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.

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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.

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.