we never know until we look back

How has half of June passed me by already? Summer days usually trail along a little slower than the rest of the year, but it doesn’t feel that way right now. I want to bottle it up and slow it down.

Last week was full of swimming lessons and sweaty outside play and sleepovers and late night movies and the first few red tomatoes from our patio. Then the kids left for Father’s Day weekend and the week ahead, and I am home with a long to-do list and suitcases to pack for our upcoming beach week. I’ve been reading Ron Rash’s Burning Bright which is painful and beautiful. He has an amazing talent for writing stories of struggle in ways that are honest and true.

I also ran across this photo piece and accompanying essay published in the NY Times for Father’s Day. The writer lost his father at 4, and I lost mine at 5, and so much of the details in this piece may differ from my experience, but the core of it runs parallel for me. He explains that “My friends’ fathers were present but seemed ordinary in comparison. Mine was absent but felt mythic.” That word, mythic, is one I haven’t placed on my own experience, but it is well chosen. I can remember once, years ago, a man I worked with was asking me about losing my father, and when he learned I was so young, he said something like “Oh, so it’s more like a void for you then?” I remember I responded with a pause and then “yeah, I guess, but I don’t know. Void doesn’t seem like the right way to say it.” But now that I have found mythic, that is it.

All those tiny, ordinary details become larger than life somehow. That he grew up on the beach and would happily swim much farther from shore than most sane people would. That he was a musician. That he had more culinary drive and talent than anyone else. That I ended up with a tattered copy of Srimad-Bhagavatam that belonged to him. That he gave me my middle name minutes after birth because I just look like a Katie Mae, he claimed. These little details would likely be inconsequential if he were still here next to me as I write this. But now they stand like mythic guideposts that sketch a frame of who he was.

We all do this with people when they die. They grow somehow to stand at more mythic heights. But I think we do this with certain periods of our lives as well. Hindsight filters our view. Memory is a curious thing.

I heard a RobCast episode recently where he was elaborating on that Old Testament moment in Exodus where God tells Moses you will never see my face; you will only see me as I go. The harsh reading of that almost sounds like God is taunting Moses, but Rob Bell’s discussion gave me a different perspective. It is only ever in the rear view mirror that we see the full beauty of everything.  We can try to feel it as it comes, and there is something to be said for presence and being conscious in the moment. But there really are just some things that cannot be fully revealed until later — as Cheryl Strayed says in that beautiful essay I love so much, “It’s almost never until later that we can draw a line between this and that.” It’s one of the most frustrating and the most incredible things about life, I think.

Bell says, “If it all came to you at once, it would fry your circuits. You’d be a wreck, a puddle on the floor. So the nature of a spiritual experience is that you want all the answers and you want it to be clear … the sense of where this is going or what to do next, you don’t want that. But what is the other option? That suddenly you have arrived? That would sear you to the bone. The way it works is that you are given the next thing that you can bear. You are shown enough to open you up … It’s a profound truth about the nature of spiritual experience. The way that it works is not big dramatic moments on top of a mountain… even that is just a glimpse … the day by day revealing.”

These might seem like two entirely separate things – the mythic portrait I carry of my father and the slow frame-by-frame revealing of the life I firmly stand in now, but in ways, I think they are the same thing. In both cases, it is only ever in the end that we see the whole mural, all of the colors and all of the lines and how each piece connected to another to build something beautiful. Parents do this when they look back at days when their grown children were younger. Long-term couples do this when they look back at their early days together and the little moments and stories that led to love. Eventually we see it in all of its beauty, but maybe right now one little glimpse at a time is enough.

I don’t know what this summer will be for me when I have the distance to see it for what it really is. Maybe it is when I am weaving my story on the page one line at a time or maybe it is when I am creating something else that it’s finally time for. Or maybe it is simply rest and sinking my heels in a little deeper and making slow progress on all of the tiny pieces of a life well lived that is uniquely mine. We never know until we get there, and for once in my life, I’m okay right here as I rest in the unknowing.

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from this angle

There are 7 more days left in the school year, and my kids are on overdive. Something fun happens everyday – Field Day and end of the year countdowns and yearbooks and cupcakes.

Last weekend, I hosted 19 kids for Norah’s sixth birthday party, and somehow the house is still standing.  We had donuts instead of cake and invited kids over in pajamas for breakfast, sending them all home by noon. When two o’clock rolled around, my two were somehow ready to play again and headed out on foot in the neighborhood to see what was happening. 4pm found me in a rocking chair on my front porch where I could vaguely see and hear the lemonade stand to supervise but not have a heavy hand. Every now and then, I could hear Norah’s voice yell, “Come get your LEMA-LADE!” This is one of her last pronunciation errors to hang on, and I selfishly don’t want it to fade.

I have these moments where I cannot believe it is May already, almost half the year gone. Cannot believe that I have two elementary schoolers who dress themselves and have ideas and friendship dynamics of their own and see their own world as limitless and completely safe at the same time. This is a Golden Age for us, and I am not unaware of that. I am grateful for it daily. Time is the only constant and it is rolling faster than I’d like.

I was talking with a friend recently about the messes and the joys of summertime, and she explained her sentimentality with all things summer with her own son. I get it. When I look back at my own childhood, it is somehow always eternally summertime. Hours and days of no structure at all and playing in the woods with my cousins and my sister. Watermelon, popsicles, bright red tomatoes.

We have a nature trail that runs behind the homes in our neighborhood, and the kids love to walk it all the time. Jude and his gang have built a fort of sticks and limbs and an old tarp. When he described this to me over dinner one night a while ago, he told me it was “a proper fort, Mom, a real one.” I don’t ever use that word in that particular context —  proper. There are moments when you step outside the frame to see your kids evolving in their own worlds. He lead me over there a couple of weeks ago to show it to me, and he’s right. It’s a proper fort, complete with an entrance and stones to line its edge.

Two weekends ago, they invited friends over for Sunday morning pancakes, and we went walking along the trail after breakfast. We got to a clearing lined on one side with honeysuckles, and the smell took me right back to something like 1989 when I’d run along the path between my house and my grandparents. I stopped and showed them how to pluck and string a Honeysuckle to get a drop of nectar on your tongue. They were enthralled – all four of them – and stood along the edge of the vines for a long time, plucking and stringing for that tiny drop.

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My kids have a childhood so very different from my own in many ways. They have Kindles and know what a smartphone is and see a globe much smaller than what I saw. We are settled in the suburbs with a small green square of grass and only three of us in this house. But there are ways it echos my own childhood, too. Lemonade stands and long summer days and dirt under your fingernails when you finally come back inside after hours of play. Fort building and honeysuckle eating and other kids to explore with.

It feels good to stand here on the outside and watch them build a world of their own. And I can see from this angle how deeply colored the aisles of memory are, knowing one day they will walk past a patch of Honeysuckle and be taken right back to the place we are now. This is my middle and their beginning, and it is such a sweet spot when I look through that lens to see the rolling hands of time as something that both pushes us from place to place and sometimes dissolves into nothing. Some things are eternal.

the long, infinite echo

The kids are away on spring break until tomorrow afternoon, so I’ve spent the last two days getting my own self ready for work in the quiet of early mornings and coming home to that same quiet after my evening commute. It is a weird feeling. I know I’d hate it if this was my norm, but it’s a good three-day break from the usual chaos that mornings can bring when they are heading to school.

I’ve spent a good bit of the past few days enjoying my house in a way that I forget to sometimes. Home is important. This week marks three full years in this space, and I love it more everyday.

I also caught a documentary on Netflix that I can’t recommend enough — InnSaei, a film about intuition and ways the modern word has lost it. (The trailer is here if you’d like to see it.) I keep turning it over in my mind, and I already want to watch it again to hear it a second time around.

You don’t have to work hard to convince me that intuition exists in a very real way or that it’s something valuable, but this film explores it from so many different angles – including the ways that science can measure it and the ways that we can cultivate it. One thing was certain across all of the resources and all of the interviews and all of the conversation about intuition – that it only shows up in the quiet.

I’m working on this, on letting the quiet settle in the space around me without looking for a distraction. It is hard though. It is against the grain of the world we live in. But it never ceases to talk to me a bit when I let it grow and expand in spaces in my life. Sometimes you know things and you don’t even know why you know them. Do you feel that way? I can hardly count the times in my life when I knew something and later saw such a clear line between this and that. I’m getting better at feeling it in the present moment now and not just the rear view mirror.

Saturday I went for a hike alone, and when I got home I repotted a plant my mom had picked up for me a few days prior. Since that weekend was followed by a few mornings of slow silence, somehow I feel more centered than I have in a while — even though work is crazy and there are a million things to do — somehow all of the spinning plates are moving a little more slowly. I heard someone say once that people always say I don’t know what to do about a given situation, but the thing is that you do know. You always know if you are quiet enough to listen.

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I am sifting through the pieces of what 2018 has brought me already and listening hard for what they have to tell me. I hear nothing at all in the midst of everyday noise, and I think nothing has changed or I am just treading water or I am not where I should be. But the minute I take a day or two to shut it all down and let the silence swell a bit and sit with it, I hear it. I always know what to do, always know where I am. The term Innsaei apparently translates to the sea within as well as to see within and finally to see from the inside out. We don’t exactly have an English word equivalent, but intuition is as close as we can get.

I can remember when I was a kid, my great-grandmother had this massive seashell that she used as a door stop, and my cousins and I would always do the trick of holding it to your ear to hear the rush of the ocean. I remember it was just one long, infinite echo. Loud and quiet at the same time. No matter how long you held it to your ear, the rushing just kept speaking to you in one long hush. I swear intuition works that way, too. There is a hum there if I listen. As vast as the ocean, loud and quiet at the same time.

Hafiz tells us, “This place you are right now, God circled on a map for you.” I forget that sometimes until something small delivers that message. It’s always something tiny — the way afternoon sunlight comes around the curve near my house in the early evening hours, the feel of my hands in a pot of black dirt, the silence that punctuates bird chirps when I hike alone, the way words flow when I string one sentence together with another. This is my spot, circled on a map. That quiet rush inside always talking to me like a compass.

in and out of time

I’ve been dreaming lately of a house where I used to live. Over and over, night after night, this house makes its way into my imagination.

Sometimes dreams seem like nothing more than leftover, jumbled images and scenes from my recent days, but when they come to me repeatedly, I cannot help but pay attention.

I never go inside of this house in the dream; I only see it from the exterior view. Once I stood in its kitchen with a crowd of people and looked out the windows into what was the backyard. But every other time – and this has been night after night for weeks now – I only see it from the outside. Something is always altered about it. The newest owners have put in a swimming pool, or reshaped the driveway, or built an addition. Last night I was perched farther away from it not even realizing I was there but glanced over to see that there it was again, this time with little yellow lights strung up all around the porch. One wild night, I rode a roller coaster through the thick woods and hills all around it. Another night, I waved to the neighbors from the yard. And in every one of these dreams, I meet it with no sadness or loss or panic or longing. Just everyday observation — sometimes fascination, and always curiosity. Familiar and unfamiliar, too.

I moved in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2013, and 2015. That 6 year stretch in the middle was spent in that house.

It was old(er) and drafty, and when we bought it, the carpet was terrible, and every wall seemed covered in patterned wallpaper from 1988. We spent the first night sleeping on a mattress on the floor and the following few years improving it bit by bit. We eventually bought furniture to fill every room and landscaped the yard which began as a massive muddy slope and ended as a shaded grassy hill. I brought two babies home there. Nothing matched, and none of our appliances were new until the dishwasher broke and we had to get another one. It was nothing special. But somehow everyone who ever crossed the threshold of that old house loved it and commented that it felt like home. In the end, they maybe loved it more than I did because I grew lonely in the old house on the hill with no nearby neighbors, and we grew tired of the constant need to fix and repair.

Life was so simple there though. In hindsight, naively so. Like Eve before she bit the apple and understood everything. It feels like a hundred lifetimes ago.

I hadn’t thought about this house at all in my years since. Until now that it revisits me night after night, dream after dream, in every way and angle you can imagine. Always somehow altered from what it was before but familiar enough that it’s recognizable to me.

I’ve been browsing dream dictionaries, reading Thomas Moore’s ideas, and thinking thinking, thinking. Turning it all over again and holding it up to the light. I’m not sure dreams have one perfect meaning and literal interpretation we are supposed to read as though it is a code giving us answers. But I think the subconscious finds a way to talk to us through our dreams when the outside noise may be too loud for us to hear it otherwise.

I was reintroduced to TS Eliot’s Four Quartets recently when I was studying something else. That line nearly knocks me over — the way forward is the way back. We always end up where we started. But we always look a little different than when we began.

I’ve bitten the apple, obviously. Things are not naively simple anymore. Everything is different. But there’s another level of ease and simplicity and truth to my life now that I don’t think I have felt since I’ve left that place. Maybe not ever.

Here we are again. Sometimes my back door is a little drafty, and nothing matches, and my appliances are not new. My dishwasher broke this month, so I finally ordered a new one. And when we walk in the door, it feels like home. Like a place to jump off from.

Perhaps this is why, in those dreams, I am not haunted or sad or grieving or knocking on that door longing to go inside. Every night, I simply see it, altered somehow, and I take a look as best I can with a little curiosity and a healthy disbelief that this thing is really real. That the simple life is here again in another form.

Later in that poem, Elliot goes on to say “For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, … 
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music.”

I think my current season of simple truth was heard so deeply that I didn’t even hear it at all – until my dreams had to show me again and again. I hear it now. I’m hearing the music and seeing this moment in and out of time. The way forward is the way back. 

 

on the daily

The kids are snoozing soundly, and I can hear their stuffy snores as I type this. I haven’t done this in forever – writing aimlessly just because I feel like it.

I’ve been listening to this incredible book of essays on my way to and from work lately. I laugh out loud and tear up and just generally get reminded everyday why I love words so much and why I love home so much, too.

I have a lot of thoughts tumbling and nowhere to put them. Because I’ve been spending my writing hours lately exploring things that have long passed, I tend to pay less attention to what is happening here and now – which has always been the aim of this space, to just record events as they happen and my feelings about them as those feelings pass through. I miss that. But there are only so many hours in the day, only so many stores of creative energy to use. As a result though, I tend to find myself surprised when an emotion sneaks up on me these days. I think writing is my mindfulness practice in ways I didn’t realize until my pace has slowed down with this journal.

One thing I’ve been pretty dedicated to lately is a daily yoga practice. I use the early morning hours to make this happen, and if you’d told me years ago that I’d be up at 5am rolling out my yoga mat while my kids slept – every single day – I wouldn’t have believed you. And I’m realistic enough to know that this is not a permanent thing that will happen for me 365 days a year forever after. But for now, it is floating me through the coldest and darkest days of the year which is something.

It ignites certain muscles, I’m finding. It’s an odd feeling — to be sore somewhere you didn’t realize you even had a muscle. How can I live in this body and be surprised at how it works like this? But it feels so good for me to turn that energy on as I begin my day. It somehow makes me feel like my spinning pieces are going somewhere, like there is a place here in the center pushing it all forward and welcoming it back home at the end of the day. It makes the rest of the world matter a little less.

I’ve practiced more intensely than this once or twice a week and not experienced nearly the benefit I’m getting now with a daily ritual. It is this way with absolutely everything in life, I’ve found. The daily rhythm matters. There is no replacement for it. Want to be a better cook? Do it everyday. Want to be in better shape? Move your body everyday. Want to be a better writer? Write everyday. Want to know someone better? Connect with that person everyday. All of life rests in what happens repeatedly, not what we do once in a while when we feel like it. That is a hard thing to swallow sometimes when it’s not always easy to do these things, but that is the truth.

My kids’ father is traveling across the ocean with his current wife this week. They land this weekend to spend it with the kids and then fly out again somewhere else a few days later. As always, I am here with the regular, predictable rhythm.

They call the kids every evening with the daily report of sights seen and presents purchased. I hear the chatter as they explain these things to the kids, and I wonder if this ever stops being strange. I stir dinner on the stove and unpack the backpacks and wash the clothes, and the ocean between us feels more like a universe because I just cannot imagine any other daily life than this one. Sunrise at the bus stop, school days ticking by, dinner at a table for three, and warm bedtime stories before we do it all again the next day.

Travel can bring all kinds of exciting things, and home (especially in the dead of winter) is not always so exciting to say the least. But I’ve been doing so much reading and writing lately about this place I call home, so much reflecting on the stories that float to the surface of my 36 years on this spinning planet, and I think maybe home doesn’t get enough credit for discovery either. I drive the same winding roads everyday to and from work. We lean on the same schedule everyday before and after school. It’s hard not to feel restless sometimes, but that’s the thing about home. You cannot run when you are here. My roots are deep enough in this place that I’ve come to see what self-accountability means. And at the end of the day, life is only made of what you use to create it with your own two hands.

As I stirred the soup tonight waiting for us in the slow cooker, I called my grandad to check in on him and on another family member. I could hear clucking in the background, and he explained he was “fastenin’ up the chickens” as he does every night at the same time. He is from a time that doesn’t seem to exist anymore – one when accountability and honesty were the measure of a man and consistency was paramount. Sometimes it feels like in all the beautiful, wide open possibility of what we see before us in the 21st century, we have lost that touchstone somehow. Jude loves pinto beans, and now that my grandad knows that, he’s asking when we can come for dinner so that he can make them for him. (He was never the cook in the family, but in my grandmother’s absence, he’s somehow absorbed her insistence on feeding legions of people and memorizing our food preferences and sending us out the door with arms full of food… It is hilarious and another post for another day.)

It made me smile to think of every bit of this. The daily task of “fastening the chickens” and gathering the eggs. The way he predicts the weather more accurately than any meteorologist just by the cumulative wisdom of a lifetime of paying attention. The generous offer to feed a growing boy with what he loves and a nod to the days when beans cooked all day were served in a single bowl with homemade bread in a skillet and that alone was called dinner (still works for us).

It is the simplicity of what happens every single day that illuminates the core of your character and offers a rhythm for your life. I need to remember this among the early wake-ups and the packed lunch boxes and the evening rituals. Home is here for you when you need it, but it only blooms when you plant it. You have to tend a garden to watch it grow.

 

keep on keepin’ on

Somehow nearly three weeks sped past since I last wrote here. I am not even certain exactly what I’ve been doing that has had me so busy. Just regular life, I suppose. Wrapping gifts and prepping Christmas traditions and school parties and the everyday life that already leaves us feeling busy as it is.

The Christmas anticipation was fun, and the day itself was lovely, but now I’m glad it’s over. Am I allowed to say that? I am grateful for the next week or so to decompress and reflect and restore order, and I’m ready for the blank slate of a new year.

We spent Christmas Eve with my family, and the kids played with cousins. They ran around outside playing hide and seek until the food was ready, and then they returned inside to eat and play games until late. They got a few toys to play with, but the adults in my family stopped exchanging gifts years ago when we realized that we have all we need and kids are a lot more fun to shop for. (This change improved my holidays ten times over, by the way. No stress of shopping for anyone other than kids.) But this year, my granddad surprised us with one of the best gifts I have ever received. He’d found a box full of old quilt tops my grandmother had packed away. Most of these were stitched by her own mother, and a few were even pieced by her grandmother. So if you’re counting generations, that is my great-great grandmother. (!!) They were the tops only, and the rest of it was unfinished, so he found someone to finish them and one-by-one had them completed. There were enough for each of the girls in the family to get one.

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No store-bought gift could compare to this. It blows my mind to think about – each stitch completed with love and care, and it laid unfinished in a box for decades only to re-emerge as something whole and real and beautiful. We never know where our story ends, do we? We never know how what we create today will live on and on. So many things in my life feel unfinished, and I’m grateful to have this reminder to take the long view.

When we got home on Christmas Eve, my kids put the cookies out for Santa and hurried to bed as quickly as they could. They don’t always get along easily these days, but the best Christmas Miracle imaginable is that they have really played together so well these last couple of weeks. It has felt like such a gift to me when I’ve grown used to more sibling bickering than I’d like.

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They’d written letters to Santa earlier in the week. Norah’s list was a random assortment of all kinds of things that just occurred to her with no warning (typical five year old) — a stuffed animal, a doll, a pretend pet bird who can fit on your shoulder, and pineapple from the North Pole. Jude’s contained only one item that he’s been asking for since September — a Nintendo Switch.

They ran down the stairs on Christmas morning at 5:58am (yawn), and waded through their gifts. But they paced themselves on opening them and talked a little about each one which pleasantly surprised me. Jude was beyond surprised to get the Switch even though it was all he has asked for. He didn’t expect it somehow. But it cracked me up that the gifts that brought the biggest smiles and the most excitement were the North Pole Pineapple ($2.65 at Publix) and a package of root beer (impulse buy for a boy who loves it but never gets to drink it at home). You just never know what little things will bring joy.

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Christmas is so heavily laced with nostalgia and meaning. It’s easy to get wrapped up in it – especially as a parent. We try to make it perfect enough to leave some indelible imprint in their memory, but one thing I’m understanding as I begin to string chapters together for this book I’m working on is that memories are actually not made in isolation. When we remember one thing or one moment, it is actually laced with meaning and layer upon layer of association — not just that one day in time.

I’ve made such a conscious effort this past few years to see Christmas as any other day – with a few extra celebrations. I do the best I can to show them the traditions that can ground us, the reason for the holiday, and the value of both giving and receiving. And then I let it go. I do not compare to what it looked like before or what it might look like in the future or what it looks like in homes outside of my own.

All I know now is that I do the best I can and that somehow the three of us fill the room with enough light to drown out any shadows of inadequacy or comparison that may be lingering in some dark corner of my own mind. 2017 is the year I figured out that fear and negativity and dissatisfaction do not grow when you don’t feed them.

Some holidays are hard and some years are hard, and we just have to accept that sometimes. Life doesn’t look like exactly what we thought it would, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we just move right along to what is good about right now and perhaps even what is better than we expected as a result of the unforeseen. I recently ran across a Maya Angelou quote on Instagram and some commentary relating it to the holidays and what they can feel like when we lose ourselves in some expectation of comparison and think we have failed if we do not make it The Best Christmas Ever. Angelou says, “My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.”

The holidays became a lot easier for me when I realized that, in actuality, they are just another day in a series of 364 other ones where we get to create magic and possibility and joy and comfort and peace and fulfillment. What Maya seems to be saying there to me is keep on keepin’ on. And so I am. With root beer and North Pole pineapple and cozy nights at home under my new quilt. The best is yet to come, and there is always more. Christmas joy is like no other, but that same peace waits for me all year long when I slow down enough to see it.

on making magic

The holidays are officially here. It is snowing outside (!!!) in Georgia as I type this. We occasionally have icy snow in February or so, but these are fluffy flakes that are melting as they hit the roadways but covering branches in white this morning. As a native southerner, I will never think it’s anything less than magical to see snow out my window. I’m drinking coffee to armor up for a long day of grading essays while the kids are at school, but I wanted to take a minute to write first.

I took Norah to a Nutcracker tea party last weekend hosted by her ballet studio. We had treats and tea and watched the “big girls” perform Nutcracker variations. I caught a glimpse of her face watching them, and it is everything I love about ballet condensed to one expression – the awe and the dreaming and the bewilderment at the grace of it all.

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She watches the older girls practice in the studio sometimes and looks at them like they are celebrities. I try to use it as an opportunity to talk about hard work and perseverance, but she mainly just sees it as some kind of magic they have that she hopes to grasp one day.

I see parallels there in my own self. As humans, we tend to look at success in any area – career, health, relationships, anything – as some kind of magic sauce, but when we break anything down to see the smaller pieces, it’s clear that we make our own magic, don’t we? Or at least we make it bloom where the spark began. It starts like some magnetic thing we can’t quite put words to, and it grows when we decide to lean in and make it our own.

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Our elf is not typically very exciting or creative, but he brought a skittle rainbow today. (I can’t take all the credit. I had help on this idea.) Both kids stood enamored this morning with their bed heads and sleepy eyes watching the colors swirl. Seeing Christmas through the eyes of kids is such a reminder that enchantment is there for us if we are just willing to open our eyes to see it. And as a parent pulling all the strings, it also emphasizes my role in creating my life’s magic.

It always requires leaning in a little past where I normally would, laying bare what I usually shy away from showing, and letting that spark ignite without judgement or expectation or cynicism. I think as I get older I am finally understanding that magic does not simply fall from the sky fully formed and ready to bestow itself on the lucky few. It starts with a spark, and it evolves to some kind of fascinating alchemy when we show up for our own lives with a true curiosity, a clear voice, and an open heart.