Witness

I said goodbye to Tucker yesterday, our 14 year old Labrador – although by the time I post this, a few more days will pass. The kids are at their dad’s until Friday, and it feels weird to tell others before telling them, so I’m writing now and posting later. But, as usual, I’ve got to write it down to bring all the threads together in a way that makes sense for me and to build a narrative of what happened so that I understand it for myself.

I got him from a rescue organization when I was 26 and he was a year old. I was young and married and had no children yet. We had one puppy together already, and I wanted one more. Sometimes in a family, a pet will attach himself to a particular family member above all others. Our terrier had done that with my ex-husband, and so when we got Tucker, he somehow did the same for me. He followed me for 13 years, from room to room around the house, from house to house to yet another house, from whatever I was before to the new terrain of motherhood to what I became, and eventually from a marriage to a life on my own.

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When a couple divorces and moves through the inventory of things in the home, you see what matters to you and what doesn’t, and sometimes the answers surprise you. I moved into this house without a single plate to eat on and without a television, but I brought tea cups from my parents’ 1979 wedding registry, my stand mixer in the kitchen, stacks of blankets, shelves of books, and my dog. In the storm of the divorce itself when we were sorting the details of what was next, my ex explained he didn’t have the time to care for a pet with his heavy travel schedule, and I knew my limitations. Single mom with a full-time job and two preschoolers. Two large dogs would tip the scales financially and in every other way, so I found a rescue organization to re-home our terrier, and then I took Tucker with me without hesitation. I suppose their situation soon changed because by the end of that year, they’d adopted a puppy together.

So while they started over, I took Tucker with me and watched him grow old. He got even better with age, and we tried our best to love him well. He was patient and slow always, but especially at the end without much energy left. He would curl up next to the kids as they watched television, and every time I rolled out my yoga mat, he’d lay down wide right next to it, and I’d watch his belly rise and fall with my own breath. He would follow me from room to room just as he followed me from house to house and from one life to another.

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He’s declined a good bit these last few years, and I knew this was coming. He had laryngeal paralysis, and his breathing became labored.  A couple weeks ago, he had an episode that led me to an emergency vet with him (and with both kids and lots of tears), but he recovered. When I followed up with our regular vet a couple days later, we had the conversation. I knew my choices were to do the inevitable during a scary and desperate moment or during his good days in between. The kids wanted to be home when I took him, so I was holding out for the first of July when they are here, but as fate would have it, he had another episode on Father’s Day, and as he stumbled around in the back yard, I tried to calm him down, and I promised him if he made it through that one, I’d call the vet in the morning.

I just finished Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and the night before Tucker passed, I read the narrator’s description of helping his own grandmother to the other side. He says, “We try to preserve life– even when we know it has no chance of enduring its body. We feed it, keep it comfortable, bathe it, medicate it, caress it, even sing to it. We tend to these basic functions not because we are brave or selfless but because, like breath, it is the most fundamental act of our species: to sustain the body until time leaves it behind.”

The vet gave me the option of going in the room with him or staying outside. I wasn’t sure what I could bring myself to do, but when it became an actuality and I arrived at the vet office on Monday afternoon, it seemed there was no other choice but to sit with him until the very end. I thought it would tear me apart, but it didn’t. Animals have a presence and an instinct and a way of knowing. And perhaps Tucker knew it needed to end this way. As he’d walked with me from room to room for years and then from one life to another, now he wanted only me to walk that last bit with him, and so I did. It was fast. He just fell asleep, then deeper still until he was gone. I cried a lot, of course, but they were tears of release and not of resistance. I can feel that this is the end of more than just his life, the subtle end of some kind of chapter for me as well. But as it always goes with endings, you cannot tell what thing is beginning and where these sliding doors are headed until much later when you piece it all together. Even still, I feel it. Plates shifting like fault lines, refiguring some piece of me.

I know I’ve written about this before, but the hardest thing about being single is that you lack a witness to your life. There is no one there every day to say I see you — all the hard things and all the little things, too. There is no one to assure you that the details of your life are not going unnoticed. I know he was only an animal, but I am feeling so clearly in this loud stillness of an empty house without another breathing thing that his presence has been my witness across countless evolutions and especially in this last five years. So I guess in the end, I am grateful that I was a witness to him as well. Just there and patiently watching and waiting and assuring him that his presence did not go unnoticed.

In Vuong’s book, he also explains that as a writer, “I never wanted to build a ‘body of work,’ but to preserve these, our bodies, breathing and unaccounted for, inside the work.” That is all I am doing here today, I suppose, as I write this. Preserving that physical presence, that witness that Tucker was for me, to know he was here inside this work and inside my life, lending his quiet presence to all of the evolutions, the big days, and the little things, too. All of it.

 

on day 64, even here

I’m writing this 64 days after the world shifted here. I’m thinking of all the things that usually happen in a span of 64 days and the ways those things haven’t happened. Just an expanse of days behind me and in front of me that look mostly the same.

The weather in Georgia is shifting from spring to summer. Last week we had chilly temperatures overnight, but this week we are looking at highs in the 80s. Most of spring passed in this place, and now none of the usual summer things are happening. We aren’t celebrating with cheers and screams for the last day of school. We aren’t crowding in with neighbors at the pool. Norah’s birthday is on Monday, and I bought candles and made a cake, but there won’t be the usual party. No end of the year recitals or last day hugs with my own students. It still feels so strange. Not just the loss of the events themselves, but what they do for us. I think we use these occasions to mark time. Like that fairy tale of the girl in the woods dropping breadcrumbs to find her way home, it is all gobbled up by this pandemic, and it’s hard to see a way out.

I’m writing tonight mostly so that I can look back and say yes, that thing happened, that expanse of time felt like it would go on and on and yet we made it to the other side eventually.

I spent the first weeks shocked and terrified and refusing to go anywhere at all, relying on click list grocery pick up. Now I brave the store with a mask, and the kids ride bikes with their neighborhood friends. I am loosening up in some things, and tightening my grip in others. My only mantra was survival the first few weeks. Work as best I could at home, keep kids on track, sanitize and clean, and feel no guilt when only these things were accomplished.

But I feel a shift this week, both a recognition and a stubborn insistence. So many of the details of my life these past few months were sucked up by illness (Jude’s) and then by fear of illness (the whole world’s). And now I feel the need to shake off this stagnation and resistance and lean into the flow of whatever this is.

I pulled out my 2020 journal this morning, and I read my words for the year – Allow, Soften, Create. I couldn’t settle on only one this year, and I went for those three in efforts to find that nameless thing that exists between them. That greater yin, that feeling of receiving whatever comes to me and then turning it into something else as an act of creation. When I sketched those words in January in my journal, I did not expect the challenge that was coming to my life or the global pandemic that was coming after that. But what if even in this place I can allow and soften and create whatever is meant to be?

I’ve been thinking of that Rilke poem lately. The one where he tells us to go to the limits of your longing and to let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. I think it has been hard for me to even discern what my longing is, much less follow it to its limits. Survival mode doesn’t leave room for any longing except security. But now, on day 64, I find myself maybe revisiting some of those longings that are beneath the surface of the will to survive.

Things that are keeping me sane: I just finished Untamed, and I have Ocean Vuong’s novel on my night stand lined up next. This podcast with him was like taking a deep breath and a long exhale. I’m addicted to Taryn Toomey’s The Class which is some weird hybrid of pilates, dance, and Osho meditation. I have binged all four seasons of Poldark available on Amazon, and I am tempted to rewatch them already. The new Secret Sisters album and today’s Jason Isbell release. Banana pudding dropped on my doorstep from my neighbor and my freshly baked baguettes I delivered to her. Zoom calls with friends and monthly sharing with my writing group. I know I am not the first one to say this, but I hope when all is said and done that we remember the ways that art kept us sane and grounded and hopeful in this season.

On that note, I ran across this poem from the new Sugar Calling podcast, and I wanted to close by sharing it here. He says what I want to say in 14 beautiful lines. There is beauty in this mess, even here.

 

“When” by John O’Donnell

And when this ends we will emerge, shyly
and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace
loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those
it gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture, this longed-for
laying on of hands, high cries as we nuzzle, leaning in
to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,
although a time will come when we’ll forget
the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh
of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;
a time when we may even miss the old-world
arm’s-length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,
the drifting, idle days, and nights when we flung open
all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices
reaching out, holding each other till this passes.

Echo

It’s been so long since I’ve written here that WordPress has changed the dashboard a little, and I didn’t even realize until I just logged on. This is a long one, so buckle up in your quarantine nest or wherever these words find you. Nearly three months, the longest break I’ve taken in the ten years I’ve had this space. But for most of us, it’s the last few days that speak the loudest. Life always happens that way, years of a record sailing around and around with a needle tracing a line smoothly, the rhythm predictable. Then scratch, that noise, that halt.

My halt came a couple of months ago, even before COVID-19 landed on America’s shores, but tonight, everything feels magnified.

Just after New Year’s, both of my kids got some nasty respiratory bug and within a few days (first Norah, then Jude) they were both diagnosed with pneumonia. With the right meds, Norah’s healed quickly, but Jude’s did not. It hung on and on and he was on two rounds of antibiotics and oral steroids plus two different inhalers. It was a much heavier handed medical approach than I usually have to take with him, but his breathing was so coarse for weeks. Then on January 29th, he got this odd complication where he started vomiting numerous times a day as his body was healing from the respiratory stuff. It wasn’t exactly typical stomach bug behavior; instead it was almost constant … gagging? retching? dry heaving? From the beginning, I knew it was something odd because in a decade of parenting, I’ve never seen anything like it.

Long story short, after countless pediatrician visits, an ER visit where they swabbed him and gave us a confirmed diagnosis of Rhino-Enterovirus, and two GI specialists, he was misdiagnosed twice and then finally diagnosed with something called post-viral gastroparesis. It’s essentially when the vagus nerve becomes damaged because of a viral infection, and since the vagus nerve wraps all the way around your digestive system, it affects stomach nerves as well. In literal terms, it translates to “stomach paralysis.” In reality, it has meant 6 solid weeks of vomiting. We are on day 50 right now.

Parents, you know what life feels like when a stomach virus hits your kid? Imagine that + 6 weeks of it + a full time job + single parenting + a little sister to also tend to + scary research that told me it could go on and on and on for a very long time, sometimes incurable. Then all the practicalities — homebound instruction for him while I was working, occasional IV fluids, isolation from his friends and activities, carrying vomit bags everywhere, running out of PTO and working a job I only just began in August. To say it has been the hardest few weeks of my life is no understatement. There is nothing worse than worrying for your kid’s health, and I guess I always knew that abstractly in my head, but now I know it in my heart and in my bones in a way I can never forget.

Because it is nerve-centered, there is no reliably effective medicine. We got something from the GI that helped for a few days but wore off. Then about three weeks ago, a student in class asked how he was doing and I explained the diagnosis, and another kid raised his hand to say that he had the same thing in 6th grade and this parents found a chiropractic / injury rehabilitation center nearby that essentially rehabilitated his vagus nerve. This coincidence is pretty crazy (Thank you, God) because it’s a rare thing. I made an appointment that day and I’m happy to say that our protocol there (a combination of chiropractics, craniosacral massage, microcurrent therapy, and a hyperbaric oxygen chamber) almost has Jude back to normal.

About a month before the vomiting began, he had a suspected concussion that the local children’s urgent care cleared us on, but the assessments we’ve done through this injury rehabilitation clinic suggest that perhaps that is where it all began and the virus simply further inflamed the nerve. Who knows? The human body is incredibly amazing and complicated and unpredictable. He is currently down to only occasional episodes when he was vomiting 20+ times a day a few weeks ago. It feels crazy to say that I am seeing a chiropractic practice to treat my kid’s GI condition, but after a wild goose chase for answers, that is exactly what I am doing, and it is working. We are not totally healed yet, but it has improved. There are tests lined up for the coming months to rule out misdiagnosis and new complications and to take a closer look at any nutritional deficiencies that may be left behind after so many days of improper food absorption.

I said to my friend a couple of weeks ago that once my family was past this health complication, I would never again complain about my regular, busy, messy, sometimes overwhelming life.

Then last week came, and I began the week with some abstract worries about Coronavirus and ended it here inside these four walls with the same task that confronts all of us right now, waiting and watching and praying and sitting through this fear and discomfort.

This is such a weird season in my life. I’m just coming out of a dark period of a lot of tears and a lot of frustration with the medical system and a lot of worries about my son’s health only to see the same things playing out on the world’s stage now. Frustration with a system that is failing us and so much worry. I feel like one day I will look back and this timing will make sense and I will see what God was doing, but I do not see it yet.

All of us are learning lessons right now and absorbing this news in different ways, but it feels like for me, the same experience I have already had this year is echoing louder and louder to say Can you hear me? Do you see me? I’m thinking of that Pema Chodron quote again. Nothing goes away until it has taught you what you need to learn.

To be honest, I have mostly been on quarantine since January anyhow. I have been in the midst of a total paradigm shift in my own life, and now the world is requiring all of us to do the same thing. What if all you had right now is the space you are sitting in, the one you call home? What if you had to stop shopping and stop running and stop everything and just be still? What if you had to strip everything down to the basics and sit with all of it? What if the point is not to be productive but just to be here? What if you had to rely on others for help and remember that we are all connected, all of us, all the time?

Jude’s extended illness has forced me to strip everything down to the root, but here I am stripping it even more bare. I cannot shake the feeling that the America on the other side of this is not going to be remotely the same. It is scary now as we look to the unknown, but what if there is something good there? The recognition that public schools are completely necessary to the functioning of a thriving society, the understanding that all service workers need a safety net of insurance and sick time, the realization that maybe families need to be fed when they cannot afford it and not just because their kids are going to school. And look at how we have come together, how we have picked up pieces of this mess to coordinate community efforts from six feet apart and from the reaches of the wide internet. We can do so much more if we choose to. Why haven’t we been doing this already?

Health is such a gift. Nothing else really matters. I think maybe that is what we are all realizing, and what I’m understanding on both the personal and also the national level right now. What was my own little family’s health scare somehow paved the way for this global one to make its path into my life.

I can say with confidence America will be different on the other side of this massive health crisis because that is what crisis does for us. It shifts and moves all the pieces and makes us create something new of our lives. I am not sure what is on the other side of this scare for me, but I am determined to make it something good. And in the meantime as I wait, I am determined to keep chiseling away at what is here — to play board games or read, to clean out that space I have been avoiding in the extra closet upstairs, to write and create, to paint with the kids and take walks and watch movies and maybe remember that we are not what we produce or what we buy or who we are perceived to be when we are out in the world. Just being here is all that we are created to do, and that alone is a gift.

 

Create

Rest assured I am writing when I can but not here. There are only so many words I can compose, and I know my limits, so I don’t prioritize this space like I used to. Today is December 21st, the Winter Solstice. The darkest day of the year. This is the week that we celebrate but also, for me, it is always the week that I put things to rest. I shut off some part of me, as my friend likes to say. The mom brain and the teacher brain and the long to-do list.

In the past ten days, I’ve had a sick child, well, then sick again. Elementary class parties, dress up theme days, gift exchanges, and teacher gifts. Two Nutcracker dress rehearsals with two Nutcracker performances coming up this weekend. Final exams for my own students with piles of grading. And another issue that is weighing enormously heavy on my heart and mind, but I cannot write all of the details here simply because it involves other people. (Nothing mysterious or dramatic or even personal, just part of the million surprises and stresses that compose a life.) It’s been a perfect storm of stress.

I was feeling it heavily on Thursday, and I texted my longtime best friend asking “Is it possible to raise two kids solo and be away from home 6:45am – 4:30 everyday?” I expected soft talk back to encourage me, but she responded with a one word NO in about 2 seconds flat. I feel this sometimes — that I’m doing the impossible and I can’t keep doing it. But look, I am. And a million other women in my situation are doing it, too. I have holidays and spring break and summer break to recalibrate which is more than many people have. I have family 25 minutes down the road when I need help and am in a pinch, and that is more than many have as well. My kids go to Dad’s four days a month, and I get that time to reset and recenter. I get child support payments on time, and many women don’t. I have lots of things that I’m grateful for, sure. But you can be grateful and also exhausted at the same time, and this is me. Raising the white flag right now to say that I’m carrying too many things, and I’m laying it down here with lines on the page.

I haven’t slept soundly in weeks. I’m out like a light every night without a problem, but the worry brain wakes me around 2am, and I have a hard time turning it off. Then the alarm rings at 5:00, and the marathon begins. Rinse repeat. I am using this last stretch of the year to let that tightness subside for me. It takes a while; I know this because I have done it before. But by the end of this week, it will fade, and I will feel human again.

I’m thinking a lot about my word for 2020. The last few years have brought Write, Intention, Trust, and Persist. I persisted in 2019 in ways that astound me in hindsight. I made things happen with sheer will and determination. The things I wanted that felt so impossible — travel with the kids, a new job, and a literary agent — happened because I wouldn’t stop until they did.

But now I am feeling the need to soften it all, to recenter and find again that pulse beneath all the madness. I’m leaning toward Create as my word to begin this new decade. I want to see 2020 as a space where I can create experiences that inspire me, writing that holds true to the promise I’ve made to myself and to others, and even create space in my life where there was none. It feels like so much of my day is a marathon, and there is no room to breathe. But stillness has to be there if I look hard enough. I’m determined to create room to breathe this year somehow.

Earlier this week, I ran across a Joyce Sutphen poem that did that thing poetry can do — harness a feeling you forgot you ever had and make you nostalgic for it.

“Those Hours”

There were moments, hours even,

when it was clear what I

was meant to do, as if

a landscape had revealed itself

in the morning light.

I could see the road

plainly now, imagining myself

walking towards the distant mountains

like a pilgrim in the old stories —

ready to take on any danger,

hapless but always hopeful,

certain that my simple belief

in the light

would be enough.

 

I miss the light so much this time of year. I wake to darkness, and by the time I am home to stir dinner on the stove, it is back again. I’m ready to see the road again, to harness that simple belief in the light and know that it’s enough. Merry Christmas to you, and if these words are finding you in a dark place, my wish for you is to find the light again in 2020. I’ve passed an entire decade writing in this space. (Which is crazy to reflect on!) So many moments and so many things recorded here. Both darkness and light. A whole landscape revealed itself here for me, and there’s more to be illuminated down the road. Let’s keep going.

 

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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.

______________________________________

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.