Possibility

I’ve sat down to write here a few times — or composed ideas in my head at least. I never seem to make it here to string things together into something cohesive. I am still here and doing a million things, but just not updating this blog or social media much these days.

This week has been our Fall Break — in a school system where we start on August 1st, this makes sense. I’ve been swimming, swimming, swimming for the past seven weeks, and I am finally coming back to the surface to catch my breath. We were holding steady at 94 degrees every afternoon here in Georgia until yesterday when suddenly fall arrived and brought us 75 and cloudy. I think maybe the very best feeling in the world is the feeling that change is coming.

Possibility is more energizing than the feeling that comes when you actually arrive somewhere.

The kids left last Friday afternoon to go to their dad’s, and they didn’t come home until Wednesday morning, so I had a glorious five days alone. I completed all the usual “vacation” tasks that teacher-moms do (like cleaning out closets and washing the car and catching up on grading) but I also got eight hours of sleep on those nights, and it felt like there was nothing but space around me and in front of me for that few days. I needed it badly. August came like a freight train, and did September even happen? I guess it did, but I can hardly remember. The new job is going well, and I’m so glad I made the switch, but it is also busy from my 5am alarm until 8pm when the kids go to bed. Not a moment left unattended in that time at all.

I was listening to the latest Rob Bell podcast last weekend, and he said something about “building a cathedral of time” and that phrase just stuck inside of me, fluttering around a bit and letting me hold onto it to claim that idea. Time is the most precious thing in my life right now, that thing that I can never quite get enough of somehow. It will not hold; I cannot keep it. But I think the thing I am getting far better at as I age is making use of the time that I do have and just letting go of all the rest. We can sink deep in only a few hours, if we try.

The second half of the week flew by, of course, as it always does when kids are in the house. They played with neighbors and built forts made of boxes and towels. And then yesterday we drove an hour northward to the mountains to go apple picking and followed that with a stop at our usual pumpkin patch.

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Autumn is such a welcome change in Georgia where summer drags on and on and the heat begins to feel like a wet blanket that will never leave. It’s hard to believe we are heading into the final stretch of 2019 already. This year has been big for me in ways that, in hindsight, seem pretty unbelievable. I saw a meme the other day that referred to this as the last 3 months of the decade, and it woke me up a bit to a perspective I did not see before. Where was I ten years ago? A whole different life. But I cannot even begin to count the ways that this one is more fulfilling or the gratitude that I have for the way my path has meandered to unforeseen places and is still moving with a force of its own. Next week will mark a decade of motherhood for me, and above everything else, I feel so thankful that these two have shaped me and that they are the center of my story.

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Autumn always feels like a rebirth. I cannot believe this year. A job change that signified a monumental shift for me, some travels just the three of us, an incredible writing workshop that has given me an ongoing community I feel lucky to have and destined to find, and (though I haven’t mentioned this yet here) a literary agent for this book that is trying to be born. These big things were made of the tiniest steps in the smallest moments. My progress toward this life I want has been so slow and steady that it’s easy to forget that I am moving somewhere. But then I take the rearview of the past decade and wow. How could I have ever imagined?

Building my cathedral of time one step at a time, and the life that called to me for so long is taking shape around me. I am not so sure that time heals all wounds. But what I know for sure is that time will eventually reveal to you what is yours when you listen to what calls for you and stay true to that voice. This is only the beginning, but already I am feeling it again — that possibility is sweeter than arrival when you are on the right path.

Nunca Solo

The kids and I returned from a trip yesterday. As I type this now in my quiet house, they have gone to dad’s for the week, and the laundry is humming with more piles to be done. Suitcases are unpacked, and the refrigerator is restocked. It’s funny how you return from a week away and things are exactly the same as you left them (of course) and it makes you wonder if those days even happened. Our days, all of them, come and go only once – whether we are home or far away.

Mexico 2019

Travel is something I have loved since I spent a summer in England in college and was bitten by the travel bug, as they say. When I was married, we were always going somewhere or planning some excursion. Most of this was simply because my ex husband traveled excessively for work. I was a stay-at-home-mom for three years, and Jude and I would tag along and entertain ourselves in an unfamiliar city while his father worked during the day. Then when Norah was born and I went back to work full-time, that wasn’t so easy, but we’d still cash in travel points every summer to see a new place. It was an interesting season of my life. (Interesting, that annoying word I tell my students not to use because it really means nothing at all.) To clarify – it was a complex time in my life. We got to go on luxurious vacations once a year, sure. Nice resorts and plush hotel beds and new scenery. But the price I paid was a husband who was never home and [free] accommodations that looked nearly the same, no matter what location we were in.

My travel bug has not really gone away, but my household exists on less than half the income it did at that time, and I do not have a pile of frequent flier miles or hotel points at my disposal. I’ve found creative ways to see new things and make memories with the kids while stretching a dollar. Tiny beach condos and yurt camping and cabins on the river. I assumed that a bigger trip was not in the cards for me for quite some time though, so much so that my passport sat unusable for nearly 4 years in my locked safe at home with my old married name still on it. But in January, I ran across an unbelievable deal for a resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. (So good, in fact, that I contacted them after booking it asking if it was indeed true that all three of us can stay and eat there for that price.) I booked the hotel thinking I may have to cancel if flight prices didn’t come down. Then I got an alert from Google that flight prices were cut in half for a few hours back in April, so I jumped in with both feet and booked it. Even as I packed our suitcases the week before we left, I couldn’t believe it was really happening.

We landed in Mexico last Monday around 5pm and had no trouble at all getting out of the airport and to the resort. We arrived at the hotel to check in and went straight for our balcony overlooking the pool bordered by blue ocean as far as we could see. It was a long travel day and so much planning and preparation. Once we were settled, the kids wanted room service nachos, and I was happy to oblige.

Mexico 2019

In the past few weeks, I prepped for every possible disaster scenario. I’d read numerous reports of seaweed overtaking the Yucatan and much of Quintana Roo this summer. I worried incessantly about it, but as usual, my worry was unnecessary. There was more seaweed than we usually see in Florida, yes. But the bright colors, fun food, kind people, and that special magic sauce of what it feels like to see a new place more than made up for it. We spent lazy mornings in the pool, and the hotel location lacked the isolation of a lot of Mexican resorts and made it easy to see the town itself. It was the perfect mix of relaxation and a little adventure in the unfamiliar.

I came to see firsthand on this trip that we are in such a great season with their ages and interests. They are old enough to maneuver their own luggage on and off planes and through customs lines without complaint, but they are young enough to find enjoyment in the simplest things, like tacos and ice cream and the rhythms of an unfamiliar language. The stress of traveling with them alone is that it is only me to plan and problem solve. But the reward is so much freedom. And I’m seeing how well we know each other and how close we are in this shape of three. As much as I would love someone else to share this load and help me do the necessary tasks every now and then, I can’t imagine what I would have missed in these few years if we didn’t have this time together just the three of us. Last week was a reminder of that more than ever.

Mexico 2019

We took a day trip to swim in the cenotes, and it was definitely the highlight of the week for me. We snorkeled in a salt water lagoon and then ventured further to Cenote Pakal Nah where I didn’t get a photo that does it justice, but it was the most beautiful clear water I’ve ever seen. You could see all the way to the bottom, and we watched tiny fish give us pedicures.  It’s a gravel road that leads you there, and it feels like an oasis in the jungle. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and a different view of Mexico than I expected.

Mexico 2019

After that, we went to one last cenote in a limestone cave where the water was freezing, but we braced for it and jumped in anyway. The kids were shivering and laughing the whole time. Once we got out and dried off, we ate lunch from a buffet in a screened pavilion surrounded by Mayan jungle. Rice and beans and guacamole and fresh pico de gallo and bunuelos draining on a paper towel the way my grandmother would serve her fried apple pies. As we walked out, a stray cat crossed Norah’s path and laid down for her to pet it. I swear it seems that no matter where we are, animals always find her. Of course what followed was, “Mama, can we take him home?”

Mexico 2019

We crashed early that night, bone tired from swimming and cuddled in bed in the hotel room watching a movie until our eyelids were heavy. The rest of the trip was mostly just relaxing and exploring at our own pace and enjoying the novelty of things we cannot get at home.
Mexico 2019

 

Mexico 2019

I think sometimes growth happens in ways that sneak up on you. It comes along in increments and then you do something you never would have done before and realize you have come such a long way. This trip was one of those things for me. I have done a million uncomfortable things on my own – from buying a home to making job change decisions to dealing with car repairs or negotiating with home improvement contractors. But I know with certainty that I would not have taken both kids across the ocean alone a short while ago. All of the fear stories that play in your head — what if I get sick while we are there and I am the only one to care for them? What if I get us lost? Is it safe for a woman to travel alone with kids like this? These stories still played in my head, but I just turned the volume down on them so that they didn’t drown out all of the other beauty that was there for us.
Mexico 2019

Mexico 2019

I read Jen Pastiloff’s new memoir while we were on this trip, and it was the perfect medicine. I’ve met her before through attending her workshops when she comes through Atlanta, and one journaling exercise she has us complete is “If I had no fear, I would…” I still have my journals from both times I attended the workshop. Pages and pages of what I’d do with no fear. We all have fear though. It’s there and it’s normal. Acknowledging it and allowing a little space between it and myself is the way I have learned to move past it. It’s still here and still present, but it is not all there is of me.

Mexico 2019

Jen also talks in her workshops about what she terms bullshit stories, the things we tell ourselves that just aren’t true but we act as though they are. She mentions this in the book, too. She tells us, “I’ve had (and I have) so many bullshit stories. It’s all part of this being human thing. The way out? Recognizing them and eradicating them so they don’t rearrange your DNA and live in your body as truth.” That distance between my fear and my real self is what allows me to eradicate them.

This trip imploded some of my own bullshit stories and exposed them for what they are. The story that I cannot travel on my own. That I cannot make it happen on a smaller budget, or that it is somehow less enjoyable when it is less expensive. The story that I don’t deserve to see what’s out there. The story that this small piece of the world is all that is for me. The story that I cannot make an experience happen when I truly desire it. The story that we are somehow less complete in this shape of three.

I think the biggest bullshit story that it eradicated for me is the one that says I am all alone in my care for these two kids. That was my biggest fear as I embarked on this trip — that it was all me and only me and what if I can’t handle it?

When we landed in Mexico, I found the longest customs line I have ever seen before. Swarms of people winding through ropes at the airport and it seemed it was hardly moving. It was hot and crowded, and I was bracing the kids for a long wait. We waited maybe 20 minutes with at least three times that much in front of us when an immigration officer walked up to me and asked how many we had and I pointed out there were three of us. He said “follow me” and I was unsure where this was going but obviously didn’t say no. He walked us out of the line and across the room to open a new checkpoint. We were through in two minutes after that. Things like that happened again and again all week. Bracing myself for the pushy sales pitches as we left the airport when instead all I got was one taxi driver asking who my transportation company was and when I told him, he pointed me in their direction to help instead of hassling me to use him instead. A driver who hardly spoke English but offered Norah a life preserver in the cenote and smiled and said, “Taxi?” as he motioned for her to hold on and swam her faster to the edge of the cold cave. So many kind people there to help and to guide.

We are never fully alone, but somehow we forget this. I know so many moments of this trip will stick with me for a long time. Colors and flavors and images and sounds that I hope will live somewhere in the depths of my memories for years and years. But I want to remember that lesson as well — Nunca solo. I am not alone. You do not have to measure your life by what it lacks. The world will rise to meet you when you have the courage to move in the direction of trust and curiosity.

Stretch

I’ve passed another birthday on the calendar since I last wrote here. 38 now. A year away from the 9-number which always seems heavier somehow than just flipping the official page to the next decade.

I started this blog when I was just celebrating 29. I divorced at 33. I have shed at least a thousand skins in this span of time. To me, that is the strangest thing about aging (so far) — that you just keep becoming these new versions of yourself, refining and evolving all the time. We really have no clue what we will become in another ten years, if we are doing it right.

I felt such a shift this year, though not much changed on the outside. It’s ironic how some years work like that. Things can change on the outside in huge ways and you pass your birthday and feel mostly the same. Or years like this come along where things look mostly the same from the outside view, but I’ve evolved more inside than I have in quite a while — an enormous shift beneath my skin, like pieces of a puzzle moving closer to where they should be or the plates of the earth settling tightly along fault lines. I commented last weekend on my birthday that this is the year that I learned that no ship is coming to save me because I’m already on the boat. It is the closest I can come to explaining what this feels like.

I didn’t set out to be particularly brave as I turn the page to my 38th year, but that is what has happened this past few months anyhow. As the year closed, I finally felt ready to send my book proposal out to literary agents, and that process continues now. In January, I submitted some other writing to a few publications that are a tier above what I have aspired to before. I applied for a couple of summer workshops which is a terrifying concept if I think too much about it — to travel alone to a place where I know no one and sit in a room with writers and instructors and revise my own work according to their observations. But I just took a leap and decided to lean in to something scary. Acceptance rates are low, and it is extraordinarily competitive, but I figured why not. This weekend I’ve worked a little on a submission to a new (to me) academic conference as well. I’m just casting a large, wide net out to the edge of what I’m comfortable with, stepping out on a limb a little farther than I usually do. And now I guess I just wait to see what sticks, see where it all lands me.

This theme is following me everywhere — courage and risk. I’m taking an online course with a group of women, and last week’s focus was on courage and fear. I attended a work event on Friday, our annual Women’s Leadership Colloquium, and heard an author and business expert speak about the behaviors that transform careers and create leaders, and as expected, a willingness to take a risk was the thread that ran through much of the data she presented. The event closed with a chamber choir singing an arrangement of that Eleanor Roosevelt passage where she tells us, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I think the thing you think you cannot do looks different for every one of us. And it has looked different for me at different chapters in my life. I can think back to all the moments in my life that rise to the top for me because of their joy or their ecstasy or their beauty or their strength or their reward or just the amazement of it all. Most of them occurred as I did the thing that I thought I couldn’t do. When I pulled my daughter to my own chest in the dimly lit water of a hospital tub instead of a bright operating room. When I went back to work with two toddlers at home and wondered if my brain had shriveled too much to work in academics any longer. When I left a marriage behind, a relationship of 15 years, without any plan or idea of what was ahead for me. When I swallowed my own sorrow long enough to sit with my grandmother in her last weeks and watch with real eyes what was unfolding as she transitioned. And little moments too, the smallest things that can bring the biggest shifts — the conversations I have mustered the courage to have, the essays I have mustered the courage to write and submit.

Spring is here finally. The window is open behind me as I’m typing this, and I can hear neighborhood kids on the trampoline next door. My own two will walk in the door in one more hour, and my quiet house will be noisy again. Every night, the sun is hanging on for just a little longer before setting, and summer is on its way eventually. I am ready to shed another layer — that hardest one perhaps. That one that hangs on longer than you’d like, the fear and trepidation. I want to stretch as far as I can reach, and then stretch a little more, just beyond what is comfortable and one step closer to the horizon beyond what I can imagine. I want to stretch everyday, relentlessly, just one inch at a time, until my span is wider than ever.

rocks in the pockets

It’s been more than a month since I have written here. The summary is that it won’t stop raining in Georgia. I mean days and days and days in a row of constant hazy clouds and rain. We all had the flu at the same time in early February. And it’s that general stretch of the year that is hard to plow through anyway. I feel tired all the time, and I am struggling to find the beauty. I have been in that space lately of one foot in front of the other. Just limping along and knowing that the sun returns eventually.

When I write that all in one paragraph it sounds like a lot of dramatic complaining, but really it is simply life. As life happens. Ebb and flow. As I’m typing this, it is early morning, and I can see that there is finally some sky behind the clouds, a sun trying to shine today.

The hard part in seasons like this is that life is rolling on anyhow with all of its demands. I hardly left my couch last weekend as I caught up on a heavy grading backlog from my sick days. Then this weekend has brought two hours of taekwondo belt testing, a scout meeting to work on building a pinewood derby car, hosting a crowd of neighborhood boys for dinner, and attending a memorial service yesterday afternoon.

It was for the mother of a friend, an old friend dating back more than 20 years. As I expected, I saw loads of people yesterday I hadn’t seen in decades. Time is such a strange thing. I’ve been listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle lately, and I’m trying, though it’s hard, to lean into this idea of losing my story of the past, present, future timeline and see the now instead. I think it is in my anxious personality to be “future oriented” as my therapist kindly put it once – in other words, to always be looking forward to what is next and lining up all the pieces to make that next thing happen. But the problem with that, in addition to creating loads of anxiety, is that I miss the now.

This service was for a family I was close to in my adolescence, that period when it is developmentally appropriate for you to distance yourself from your own parents or see yourself as so very different from your friends’ parents. But one of the things that struck me so deeply as each of them spoke yesterday of who she was as a mother and the legacy she leaves is that somehow we all get to that place that once felt so far away – because there I sat, looking around to see each of us grown with families and lives and heartbreaks behind us where once it was all naive optimism and teenage worries. Truth be told, we are not far from what our parents were when we first became friends.

Time is such a strange illusion, and it feels like a carousel sometimes – the way one life can circle back on itself again and again. Past and future are just this story I have in my head, but occasions like this are one of those weird times where the past collides with where you stand today in a tangible way and you are reminded how much of an illusion time really is.

I’m still thinking of my friend this morning, having seen his family’s heartbreak so fresh yesterday. And I’m thinking about all of the times that pain pushed me through to the other side, to that next thing I was meant to become, that next skin I was meant to shed. It’s Eckhart Tolle who says, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” It’s a passage I have held onto when something is not the way I wanted it to be. But I forget that maybe that is true for little things, too. The thousand ways that everyday life can teach you if you let it.

Watching years roll by on a calendar is painful when you think too much about it. It aches to see my kids grow older and know that this year is one we are leaving behind.  Last week, as we sat in the pediatrician’s office for Norah, she was sitting on my lap and pulled out a rock from her pocket. She has this habit of collecting small rocks on the playground and smuggling them home, and I usually only find them when I hear the loud thunk beating a rhythm in the dryer. I was telling her this – that I always find them in the dryer – as she pulled it from her pocket to show me. I didn’t realize the other mom in the waiting room was listening to us, but as she stood up to lead her teenaged son to an exam room, she stopped and said to me, “I miss those. I miss finding rocks in the pockets.”

How many details in my life right now are rocks in the pockets that I will miss one day? I don’t even just mean with my children but with everything. These details I fail to notice everyday will be softened with that lens of nostalgia one day as I look back.

Toward the end of the service yesterday, they showed a slide show of sorts that ended with an Anne of Green Gables quote that I somehow didn’t note before. I haven’t thought about those books since childhood when I was obsessed with them – another nod to the carousel of time as I sat in the service. Montgomery writes, “It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.”

How close that enchanting realm is, just beyond the commonplace. Rocks in pockets and dinners at our little table. My soft and steady sleeping dog. The view of a bright sky after so many thick clouds. The smile of old friends with decades between here and where you began. When I push back the illusion of time and lose my storyline, I move that thin veil aside to see the glimpse.

It feels good to feel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

so why not get started immediately.

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

And to write music or poems about.

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

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

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

one and the same

It’s the Winter Solstice, a day that once upon a time would have passed me by without notice, but somehow these things are on my radar now. Funny how what you notice changes as you get older, as you yourself grow and change.

And maybe it is that what you pay attention to grows idea, but I have heard so many references to the solstice and its meaning this last couple of days — two podcasts, a few Instagram posts, and a vinyasa yoga class this morning where the meditation and the emphasis during the whole class was how to take notice of the dark and shine a little light there. (This is exactly what yoga feels like for my body throughout the whole year actually, shining a light in the dark places.)

Every single piece of me right now wants to slow it down, to go in, to rest, to sleep. But also to prepare for something new around the bend. I guess that is the whole point of wrapping up the year as the solstice arrives. Day by day, a little more light comes and our paths grow wider and longer, but right now nighttime gives us so much space to reflect and to rest and maybe to dream of what is ahead.

I’m not good at winter. The dark hours and the cold temperatures and the days that seem to move too slowly on the calendar after the holidays are over. I’m grateful we have this season to decorate the darkness with a few twinkling lights, and when we pack those up in a couple more weeks, I’m still trying hard to love what is. Light candles and watch movies and read for hours on idle afternoons under a blanket. Loving what is has not been my strong suit when that includes cold and darkness, but I’m sinking into that cocoon a little tonight to welcome what comes this next few weeks. Instead of just looking to brighter and longer days, I’m going to slow it down and give in to what the rest of nature seems to be doing without apology. From two different sources this week, I heard that question – Think about how terrible it feels to sleep with the lights on? To have some false neon light shining in your window in a poorly angled hotel room? We need the dark, it seems. For our own bodies and our own rhythms and our own sanity. I think perhaps the modern world doesn’t give us enough of it.

Every message I have heard this week seems to somehow circle around the same ideas – finding light inside the darkness, relishing the dark, accepting it, seeing things through a lens of integration rather than opposition. I heard a reference to a Khalil Gibran verse about joy and sorrow this week, and I had to look up the full verse to hear it in context. Light in the dark indeed.

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain …..When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Sometimes I am not even sure which one is visiting me and which one is asleep on my bed – the joy or the sorrow. They are so interwoven that they just feel like two sides of the same coin to me now. I’ve asked this question before, but is it possible to want something new so desperately but also want things to stay exactly the same? Because that is what life feels like to me lately. Joy and sorrow, one here and one sleeping. One and the same. Light and dark.

I went through my happiness jar today. I wasn’t as regular with it this year as I have been before. But even though it didn’t reflect everyday of my past 12 months, what it revealed did not disappoint. Sorrow and joy, light and dark. Every moment I recorded, when I look a little closer, reflects a little bit of both extremes.

Jan 4 Jude talking to me while I’m in the bath with the curtain pulled shut, water getting cold but he won’t stop talking, and I can’t stop listening. His ideas about God: “I think God just wants us to be free and kind, mom.” — Jan 21 Sunny and near 70 after weeks of freezing temperatures, outside on the patio chair, sun on my face, eyes closed, I hear kids playing. — April 1 Easter Sunday, perfect weather, little cousins running and playing in the yard, Grandmother gone, but I saw a stream of light through the leaves on the big shade tree. Breeze, laughing kids. — April 22 Yoga, class full of women, so much steady rain outside the window. — June 9 He held my hand as we walked across the parking lot in the dark — June 14 Late sunlight, last swim lesson, Norah smiling proudly in the rearview mirror on the drive home. The curvy hills on Pisgah Road, gray clouds rolling in for a storm.

Can you hear that the way I do? The sorrow sleeping on the bed in every one of those joyful moments. Light in the dark and dark in the light. It’s all the same.

 

 

ordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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