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.

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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.

waking up

My kids are home with me after a week away.  For once, the time without them did not drag by slowly last week.  I took dance class two nights in a row (sore muscles to say the least), finished up an editing project I’d taken on for extra income, and did a little reading and writing of my own choosing as well. I got some incredibly encouraging news on the freelance writing front with a submission that was accepted quickly, and I hope to expand on the details for that when it is published.  It’s been a goal of mine to submit some personal essays to a few publications for quite some time, so this gives me the motivation to keep writing and keep submitting.  On the whole, it was a really great week.

I’ve heard of Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart for years, and a good friend of mine mentioned it yet again recently, so I decided to pick it up this weekend.  It’s a quick read, and I settled in one afternoon to read most of it in one sitting and then finished it up Sunday morning.  I’m getting better at enjoying the perks of solitude.  A quiet house, cooking a solo dinner of my own choosing, reading for pleasure more than I have in ages, or even small gems like having a house relatively clean and listening to music at my own whim.  These things don’t make up for the kids being gone, and I am happiest for certain when we are together, but I’m finding that recognizing the positives of my situation is helping me to ease into it a little deeper and not long for this season to be over.  This summer is also affording me so much time to think and reflect on the past decade of my life, and I can’t begin to describe the difference that is making in my ability to process things positively and move forward to make things better.

This recent change of perspective relates to Chodron’s book as well.  It’s hard – especially now with social networking to let us know what others are up to – to rest in your own imperfections and your own transitions and not feel lame or worthless.  People are in performance mode almost always, and I know that.  But I fall for it everyday and have to shield its impact a bit from myself if I can.  I see it with friends and acquaintances – and yes even strangers – on the internet.  I see it with my children’s father who is excitedly planning a wedding that is only three months away and relishing in a lot of happiness right now. I see it everywhere.  But the point Chodron makes so well in this book is that change is the only constant in life and that suffering serves a purpose in the grand scheme of things.  When you rest in your discomfort and use stillness to do that, you truly evolve from your pain or experience.

She explains near the beginning of the book that “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy” (8).  Allowing space is the hard part for sure. I’m working hard in my current life to include fun experiences that take my mind off things for a while. Dinner with girlfriends, fun outings with the kids, trips to the bookstore, late night Netflix, weekends away, and lots of other things.  But these past few weeks, I’m also letting myself sink into the loneliness and the feeling of being completely not in control, completely clueless about what lies ahead for me. Before I read this book and could give a name to it, I could feel what Pema Chodron is talking about already – the healing that only comes from allowing space for it all to be felt in the truest sense.

This idea of admitting and feeling suffering without fighting it is contrary to our nature. Chodron speaks at length about our culture’s tendency to avoid pain and suffering by covering it up with a multitude of things – alcohol, excessive spending and a desire for worldly attention, new romantic relationships – and more specifically, she explains how ineffective those distractions are if we really want to grow from our pain and become fuller and richer as a result; “We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is, we only become more fearful, more hardened, and more alienated … When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.  We do everything we can not to feel anything threatening … When we breathe in pain, somehow it penetrates that armor. The way we guard ourselves is getting softened up” (89).  I’ve seen this firsthand with friends of mine who have suffered unimaginable losses or pain or disappointment. They have emerged as completely different people than they were before. Life softens and deepens you if you let it, but only when you allow yourself the time to sink into your suffering a little and learn your way around what it all means.  And though it is really inconvenient, I’m seeing more and more that you really can’t do that at all when you try to fill up the pain with something else.

I’ve let go of so many things this past few months.  Material things – my car and house and leisure space in our family budget.  But also I’ve lost so many assumptions about people and about life and about myself.  It’s crazy to look back at the first post I wrote six months ago when I finally explained what had been happening for me, and even then I alluded to this act of letting go and the things I was still clinging to. And though that was only about six months ago, I feel like I’ve changed so much at my core. It’s like being completely emptied of everything you had and everything you assumed only to start filling yourself up again in a totally new way.

I wish there were other ways in life to experience this groundlessness as Pema Chodron calls it, but it usually only comes in these painful experiences of loss or profound disappointment. As she says, “We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure because sooner or later, we are going to have an experience we can’t control. … We can give up on being perfect and experience each moment to its fullest. Trying to run away is never the answer to being a full human being. Running away from the immediacy of our experience is like preferring death to life (72).  There are so many ways we “run away from the immediacy of our experience,” and they seldom look like running. They often look like distractions or like “moving on,” “staying busy,” or “having it all together” as I hear people say from time to time.

The biggest change that has happened for me is that I’m done with that. I don’t have it all together. I am not starting some brand new life that will align perfectly by my expectations and look just like my old life but with a different person. The perfection veil was pulled away for me. I didn’t choose the actions that began that avalanche.  But in the aftermath of all of that, it feels so liberating to have it removed and simply be in a moment in my life when I have no master plan and no grand storyline I’m trying to write. All there is in front of me is the here and now.  I worried so much in these past few months that I was missing life with my kids because I was so overwhelmed and busy with life tasks and cleaning the mess in front of me.  But now, in a weird way, I feel like I am missing less than ever because I have no idea what is ahead and I have nobody to answer to but my own calling and these two little people. That’s it. I woke up to that new lens as I finally reached the other side of all that has happened.  I’m here, right now. I don’t know about the rest, but the rest doesn’t matter.

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And I feel as though it has taken a lot of internal work to get to this statement, but I am finally beginning to feel genuinely grateful for it all – every moment and where I am now. I’m starting to look less at my current situation as a stepping stone to something else and see it as simply life and what I am. Yes, it is all part of who I will be and where I will go and forever changes the way I see the world, but really it’s just the path I’m on to learn what I am meant to learn in the only way I could learn it. I am exactly what I feared when I made decisions seven months ago – alone and completely unsure where I am headed next. But ironically, now I don’t fear where I am at all.  I’m almost beginning to fear the other end because I don’t want to lose this lens if I move forward to something else.

Everything is at its most essential and distilled moment.  Everything is immediate right now.  It’s like waking up, and I want to remember these lessons and these moments – even the hard ones – in my years ahead. In hindsight, I had years and years of ease and happiness, and I was asleep for so much of it. As Chodron says, “When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, even you and me” (54).  I’m awake to all of it now, it seems.  Awake to the bravery and the kindness and the softness and all of it. I’m seeing it all in a way I haven’t witnessed when things were easy. I’m becoming grateful for the hard part, and I guess what I am trying to say – if this makes any sense at all – is that I’m enjoying the middle way as Chodron calls it.  There’s so much good I’m uncovering, and even more waiting down the road if I can keep these eyes to see it.