Books, gratitude

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?

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gratitude

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.

 

 

Books, gratitude

ordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

gratitude

engine

I can hardly believe there are three days left in October as I type this. Another year almost come and gone.

I mentioned this on my Instagram feed a few days ago, but I had a biopsy last week. It was a situation that began in August when I had my baseline mammogram, and it led to a second scan, and then my insistence on a second opinion when the first practice claimed I needed a biopsy. I am relatively young and have no strong family history of breast cancer, so I was hesitant to do it. But then eventually I agreed when the second specialist explained that the way it was clustered on the mammogram image did, in fact, need to be checked.

So on Friday the 19th (my grandmother’s birthday incidentally) I drove to Atlanta for the procedure, and it was honestly a little more than I’d bargained for. This wasn’t a lump I could feel; instead it was a spot deep enough that it required a sterotactic biopsy which just means that they do it while being guided by a mammogram machine. Like anyone else, I have had so much going on in the regular business of my everyday life. So I realized when I finally laid face down on the table that they elevate to access your breast and do the procedure that I honestly hadn’t really processed any of what that meant – the big stuff anyway. It was just an item on my to-do list until I laid still for 90 minutes for it to happen and that is when I finally let my head go to the what if question that this whole thing prompted.

The tech was an angel, an absolute angel. She grabbed my hand like a old friend when the needle made its way in and told me to squeeze. They like to stop the bleeding before you leave the room so that you don’t have risk of infection at the site later, and as I finally sat up, she stood there holding compression on my bare breast for another 20 minutes until it stopped bleeding so much. Then she cleaned me up and bandaged me with an ice pack and gave me a hug to send me home. As I sat there shirtless in the cold and sterile room and she cleaned me up, I remembered why it feels so ceremonial to clean someone else’s body. All the times this has happened before. In religious texts, when we read of washing someone’s feet, that first bath with a baby when they are still covered in blood from their entrance, the memories of bathing my grandmother in those last days when she couldn’t do it herself. These shells we live in. Both sacred and mundane.

In the days that followed, the initial soreness wore off, and on Wednesday the doctor called to say that magic word benign, which I knew was the statistically probable answer, but exhaled deeply nonetheless. What if, what if, what if is a scary game to play for any one of us.

And for me, if I am being honest, the physical vulnerability highlighted the fact that I am the only adult in this house. My working body is the engine that keeps this train moving, and never for a second had I thought about the possibility that it might not until last week. As is always the case with the moments that shift our perspective in life, this was so many things rolled into one. Fear and courage. Pain and relief. Dissatisfaction followed by gratitude. And the heavy realization that in ways I am very, very alone. But also in ways I am supported beyond what I realize. The friends and family who volunteered to go with me to the procedure itself and even the way that the universe delivered a stranger who treated me like a sacred friend for the hours we crossed paths.

Here is the weird thing I am learning about life: we are never alone, but also at the end of the day, we are all alone, every one of us. These big questions can never be resolved by anyone other than the one you see in the mirror.

I have a lot of catching up to do this weekend — uninspiring things like laundry and grocery shopping and cleaning the bathtubs and grading papers. But I have also spent time recuperating under blankets with soup and hot tea and some television last night. I started watching Amazon’s Forever on the recommendation of a friend. I am only 4 episodes in but struck by the quiet thoughtfulness of this show. I won’t ruin it for you with too many details, but I will say that Fred Armisen plays the most perfect husband who is always cheerful and serves his wife dinner each and every night, and they exist in a house where everything is in its place at all times. Their lives are easy and predictable. And yet there is this moment where you see Maya Rudolph’s face as he serves his perfect dinner in their perfectly clean home, and there is such boredom, such misery. It delivers those lessons that only a paradox can teach you, the ones that echo inside you for a while after you quit watching.

It is only ever the scary and the risk and the unforeseen and the unknown that makes it worth any of our time, isn’t it? Tomorrow could change everything for me — for the better or for the worse. And that idea is terrifying but also electrifying. I have no idea what lies around the bend, but I know that my life has given me a spine of steel and the softest heart, and I think those two things can withstand anything.

I picked up Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest poetry collection a few weeks ago, and my favorite poem in the book concludes with her assertion that, “We’re so anxious but deep down, in the heart place of time, our lives are resonant, rolling. They’re just waiting for us to remember them. We are here, so deeply here, and then we won’t be. And that is the most unbelievable thing of all.”

It is unbelievable, isn’t it? That we are not here forever, that every single one of us has an expiration date. That we have no idea what tomorrow will bring. That we are never alone but also we are the only ones who can do it. I am so glad, always but especially this week, that this very particular life is mine. I would not trade any piece of it for anyone else’s. This body is mine, and the engine is still rolling onward to something I cannot see.

gratitude

something different

It is Monday again somehow. I spent part of last week and half the weekend at a large academic conference, and I was presenting this time, so it has consumed a good bit of effort from the past few weeks to be ready for that.  It feels good to have it checked off my list. Yesterday I crammed all the usual prep for the work week into the few free hours I had. Today is Jude’s ninth birthday, so I baked a coffee cake to greet him when he wakes up, and we will do what we always do and sit at our breakfast table and sing happy birthday to greet another year.

Right now, as I type this, the house is quiet and it is still dark outside. Coffee on my left and the dog sleeping in front of me with only the glow of my favorite lamp and the screen in front of me. I always wake up an hour before the rest of the house. The only time of my day where I can feel the space around me and in front of me and slow my pace enough to settle in. This is my favorite hour.

Where to even begin with this? Saturday I finished up the conference just in time to catch Rob Bell’s Atlanta stop on his Holy Shift tour. Pete Rollins was the opener, and I also grabbed a ticket for the Q&A session an hour before the show started. My brain was so fried from 3 days of academic jargon that I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to rally for hours of talk on God and humanity and philosophy, but they both grabbed me with their material, and it was the best night I’ve had in such a long, long time. As always, what I needed to hear found me at exactly when I needed to hear it.

As Pete Rollins opened, he spoke a bit about that space between what we are and what we want to be – the ways that it can motivate and it can also create pain. The story of Adam and Eve shows us this. As does psychology (what is out of reach is always what you crave) and Greek myths, too. But Rollins rolled on with that Oscar Wilde quote, “There are two tragedies in life: one is not getting what you want and the other is getting it.” And he spoke about how we always think that next thing is what will make us happy, but in reality it never does. I think I forget this – that the secret to life actually lies in the longing, the desiring. Until you lock into that space of longing for something just outside of your reach, you can absorb a kind of inertia. (Something Rob Bell has coined as death by wallpaper and flooring on an earlier talk. A slow, steady death I see all around me in this chapter of my life. People who are asleep at the wheel all day long.)

I think the image Rollins left with us that won’t leave me alone is the idea that we are all haunted houses full of ghosts rumbling somewhere just beneath what we can access in our daily lives. He asserts that only when we are dreaming can we access this real space and we have to, in a sense, go to sleep when we wake up to begin our days so that we can get on with the usual business of life and distract ourselves from all these existential questions.  As someone who swears that my dreams speak to me sometimes (especially lately), I feel this so closely.

The whole intention of this tour is to explore the word holy with both its ancient context and its modern use, and Rob Bell came out after Rollins to do just that. (Here we are in 2018, and someone can come to an empty stage, one microphone, one chair, and no screen, and talk for nearly two hours about the word holy. Amazing.)

He used the story of Isaiah who claims he had a vision of the throne of God as angels circled saying Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh which is Hebrew for holy, and he jumped forward to what exactly does that word mean anyway, and how can we harness that in 2018.

I cannot condense two hours into a few paragraphs, but essentially what I came to hear and to hold a little closer to my own experience is this — Some things cannot be explained. And what is holy never makes sense in our immediate lives. When something makes me feel big (motherhood) or small (staring up at the night sky) or when something is just too weird as he so simply called it (the million instances in my life where things just cannot be rationally explained) … all of these things show me that there is just this space where I stand sometimes that I need to hold a little more loosely. I need to perhaps stop trying to connect the dots and just let it be and know that this is something different than the rational, something sacred and set apart only for me and my particular path.

I thought I was there already, but this past month has shown me that I am not. I could hold it all a little more loosely than I do. I could trust a little more.

In one of my favorite of Bell’s talks that I have downloaded and listened to repeatedly, he says, “When we suffer, often our first instinct, our first impulse, is we want answers and we want them now. And that longing and desire is driven by if I just had a black and white, clear cut explanation as to why it would perhaps fix this pain that I am holding that I don’t quite know what to do with. But in my experience, I don’t know if explanations and answers are ultimately what help us heal. Why did that particular cell mutate that way? Why did that car hit that patch of ice? Why did that person’s heart become hard in that way?  Would a clear explanation of that really help a person begin the long, slow road of putting one foot in front of the other and begin to heal and imagine a new tomorrow? …. There is an absolute universal truth I know for sure and it is this. When we suffer, this too will shape us.”

Two weeks ago, when my kids had been at dad’s for the weekend, they rolled in at 5pm, and we sat down in the little playroom to the right of the front door. Jude was babbling about something; I don’t remember what. Norah was trying to interrupt him to say something as well, and she laid down on top of me on the floor so that her head was on my chest, and I was just lying there on the floor looking up at Jude sitting there next to me talking and talking. He laughed at something; I don’t remember what it was, and it didn’t matter. And I don’t know what it was about that particular second. Maybe that I’d had a hard weekend battling my own never-ending need for answers and demons of self-doubt. Or maybe just that the house was full of smiles and noise again, and there was fall afternoon sunlight spilling through the front window.

But whatever the reason, I know that one full sentence ran through my brain unbidden. Maybe I am building something different than I knew I was. Unexpected words that come from someplace else are another way that the holy shows up for me.

I don’t even know entirely what that means yet and where to put it. But I think it is connected to all of what I heard on Saturday night. There is no end game where I stand. This is not some stepping stone to a perfect plateau that I can see stretched in front of me. This is now and here, and that is all I can see. Instead of connecting the dots, I’m going to hold it all a little more loosely. Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh. Maybe I am building something different than I knew I was.

 

 

gratitude, Life and Randomness, single parenthood

sacred

We are almost to the end of August, my least favorite month. Routines are not quite established yet, and it all feels new. Once we are in the swing of things, it makes me feel a little more firmly held. But not yet.

Yesterday’s schedule had us leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and walking back in the door at 7:20pm, a routine that will feel normal in a few more weeks, but last night I went to bed depleted and frazzled. These years and their packed lunch boxes and homework checks and ballet tights and sports practices. It’s no wonder older parents swear to me that it flies so quickly.  The rhythm of my academic life mirrors my kids’ seasons as my work schedule gains speed right when theirs does. Most weeks race like a mad dash to the finish line.

School year routines can feel good and firm and safe though – once I get used to them again. But they can also feel overwhelming. I was drowning in work tasks this last few days, unsure if I could finish things in time, and the frantic brain wasn’t helping. All of my mental browsers open at the same time, like a desk full of scribbled post-its. Yesterday morning I vowed to take a long look at my list, choose what was most important (not necessarily most urgent), and do only one thing at a time. Suddenly instead of spinning my wheels, I was checking things off my list. Multi-tasking never works as well as we think it does.

Urgency and priority are not the same thing.

The hard part about this time of year – and perhaps about parenting or even existing as a human in the modern world at all – is that it is actually up to me and only me to name the priorities in my life and to hold them sacred. No one is going to help me with that. And even worse, what the world demands of me, what is screaming loudest for my attention, is hardly ever what I truly value most. It is not easy holding those things firmly in their place at the front of my life.

I heard an interview with Wintley Phipps on the way to work this morning, and he talked about partnership and character. He said something like if you ask someone what they hold sacred and they cannot name a single thing, that person is not someone you want to be with. It’s a concept that made me stop and think and replay it in my head and then toss the word sacred in my brain and heart all day long. Sacred, holy, set apart, inviolable, unassailable, cherished, revered. (the synonym game)

He was speaking specifically about marriage and partnership, and it spoke right to me and gave voice to something I’ve thought a lot about in the last year or so and didn’t quite have words for yet. But apart from relationships, it also made me think about my own self and what I hold sacred.  What is revered most and what feels holy in my own life.

Sacred to me is never what screams the loudest for attention. It is early quiet mornings when it is still dark outside and my kids are sleeping, and I am stumbling through the kitchen to feed the dog and brew coffee. It is time with only the three of us. It is the ways they share the tiniest pieces of their days just before their eyes get heavy, just after I have turned off the lamp beside them. Sometimes sacred is something simple like a lunch at my desk with my office door closed to students, or early evening light through the kitchen window while I stir something on the stove. Sacred is laughing at something one of the kids said that I wasn’t expecting to hear. It is a handwritten card or a quick note from someone. The sound of a voice on the telephone line in the age of too many text messages. It is typing words on a screen and printing them on a page to edit with a favorite pen. It’s reading a book in the late lamplight before I go to sleep.

I am not always a pessimist about the modern world – usually quite the opposite actually. But this is one area where we are not winning at all. The very things that hold most of us together don’t happen unless we claim them and notice them. And somehow that gets harder to do with every passing year and the hurried pace we all measure ourselves against.

Perhaps my resolution for the academic year ahead is just to see things through this lens. To ask myself the right question everyday – Is this important or it this just urgent? To seek the sacred and recognize it for what it is and demand space for it everyday. I once heard boundaries described like the careful hand we place around the tiny flame on a birthday candle as the voices sing and we prepare the cake for its moment on the table. That tiny burning flame that needs a shield from the space around it in order to survive. It’s up to me to name what’s holy and to shield it from all the rest.

gratitude, Life and Randomness

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.