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.

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mostly standing still

It’s Thanksgiving Day, mid afternoon. The kids return to me at 5, and then we will head out to celebrate with my family. I woke up alone today after the best night of sleep I’ve had in ages. I sipped coffee and read a little bit before breakfast, and then I did a yoga session twice as long as my usual one before I began cooking cranberry pie and putting a few sides together to take to my family potluck dinner.

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Tonight we will eat with cousins and grandparents, and four generations will be together. Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday. It’s just food and fun and no pressure to wrap gifts quite yet. It signals the start of the advent season, and for the kids, it’s the signal to get started decorating in our house. We will pull out the Christmas tree this Sunday and sip hot chocolate and eat leftover pie and watch movies in our pajamas.

My hope for the rest of the year is just to notice the ordinary, the everyday. I ran across Mary Oliver’s “Messenger” this morning, and my eyes ran back to the first line of the poem as soon as I reached the bottom to read it again and again. She insists, “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” Standing still is hard. Especially for me with the never-ending motion of that reel inside my head that spins and spins. I think maybe I just need to remember that I cannot mess anything up if I just stand still and be astonished. I think maybe in the past my expectations are actually what missed the mark because goodness can’t always find its way through the tough exterior of perfectionism.

Holidays find me faster and faster every year. And every time they say the same thing. All you need is right here.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Love Story

I flew out last Friday morning to Austin, Texas and home again early on Sunday. I’m still recovering from a whirlwind of a weekend spent celebrating the wedding of one of my closest longtime friends. I’ve spent half my week a little delirious from the travel exhaustion and the excitement and the beauty that was all of it.

Traveling mid-semester is no joke. I carried a bag full of student essays with me through airports and airplanes, and I had to work hard to turn off the teacher-brain and the mom-brain living inside of me with that constant voice of rush and guilt and worry. But I managed to quiet those voices for a day or two as I celebrated with some of my oldest friends – some of whom live close or traveled with me and others spread from Texas to New York City.

We celebrated Friday night at the rehearsal dinner and an after party downtown, and then we woke early on Saturday morning and ate breakfast in a a little cafe before stopping by the LBJ Library for a while. Eventually Graffiti Park and Mount Bonnell followed, and the climb up gave us a beautiful view of the Colorado River. Austin is such a unique place, and I already find myself wanting to go back and explore a little more. It was full of so many fun and funky spots.

We walked the few blocks Saturday evening from our hotel to the wedding venue, and I had the best kind of butterflies in my stomach. I’ve seen this friend through something like 18 years of ups and downs and dating questions and heavy moments for the both of us where we thought we knew where the path was going but found soon enough that our assumed outcome wasn’t in the cards for us.

Weddings are almost always beautiful, but this one held its own kind of special for me. A reminder that sometimes the most uncomfortable bumps in the road and the very biggest heartaches are actually exactly what lead us to what is real and true. A reminder never to settle. A reminder that real love is always worth the wait, no matter how long that is for us. A reminder that we never really know where the story ends.

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Weddings can bring all kinds of sticky things for you when you are divorced, that first year or so especially. It’s hard to watch others make promises when you are emerging from the shreds of your own that were left unfulfilled. But this one was easy for me. It felt soft and real and not sharp or sad in the least. Maybe that means I have healed, or maybe that means they are the real deal. Or likely both. Whatever the reason, only love was there.

Krista Tippet writes about her own post-divorce wreckage in her book Becoming Wise. I’ve underlined and noted certain passages in that book and reread them so many times. She echos my own experience; “When my marriage ended, … I became one of the walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. After my divorce, I created a welcoming home, took great delight in my children, … invested in far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself for years that I had a hole where ‘love’ should be. This is the opposite of a healing story — it’s a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. … I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.”

This season of my life has shown me how narrowly I’ve seen that word love. How much bigger it really is from what we perceive it to be. How much it stretches beyond the reach of two individual people and moves far and wide through the circles that make our lives what they are – if we are lucky.

These women are so much to me. Even as a writer, I can’t really describe it in words – which is something I don’t say often. We have seen it all in the past 18 years. They are there through thick and thin. The real thing. I knew it would feel good to see one of our own celebrated like this, but I didn’t expect it to feel this good. I think you know that friendship has reached that magic place when your sadness is truly my sadness, and on the other side, your joy is my joy. It was all joy last weekend, and it felt like such a gift to watch it happen.

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We stole her away for a minute during the reception to step outside for a second and get out of the madness of the crowd. The tears of gratitude wouldn’t stop for me. That joy that hums deep down inside where it is so much fuller when you’ve seen the other end of things. Who knew heartache could make your happy happier? Love is sweeter when you’ve had to wait it out to find it, and love is better when you have friends who see you like a sister. Someone’s husband snuck this picture, and it’s my new favorite thing. I’m the luckiest. 18 years together is something to be grateful for.

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I’ve stopped reading that script that tells me love is somehow less present in my life because I sleep alone. And it’s such a liberating thing to see my life for just a moment from the outside eye – from the camera lens or through the eyes of a friend. I’ve got more love than I can handle, and it overflows sometimes in the very best ways.

I was revisiting some of Laura McKowen’s writings recently, and I stumbled again on her musings on love. She resonates in all the right places for me and reminds me to “keep faith in the larger story….there is a through line that runs deeper and is more benevolent, surprising, and magnificent than you can conceive. … no matter what, do not be mistaken: this is a love story. Your entire life is a love story. It’s just not the kind you think.”

I feel that line running through the undercurrent of my life, and everyday that I get more solid on my own two feet and more grateful, it gets stronger. I don’t know where it’s headed, but it’s taking me with it.

I know there is a more typical love story happening one day in my life, too. The kind with two people and a white dress and all that comes with it. I can’t even explain why I know this except that I just do. The way you know the sky is blue and trees have roots. I can feel it pulling so clearly sometimes in a way that is more real to me than almost anything else in my life.

But I’m waiting it out. And in the meantime, this love story I’m in right now is not the kind I thought it would be, but it is as true as anything ever was for me and anything ever will be. Love is love is love is love.

 

that higher order

Fall has finally arrived in Georgia. We’ve bundled up this week to walk to the bus stop, and afternoons are that perfect breezy and 75. It’s over in a blink, but that makes it sweeter. We have two weeks left of Daylight Savings Time, and dark is coming fairly early even now. We are finally moving to a new season.

We had a neighborhood festival yesterday afternoon with a cake walk, kid games, a ticket booth, a chili cook-off competition, and a hayride. It’s an annual event here, and it gets more comfortable for us every year. Faces we know well and a place that feels like home. Every afternoon, the kids are outside with friends on bikes and scooters or playing “capture the flag” in the grassy area beside the playground. Life is stressful beyond belief for me on some days, but I have to pinch myself sometimes that this part is even real. We created a home that somehow feels more solid than any other home I’ve had as an adult. Sometimes it really is possible for things to turn out even better than you ever dreamed. It’s so incredible to bear witness to things like that unfolding in your own life. The miracle of it doesn’t go by unnoticed for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things I care about and the things I don’t, about where I spend my energy. I caught an interview with Joan Halifax this week on the latest On Being. She talks a lot about “compassion fatigue” and the general sense of helplessness and burnout we can encounter in the face of what we see around us everyday – sometimes in our own lives and sometimes on the news. It’s hard to care sometimes. It takes a lot out of you to care about things that you cannot easily change.

She encourages, as she calls them, antidotes for these moments we are pushed to our edge. Beautiful spaces that are safe for us to retreat to can be an antidote, as can stillness and meditation and spaces of contemplation in our own lives. It occurred to me as she was talking that writing is my antidote certainly. It functions as a space for me to retreat and a form of stillness. I’ve seen this work with all kinds of situations I cannot easily change, all the continued difficulty of a blended family where my idea of boundaries is entirely different from the view of the other adults involved. I feel pushed to my edge a lot these days, but the blank page is where I sort it out.

Halifax talks about how we can deal with the despair we feel looking at the world at large, but I hear echos of my own life’s path in her answer, too: We can look back through history … when systems break down, the ones who have the resilience to actually repair themselves, they move to a higher order of organization. And I think that this is characterized by something the complexity theorists call robustness, that we can anticipate both a time of great robustness, which we’re in, with tremendous potential to wake up and take responsibility … we need resilience to make our way through this change. 

My own resilience and robustness are what enabled me to move to a higher order of organization, as she calls it. So I can say, as I did earlier, that I’ve watched a miracle unfold as I feel such solid ground beneath my feet. But when I look a little more closely at the past few years, I see why. Everything about my present life operates on that higher order of organization that I was forced to reinvent. And I was given this gift of time to thoughtfully put it all together piece by piece with no rush and nothing to prove. What I’m left with is something that can never be shaken. It’s no wonder this home feels more solid and true than any other place I’ve been. I built it with intention.

I’m so excited to pass along to you a closer look at the writing workshop I’ve completed. I’ve spent the past couple of years answering a lot of questions and building friendships across wide spaces as a result of this blog. And I kept finding myself again and again answering some similar questions — How do you find clarity in the middle of all this? Do you ever move past pain and onto something else? How do I get there? I want to write, but I don’t know where to begin.

I’d answer when I could and offer little pieces of my own experience here and there, and it finally occurred to me that I should just put together a more polished path to share the tools that worked for me with anyone else who needs them. I’ve worked really hard on this over the summer and spent the last couple of months having a few friends do a trial run for me and offer honest feedback. I wanted it to be something I felt good about sharing with all of you and something I could potentially build on in the future.

It’s a 5-week course where you are given a theme each week to write about and consider. I created these by looking back on my own path and seeing what worked for me, how I made it through from one end to the other in a major transition. The result is a string of lessons and writing prompts that carry you through the process from asserting and exploring your own independent identity to reconsidering past experiences that shaped you to capturing a better presence in your everyday life and eventually setting goals that you want to manifest for your own life. It’s a path that can offer clarity and empowerment for anyone – not just in the throes of grief or major transitions, but in life’s more subtle storms as well.

Registration will open on November 1st, and I’ll be sending out a 15% discount code to those on the email list, so be sure to sign up there if you haven’t already. I use that list to update on the course enrollment and also send along writing resources and journaling prompts every now and then. I’m thinking I’ll do another run of this workshop in 2018, but this will be the last one for the year. I hope you’ll join me if you have an honest curiosity about your own life’s questions and want to shape whatever lies on the other side. You can build it with intention, too. And I know from my own life that writing is a powerful tool to get you there.

*** A closer look can be found here, and the email sign-up is here. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions over email as well. 

fresh new page

We did it. We turned a fresh new page this week. We began the school year with not one but two kids on the bus. I packed two lunches the night before and followed four little legs to the bus stop yesterday morning.

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I can’t believe this month somehow marks the third school year we are beginning in this house and in this family of three. Right now, in this moment, I feel like I have never known it any other way but this. The three of us doing the rhythms we know well, season after season. Only what has changed is that I feel steadier and they seem older, and somehow it feels more like us everyday.

They got off the bus yesterday afternoon reporting a fun first day, but she was more tired than I’ve ever seen her – pink cheeked and bleary-eyed and overwhelmed and exhausted. I forgot how intense the first few weeks of this kindergarten transition are. We kept it easy and predictable yesterday afternoon. They snacked on strawberries and played with neighbors. Later last night, I made spaghetti and meatballs by their request and watched them slurp it as they reported details of the day – whom they sat next to at lunch, what they glued and painted, where they played at recess. We washed the day away with baths and showers and then settled in together on the couch with a cartoon before bedtime reading. Nothing is special about these seconds except that everything is. I forgot how much comfort can come from home and routines sometimes. My academic year begins in another week or two, and I feel beyond lucky that I have this time to share with them and lay some groundwork for the everyday net that holds us in the busy fall days coming up.

I kissed them off this morning for day two and walked a couple miles around the neighborhood before I came in for more coffee and the task of finishing up some freelance. The day ticked by slowly, and you can’t help but watch the clock and wonder what they’re doing now as they make their way through their own day in their own space without you. I don’t remember who said motherhood is like forever having a piece of your own heart just walking around outside of your body, but it feels that way for certain. Some days more than others.

And now they’ve left to their dad’s after school today, and I’ve had hours alone in my house after two weeks of kid noise and constant chatter. I don’t know if it’s the older I get or the more me I become, but the quiet stillness is always what it takes now for me to come back to myself, to set new intentions and refocus and fill the tank.  I ate dinner alone and soaked in a hot tub even though it was still daylight out – a ritual that always feels like an indulgence. I listened to music (Gregory Alan Isakov’s Shades of Blue which I never tire of) until the water became lukewarm, and as I dried off, I was thinking about how many hours I’ve spent in this house alone (countless) and how familiar it all is to me. Meaning how familiar the silence and the sound of my own thoughts has become. It’s a sound and a feeling I know better than anything else in my life now. My own self.

I feel like somehow there are still depths that I haven’t seen though. Does it always feel that way? I don’t know. The human soul is layers upon layers and then experiences pile on top, and here we are – left to swim the deep a million times over and feel our way out if we’re brave enough.

I think I’ve got more swimming to do in that regard, more to feel and explore, and I’m so grateful for the time and space and curiosity to do it. The start of a new academic year always fills me up with the best kind of nervousness and anticipation. There’s so much out there, just beyond the shore of where I am now. I’m stretching and reaching to see it.

 

ebb and flow

I spent most of last week on a little trip with the kids. We were only a three hour drive northward. But it felt like some place else entirely. How easy it can be to forget the beauty just outside your own backyard. It feels so good to rediscover it.

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We spent a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, near the national park that straddles the line between Tennessee and North Carolina. The idea for this trip began a year ago when I realized that I have loads of memories in these mountains with my grandparents and cousins, filed deep in the back of my very best pieces of nostalgia. We went almost every summer, and yet my own kids still hadn’t seen it and experienced it like I did. I decided this summer was a good time to take them, and then my sister decided to bring her two along as well, and my mom and grandad even drove up for the last night. We found a perfect cabin on the river in the foothills of the mountains and more or less let the kids run wild.

We unloaded our things on the afternoon of the first day and indulged in s’mores that night. Campfires and cousins in a cabin are the very best ingredients for summer memories, I think. It doesn’t take much at all to make something feel special.
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Something unique happens when you get away as a family. Kids sense the tension easing from your own back, I think. They walk lighter, just like you do. Happy with the littlest things – porch swings and smooth river rocks and open windows when we sleep. Vacation always feels like such an indulgent place, even when it’s close to home.

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We braved an amusement park one day to appease the kids, standing in crowded lines with countless other travelers at Dollywood. I can remember loving thrill rides when I was growing up, but it’s been something like 18 years since I’ve been on a roller coaster. Jude dragged me through the line for a coaster that shoots you like a cannon at 73mph high above the rest of the park. I didn’t love it like I used to; in fact, I sort of clenched my teeth and my belly and went for it to please him, but it felt terrifying in this way that I definitely didn’t experience as a kid. Maybe it’s the time and distance between then and now? Maybe it’s the adult worry mind inside me? I don’t know. But I held my eyes shut the whole time and felt relief when my feet were firmly on the ground afterwards, holding an anxious fear I don’t remember feeling when I rode them before.

Both of my kids are daredevils on these rides, and I definitely used to be. But somehow it feels different to me now. Time and experience can have unexpected effects on our own sense of fear, and it can change what scares you. We ended the day with the drive back to our little cabin, and my kids were elated from the bustle of the park, but I was mostly just tired and relieved to be back to a slower pulse.
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The next morning we spent slow hours in the national park, touring Cade’s Cove, an isolated valley with a few preserved historical structures and some beautiful wide open spaces. Life feels so quiet when you are there, like there is nothing to fear at all. But as I walked through old family homes with rock chimneys and one room for 12 people or looked at cemetery markers to find countless children and infants alongside each other, I thought a lot about how their fears were completely different than mine are today but were more real than I will ever understand.

We ended the tour there with an hour-long horseback ride through the wooded trails in the national forest. These are trail horses with a guide, and the pace is a leisurely trot, so those of you who grew up riding horses will laugh at this for sure … but this is another thing that was outside of my comfort zone to say the least. (Which is extra ironic given that only one generation ago family property held horses, and my 82-year-old grandad hopped on the horse with us last week like it was no problem at all.) But even so, an hour on the back of an animal 10 times your size in the depths of a national park isn’t something in the realm of my usual experience, and I was jittery as we waited to get on.

Once again though, it was the urging of my own son who pushed me there, and it’s not the first time I’ve done something scary for my kids – and likely not the last either. So we mounted the horses and set off in the woods, crossing a rushing creek at the start of the trail and listening to the clop, clop, clop through the ferns and fallen trees. With every step that I went beyond my own comfort zone, it got easier and lighter until it didn’t feel scary at all.

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That’s the way it always goes, I’m finding. The definition of scary may be different for each one of us. What terrifies you may not bother me, and what gives me butterflies may not register on your list of worries at all. And even within my own mind, time has changed what my fear responds to. But all the good stuff is on the other side of what I fear. Always. Sometimes it’s a place you can only get to when you cross that bridge. And sometimes it’s just that quiet hum of satisfaction when you know you did what you’d thought was impossible.  But if I just push myself past that space I fear so much, it is never as scary as I’d imagined.

I am home to mounds of laundry and loads of pictures I am weeding through from our time away.  But I hope this is the lesson from our trip that sits with me for a long time – the value in that tension of bravery and rest. The satisfaction that comes from doing what you feared and pushing past your discomfort and the quiet space of rest that we need just as much as we need courage and challenges. The truth is in the ebb and flow between those two things, knowing when to forge ahead with courage and when to slow down and feel the solace that grows in quiet familiar places.

flashlights and nachos

There are two days left in June, and as it always goes with kids and summer, I don’t know where the time is going. The days blow away at a pace that makes me uneasy. Here we are anyway though – looking at a new month on the horizon. The calendar doesn’t wait for anyone.

Last week Norah participated in a little “ballet camp” that she specifically asked for by name when I was attempting to let summer camps and entertainment fly under the radar. It was a lot of juggling back and forth with other responsibilities piled on top here and there. But it was worth it to watch her at the little showcase they gave us Friday afternoon. She was so proud of what she learned and came home with Moana songs and memorized choreography on repeat for days.

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Saturday we followed up the ballet time with an all day play date and some afternoon lake time with friends. It was cloudy all morning long, but the sun suddenly appeared around three in the afternoon, and we hurried to the lake to catch what was left of the day. As it turns out, we caught the magic hour by accident. Low-lying sun, shimmering water, thin crowds, and a cool breeze. The kids swam and splashed for hours. Eventually it was nearing dinner time, but we didn’t want to leave. When we finally loaded up the car to drive home just before dusk, the rains came back. The whole time felt like a little gift for us – in the midst of an otherwise dull and humid day. It was there for the taking when we jumped on the opportunity.
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The night before brought storms as well. It’s been a rainy summer in Atlanta. I’d just finished dinner and then sent neighbor friends back home to their own houses before I chased my two upstairs for their showers. Jude was getting dressed in his room and Norah soaking in the tub when the power went out. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but it was about to be, so we gathered flashlights and spread a blanket on the floor. I pulled nachos from the oven, smashed a few avocados, and we sat down together for an impromptu living room picnic by flashlight.

I don’t know if it was the darkness or the coziness or the novelty of it all or what, but the kids were happier than I’ve seen them in ages. Like deep joy happy, belly laughs and silliness and kindness and not a single sibling jab. As we finished up, Jude asked to sit in my lap on the floor for a minute and then said with every bit of serious sincerity, Mama, this is the third best night of my life. It cracked me up, the things we do for them and the ways we stretch above and beyond to create memories and happiness for our kids. Then here we are, just the three of us — eating nachos from our own oven, in the dark in our pajamas, piled on top of Christmas blankets in June. It’s not really half as hard as we make it, is it? It’s these stripped down moments without any real planning or pretense or forced orchestration from me that work like glue to hold us together.

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This week I’m alone as they are at dad’s. I’m checking tasks off the list like crazy, working on freelance, and diving headfirst into projects I’m dying to finish, or at least solidly begin. But I’m also making time for Brene Brown’s online course on parenting with COURAGEworks. I’m only halfway through, but I can’t say enough great things about it. There are so many activities I’m excited to show the kids when they get home and open up some important conversations.

In the first lesson of the course, she reminds us that “Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow.” She talks a lot about love and belonging and how to create a home that encourages those two things. I tend to worry a lot at this season of my life that I don’t give them enough or that I don’t have the time or resources to give them what they crave. But in reality, I think it’s just this sense of belonging that they love most. A place where we can be imperfect together and know it’s okay. It’s here in this space that we thrive and grow in the best way, all three of us.

I’m seeing so clearly as I move a little further down this parenting path that love and belonging are best nurtured in these messy, imperfect, everyday moments.