brave

I turned the page to a new calendar today, and I don’t remember the last time that felt so good. Actually, that’s not true. I said the same thing in 2015 and 2016. This last few years have left me like some molting animal, I think. Shedding, shedding, shedding continuously. By the time the year is over, I am so ready to shake it loose and let the layers fall.

The kids’ custody schedule this holiday has had them back and forth a lot, and I am not sure I like it that way. Every 3 or 4 days, they were packing up to head to the other parent’s house, so it felt like we could hardly sink in before they left again and again. They are due home any minute now, and we have a huge family gathering tonight followed by a few more days of leisure before school schedules resume.

I think I am ready to move forward to the hard work of getting started this year. I cannot look back at the last two years of my life and say I’ve been complacent…. This journal, above all else, shows me the ways I’ve grown immeasurably. But as I wrote here a few days ago, I’ve just been swimming along as best I can with a pretty strong current that wasn’t really controlled by me. I’m on the road to intention again now, I hope.

I took a while today to go through all the things I’d written in my gratitude jar this year. One by one, I pulled them out and read what I’d scribbled, and I am consistently reminded each year how only the very simplest things can bring me real joy. Any handful I grabbed to read brought the same message.

January 4 Driving, winter sunset. Black, bare branches against the sky. Patty Griffin from the speakers. March 3 Cold rain, fuzzy blanket. May 22 Norah running from the neighbor’s house to ours at 7pm. Golden light. Smiling. June 17 Talking with Grandmother as she lays in the bed. She sees me yawn and tells me to place a pillow next to her hip and lie down with her. Her wrinkled hands next to me. July 23 Winery with friends, outside table, north Georgia hills, sunshine, breeze. October 16 Singing happy birthday to Jude with a candle in the brownie pan. No ceiling above us in the kitchen. Laughing. November 27 Writing in bed, cold outside. Blanket heavy.

I think the hardest thing I’ve ever done is to stay open. I’m seeing this now again and again, and it never stops being hard. Open in the face of fear and uncertainty. Open in the face of what we’ve had to do before. It is difficult to soften instead of harden, isn’t it? The bravest thing, no doubt. The only way I can do it is to chase that beauty and find the light somehow.

What I see when I read these scribbled sheets of paper and I revisit the very best moments in my year and in my life is that I was open to it – whatever it was. I was paying attention and ready and waiting for love to show up in one of its many forms. Love comes in beauty, in comfort, in laughter, in solitude, in song, and most of all in the quiet. When I have the patience to wait for it and the willingness to perceive it, I see it everywhere.

In Tiny Beautiful Things, there’s a letter where Strayed urges the reader,“You will learn a lot about yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”

Intention is my word for the year. I am tired of being swept in the current. I want this to reflect itself in every facet of my life – my home, my bank account, my classroom, my relationship with my kids, my time and energy, my writing.

My life’s work, all of it, is to pay attention and know myself and do things on purpose. Piece by piece, it will come together like it’s meant to. I have no doubt.

To doing and being and stretching in the directions we are meant to stretch. To creating a life that is good and big and kind and forgiving and brave. To purpose and intention as we march forward to what’s ahead. Happy New Year, reader! Onward.

 

 

 

make it true

It’s December 26th, and sometimes I think this might be my favorite day of the year. I know a lot of people feel a Post-Christmas let down, but I love these days just after the release of the pressure of such a big holiday. Gifts are opened, schedules are still relaxed. We have no one to answer to, and everything feels a little looser and slower and more free in the very best way.

Christmas morning last year felt so strange to me, waking in a quiet house with just the three of us. This year felt as worn and real and true as an old sweater. Jude was the last of the two of them to finally close his eyes at about 9:45 after hours of cousin excitement on Christmas Eve. I double-checked how soundly they were sleeping, listening for the tell tale slowed pace of their own breathing. And then I ventured to the garage to uncover all I’d hidden and begin to set it up. I stuffed my own stocking with a book and some chocolates and some fun bath oils so they don’t think Santa left me out. I set up their separate little piles and a few shared gifts in the middle. I didn’t feel the twinge of strange and lonely that I wrote about last year. This house is mine and this life is mine, and the further I get on this path, the more I love it. I don’t feel any void or missing piece when I am inside these walls. Just love and just us, the only way we know to be.

On Christmas day, they woke early and ripped into the packages as quickly as possible. They played while I avoided the mess and started on breakfast.

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My grandmother’s absence is humming under it all this year. Christmas does feel a little different without her here to guide me through it. But I made her food and I hung a few of her ornaments, and though my eyes water sometimes with the sting of loss, I can feel her here in such a real way sometimes. It’s that unique knife of both joy and sadness that pierces in the deepest place. I think when you sink deeper into those scary shades of loss and grief, it opens you up to feel that love and presence in a way you otherwise can’t. Feel the grief pierce you, sit with it a minute, and then you can feel the flow of love and memory and nostalgia and presence that comes after that stillness. I breathe it in as deeply as I can, and I say thank you.

What a year this has been. The news broke last night about George Michael, and the list he’s joining is such a long one – David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Leon Russell, Harper Lee, Prince, Merle Haggard, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen. Art never ends though, does it? After the news broke on each of those, I heard others reminisce on lines or films or songs or concerts or occasions that always reside in the back of our memories somewhere and firmly attach to our own life experiences. It’s wild, isn’t it? The way someone’s influence rolls into the million things that creates who you are and shapes how you see the world.

I was a dance kid in the 90’s, so of course I have my soundtrack of George Michael songs and moments buried in my own field of nostalgia. “Freedom 90” was such an anthem of joy and fun when I was younger. In dance dressing rooms or teenage bedrooms covered in posters or in cars with the windows down when we wanted a little nostalgia. I still never tire of that song, but I hear those lines now with a frequency I didn’t before as 35 years of life and loss have softened and weathered me. Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way…All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow.

Make it true, make it true, make it true. It’s the only way to freedom, and now I see that. The truth is in the center, and it always rises to the top eventually anyway. You cannot avoid it. But life is shaping me continually to help me get to that center with more ease than ever before, breaking the shell of whatever is on the outside and reaching the pocket of truth in the middle.

As 2016 is coming to a close, I feel so much gratitude for the life that’s lead me to this place and the ways I’ve learned to carve away the outside layers, reach what matters, and reflect that authenticity back to the faces of those I see everyday. As I look ahead to 2017, I think I can see that this is where it gets fun. This is where the reward comes. I have learned through life and loss how to create a life that is true, and now I get to watch it take shape in ways that are not always perfect, ever evolving, and always surprising. But they are all true and all real and all mine.

attention

It’s 9:42 pm on the winter solstice. The kids left this morning for a few days away before they come home to me again on Christmas Eve. I washed clothes and prepped holiday food and cleared shelves of things I don’t need any longer. At 5:30, as the sun was beginning to set, I lit a candle in a quiet house and got back to my yoga mat after far too long of an interruption. As I write this, it is dark and cold, and the dog is snoring at my side.

I have been thinking and journaling and reflecting and planning these past few days. There is something about writing things down that makes them real. I want so many things for the new year. This past year has been full of challenge after challenge, and they served me in ways I’d never expect  – always growing and always changing and always opening. But I have been on autopilot for this past three months, it seems. Life can do that to you sometimes. One foot in front of the other: pay the bills, do the laundry, tend to kids, clean the toilets, answer the emails. I’m ready to snap out of it and get back on the road of intention.

I am reading that many people are choosing one word resolutions instead of specific goals, like a theme word for your year. I have thought a bit about what mine would be for 2017 – purposeful, pursue, intention, attentive, persist. They all speak to the same thing, I guess. Pay attention. Do things on purpose. Shed what doesn’t serve me any longer.

I’m reading One Thousand Gifts again as someone passed it on as a present for me this week. I hadn’t looked through that book at all in something like 7 years, but I stumbled on her description today of exactly what has been ailing me lately. “It’s the in between that drives us mad. It’s the life in between, the days of walking lifeless… simply going through the hollow motions, the self-protecting by self-distracting, the body never waking…” It is a constant struggle in the world we live in to not self-protect by self-distracting, to find meaning in the motions. Writing helps me do exactly that, but even that takes time, focus, and discipline. I am ready to get back at it again.

I have also been delving into The Atlantic’s list of this year’s 50 Best Podcasts. I thought I listened to a lot of podcasts, but there are so many on here that are new to me. Number 26 is the Modern Love series spun from the influence of the New York Times’ Modern Love column – which if you haven’t read it before is worth your time, such incredible non-fiction. I was listening to an episode earlier this week about how you should always marry a man who fiercely loves his mother (wholeheartedly agree on that sentiment) and there was a line about sorrow that was mentioned in the interview with the writer, and it is an image I will never forget. She said something along the lines of “if we could see our sorrows hanging like fruit from a tree alongside everyone else’s – all the sorrows in the world hanging together… If we could pick any of them, we’d still pick our own.” As the weeks roll by here at the end of 2016 and I reflect on the year behind me, I am feeling that more and more. Even as I look at others who might hurt less in the face of their own challenges, who feel less and have less skin in the game, so to speak. I would pick my sorrows, my year, above anyone else’s. I wouldn’t trade places, even if it meant less challenge or less pain. These fruits are hard-earned, but there’s sweetness in the center.

You have to pay attention to find the sweetness though, don’t you? You pause and observe and feel it as it stings or warms or glows or washes away the things you never needed to begin with. Now more than ever, I am seeing that my soul has been washed clean this year in that very specific way that hardship and grief can bring, and I think it’s ready for the newness that lies on the other side.

In One Thousand Gifts, Voskamp also reminds us that “Life is so urgent, it necessitates living slow.” I read this, and I think of the most memorable moments that filled my year, the most meaningful ones. They were all so slow and yet urgent with their passing tide that disappears.

Flashes of memory from a year well-spent: kids splashing on the beach at sunset, my Grandmother’s hands on my face in those days when we were counting the hours, Norah lifting chubby preschool fingers to tip a soup bowl to her mouth at the dinner table, driving winding mountain roads alone with the cloudy rumble of an incoming July storm, shelling boiled peanuts in the fall sunshine on a wooden bench, wrapping lights around our little tree. The very best seconds only come when you are going slowly enough to notice them.

 

the light that lives

It is 10:26 pm on Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. I am alone in my house, and my eyelids are heavy, and it feels so good. I am allowed to say that, right? The best kept secret of single motherhood is that once you break through the painful, awkward first few times of being alone, it is such a welcome respite. In my case, it is only 4 days a month and a few extra days on holidays, and I crave it if I’m being honest. Just a little break. I need this solace so badly when it comes around, especially right now.

I attended a memorial service two days ago hosted by the hospice organization that cared for my grandmother. It was a sweet and thoughtful way to recognize those lost this year, and it is always comforting to be in a room surrounded by those on a similar walk with you. Grief is so particular for each of us, yet so universal for all of us.

As I drove home, it struck me how crazy the second half of 2016 has been for me. I can even see it looking back at this journal as well. My grandmother died. The world spun in that way it does in the weeks afterwards. Then schedules picked up and the whirlwind began. My ceiling fell in. The election happened. And here we are on November 22nd wondering how we got here and where the past 5 months of my life went.

We ate so much frozen pizza this month and went a full 9 days with my refrigerator in my living room as the kitchen was renovated. North Georgia wildfires have been raging for weeks, and on some days, there is a hazy smoke in the air here at home that leaves everything hazy and smelling of ash. It’s been such a surreal time.

I should have been grounding myself in yoga and meditation and prayer, but instead I have been soldiering on with one foot in front of the other and using the 15 minutes of story time at night to collapse into bed and  watch their little faces when they talk and sniff their heads as they fall asleep, and I still insist that is the best anti-anxiety medication I know.

I am here now. And I am surviving. And that is all I can do right now. Treading water with my head barely above the waves.

Life happens like this, doesn’t it? Or that is what I hear. A blog reader weeks ago passed along a Zora Neale Hurston quote that insists that “there are years that ask questions and years that answer,” and I am holding my faith there. This is a questioning year. So many questions.

I have so few answers, but I have a lot of gratitude. For the influence of my grandmother, the undying love that still hums in my chest. I’m grateful for it even as it illuminates the grief that results from what is left of love. Gratitude for these two kids who remind me of what is important every day and serve as that fixed center point and a counter to all my anxiety as they bring me to the here and now. Thankful for a warm house on windy November nights. For soup. For chats with girlfriends who know me as well as I know myself. Thankful for words to read and music to hear. Thankful for being here.

And I am thankful for this space and what it shows me about my own path in the past few years. It shows me that I have been here before, that I have seen nothing but questions everywhere I look but that a little ways down the road, I will look behind me to see answers, too.

I’m thankful for the light that lives in my chest and dims occasionally but never goes out. We might rest for a season, but we glow brighter later as a result.

More soon as I promise to return to this space and make time for it again. For now, I am holding my head above water, and I can see the faintest outline of what is ahead. More space, more room to breathe, more to hold in the next season.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

 

feel the pulse

We are on day 16 of the post-flood demolition and renovation, and it’s starting to wear on me. At first I was surprised at how little we paused for the interruption, but now I’m growing tired of the mess. It’s hard enough to keep two kids reasonably sorted out with their own things in even the best of circumstances. But my coffee table is in the playroom and the television on the living room floor as I type this. My laundry room is not usable. Everything turned upside down for a little while longer.

I think this experience has taught me a lot of things – as difficult experiences usually do. I’ve learned that a physical space it not what determines a home and that home is the space I have created between the three of us. But I’m also beginning to see that my home routine turned upside down is a trigger for me in terms of stress and exhaustion. I am the ultimate introvert and homebody in many ways. My house is important to me as a little refuge from the rest of my day – which can be exhausting to say the least. All day long, I hear demands scream loudly, and home is usually my space of familiar and real, a place where I can feel the pulse of who I am. But right now it doesn’t feel familiar at all. I’m working to carve out little spaces that feel cozy despite the madness. But my little office / writing room is really the only spot not affected by this mess right now. Our things are shifted all over the place, and my kitchen isn’t all that inviting with its cement floors.

That said, I am finally reaching the fun part in this process. I spent part of yesterday perusing flooring choices, and I’ve got paint samples to try later today. I’m shopping light fixtures online and trying to make decisions carefully and thoughtfully.  I purged so much unnecessary stuff this summer, but this process is basically like moving all over again as the work is completed in each room, so it’s an opportunity to streamline even more. When else do you get the chance to do this? Not much. There is a silver lining to the mess for certain. My home will be all mine from top to bottom when it is done, and I have this time to make it what I want it to be.

Physical spaces carry such an energy, don’t they? I went on a ghost tour last night with a couple of friends, and we walked around old historic estates, tiny houses once inhabited by mill workers, and a historic cemetery with unmarked graves. Whatever your beliefs are about the spirit realm and whether or not we can feel or connect, I know places have an energy to them. We feel this in churches, in historic spaces, and in our own homes, too.

As I reflect on the homes or spaces that have meant the most to me over the years, I can see how little comfort is determined by the actual objects on your walls or size of your house or condition of your furniture. Love and hospitality shine through without regard for that – as does greed or selfishness or a preoccupation with appearance or money. Energy doesn’t lie. You either feel welcomed and at home or you don’t, and so little of that is a result of aesthetics. You can breathe a lot easier when a space is authentic, and I’m trying to remind myself of this as I make decisions in this renovation. What feels like us? What works best for the lives we lead? What is left in this space that is a piece of my old life that doesn’t apply anymore? Out with the old and in with the new.

My grandmother’s passing taught me a lot about this, too. When I was a kid, I only saw abundance everywhere in her home. Always food for us to eat, always space for us to play without feeling like we were intruding or unwelcome, always little comforts that made you want to stay longer. My grandad is still there, of course, but we have cleaned out little bits of her things here and there, and I have stayed there a good bit this month in light of my own house’s mess. And again and again I’m surprised to see the simplicity in their home. I saw abundance when I was younger because of the energy present with love and hospitality and authenticity, not because of anything I could touch or see.

It’s the smallest objects that carry meaning as we sifted through a few of her belongings after she died. Old clothes I passed on to a friend to use in a quilt for me. Christmas ornaments I can remember hanging year after year on her tree. Old photographs and cards. Nothing of material value at all.

A couple months ago, I found a birthday card she’d given me and decided I wanted to use the handwriting on a piece of jewelry. I told my grandfather about this, and he decided he wanted to gift one to each of the women in my family – aunts and cousins and my mom and sister – all of us. I ordered them from Leo’s Mark and couldn’t be happier with the result. I’ve hardly taken mine off since I got it.

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All of her cards always said We love you, never I love you. It made sense for them and how they are and is a testament to their partnership and not just the sweetness of who she was. And every time I put it on, I think of her. The older I get, the less stuff I feel like I need in my life. But I am also learning how it feels to surround myself with a few things that are meaningful and purposeful. I’m working to do this in my home, my closet, my office, everywhere. Even in my own heart and daily interactions. Do someone’s words offer something meaningful and purposeful? If so, I take them to heart. If not, I let them fall away.

Leo’s Mark did such beautiful work with these necklaces, and they have all kinds of ways to honor a loved one if you have handwriting samples of any kind. They were incredibly helpful in designing and orchestrating all of this, and they’re offering readers 10% off with the coupon code MAMATHEREADER10 if you want to treat yourself or someone else to something that is both beautiful and meaningful. (What a perfect holiday gift!)

There is a Iain Thomas quote that says, “And everyday the world will drag you by the hand yelling, ‘This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!’ And each day, it is up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart, and say ‘No. This is what’s important.'” I’m honoring this time in my own life to let the unimportant fall away and watch what happens as the outside of my life begins to align more sharply with my own heart. Keeping my hand on my heart everyday to feel the pulse of what matters.

broken open

Fall is over in a blink in Georgia, so I’m trying to take it all in. We are sleeping with the windows open, but I always wake in the middle of the night to feel a chill and then close the window pane and spread the extra blanket over the bed. I made our favorite soup last week, and I’m already craving it again. My school days are busy with the frantic pace of midterms and the grading pile that ebbs and flows, but I live for the afternoon light everyday. What is it about October light just before dinner that makes it so perfect? I wish I could bottle it up for January’s darkness.

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Saturday brought a soccer game followed by a visit to a local pumpkin farm. It’s a small family operation just down the road from where I grew up, and our families have known of each other for ages. On the way over, I texted my cousin that we were headed there, and she walked over from her house next door to the farm. It feels good to belong somewhere with a long history, but autumn makes you crave it even further. We all settle in a little more snugly, I think. In whatever ways we can.
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We ate popcorn and boiled peanuts, and I watched cousins get lost and found again in a corn maze. We took the hayride around the pond like we do every year and followed that with the long and important task of picking out the perfect pumpkin.

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My grandad came with us as he works pretty steadily lately to stay busy and occupied when he can. There is still a hollow spot in the space where she has always been, that lull in the conversation. It is so stark at their house especially, where Norah will wander upstairs when we’re there and say it’s because certain rooms “still smell like Grandmother.” And they do. The scent lingering everywhere – literally and metaphorically.

On the other hand, I’m also finding moments when it’s getting more comfortable in ways as well; her absence is a little more predictable and familiar now – which is always a scary moment in the grieving process. It almost seems like the person lingers and hovers for a while in a very real way. You can feel their touch and see their belongings and hear the voice and smell the scent. They are close for a while to gently ease us out of the solid presence we are so used to, and then they fade a bit so that the haze wears away from your vision, and you can handle what life is sending you next as you create space and possibility instead of loss. Everything she taught me is still here and even somehow distilled to a cleaner and more concentrated form. But her physical self isn’t hovering in the way it first was.

This is life. This is how it goes. Seasons change and leaves fall and people fade from our lives in that way they are made to do. Mary Oliver says, “to live in this world you must be able to do three things — to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” That is so much easier said than done. But here we are, four months after her passing, in the midst of a new season she has never seen. It looks both terrifyingly unfamiliar and newly beautiful all at once.

It’s also Mary Oliver who claims it is worthwhile “to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”

As I look back, heartbreak has broken me open again and again. It is never happiness and assurance and predictability that get you someplace new, is it? A decade spent in the classroom – first high school kids and eventually university students – gives me a special glimpse into that phase of life when you feel so sure about everything and everyone. When you assume that the path in front of you will unfold exactly like you see it in your mind’s eye. How funny that loss is what actually moves us on the path if you let it happen and feel it honestly.

Here I am in the thirty-fifth October of my life, and I’m seeing that you really are not capable of understanding that without a few decades on this earth. Life chisels away all the rough edges when we let it. It makes me look forward to the Octobers ahead as I will undoubtedly deepen and soften in ways I don’t yet understand.

Leaves fall and seasons change, and autumn is here to remind me again that nothing is permanent. It’s hard to wait on the hand of time to reveal the treasure to you, but it always does eventually.

wait it out, find the shine

Continuing my funk from earlier this week with my distaste of the stubborn Georgia heat, I’ve also ended up with some kind of allergy to the fall blooms or maybe the latest incarnation of my kids’ school germs. Whatever the cause, my throat is gravely and my eyes sting.

I rallied for Jude’s soccer game today, but other than that, I’m indulging in a lot of self care this weekend. I dropped in for a yoga nidra workshop Friday night at a local studio, which was essentially a long guided meditation. I found some homemade chicken soup hiding in the very back of the freezer today for lunch. I walked in the garden with my grandad pinching off early shoots of fall greens and fresh peas. I’ve listened to podcasts and read in a quiet house. And now I am writing a bit before an early bedtime.

I caught the latest On Being this afternoon and was completely hooked on a stunning interview with Ruby Sales, a prominent player in the early civil rights movement who still works as the Director of the Spirit House Project.

Being white and growing up at the end of the twentieth century, my life has little in common with the life of Ruby Sales in most noticeable ways, but she spoke so much about faith and optimism and anger and hard work and where those things intersect. It is in some surprising ways actually very reflective of the conflict I feel present for me now, the outer pressures I wrote about earlier this week when your own inner landscape doesn’t always match what you see in front of you.

She explained that she “grew up in the heart of Southern apartheid, and I’m not saying that I didn’t realize that it existed, but our parents were spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that I was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched my consciousness.” Can you imagine? There are countless examples throughout history of these families who somehow created a new world in their own home. A place that was a respite from the pressures and opinions of the outside world and inspired social change that influenced generations. How do you do that?  How do you achieve that spiritual genius she speaks of and create a reality for your family that is so counter to the outside world?

She explained something that became a truth for her, an unarguable mantra. One I could use more of in my own life: “I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. And you are not going to coerce me into hating.”

Remember that this world she speaks of was a world where violence was an everyday act. Spiteful words and actions everywhere. Hate marches and constant messages of your own inferiority and yet, as she says when referencing an old spiritual, “That’s the meaning of the song ‘I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart. And you can’t make me hate you. And you can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now, that’s very powerful because you have to understand that this spiritual — it was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives, but also it contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver. That was very revolutionary and very profound.”

Revolutionary indeed. This is common sense, I know. But it is not in our human nature to respond to discomfort or conflict by just not participating in it. We always want to push back, but no conflict can exist if you choose not to participate in it. For whatever reason, today is the day my ears needed to hear this, and it turned a light on for me in a big way.

I can learn to use this with people around me who expect me to respond to resistance or hate with more of the same. I can use this in my own practice of self-compassion by not resisting my own growth, even when it is ugly. I can use this with my own kids by not resisting their own ways when it’s often just an expression of childhood and not purposeful rebellion anyway. We control our internal lives for sure. But we don’t control much else.

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Ruby Sales closed the interview with some reflections on lessons learned, and she said, “I don’t like aging a whole lot. The ankles, the knees hurt, et cetera. But one of the things I do like is that from where I sit on my front porch, I have hindsight, insight, and foresight. And that’s a beautiful gift of aging.” Ain’t that the truth? I am half her age and just beginning to see it unfold. Hindsight and insight are coming easily now, foresight is yet to come. But one thing I am learning is that love and truth always prevail. Always. Sometimes I just have to wait them out, I guess. Sit through the funk and wait out the discomfort. Try to find some shine in the meantime.

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Refusing to participate in hate or resistance and looking for the shine is actually a revolutionary act, I’m finding. People don’t know what to do with you when you don’t buy into the conflict or the constant messages of inadequacy that we hear everywhere. This is me, same as I ever was but different. I don’t believe in “happy” as a goal or a real state of being. I believe in surrender and honesty and all the things that come with that. I believe in grief and pain and having to wait it out until a new season arrives.

The hardest part about parenting is that you really don’t know if you are doing a good job or not until your job is all over, and then it’s too late. I want to create that world of spiritual genius for my own kids, that space in our hearts and homes where we don’t recognize the world’s messages of inadequacy or its false promises of happiness in all the predictable places. That’s not where joy lives anyway.

In “A Brief for the Defense,” John Gilbert writes , “Sorrow everywhere…But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick. … We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. …  We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

Despite everything, I hear the music sometimes. It’s faint but it’s there.

rise up rooted

It’s easy to forget the way life used to be as we sit in the comfort of 2016’s America. I was talking with someone the other day about the McMansion trend happening in the suburbs. The vaulted ceilings, enormous shiny kitchens, three fireplaces in one home – all of which are rarely used and operated by a light switch. Look back even one generation ago, and these traits would have been rare and now they seem commonplace or stale.

My grandmother grew up in a tiny house with her four siblings. Two bedrooms and a kitchen whose walls you can almost touch with both arms if you stretch far enough. Her mother lived there until she died at the age of 92, and the house is still standing. It’s adjacent to my grandparents’ home, and I noted when I wrote her obituary that she was born and died on the same family span of property – a story that almost never happens anymore.

In the front of that tiny house, stood an old tree that shaded the yard and stands central to my childhood memories of family gatherings and Sunday lunches. Shade in the thick Georgia heat as we’d gather with long tables strung together, one right after the other, and food all the way to the end. Homemade ice cream and cousins and games of tag. Afternoons when we’d begin spread all over the yard and slowly move folding chairs to the shady spot as the sun spread a little higher and hotter overhead when the hours wore on.

A limb fell from the tree last week, and as it turns out, much of it was partially rotted, as trees often do with the passage of time.

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It was taken down on Thursday, and I drove by yesterday. It’s a weird sight to see that house without its tree out front. The whole landscape I know so well altered and feeling exposed, naked. Raw nerves left open when they haven’t closed yet anyway. Change after change after change. It’s only a tree, I know. Except that it’s not.

So many ancient cultures saw trees as more than wooden branches. They’ve been associated with prayer and spirit and protection for thousands of years. It’s easy to see why that is when you look at an old tree. Its wisdom seems to predate and outlast our own. We watch seasons change and colors come and go on the branches. And after every change and loss in the landscape of our real lives, they just seem to watch and listen patiently – a reminder of both what is temporary and what is eternal.

I’ve been thinking a lot this summer about how I was raised, the things I learned without knowing I was learning them, the truths I absorbed. You don’t really think about these things because they become so second nature to you. But as is always the case with death, my grandmother’s passing has me digging back through the loads of memories buried in my own mind and realizing the ways they taught me what I needed to learn.

Do people do this anymore? Do they raise families in tiny homes and see abundance around them instead of need? Do they know third cousins as well as they know siblings? Do they sit on porches and under shade trees for hours on a Sunday afternoon and talk about things other than work or money or pop culture? I think the answer is mostly no, and that makes me sad but also grateful I’ve led the life I have.

I woke this morning to my daily Richard Rohr Meditation in my email inbox, and his subject line read “Rise Up Rooted Like Trees.” Yes, God, I heard you. I’m listening, I’m listening.

Rohr happens to include Rilke, who has guided me so much lately and tells us, “If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees. Instead we entangle ourselves in knots of our own making and struggle, lonely and confused. … This is what the things can teach us: to fall, patiently to trust our heaviness. Even a bird has to do that before he can fly.” The Earth’s intelligence tells us that things rise and fall, live and die. It tells us that we can’t control what is before us, even with vaulted ceilings or three fireplaces. We forget this though. It is a daily struggle for me, in our modern world, to know that you don’t have to be happy all the time, that sorrow and grief have a place in our lives, that our inner landscape is far more important than our outer achievements.

Rohr expands on Rilke a bit by explaining that in nature, “Nothing stays in the same shape or form for long. Plants and animals seem to accept this dying. All of the natural world seems to accept the change of seasons. Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. It learns gravity’s fall, as it were. Only one species resists this natural movement: humans—you and me. … We are free to cling to our own egoic resources, to climb instead of to descend. But we must fall if we are ever to fly.”

You have to descend before you can ascend, don’t you? Reach deeper inward before you can expand outward. Walk through sorrow with honesty before you can feel real joy. You can only rise when you are rooted.

I’m grateful for the memories I have of lazy summers spent under the shade of that tree, the shelter it gave us for the conversations that shaped my life and who I’ve become. And I’m grateful for it still, as it fell and was hauled away in pieces. It’s teaching me the most important lesson in its absence. Let go, let go, let go. Life makes us shed our skin again and again. It hurts to become something new.

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the unexpected

This week hasn’t gone as expected, but I feel like that concept more or less applies to my entire life as it’s unfolded. You learn to roll with it, I guess.

We spent the earlier part of the week getting ready for the start of school with fresh haircuts and new shoes and unopened boxes of shiny new pencils. Jude’s orientation was Tuesday, and we met his teacher and a few classmates and even indulged in some shaved ice. (Starting school in early August as we do down south, we need it!)

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Then after all of our preparation and excitement and best laid plans, Jude came down with some mystery virus the day before school began. I pulled out all the usuals with rest and water and smoothies and Thieves oil, but it was no good. He missed the first two days of school, which is probably not such a big deal when you are six, but it feels that way to your mom. Yesterday was such a shuffle: sick Jude missing his first day, Norah’s orientation scheduled that night, and nobody nearby to help easily. My mom dropped by to sit with Jude just in time for me to race to Norah’s orientation, and we walked in the door just 6 minutes before it ended.

It sometimes feels like I run circles around us like a loose chicken to put together all the moving pieces, and my kids are completely oblivious about what it takes to get us from A to B. That’s the way of childhood though, and I hope they don’t realize how precariously our house and schedules and weekday moments were strung together until they are old enough to understand all of it. Family is work. So much work. The weekends and holidays can feel sweet, but the minutes it takes to get you from one weekend to the next? So carefully orchestrated and planned so that we all arrive in the right place.

I’m getting better at accepting that things do not always unfold the way I expect them to. It’s pretty unbelievable to me to take a look at the countless ways that life is teaching me this lesson in the last year. Over and over again – the delivery is different, but the message the same. It’s that constant reminder that things change. People don’t stay and circumstances are not predictable. But I have everything I need in that tiny, still space inside if I can quiet the outside noise and less important stuff. Strength and stability mean something very different to me now than they did years ago. I know I am the only one who can create it.

I tried to make the most of Jude’s extra two days of summer with couch cuddles and reading another installment of The Magic Treehouse. It’s hard to turn off the worry and the picture of what you expected and be in the present instead. But we tried.

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I’m reading Krista Tippet’s Becoming Wise right now, and though I just started it, there is so much it has to offer. She insists “that we are made by what would break us. Birth itself is a triumph through a bloody, treacherous process. We only learn to walk when we risk falling down, and this equation holds — with commensurately more complex dynamics — our whole lives long … You have your own stories, the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.” 

Dramatic and ordinary moments alike, they can all teach us wisdom if we are paying attention. I know with certainty that what has gone wrong opened my gift to the world in a way I didn’t expect. And I guess that’s the good thing about the unexpected is that it works both ways. The heartache and trials can surprise you, but the rewards can, too.

like a gift

My friends and I have had this weekend on the calendar for a while as a chance to catch up and do something fun. In the past few days, we decided maybe a North Georgia winery would be a treat, and we made plans for a tasting followed by dinner followed by staying the night at my house.

I wish I could somehow reach back to that person who was so itchy and uncomfortable in a house by herself. That person who was so scared and intimidated at a new life alone and trying to fit in new boxes. There’s this thing no one tells you about single motherhood after a divorce which is that it absolutely sucks sometimes and you think you might not make it out alive, but then once you get past the transition, your solitude will feel like a gift. You wake up. You suddenly have time again to do anything you want – to catch up with friends, to try something new, to dream and plan for what’s next, to invest in yourself. When you sink your heels in instead of trying to fly as fast as you can to the next chapter, you see it’s actually such an incredible place to be.

I woke up yesterday to the usual sound of the dog whining to go out. I let him out, brewed coffee, and took it back to bed with me. I read a little (a book that is not typical for me but I loved it) and drank a second cup of coffee in the bed, cuddled under my covers and surrounded by the quiet of a house that is clean, for once. I traded funny texts with a friend for a while and eventually got out of bed to do a little yoga and get in the shower.

When friends showed up in the afternoon, we piled in the car for a drive to the mountains just north of where I live and indulged in a wine and chocolate tasting at a small winery.

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After we finished, we sat outside for a while with breezes that were more generous than the usual July heat and then eventually headed into the small town nearby for dinner and hours of conversation. We laughed a lot. We walked around in the blue summer dusk after dinner and then piled in the car to head back to my house.

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This morning, I made waffles with sliced strawberries and we talked about big and small things until well past noon before realizing what time it was. After they left, I headed to my neighborhood pool to sit alone in silence, swim a bit, and finish my book. This afternoon brought a few house tasks and a quiet dinner alone and now some time to write so that I don’t forget all these tiny pleasures.

I wanted to round out my summer by reading a book about goal setting and “manifestation” which is a term that understandably makes people roll their eyes. It’s not as easy as claiming you want something and having it delivered on your doorstep. But when I dusted off the journal I used at the Jen Pastiloff Atlanta workshop last year, I see this list of things that felt so incredibly far away for me that have become my daily reality now: writing for an audience of connected readers, deepening my friendships, feeling comfortable and authentic as a mom on my own with my two, a sense of home and community for us, comfort in my solitude.

These are things I lusted after a year ago as such far away goals, but when I look at my life as it is now, every one of these things is my daily reality. Every one.

I’m not done yet. I have more to do. I’m ready for the next chapter, and I think it’s going to be a big one. I wrote a list today in that same notebook, and I trust that these things are coming for me. Moving in the direction of joy is the answer, I think. When you feel that stir of curiosity, that voice that says yes this is it, you have to do it. There’s that famous Rumi passage that claims, “What you seek is seeking you,” and you can feel it push, push, pushing when you follow your own calling. It’s incredible to see the way your heart finds its purpose, bit by bit.

There are so many things I will never be because that is not who I am, and the older I get, the less afflicted I am by the list of things I am not and the more interested I become in the list of things I am. There are so many dreams I’m fulfilling that only unfolded after a long, meandering path that no human could ever have orchestrated. If I made a list of all the seemingly random occurrences that led to my life unfolding in the way it has, I would never stop writing. One tiny thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. And eventually you arrive at a destination that feels like home. I had no idea this season would feel like such a gift.