used about individual people, it was used about places, and almost always with the world lociGenius loci meant ‘the spirit of a place.’ And we all know what that intuitively means. We all have favorite places in the world, and it may be a seashore where you’ve got this ancient conversation between the ocean and the land and a particular geography of the way the cliffs or the beaches are formed … But a more sophisticated understanding would understand it’s this weatherfront of all of these qualities that meet in that place. So I think it’s a very merciful thing to think of human beings in the same way as — that is, your genius is just the way everything has met in you.”  The way everything has met in you. To think of that – the way every piece of every thing I have experienced is met in me and the way all those tiny pieces create who I am and my life path – it’s a pretty overwhelming thought but a beautiful one, too. It makes me see people around me in a different light as well. We all have our unique genius, the way everything has met inside of us.

I’ve been reading Rilke lately, as I wrote about a few days ago, and his whole premise in Letters to a Young Poet is to fully immerse yourself in every experience, even the sad ones. To feel the weight of your own sadness so that you can find your way to the other side, too. He urges the reader to feel it all and “live the questions” which was an idea David Whyte echoed, too. He discusses this notion of feeling through questions to train what he calls “a more beautiful mind” and he insists “it’s an actual discipline, no matter what circumstances you’re in. The way I interpreted it was the discipline of asking beautiful questions, and that a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.” I’ve seen this first hand. It resonated with me so much that I went straight to the transcript of the show to read it again.

I feel as though all I ever do is observe and ask questions. (You see that here if you read along because most of what I write is really just a combination of those two things.) I have so few answers, only questions. But asking these questions – what am I feeling? why am I feeling it? what brings me alive and makes me feel real and how do I do more of it? – the simple act of asking has led me to so many new people and paths and experiences that I’ve seen unfold in the past year or so. I overlook the miraculousness of it all sometimes when I am caught in my daily tasks, but it amazes me when I stand back to look and feel it and be amazed.

Rob Bell talks about this on a recent podcast of his as well. He says it’s the difference between our frantic what am I doing? what am I doing? what am I doing? that we ask internally all day as we hurriedly move from one task to another and the awe-inspired what am I even doing here? question that we ask if we are wise enough to notice our own genius, as Whyte would say, the way all of our experience is met in us to create this spirit that is uniquely ours. This life that is uniquely your own.

There is so much unexpected in my life, and I can be frantic in my daily buzzing. There are volumes left unanswered for me right now. But the genius loci  of my life is here when I pause to see it. These two kids I get to see everyday and watch them grow into their own ways. This home I found largely by coincidence that I call my own with deeper roots every passing week. The circle of people around me – some I’ve known for years, some who are new, and some who have meandered back to me somehow after absence. My job and the tasks of my daily life. This journal which began with a few observations years ago and evolved to something very different in a way only genius loci could create.

We had a visiting poet today on campus. She read a few pieces this morning, and then we had a hardy group of students and a few faculty members show up for the afternoon Q&A session with her. As I listened to her and watched a few eager student faces, I made the effort to pull back a minute, to see the true genius of what I was experiencing. That this is my life.

That I work somewhere I can park myself in a chair in the late afternoon and listen to someone talk about words and ideas. And then I go home and exhale a bit with two kids whose names and faces I didn’t know would ever exist a decade ago. And we eat and play and bathe and now I record a few things here as they sleep and my dog snores at my feet. And tomorrow, I wake up and brew coffee, and I begin it all again. The rhythm of my life full of things I love most and with a path that meanders with surprises along the way. That is the what am I even doing here? awe-inspired question I can ask myself. How did I get this life? How did I arrive here? It’s really only a result of asking the right questions and listening to what they evoke in me, but when I step back to see it for what it really is, it blows me away sometimes.

Andrea Hollander was our poet today, and she spoke a lot about the process of creating poetry and that she doesn’t consider it a good poem until it surprises her as she’s writing it. I feel that in so many ways. When I sit down here to write, when I make observations and ask the right questions, I arrive somewhere and realize that I knew something I didn’t know I knew. Like a deep recognition or remembrance brought to the surface. It’s why I record ideas here, even if they are hurried or jumbled like they are tonight.

In one of her poems, Hollander explains, “You know how it is when something / so startles you into your life — / you forget you are anything but eyes / or ears or mouth. It doesn’t have to hurt. / I’m talking about certain swells / of music your bones recognize / as if they’ve created them and now / they’ve come home.”

I hear the music today. The swell and the recognition, the feeling that my bones created it with their own genius loci. The way everything has met in me. I’m grateful for all the little pieces.

 

peeling the layers

The house is quiet this morning. I have time to wake-up slowly and drink coffee without leaving an inch of it cold in the bottom of the mug. Workdays without the rush of kids and school buses feel like a luxury.

But I cried yesterday for the first time in a long time, and I am not even certain why I did. Some people believe that crying releases all that stuck energy so that you make room for the new things that are coming to you — new feelings and new experiences. I’ve had such a good few months; 2016 has been exponentially kind to me. But I do feel some restless energy bubbling up to the surface and an itchy desire to make way for the new. Life is like this always, I guess. You peel away the layers to see what is next as you grow and change.

I worked late yesterday, and I opened the door to my quiet house around 7 last night. I tended to the dog for a while, made my dinner for one, took a bath, and settled in with a book. I bought Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet last month after hearing so much about it from a number of different people. It is a series of correspondence between Rilke and a young poet and it’s full of advice on life, art, and creativity. I think I will return to it again and again.

This happens to me all the time. The right words make their way to me on the written page at exactly the moment that they need to be heard. It’s that divine spark of human connection I’ve written about before. Words never cease to amaze me, how when you get them in the right order and they make their way to you at the right time, they can really change you in the smallest but most crucial ways.

As I feel the layers peeling away in my own self, Rilke explains, “Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding and in creating.” I’m also making my way through Rob Bell’s How to Be Here, and it discusses how we are all creators, in a sense. We are all charged with the task of listening to what calls us and creating the life we are meant to lead. I’m starting to see things this way. I see that my writing mirrors my life in that they are both works in progress, and sometimes I don’t gain that conclusion or clarity or insight until I get to the very end of a certain process. I get to the end and sigh, oh, that’s what I’m learning here. That’s what this did for me.

I feel a major shift lately that surprises me when I least expect it, and I’m not certain what it means. But for much of the past two years of my life, I’ve felt no stirring or envy when I see people coupled in pairs. I’ve done the work (so much work) of a relationship that didn’t give back to me in the same weight I put in. I have spent so much of the past year or two of my life completely heart sore and exhausted from that process. But I feel a stir now. I guess it’s a yearning for a partnership, which is a totally normal part of human existence, but it feels so foreign to me. It’s surprising me, and though I should be used to surprising myself by now, I am not.

And maybe this feeling will ebb and flow, maybe it will come and go in the years ahead. Or maybe it will build and pull at me in ways I don’t even understand yet. Maybe I will be in this chapter of solitude for a long time, and maybe I won’t. There are so many questions, and though I try to follow Rilke’s advice to “live the questions,” it is hard. And I am tired sometimes.

This present moment is where the gold is. I know that. The present season, without moving to the right or the left. The present feeling. Paying attention to all those tugs and whispers I feel in my own heart. Paying attention and then letting them go. I know that is the work that gets me somewhere. I know because I can see how far I’ve come by letting that happen in the months behind me. I know all of this, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

Rilke’s advice in the fourth letter is to “love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you … but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without stepping outside of it … your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”  I’m finding my path now in ways I don’t even fully understand yet, and I think this love that is stored for me can come by way of lots of things – not just a romantic partnership as we all seem to hope for. And it already has come for me in many ways I didn’t expect. The whole universe has given back to me twice as much as I ever could have expected. But I think I am just finally at the part of my own journey when I can ponder what if, what if, what if. Maybe one day.

I follow Becky Vollmer on Instagram, and she posted something recently that resonated with me so much.

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I have seen firsthand how genuine self-love brought me out of a place no longer serving me. But for every bend in the road, we have to keep reminding ourselves, don’t we? It’s always the answer. To love yourself out of whatever moment you are in, to peel back the layers, take a look at the softening heart, and make way for the future – whatever it may bring.

It brings both the ugly and the beautiful, if we are paying attention and open to it. I wrote a little essay stringing together some travel reflections over on Sweatpants and Coffee if you want to read it.

For now, I’m moving on with the things that have brought me this far: paying attention, holding space for all of it, and loving it anyway.

springtime (and a present for you!)

It’s officially the spring equinox today. The sun is out, the grass is getting greener, and new things await for all of us.

The rhythm of changing seasons is such a comfort, isn’t it? No matter how cold and bleak something is looking in the present moment or what little annoyances are speaking loudly in your ear, it will come and go and eventually make way for something new. Nature mirrors everything else for us if we pay attention.

March brings my own birthday, and it also brings the “birthday” of this little journal – one I began late at night in a chair at my kitchen desk in a house that is now two houses past with a baby who is now a growing boy and a life that is now a million lifetimes ago. I never in a million years – never ever ever, I cannot stress that enough – saw this tiny space as becoming what is has been for me in my past year and a half. I chose a blog title somewhat hurriedly and randomly when I knew that I’d be writing mostly about motherhood and a little about books. I had no idea that it would become about so much more than that. A journal of pain and heartache but also one of light and gladness and immeasurable personal revelations born in moments I never foresaw.

And here we are, six years later, I’m still writing and still recording details of my days that may or may not be of interest to anyone but me. But sometimes they are, and sometimes they have led to moments of clarified purpose that propel me forward even now to some place new.

I think words have a way of healing us like nothing else can. They have a way of shedding light on confusion when nothing else makes sense. I often write about someone else’s words and how they changed me, and it is my very favorite thing to get emails from readers – during this past year they came from as nearby as Atlanta and as far away as Germany – telling me that my words have done the same for them. Personal purpose and a burning need to record my own experiences is why I sit down to write in the first place, but it’s the circle of influence and the ripples that result that keep me showing up again and again.

In celebration of the 6th birthday of this little journal, and in appreciation for every one of you who reads here, I put together a little giveaway with the help of some amazing Etsy artists to pass on to a lucky winner. I’m starting with a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, which is a compilation of quotes from her earlier works. I got my hands on it last fall when it was initially published, and it’s hard to choose a favorite passage. It’s a handy little guidebook when I’m feeling overwhelmed or lost, and Strayed’s usual no-nonsense wisdom shines on every page. The title stems from her passage in an essay on The Rumpus when she tells a reader to “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and that concept echoes on every page. It astounds me how many times in the past year of my life someone has called me “brave” when anyone who knows me knows that I am, in many ways, the opposite of brave. I am scared and cautious and careful at almost every moment of every day, but I’m realizing real bravery stems from the insistence to stand in your own truth and show your real heart. There’s nothing that requires more courage, and there’s nothing that provides those same feelings of peace and power.

To add to my bookish gift, Brianna over at BBeadazzled is giving this beauty. It seemed like the perfect accompaniment to Strayed’s work and a reminder to be brave and show up in the truest way every single day.

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And Lovewell Handlettering added this sweet little journal as well. Gratitude as a general concept and gratitude as a daily practice are two totally different things, and I cannot overestimate the ways my life has grown and changed by my persistence in recording the beauty of everyday moments in this space. It opens my eyes everyday to see the good in what’s around me. I’d love to pass on an encouragement to you to do the same.

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I have passed on quote after quote and underlined paragraphs and scribbled marginalia in so many books in the past few years and then shared those words with you here. What I’d like for this bloggy birthday is for you to do the same thing in return. What quote sets you on fire? What line have you underlined or scribbled somewhere in hopes you wouldn’t forget it? It’s hard to choose just one favorite passage, but I’d love to hear one that rings true for you right now. Pass it on and share it with the rest of us.

You are welcome to leave a comment here, or if you are reading from your phone, click on over to Facebook and leave one there if that’s easier. (This post is pinned at the top.) This Friday, the 25th, I’ll number the comments, let a number generator choose the winner, and then check in with the winner to ship your goodies!

Sharing words is my very favorite thing to do, and I can’t wait to see what bits of wisdom you scatter here. I’ll go first with a passage that has guided me immeasurably in the past year and continues to do so when I read it again and again.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

So many times in recent months I have repeated live the questions now again and again in my head, and it still amazes me that words written in 1929 by someone I will never meet can do what they do in my own life. Pretty incredible, isn’t it?

So now it’s your turn. Tell us below or over on Facebook. What words shine like a light for you? I’ll choose a winner on Friday.

Happy birthday, little blog.

a line between this and that

I’ve finished Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things this weekend after beginning it over the holiday break. I flipped the last few pages last night, long after I should have been asleep. I was sad to finish it. Don’t you love it when that happens with a book? I was sad to turn the last page and put it away, but I will return to this one again and again.

There are numerous letters and stories and quotable paragraphs in it. It is impossible to choose only one to hold as a favorite.

I think the thing that pierces me so deeply about this book is her belief and her many examples of both knowing and not knowing the things that present themselves in our lives. It’s so hard to put this into words– the surprise yet the deep-down understanding– but she manages to say what I am feeling so often these days.

These full circle moments happen in life sometimes. If we pay attention, we see them.

She explains in one letter, “There’s a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: ‘The future has an ancient heart.’ I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true—that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.”

Do you feel that sometimes? That we both know and cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives. I do. I feel it all the time, and in hindsight I have felt that in the past about my current reality.  It’s like these strangest sensations of deja vu, but not exactly. I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well tonight as it’s late and I’m tired and these moments are so hard to put into words.

It’s beyond hard to explain, but I am feeling so clearly that I’m where I’m meant to be.Where I’ve always been destined for, though it was such a painful bend in the road to make it to this spot. It’s what she describes as being “surprised and knowing at once.” And I’ve felt it enough times in my life to see the beauty in it, the wonder.

When I heaved and moaned in that bathtub and brought my squinting daughter in the world, it was the most surprising but known moment of my life at that point. The thing I didn’t think I could do, but when I did it, I realized I knew all along that it was going to happen exactly as it did in that instant. I always knew.

When I teach now in a classroom where I sat sixteen years ago – I am surprised and knowing at once. A moment I never saw coming, but somehow it feels so real and worn-in and familiar that it had to be that way.

When I lie down at night cuddled between these two and it is only the three of us, it seems. Only the three of us in the entire world. It feels like it always was that way, yet it is something I never expected – to be alone with them with no real plan as to where we are headed. Just the here and now.

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There are other moments, too. Too many or too intimate to share. Moments when life hands you such full circle perfection that it brings you this low hum of knowing underneath the surprise. A vibration that you can feel if you are still enough to notice.

I think this is what people mean when they say you are where you’re meant to be. It doesn’t always fill our ideas of what we thought we wanted, but underneath the shock or the pain or the confusion, it’s a calm surrender and a comfort. A voice that wraps us up in the smallest way to tell us we are on the right path.

In one of my favorite columns in this same book, she explains what it felt like to see her daughter wearing a dress purchased by her mother before her mother passed, one she’d saved for years in a box though she couldn’t decide why it needed saving at the time. And she says upon seeing her daughter in it, she could only think, “How beautiful. How ugly. How little. How big. How painful. How sweet” and then realizes, “It’s almost never until later that we can draw a line between this and that.”  How true that is.

I think I look calm on the surface to others, but in reality, when I look ahead, I am filled with immense anxiety. It is something I’m working on and wanting hard to change about myself. When I have a few days that are especially busy or filled with “future-oriented thinking” as my therapist likes to say, I can get a knot in my stomach that will not soften. A tremor in my hands, truly. The busy nature of day-to-day life plus the unforeseen status of what lies ahead for me (after years of what I assumed was a secure and held future) is a cocktail for mayhem on my nervous system. It is a physiological reaction I can feel when this happens, and it’s easy to get trapped in that scary and circular pattern of thinking. What now? What is next?  What now? What is next?  What now? What is next? 

But when I sit down to write, or I take a minute to think about my past and reflect on how it is intersecting with my present, I “draw the line between this and that” as Strayed says, and it brings a tangible calm to me that soothes every bit of what makes me quiver and hold fear in the pit of my stomach. It’s like a voice that says, this is not how you thought it was going to happen, but it’s how you knew it was supposed to be. It’s what I already knew.

In the closing paragraph of that same chapter she asserts,“We cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives. We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith with that, to put it in a box and wait. To trust that someday we will know what it means, so that when the ordinary miraculous is revealed to us we will be there, standing before the baby girl in the pretty dress, grateful for the smallest things.”

The ordinary miraculous. It’s such a beautiful thing. And I see it everyday, I do– sometimes even in the biggest moments that make me catch my breath with their perfect unforeseen familiarity. But the hardest part is putting uncertainties in a box to wait. The waiting is hard.

 

 

written word

Jude has been working on phonetic sounds for quite some time, but we had a big moment last Tuesday night at our house. He read a book to Norah and me for the first time. For this English Professor mom, that is right up there with the very biggest accomplishments. It’s the beginning of so much, kiddo!  I’m excited to see where the written word will take him, the ways it will encourage him to expand and grow throughout his life.

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Books saved my life this year. Not that I would be dead without them in the literal sense, but I would be stagnant and stale – which to me is the definition of death and despair even if you are still breathing.

This week, I got Cheryl Strayed’s latest work in the mail which is actually a compilation of quotes from her previous publications and interviews. It’s easy to flip through and packaged like a handy little portable life guide –  the perfect gift for graduations and birthdays and such. I think I’ll be passing this one on a lot in the future.

In the preface to the book, she explains her lifelong affinity for quotes: they “don’t speak to one particular truth, but rather to universal truths that resonate … they lift us momentarily out of the confused and conflicted human muddle. Most of all, they tell us that we are not alone.”

If you walked in my house, you’d see how much I agree with her. Words everywhere. Scribbled on notes on my fridge. Hanging in frames on my walls. Stamped on cards in a stack on my bathroom counter. And even tattooed discreetly on my body. I find it nearly impossible to read a book without writing notes in the margins, highlighting passages, and dog-earing pages. I have books I revisit like old friends and sentences I read again and again like a meditation.

I guess in hindsight, I was bound to be an English teacher and a writer. I really can’t see myself doing anything else.

But this year, it seems as though books crossed the line from casually inspiring me to essentially serving as my life raft, something to cling to when everything else was swirling and beyond my control. They are reminders that others have done things similar to or far more difficult than what I’m doing now and that there is value in suffering — meaning to be found amidst the madness. And because of books, I feel like I am finding that meaning everyday, even as life is smoothing out for me a bit now and I’m healing.

I’ve already passed on certain pages of Strayed’s latest work to a couple of friends of mine who are encountering their own challenges right now, and I can’t help but share when I read something that I know would resonate with someone else. Nothing makes me smile more deeply than when a friend reads something and passes it along to me to say, “This made me think of you.”

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It’s simply human connection. And that’s really what it’s all about anyway, why we read and write, why we study literature. I feel as though my first task as a teacher is to teach my students to communicate effectively, but my very next task – a close second to that one – is to teach them to broaden their perspective, to glean wisdom and advice from the multitudes of people who have come before us. Billy Collins once said that all literature is about the very same thing, “Life is beautiful. Then you die.” He’s right actually. Every novel or poem or memoir touches on that very idea, but there is so much richness in that one sentiment. When we share the human experience, we see that there is unimaginable beauty and wisdom in the gray areas of life. Absolutes don’t exist.  Humans are complicated. And life is long and unpredictable and messy.

Even suffering itself can become something you love and feel grateful for because it opens the door for a richer life. Untitled

And that’s really what reading has done for me in my past year. It’s allowed me to feel like I am simply a part of the human experience by feeling what I feel, rather than the message society often screams at us which is that you only suffer when you did something to deserve it or when you feel too much too deeply. Books reaffirm that I shouldn’t run away from feeling and questioning because feeling and questioning are the catalysts that will change your life. That is a universal truth.

Voices around us tell us that we are doing it wrong if we feel sad or lost or broken. Literature tells me that brokenness is just when I know I’m doing it right and that joy can reverberate like a bass note under all that mess.

The Gifts of Imperfection

What a week. And it’s not yet over.  It’s the first week of class at my university, and I tend to forget how much energy that requires until I’m doing it again. Jude has been a kindergartener for three full weeks now, and we’ve side-stepped all the sickness until suddenly today after school, he started feeling really awful and it went downhill fast. He ended up curled up asleep on the couch and feeling feverish. I’m venturing to guess I won’t make it to work tomorrow. My eyes are heavy and my brain half dead right now, but I’m pushing myself to write tonight.

Life. It’s so exhausting sometimes. Single motherhood is no joke.

I spent a lot of time reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection last weekend when I was kidless, and I’m wanting to take a minute and reflect on what she outlines in this book before life moves me on to something else. If you aren’t sure who Brene Brown is, she is a scholar / research professor at a university in Texas and has a series of books on what she calls “Wholehearted living.” It’s the culmination of many years of her own research as she collects interviews and details about people and discerns what the qualities are that enable someone to move forward happily after a trauma or catastrophe and what prevents others from doing that. In short, what qualities lead to truly joyful, well-rounded, fulfilled lives where one can bounce back from disappointment. And likewise, what prevents us from accomplishing that?

I relate so closely to much of what she writes about, and I can see common threads within her work and other things I’ve read – Wild, When Things Fall Apart, and even my writing workshop I attended weeks ago.  It’s all essentially the same message: Life is messy. It sometimes hurts really bad. Ignoring the hurt won’t help. You don’t have to be perfect. Be honest and authentic. This pain will be useful to you one day, and you will be a fuller person as a result.

But I do love how heavily her message is bolstered with research, and that makes her stand out from the crowd a bit. It’s easy to question yourself – Should I stop being honest about my own feelings in the midst of all this? Should I soothe my pain with distractions or another relationship? Could I just take the easy way like everyone else seems to?

Her answer to these questions is a resounding no. Or more specifically that you will not live a full and Wholehearted life if you take the easy way. As she notes, “the new cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast, and easy is inconsistent with hopeful thinking. It also sets us up for hopelessness.” I find myself getting a little better about this in recent months, but when my life first exploded and I was doing all of the grueling tasks that were necessary, I couldn’t help but hope that it could just be faster or easier for me. And watching the fast and easy route unfold for my former partner made it especially hard. But Brown reminds us that nothing good ever emerges without some toil and suffering or at least careful effort and slow thought, certainly not where self-development and relationships are concerned. It’s hard when you are in the thick of it though. I know it would be easier in the short term to rely on outside distractions.

It was not long at all for me – soon after Christmas – when I was already beginning to see the difference between a happy life and a joyful life. And as the months have rolled by, I will say that is something I’ve been getting pretty good at. Finding the joyful moments amidst the chaos has been a lifeline for me. I’ve written about this before, and my happiness jar serves as a diligent gratitude practice for me to see the silver lining. (That is also something she addresses. Gratitude as a concept you say you uphold is entirely different than the transforming power of a daily gratitude practice.) Brown explains that “a joyful life is not a floodlight of joy. That would eventually become unbearable. I believe a joyful life is made up of joyful moments strung together by trust, gratitude, inspiration, and faith… The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”  It’s the same concept Pema Chodron addresses in the book I read this summer; it’s only when we feel the sadness that we really feel the joy. And the most joyful (not surface happy, but truly joyful) moments of our lives are often tinged with the tiniest bit of awareness that it is all fleeting, all temporary. It’s that happy-sad that hollows out your insides as it makes you smile.  Brene Brown explains that the people she studies who truly live Wholeheartedly “were quick to point out the difference between happiness and joy as the difference between a human emotion that’s connected to circumstances and a spiritual way of engaging with the world that is connected to practicing gratitude.”  I alluded to this in my bodhichitta post weeks ago, but the surface happy is not always tolerable to me in this season of my life. True joy is another story entirely.

Brene Brown steps out of the shoes of objective observer at moments in the book to explain that her research actually led to her own “breakdown spiritual awakening” as she calls it. (That alone made me giggle as I see breakdown synonymous with spiritual awakening in my own life as well.) After researching her subjects and discerning what made them live Wholehearted lives full of purpose and resilience and promise, she realized that she was actually not doing any of these things they did and not living with the purpose she craved. Enemy number one, as she assures the reader, is comparison; “the comparison mandate becomes the crushing paradox of ‘fit in and stand out!’ It’s not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging, and authenticity; it’s be just like everyone else, but better.” That rang true for me in a number of ways. Fit in and stand out. The impossible goal and the exact command that is echoed to us from everywhere.

I think what has been so liberating about my past year is that I can no longer do that. I can’t fit in to the mold presented to me, and my family has a new shape. I am the only parent in my household. I am not creating some life that looks exactly like my old one, and I am unable to pretend my old one never existed. Things have taken a shape that doesn’t fit the mold, and it’s left me with two choices. I can hold shame and self-doubt and feel unfinished and broken, or I can look the world in the face and decide that I am enough on my own, and someone else’s inability to see my worth doesn’t dictate my value in any way. Brene’s reminder that “overcoming self-doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we are supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves” echoes so similarly to the major lesson I’ve learned in the midst of my changes.

I know for certain that there is a spiritual component to all of this – in whatever form you choose to swallow it. I’d read months ago about a researcher who studies resilience and discovered that there were two crucial components to resiliency after a personal tragedy: a sense of community (only possible by investing in them previously) and a belief in a higher purpose or power in life that is guiding your steps and unfolding your path. I can see the guidance of both of these forces for me. I don’t know how I would have made it without them, to be honest. And they continue to guide me. Brown illustrates, “Feelings of hopelessness, fear, blame, pain, discomfort, vulnerability, and disconnection sabotage resilience. The only experience that seems broad and fierce enough to combat a list like that is the belief that we are all in this together and that something greater than us has the capacity to bring love and compassion into our lives.”  I can see this in my own life ten times over. Hopelessness, fear, blame, and pain pretty much summarize where this journey began, but I don’t feel them at all anymore. A belief in something greater is the only thing that releases those feelings, and as Anne Lamott says in another comment on spirituality that I love, “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness, and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” You just have to wait it out, and eventually you see the light emerge a bit. But you only get there by holding space for all the other feelings and trusting the light will return eventually.

I think my favorite part of Brene Brown’s discussion of this was when she stepped out of the research to explain the challenges she encountered when she began to change her own life on a fundamental level to follow a pattern of one who lives Wholeheartedly. Foremost in that journey, according to her research, is showing your vulnerability and embracing that softness. She explains she was scared to take that leap of taking about her feelings and fears as “most of us have shame triggers around being perceived as self-indulgent or self-focused. We don’t want our authenticity to be perceived as selfish or narcissistic.”  I felt a kinship reading her fears as I’ve definitely worried about that in the past few months. Finding a balance between knowing yourself and focusing too intently on your own self seems like a difficult place to achieve. And she warns us that “the truth is that meaningful change is a process. It can be uncomfortable and often risky, especially when we’re talking about embracing our imperfections, cultivating authenticity, and looking the world in the eye and saying ‘I am enough.’ It’s an act of rebellion, really. I’m finding that to be true every day. Not making excuses for yourself. Not hiding behind some vague attempt at perfection. Not working hard to “fit in and stand out.” It’s a constant battle that not everyone is going to understand.

Brene Brown warns us of the fallout that can happen in our own lives when we stop playing the perfection game and start embracing vulnerabilities and truthfulness. “As we struggle to be authentic and brave, it’s important to remember that cruelty always hurts, even if the criticisms are untrue. When we go against the grain and put ourselves and our work out into the world, some people will feel threatened and they will go after what hurts the most – our appearance, our lovability, and even our parenting.” Yes, a million times over. It hurts but it’s worth it.

There’s no time like now. As much as I want to smooth over these wrinkles to save my own face a bit and pretend some things never happened and some feelings never existed, I know I can’t. It’s hard work but it’s getting me to the other side, and I can feel it changing everything about who I am and where I will go in this lifetime. As Brown says in the closing chapter of the book, “You’re going to confuse, piss off, and terrify lots of people – including yourself. … You’ll also wonder how you can so brave and so afraid at the same time. At least that’s how I feel most of the time … brave, afraid, and very, very alive.”  Is there any other way to be? I feel like my options are safe and small and trapped in the circle of blame and perfectionism or scared and transparent and alive. And it’s my life and mine alone. I’m voting for brave and alive.

bodhichitta

It’s the final full week of summer vacation as Jude starts kindergarten in ten days. (I can’t believe it!) I’m wrapping up my summer reading, and I’m feeling grateful that I’ve read more of my own choosing this summer than I have in probably the past six years or so. It’s hard enough to find the time to read as a mom, but then add the fact that my job requires some intense reading as well, and I rarely get to immerse myself in my own books.

I’ve read all kinds of things in the past few months, and it amazes me how all of these seemingly different works are connecting into one big mural of meaning for me.  There is so much power in the written word because of the immense power of human connection.  It’s a concept I try to relay to my students as the central thread of why I’m teaching them to read analytically and to write clearly.  As C.S. Lewis says, “We read to know we are not alone.” We learn through each other, and I have no doubt that God speaks to us through one another as well. In Christianity they call it The Holy Spirit.  In other religions, they call it by a different name, but it is the same idea.  I feel as though it’s only through the past few years of my life, and especially the past few months, that seeing the divine in all of us is made real and clear for me. Namaste in the truest sense.

Looking back again as the dust settles, I can see this was an element responsible for the disconnect in my marriage as well.  Motherhood changed me at my core in a million ways, but namely it made me more spiritual, more grateful, more aware of the big picture.  I always felt that everything happened for a reason, but after having children I felt the presence of the divine more than ever and could see that hand orchestrating elements of my life and reflected in even my small daily experiences. I don’t think that philosophy was matched in my partner at all – actually I know for certain it wasn’t because this is something we talked about in the final days. And that is okay.  My path is not the same as everyone else’s. But in hindsight, I’m not sure that I could grow spiritually the way I have in these past months with such a mismatched mirror in my own home. I see that clearly now.

Everyone’s path is different, and mine is my own. Spirituality means nothing if you don’t hold it close, and it takes holding it up to the light, trying it on for size, and seeing what feels right to make it real.  I was flipping through albums at a family reunion recently, and I found a beautiful image of an old baptism.  This is the way of my family for generations, and I know Southern Baptists get a bad reputation sometimes for some things that are neither here nor there on this specific post of mine (for another time), but what I love about that blend of faith is that it is held close and personal.  The idea of being born again into something new only happens if you believe it from the inside outward and do the work yourself to maintain a connection to God. Baptism in the water is meant to outwardly mark a change in who you are.  You are emptied of the old and washed clean again by your relationship with the divine, and now the divine resides in you.

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And sometimes those sacred waters of baptism aren’t reflected as a literal pool of water but a threshold in your life and your own experiences. A crossroads when you are out with the old and in with the new, so to speak. My path is separating from people I’ve known, not just from my former spouse.  And I’m learning to be okay with that. There are lots of complicated reasons for some of these separations; divorce always changes your peer group.  My core of closest friends is just the same, and I can’t explain how incredibly grateful I am for their help and encouragement. But there are a few on the outside of my close circle who have fallen away. They are another example of the things I’m letting go – as I’ve alluded to before.  David Whyte has a poem that states, “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” And I think that sounds insulting somehow – implying I am bigger than someone else. But sometimes I think “too small” can just mean they are not what I need right now where I am on my own journey. And to be fair, I am likely not what they need either.

When thinking about how I am changing, who has fallen away and who hasn’t, who is “bringing me alive” and who isn’t, I didn’t really have words for how this separation has happened or why. But when I read Pema Chodron’s work I wrote about before, she has a chapter on the Buddhist concept of bodhichitta which is a Sanskrit word meaning a “noble or awakened heart” – or as she explains, “this kinship with the suffering of others, this inability to be able to observe it from afar” or “the discovery of our soft spot.” I’ve rolled that one around in my head often these past few weeks, and it illuminated a lot for me.

I was having lunch with a good friend and mentor last month and we were discussing privately one of these people I’m referring to and how hard it has been to regain footing in my life without someone who was once present often, and she revealed that she always perceived this individual to be “a lightweight” which I thought was a perfect description.  Someone who treads in shallow waters because it’s easier or because it’s comfortable – or maybe just because they aren’t there yet on the capacity to process something greater.  It’s far easier to distance ourselves from pain though, far easier to make it shameful and tell someone to hide it or move on quickly than to hold bodhichitta for a moment and let that pain penetrate your own heart. I can think of countless examples in my past where I listened to people shame others for showing pain and weakness or where I listened to others refuse empathy and compassion for someone else. These are things I’m now ashamed to even admit that I tolerated, and I simply don’t have the space or energy for that in my life anymore.

I think people awake to their own bodhichitta in their own time. I can keep people on the peripheral of my life when they see things through a lens of very little compassion, but I can’t maintain close connections with them anymore. And I’m seeing more and more each day that this idea has very little to do with our society’s concept of religion.  Many of these personalities that have fallen away from me are seated in a pew every single Sunday, but somehow they haven’t softened their hearts.  They don’t have eyes to see it.

And so often I think this relates to fear.  So many people want to be seen as perfect with the house and the kids and the prosperity that they think defines them. To admit that you feel fear or hurt or embarrassment, to admit wrongdoing, and to feel in your core that there is suffering in the world and a battle within each of us – all of those things are uncomfortable.  All of those things require admitting that you are not perfect and not always right. So few people are willing to step out of the skin they are wearing and own up to all of these things.

Chodron explains, “Because bodhichitta awakens tenderness, we can’t use it to distance ourselves.  Bodhichitta can’t be reduced to an abstraction about the emptiness of pain.  We can’t get away with saying, ‘There is nothing happening and nothing to do.’ … Spiritual awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. … In the process of discovering bodhichitta, the journey goes down, not up. It’s as if the mountain pointed toward the center of the earth, not the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward the turbulence and doubt… We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away.” The challenge is not pushing it away, not holding it distant from us because it makes us uncomfortable.  I’m finding that seeing another’s pain, whether that is a close friend or a stranger, is so hard for many people.

And the reason it is hard is because it turns a lens on our own selves.  It shows you where you are gripping too tightly, and it brings about the horrifying thought that the pain could be yours as well and that you are not safe from it.  I know this because I have done it in the past as well.  When you rationalize the million reasons that could never happen to you, it’s a way of trying so hard to convince yourself of a concept that is simply not true.

What I said before about these very different books working together to paint one big picture for me? I’m taking a big leap now from Pema Chodron to Amy Poehler which seems ridiculous, but bear with me. Poehler’s book (which you should read this very second if you haven’t yet) includes a chapter on friendship in your forties, and I am not quite there yet in age, but I related to her words so much in light of my changing landscape these days.  She says when you are forty and have gained life experience, “You can read people’s energies better, and this hopefully means you get stuck talking to less duds….Gone are the days (hopefully) when you take everything personally and internalize everyone’s behavior.  You get better at knowing what you want and need… Lastly, because you are a superhero, you are really good at putting together a good team. You can look around the room and notice the other superheroes because they are the ones noticing you.  The friends you have over forty are really juicy. They are highly emulsified and full of flavor.  Now that you’re starting to have a better sense of who you are, you know better what kind of friend you want and need….I am interested in people who swim in the deep end. I want to have conversations about real things with people who have experienced real things. I’m tired of talking about movies and gossiping about friends. Life is crunchy and complicated and all the more delicious.”

To me, these “superheroes” are those who are awake to the concept of bodhichitta, those who can drop the ego for a moment and let some discomfort set in. Those who have encountered past pain or disappointment or mistakes and aren’t afraid to talk about it. And as I form new friendships with people I am yet to meet and one day look at the prospect of future romantic relationships, that is my biggest test.  Are you awake to bodhichitta and all that entails?

Because here’s what I’m finding, friends.  Bodhichitta does not mean that you are sad and full of sorrow all the time as you reflect on the miseries around you and feel empathy for others. In fact, it brings quite the opposite.  It’s only when you let in the sorrow of the world, when you sink into empathy, and when you embrace imperfection that you can find true joy. Happiness is something else entirely, and though this may sound strange, I’m growing tired of “happy” people who are not joyful. True joy cannot depend on outside circumstances at all, and true joy can only come when you let it all in.

In his lengthy work “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”  Wordsworth writes that when “we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul: while with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.” He’s referring to transcendence through nature as that was his route to the divine, but I see those lines resonating in my own life as well. When we “are laid asleep in body” and strip down the ego and feel that harmony or kinship with someone else’s pain or imperfections, that’s when we see into the life of things.  And at this moment in my own life, this crossroads in the journey, so to speak, I simply can’t maintain connections with those who don’t see it. Looking back, I see how this past few months has worked like a sieve for me. All the hindrances fell away, and those left are the real gems – the ones who are helping me grow bigger and propel forward to a life that is so much richer than the one I’ve left behind.

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ramblings on love and marriage

As I’m looking at the last few weeks of summer, I’m seeing that I’ve focused most of my reading efforts on non-fiction this summer. That’s a change from what I used to read, but I’ve gained a better appreciation for it in the past few years as I’ve been teaching composition classes.  In addition to that, it helps me to write better as well, I think.  And of course it encourages me beyond measure to read about someone’s life challenges and how he/she overcomes it and evolves to be better and stronger.

This week, I’ve read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed — which is part love story and part history of the institution of marriage.  I found myself underlining so many passages and nodding in agreement. I feel some guilt for saying this, and I am fully aware that it casts a shadow on my former marriage, but I was just telling some friends days ago that I know with all certainty that my life is easier now than it was a year ago. Easier.  Think about that.  I am a single mother, the only adult in the house with two children under six years old. It’s the dreaded outcome for so many, and there are things that are undoubtedly heavier – finances, the lack of security in reference to my future as I have no idea what lies ahead – but speaking strictly in terms of my day-to-day life, it is easier without a husband.

I can’t believe I just wrote that aloud here, but that’s the truth as I’m experiencing it right now.

I’ve been rolling this realization over and over in my head trying to make sense of it. I mean all relationships (and especially marriage) are work, right? So is it a bad thing that it was more work when I was with him? Do all wives feel this way and if I remarry, I just have to get used to that?  But as I’m reading this book and talking with friends about their own experiences, I’m seeing that the answer to those questions is an undoubted NO.  A relationship is work, certainly. But it should not be a constant demand for more work and effort on your part with little payoff for emotional connection and happiness. That’s the hard truth of it as I reflect on the past few years of my life.

I know many people think it doesn’t really matter if the child-rearing and domestic chores are unbalanced in a relationship, and to be honest, I didn’t used to think that mattered either. It makes it even more complicated for me because I love so many aspects of domesticity – I love to cook, I love making a home, I love tending to sick kids (well better than the alternative of having someone else tend to my sick kid).  But in hindsight, I established this pattern in my former life when I did every single one of those tasks every single day along with other things that became my” duty.”  It began with the insistence that these things were my “job” because I was choosing to quit work and stay at home with my son, but of course as a whole new person was added in the mix with a second child and then a full-time job was added as well, no responsibilities changed at all. They just grew and grew. Combine this with some very heavy work travel for the other adult in the house, and I can’t believe I made it as long as I did, frankly, and with my mental fortitude somewhat in tact.  If I am being honest here about some things I have never written about before, my mental fortitude was hanging by a thread.

My anxiety had slowly increased in the last two years of my marriage, and it would flare and subside with no easily identifiable pattern. I thought it was because I was a mom of two small children and every mother must feel that way.  I countered it with healthy approaches like meditation tracks on my podcast queue and natural supplements and unhealthy approaches like trying to control my food to an almost extreme obsession which I can even see here in my archived posts as I look back. It came to a head last fall when I ended up with a mild (as ulcers go) stomach ulcer and an almost constant quivering in my belly that made food hard to keep in for long. I was up at night unable to sleep, crying in the bathroom at 2am.   Or crying to my spouse on the phone at 7:30 am as he was states away in a hotel with the woman he’s now set to marry, and I was driving to work and looking at another string of days caring for kids alone and trying to do all the things I was expected to do.  It felt like living in a vacuum.

It ramped up so severely and so quickly that I sometimes feel like perhaps my body and intuition were warning me early last fall of what was set to explode in November, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that mystical, and I was just a nervous wreck.

But here’s the weird thing: I am not a nervous wreck now. Our bodies talk to us and the brain manifests itself in a physical manner often, and if you don’t respond to a whisper, the universe sends you a scream. I had whispers for years I never responded to. That’s the honest truth.

So friends and family are sometimes commenting recently –and especially back in the spring –that  they can’t believe I am doing so well in my current situation and seeming to adjust quickly, and the missing piece that answers that puzzle is that I cannot think of a single daily activity that I do now that I didn’t do before. Not one. [Emotionally I am a different story; I’ve had to paddle my way through some deep waters to start the process of figuring it all out and healing.] But in regards to the simple daily routines? It’s exactly the same. And maybe even easier because I get the occasional weekend to reboot and catch-up when my kids are gone, and I don’t have to satisfy someone else’s demands for what he wants me to be on top of the motherhood tasks and domestic lists.

I don’t want to come across as pointing fingers or blaming all of this on my former spouse either. I take full responsibility for establishing that pattern and allowing it to leave a trail of stress and emptiness behind it without seeing it as the issue it was. Writing something down always grants it power, and I’m giving that weight by saying it here. I hold myself accountable for not seeing and addressing that the little things were crushing me, and in all honesty and in hindsight, they were making me feel less valued and appreciated and increasingly disrespected in my own home. It was my job to show up for my own life and address it, and I didn’t.

But back to my original direction with this post, Gilbert’s book left me feeling validated on my feelings about the role of the little things in a household and the effect it can have on marriage and happiness. As Gilbert sadly concedes, “To get anywhere close to unraveling this subject – women and marriage – we have to start with the cold, ugly fact that marriage does not benefit women as much as it benefits men. I didn’t invent this fact, and I don’t like saying it, but it is a sad truth, backed up by study after study” (166). She then goes on to explain that married men accumulate more wealth, report themselves as happier, suffer less from depression, and even live longer than single men. Married women? The reverse is true…. They accumulate less wealth and do not thrive in their careers as much as their single counterparts, are more likely to suffer depression than single women are, and are less healthy and do not live longer than single women. All of this is supported by research and sociologists even have a name for it: The Marriage Benefit Imbalance. And if you think this research shows grim results in other god-forsaken places, but not in modern America, you are wrong.

Ladies!  Can we think about that for a minute?  Am I saying marriage is terrible and I never want to do it again? Absolutely not. But as a societal institution, even in the modern world in these modern times, it is not beneficial for us in the traditional model. And maybe you are okay with poorer health and less happiness and a greater propensity for anxiety and depression because you are blinded by love for that incredible husband and will do anything to make him happy. I am not in that position at all.

It seems as though when you are young, or when I was young anyhow, I was blinded more by youth and idealism than anything else. The thought that if you love one another, the marriage will never falter and that someone will never betray you and you will never betray yourself by getting lost in all of it. Truthfully, I think there are couples who go on like this for eternity. They are either the lucky ones or the blissfully ignorant ones – I’m not certain which way I see it yet. Or maybe they don’t exist, and these women lie in bed at night counting the ways they threw away their own fulfillment on that particular day and turned themselves inside out to make others happy. I am not talking so much about career vs children here (the debate that gets all the attention), but about true partnership and true equal ground that allows another adult to see you as you really are and value your contributions to the world and to your own household. It felt like infidelity issued some unforeseen blow on my marriage like a sledgehammer with no warning, but now as the dust settles and I look back, I see I had no partnership. Nobody to talk to everyday who saw me for what I really was and weathered the little moments with me. Much of this was circumstantial as I was the lone adult much of the time and had no one to talk to everyday about anything at all for that matter.  But circumstantial or not, it is what it is.

So where does this leave me on the prospect of marriage again? I don’t know. I know I won’t take it lightly or impulsively, and I won’t enter into a partnership with someone who does not contribute daily to all the million tiny things it takes to run a family. I guess you can never say never, but it would shock me beyond all belief if I ever embarked on a marriage again with someone who traveled regularly for work. Marriage is not the highs and the holidays; it’s the Tuesday night dinners and the Thursday morning coffee, and the million tiny moments that happen in daily life. And to be frank and hold myself accountable for the past few years, let me say without question that by that definition, I had no marriage at all.

It’s a fine line taking responsibility for your role in something yet refusing to beat yourself up about it. Should I have been clearer in my cries for help and been honest that I was drowning under the weight of someone’s expectations and feeling unseen and disrespected? Absolutely. Does that justify all the injustices done to me? Probably not. But both sides of the committed sins have illuminated lessons for me.

In Committed, Gilbert states, “To ask a twenty-year-old girl to automatically know things about life that most forty-year-old women needed decades to understand is expecting an awful lot of wisdom from very young person” (105).  Or as Maya Angelou said so famously, “When you know better, you do better.” And next time I will. Next time I will show up for my own life from the very beginning and expect someone who sees and respects me for who I am and what I do and helps me pull the weight of life because he wants to, not just because I ask it.

Some lessons take time, I think. And Gilbert alludes to this as well when she explains falling in love with her second husband and how that was different from her marriage at 25 years old. …. “It was not an infatuation and here’s how I can tell: because I did not demand that he become my Great Emancipator or my Source of All Life, nor did I immediately vanish into that man’s chest cavity like a twisted, unrecognizable, parasitical homunculus. During our long period of courtship, I remained intact with my own personality and allowed myself to meet Fellipe for who he was….To this day, I refuse to burden Fellipe with the tremendous responsibility of somehow completing me.  By this point in my life, I have figured out that he cannot complete me, even if he wanted to. I’ve faced enough of my own incompletions to recognize that they belong solely to me. Having learned this essential truth, I can now tell where I end and where someone else begins” (106).

There are so many things I am learning for sure in my current season. First is that you cannot learn and grow in the truest sense without time alone to reflect. And secondly, you cannot love someone else or even be loved in return in a way that truly fulfills you when you don’t recognize where you end and where that person begins. It’s my responsibility to see myself for what I truly am, call it what it is (even if those words are ugly like anxiety and unhappiness), and show up for myself in the truest sense.