the in-between

I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning. It was 6:20 when Norah woke me up, and I laid there bleary-eyed for a while, only half awake. Yesterday was just the same. And the day before. What has finally happened on our last week of summer break is that my body remembers what it’s like to relax.

But my dining room table is a mess of school supplies right now, and the errand list is long this week as we gear up for all those back-to-school tasks. (We are in full swing the first week of August here in Georgia schools.) So I am left wanting a little more rest and another stretch of slower paced mornings, but also trying to kindle the excitement for my kids about this new academic year. Fall has such a relentless pace. I don’t feel ready for what’s ahead, but I’m grateful anyway for the new season that’s coming. We have spent the past week lining up all the things we need to begin again – fresh haircuts, new shoes, unopened pencils.

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College terms begin a couple weeks later than public schools, so I have an overlap period to ease me into the intensity of fall semester. I’m using the first week they’re in school to work more on my upcoming online writing workshop. (Sign up here for updates if you haven’t yet! I’m sending journaling exercises, writing inspiration, and news on enrollment information in the coming weeks.) In one of the modules, I’ve been focusing on that pulsing quality that comes with contrast and contradiction in our lives. I feel like anytime I am trying to better understand something, the understanding lies in a contradiction.

I am sad to see my kids grow older and my youngest fly from her place in the nest to climb on that school bus in a few days, but I’m grateful and even a little relieved for the new season it signals in my life and the freedom it brings for me. Both of those can be true at once – sad and relieved.

I am growing comfortable finally in this piece of my life’s history, and it feels good to sink my heels in. But I’m also feeling restless and seeing the urge to throw myself into new projects and sustain them long term, to reach beyond my comfort zone and shake things up a little. Both of those are true – comfortable but yearning for more.

I’m terrified of a lot of things right now, but also excited by them, grateful for the agency I have in the map of my own life’s decisions. All of those things are true – terrified and excited and grateful all at once.

Life lives in the contradictions. Sometimes you can’t file down the sharp edges of these opposite things to make them fit together, and instead you just have to leave them there side-by-side and look in between them to make something of it. Our feelings and realities don’t always follow some expected path or remain under our control. It’s usually both, and instead of either, or.

I’ve gained some hard-earned wisdom this past few years, but I’m realizing one thing I am still no good at is resting in the contradictions without trying to figure out some great puzzle. I have the insight to feel these contradictions, but I try so hard to make sense of them, like an answer lies there hidden if I can just find it. Maybe there are no right and wrong answers and right and wrong ways to feel. Maybe just resting in that gray area is what we are meant to do. So much of what’s around us tells us that there’s a formula to fix things for good or a product to buy or a trend to jump on that will mend it all forever. But then just look at what happens next. — We keep looking for new formulas, buying new stuff, jumping on the next train. The mystery is never really solved, is it? Maybe I will always feel just a little bit unfinished and unresolved. And maybe that’s okay.

I was revisiting Krista Tippet’s Becoming Wise this week and noticed again her words on wisdom: “Wisdom of the everyday sort is about how we reckon with the surprises and mysteries that make life life as opposed to stasis. Mystery lands us as a fumbling fullness of reality we cannot sum up or pin down. Such moments change us from the inside, if we let them.” We miss those lessons when we bypass the uncertainty and mystery, don’t we?

Fumbling fullness of reality is a pretty accurate description of my life lately. It is almost never graceful when you look at the bare facts. I’m trying hard not to sum up or pin down in this moment, but that is so far against my nature as a person who wants answers and certainty. When I run into someone I don’t see that often and they inevitably say, How are things? How can I respond really? The way we always do with a reassuring smile – Good. Things are good. I’m fine. But there’s always so much more than that in the things we cannot sum up or pin down. So many contradictions lying side by side.

Perhaps they aren’t a puzzle to solve or a blank to fill in with a magic answer. Perhaps the fullness lies in the in-between.

I guess I can be lots of things at once – confidant and uncertain, brave and afraid, narrowed with experience that has sharpened my vision but also open to the unknown of whatever lies ahead. Whatever the case, I’m here, and this is my own canvas to fill in with a life that takes shape little by little in ways that I suppose we never see coming when we’re on this side of the mystery.

 

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the dirt in the corner

I turned 36 this week. I am not sure how that happened. I was just 33, I thought. And before that just 29. Then 27. I am doing that thing where I double-check my age by glancing at the calendar and then doing the math from the year I was born. I can remember hearing adults do that when I was a kid and thinking, how do you not remember your age? And here I am. But somehow the second digit gets fuzzy when the years fly by quickly. I am 30-something and nearing closer to 40, I suppose. That is specific enough.

I went to a funeral the week before. My great aunt passed, and the service was in the same chapel where I sat almost 9 months ago to sing hymns at my grandmother’s goodbye. Time is a weird thing, sometimes dragging slower than we thought possible and sometimes rushing and sometimes doing something in between that still somehow surprises you.

As I sat in my seat adjacent to the wall, I could lean a little as I listened to the eulogies and the pastor’s message. He spoke a bit about her last years and how difficult they were and what a testament her husband’s love and attention was. I think he quoted I Peter 4:12 which reminds us “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Hardship somehow feels like a surprise though, doesn’t it? Is that an American thing? A modern thing? A middle class thing? A human thing? I don’t know. But even now, after all the lessons I have learned, I am still sometimes surprised and exhausted at mishaps and trials of any kind.

A couple weeks ago I was off on midterm break while public schools were still in session. Jude woke first that morning and headed downstairs before I did. As I fumbled out of bed to make coffee, he came racing back up the stairs, Mama! There’s water dripping!

After what happened 5 months ago, I am ridiculously paranoid and react with almost PTSD panic about any water issues, so my heart jumped and I ran downstairs in emergency mode. As it turns out, the one bathroom that was not touched in the renovation had a leaking supply line. It was only a trickle, but it left a water spot below and a slow drip in the living room. I turned the water off at the main valve in the house, then at the street, then calmly called my plumber.

He came later that day and replaced it quickly and inexpensively, but in that process, we discovered that my hot water heater was slowly leaking a bit and on its last leg – which probably explains why my bath could only get half full these days before turning lukewarm. I took a deep breath. Here we are again. Two days later, I was $1700 poorer but have hot water and new valves throughout the house in every single sink and toilet.

It’s just life. This house is almost 12 years old, and it’s simply time for some wear and tear to be replaced. But it’s so easy to get frustrated with what Peter called the fiery ordeals, the flies in the ointment, the salt on the melon. Anne Lamott writes in Small Victories that “Life can just be so lifey. Life on life’s terms, which I don’t remember agreeing to.” Amen to that. Me either.

But at 36, I’m learning to change my expectations a bit. Leaks will happen, and funerals will too. Hot water heaters will break. Siblings will squabble. Laundry piles will grow more quickly than you want them to while bank accounts grow more slowly.

But we still have sunsets, thank God for that. And chocolate cake and music. And snoring dogs, laughing children, hot coffee, soft sheets. And occasionally I have mornings like this one where I am alone in a quiet house with a minute to be here without demands and expectations. I read Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” with my students this week. She claims “Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.” I think if we are being honest with ourselves, all of life might be what you find in the dirt in the corner. Those little bits of time are the only way I ever get from here to there, the only way I put it all together.

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I have so many hopes for my 36th year. Big ones, like a book proposal. But lately, I just keep swimming as best I can, and these goals are pushed to the back burner. I woke up at 5:15am on my birthday and set my intention with a yoga session before I began my day. I’ve got to carve time somehow to sift the treasure from the dirt. Books don’t write themselves.

Spring is here in Georgia. Ripe strawberries are making their way to grocery stores, and birds chirp at us in the rush of our morning routines. I’m trying hard to squeeze out every ounce of energy spring offers me. God is in the details, no doubt. And life is in the tiny pieces of time we carve away from the bigger picture.

scribble a note and hope

I packed my lunch this morning and placed it on the counter as I poured my coffee. And apparently I left it there as I drove away, my mind galloping elsewhere from one idea to another. I cannot seem to focus lately.

Field trip forms and speech therapy appointments. Wash the ballet tights before Tuesday, and sign the reading log on the first of the month. Make time for grading the essays that come in next week, and respond to that email that’s been sitting too long in the inbox. Make dinner, wash the dishes. Listen to the news, turn it off. Read about Washington, feel sick, turn it off.

I’m getting good at compartmentalizing, and I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not. A coping mechanism perhaps. Come Friday evening, I turn it all off. I push it away beneath where it can bother me, and I try to recenter in the best ways I know how. But sometimes it’s hard to turn off the frenzy.

It’s weird how life can hand you good and bad at the same time, isn’t it? I have these moments that are so perfect and so sweet in their passing speed, never to happen again in that same way. But I have a thousand worries at the same time. And it used to feel heavy enough when those worries were only what was in my own home, but the weight of national politics is throwing me off center in a way I didn’t expect.

One thing at a time. Inhale, exhale. Repeat.

Jude lost a tooth at school today. It fell out as he was eating lunch, and then it fell on the ground later and he couldn’t find it. This happened last year, too. Last time his teacher wrote a tiny note on a Post-It explaining to the Tooth Fairy what happened. Today, as we exited the school parking lot and he explained it to me, he insisted the Tooth Fairy surely won’t believe him since it’s now happened twice. I assured him she likely would, and when we got home, he found the school nurse’s hall pass in his backpack explaining he was in the clinic at precisely 11:35am to deal with a lost tooth.

He scribbled on the back of the nurse’s note with his first grade spelling, “Tooth Fairy – I lost my tooth dubble times. Sorry. But this note prooves it.” He slipped it under his pillow tonight, hoping for the best. He’s sleeping soundly as  I type this, and I just tiptoed in his room to exchange the note for a few dollar bills.

Lately, that’s all I feel like I can do, too. Scribble a note and hope it will work. Say a prayer and hope for the best. Smile at a stranger. Help a student with a little extra understanding and patience. Play with my kids and ignore the growing clutter on the kitchen counter. Write when I can, which is not as often as I’d like these days. Try something new every now and then. Quit waiting on the other shoe to drop and just enjoy what’s here now, in spite of all my questions.

An Instagram account I follow was commenting on activism today and reminded us that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. That’s true about all of it, isn’t it? I forget that a lot and try to sprint to whatever goal is within view, but I need to pace myself. This month, I’m giving into the ebb and flow of whatever is here right now. Sometimes that means I’m frenzied and barely hanging on in the busy pace of what has to be done. But sometimes I just sink in to find a comfortable spot to focus on and forget the rest, just for a minute. The good and the bad, the easy and the hard. It all comes eventually anyhow. Here and now is what I know.

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.

magic shield

As you can see, I gave this space a much-needed face-lift this week. As it turns out though I had hardly noticed, this blog had looked the exact same since something like summer of 2011. My life changed a million times over as did the content in this space, but I hadn’t taken the time to update the aesthetics. It began to feel itchy and stifling, and a few changes brought me some fresh air, I think. It’s weird how we can keep things the same in our lives long after their time has passed. You forget to pay attention to the details, and then one day you wake up and see that it just doesn’t fit anymore. Change is good. I’ve also added a FAQ page at the top with a few questions that I get often from readers. While I still love hearing from some of you, I figured it was easier to put the commonly asked topics in one easy space.

It is still hot, hot, hot outside. Even for Georgia. We usually don’t wave a solid goodbye to summer until early October, but we also normally get a little tease of fall by now. The temperatures are hovering in the mid-eighties this year though, without even one day’s break from it. I am ready for new. The car thermometer read 94 yesterday, and we went swimming for a bit after school. The pool has lost its charm to me by now though. I’m ready to see leaves change and cycles begin again.

I’m clutching hard to little things to help me move through the weeks these days. Motivation is in short supply over here. This week, it was Malbec after dinner, mid-morning lattes at my work desk, Costco take-and-bake pizza, and bathtub crayons. Sometimes you just have to get it where you can find it and try to squeeze out every last drop until a new breeze gets here.

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Energy is hard to come by in the end of a season, isn’t it? Nature works in seasons so that cycles can happen again and again. Death and quiet and stillness and new life and fullness, too. Life is that way when you let it happen, I’m finding. Everything else in the world exists in seasons and rhythms, and it’s completely okay that I do as well – more than okay actually. It’s necessary. But when you feel like you want to move forward, but it’s just not quite happening yet, it’s hard. I just want to lay in bed with covers pulled tight until the new arrives. I have to just wait it out and let it pass. It’s time for this season to move on, time to turn a page. I’ve got work to do.

I’ve been listening this week to Rob Bell’s latest podcast series, and it is SO good. He’s delving into the wisdom tradition, and I’m finding so many morsels I needed to hear right now. I’ve worked so hard in the year that has passed – stillness even when it hurt, honesty even when it was hard, reading and writing and yoga and time alone and more writing. All of these things have pushed me out of what is comfortable and burned away what needed to fade in my own heart, but now I am finding another challenge, another place where a different kind of work begins. Here’s the shitty part about doing all of this self-growth and hard change: the world around you doesn’t always reflect your own growth, does it? There are obstacles you have to break through and confines you need to somehow break out of, and it is hard because while you can steer the ship on your own change and growth, you can’t keep other outside challenges on that same track. It sometimes feels like starting over even though I feel so different from the inside out.

In the episode I listened to yesterday, Bell explained “When you come to see that you are the steward of your energies, you begin to become much more aware of what you don’t involve yourself in. … That thing you know you should do, that’s generally how it starts. You just get a step, not much. You get enough shape, contour, and texture to know what direction to leap in.”  I have an idea brewing and a shape and a contour, but I have nothing else. Just a little nudge. That is hard enough, but then I also feel the weight of conflict and distractions pulling me when I want to ignore them. I knew that you always transfer pain to someone else if you don’t tackle it head-on, and I don’t feel that pain in the same way I did a year ago because of my own honesty with it before. But when people don’t face that pain and become harder and harder and transfer it to you, then what do you do? I’m asking this as a genuine question. What works as a deflector shield for that? What I am left with now that I have dealt with my own mess is how to avoid absorbing others’ when it’s been left festering.

In the same podcast, Rob Bell gave a warning about using our energies on the wrong things and how that impedes your vision and your work. “What you get worked up over is a reflection of how you understand your sacred, God-given, holy, precious energies. What you give your energy to is a reflection of how you understand your worth and power and energy. This isn’t about ego. It’s about engagement.” Pushing the ego aside, knowing that someone else’s bitterness is not your problem and no reflection on you, it sounds so easy in theory, but it is hard in daily practice. My worldview might be vastly different from someone else’s, and how do I bridge that gap? It’s a constant challenge for me in this season.

This is the thing humans refuse to see and accept somehow. When you run from your pain or your problems and pretend they are not there, it grows and grows until it hardens, and the thicket it creates poisons everything around it. When I am safe in my own bubble – my own home and my own kids and my own friends and family – I feel soft and light and real. But sometimes the world outside feels hard, and I guess that’s the truth of the matter that we have to contend with.

I’m working to find that magic shield if it exists, that magic formula that pushes it away instead of absorbs it. Until then, I’m holding fast to the little things – bathtub crayons or dinners with friends or quiet mornings in bed focused on my own work and my own spark. I’ve come this far, and I’m not stopping now. The shine is too stubborn and the promise too bright.

spinning wheels

I’m writing a little less often in this space as we get busy with the school year, and I have a lot of irons in the fire right now, so to speak. It’s not an intentional break from this blog, but I’m working on a creative endeavor that I’m really excited to tell you about. (It’s not quite ready yet… hopefully by the end of the year!) A new project means that I am pulled in a few different directions right now, so it’s difficult to stay focused on this space for long when I am putting effort elsewhere.

I feel lucky that I’ve connected with a lot of new readers in the last year, but it also gives me occasional stage fright when I have nothing monumental to write about. Just life, just us. Both old and boring but also new and scary as ever. Now I have a few thousand viewers instead of a few hundred, and life doesn’t always feel monumental enough to pass on to others. But much of the value in this journal is to record pieces of my own weeks so that I remember they ever happened when life turns a page to something else and the past feels distant. So here I am.

When things I don’t need start to creep in and take up space in my mind, I have to make a diligent effort to move my focus to what’s important. Me, my children, my family, my own boundaries, my hopes, and my creative life. That’s all I can handle on my plate right now. Distractions scream so loudly though. How do you do it? What are your tricks for staying focused on the few things you most want instead of running the hamster wheel all around us? I feel a little like a hamster wheel right now.

I’m deliberately pausing today though. It’s Labor Day, and I have been perfectly lazy for most of it. The kids left yesterday for a night with their dad, and I had dinner with friends last night — the long kind where you linger for hours and talk about light things and heavy things and all the stuff in between. I’m prepping for a busy week ahead by resting now, something I’ve learned is every bit as necessary as hard work, but we tend to forget that.

I picked up some varieties of kale and cauliflower from my grandad yesterday, and the kids and I will plant them in our containers on the patio when they get home. A change of seasons is coming, and I’m ready for it. I’m trying to pause here though, for just a little while. Reset my goals and expectations and be realistic with myself. What is most important to me in this season? Where am I headed and how do I get there? Questions that get lost in the busyness of life and need to be asked and refreshed again and again.

We’ve tried to enjoy the last few days of summer with a lot of time outside. The pool is losing its novelty, but nature never does for my two. They’ve chased butterflies and counted caterpillars, and Jude got a tiny lizard last weekend that he tended carefully like a pet for a few hours before releasing him again.

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The best moments are always the little ones in between, the ones that are impossible to orchestrate. Creating space for that is key, I think. I’m trying to slow down at home as life outside the house picks up its pace with soccer practice and reading homework and paper grading. I’m fighting the temptation to stay on the spinning wheel. Slow and steady always wins the race.

 

beauty chaser

Our weekend was busy with celebration. My younger brother got married at a north Georgia winery, and as Norah and I drove over on Friday afternoon after school, I was reminded of how much I love my home state, even in the sweltering heat of August.

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North Georgia is so beautiful, and I never tire of it. Rolling hills as far as you can see and pines everywhere. I feel lucky to live where I do and have a web of family spread across a landscape that I love so much. I know the south has its quirks and limitations, but it is home like no other place on earth for me. Beauty everywhere.
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The rehearsal dinner was at a historic restaurant in a tiny town and featured fried chicken and mashed potatoes and squash casserole. The next day was full and busy with wedding prep. Both kids were part of the ceremony, and it’s sweet to see them dressed up and feeling special for occasions like this. As usual, Norah was ecstatic and energetic about her role in front of a crowd, and Jude was more reserved.

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There was a time in my life when I went to a wedding every month, I think. But it’s been a while, and as I reach my mid-thirties, these are fewer and farther between. I forget about all the preparation and excitement and jitters and tiny details. It was fun to be reminded of what it feels like to plan for such a special day.
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The kids didn’t have a clue, of course, about the tiny choices like flowers and music and bridesmaids dresses and the million worries that go into planning an occasion like this. But they did feed on the excitement which was fun to watch.

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I couldn’t get enough of my tiny groomsman. Little girls love to dress up any chance they get, so it’s no shock to see Norah running around the house in a dress for no reason at all lately. But to see Jude in a suit with a boutonniere pinned on? Slay me.
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After the ceremony, the crowd moved to the tasting area of the winery to eat and drink and talk as we watched the sun go down over the mountains. Norah danced and twirled with her cousins and stayed up way past her bedtime.

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The bride lost her grandmother just a few weeks ago, soon after my grandmother passed. There was a moment of silence for the two of them at the beginning of the ceremony, and the absence was tangible. We felt it. It is still so incredibly fresh and, in a weird way, it is actually becoming more painful these past couple of weeks. Like a wound that gets worse before it gets better. The surreal feelings wear off along with the high of the funeral and the million visitors and condolences. And then you are left with the reality that the person you loved just isn’t there anymore. It’s the weirdest thing, isn’t it? That this is how life works. That we lose people we can’t imagine living without and life just keeps happening anyway.

I’ve been revisiting Rilke a bit again lately, and in one poem, he explains “God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks us silently out of the night …Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” It’s such a comfort to know that no feeling is final, to know that everything passes eventually.

This last two years of my life have felt like beauty and terror again and again, sometimes in the same moment. I’ve become a beauty chaser, I think. Look for it, find it, squeeze it for what it’s worth. Squeeze out every last drop you can get. It’s there in the tiniest spaces when we are open to it.

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It felt good to celebrate that this weekend. I know that beauty lies all around us all the time, but on some days, it’s easier to see than on other days.

stephen wedding

You just have to wait out the rest of it sometimes, don’t you? I think it’s also Rilke who says, “Don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”

Life never forgets us, and I know this. You just have to trust and wait and let it go on and on and on to whatever comes next.

 

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