the right kind of loneliness

I’m on day 5 without the kids – something that only ever happens in the summer – and so far I’ve taken a yoga class, cleaned out my garage, completed two books, watched a full season of something on Netflix, hiked a nearby spot, cleaned out the kids’ closets, made a few trips to Goodwill, begun my book proposal, and accepted a freelance writing job. Today I have another yoga class and a lunch with friends on the books.

I guess as it turns out, I am not all that good at relaxing. I say I’m fine with being alone, but as always, the body keeps the score, and I’m up early every morning with more energy than I should have — all that end-of-the-school-year exhaustion hardly palpable this week as I suddenly have the fire to complete every task under the sun.

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I know I’m tired and craving stillness on the inside, but you have to carve away the layers to get to that spot, or I do anyway. I hope to get faster about that eventually, but for now, I can remember that this is how it works for me always. I squirm a lot and try to move to the right or the left instead of just sitting with it. I self-medicate with busyness. And then the buzz slows its pace little by little until the stillness finally arrives.

I can remember what this was like the first summer I was on my own, and it’s not nearly that bad anymore. But I’m surprised to feel that anxious fire still there a bit even now, two years later. You think you have mastered something and moved beyond it, but there it is again. I’m remembering what Pema Chodron wrote in When Things Fall Apart, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. if we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. it just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter…”

I think part of this, if I’m being honest with myself, is that since I’m seeing someone, it’s been months since I’ve had an extended time of being alone like this. He’s on a big trip across the country with family this week though, so I have to sit with it awhile again. Timing is never accidental, and I think I needed this. (We all need it from time to time.) There is no barometer that can allow you to check in with yourself except stillness and solitude. It’s also Pema Chodron who reminds me, “Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”

This is the ultimate test of joy and contentment, I think. Can you sit with yourself without distraction for any period of time? Strip the roles away piece by piece – mother, wife, girlfriend, employee, friend, sister – whatever they may be. Strip it all away and stay awhile with the person underneath all of that. Sitting in the loneliness, the right kind of loneliness, for a minute, an hour, a day. It shines a light on all the places where you are holding something too tightly.

I can remember writing something in the early days when my life exploded, and I said I knew that there are women who grow stronger and wiser from life’s heartache but that I didn’t know how they got there. Now I know though. It’s that time alone to feel the pulse of what you need and want and what life is teaching you. That’s how you get there.

I’m recognizing the value of it all and trying to be grateful for it, even in the itchy silence of an empty house. Stillness and solitude always show me what I need to know.

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ordinary time

Friday was weirdly cold and rainy — for a May afternoon in Georgia anyway. I attended the university’s graduation ceremony as I always do, but it felt out of place and so strange as I piled on my academic regalia and walked across campus in a cold drizzle. We usually have spring graduation on the front lawn in the sunshine, but it was moved indoors.

I drove home in the rain listening to an episode of On Being that I heard years ago and remembered well, but it was replayed this week, and I couldn’t help but listen again. (It’s no secret I love this show – likely my favorite podcast. I highly suggest subscribing if you don’t already.) Krista Tippet interviews poet Marie Howe, and I can distinctly remember listening to this in something like 2014 when it first aired. I was folding laundry in my son’s room in a house I no longer live in, and I remember dragging the phone with me from room to room to continue listening as I put away everyone’s clothes. It’s always such an interesting experience to listen to music or read a book or see a movie years after you originally did. We hear things differently as we evolve to become different people, I think.  Much of what Howe discusses in the interview relates to her weeks spent with her younger brother in his final days, and that was before I’d had a mirror of that experience with my own grandmother. There are things I hear differently in that interview now.

In the episode, she talks a lot about ordinary time, as she calls it. The moments that are nothing special and easily missed but are also the key to unlocking happiness. She reads her short poem “The Gate” (link here if you want to see her read her own work) where she says, “I had no idea that the gate I would step through to finally enter this world would be the space my brother’s body made.” It’s strange, isn’t it? The gates we step through to finally enter are never the ones we expect. I was thinking about this as the graduates walked to proudly receive diplomas Friday night, that these big moments – graduations and weddings and new jobs and big moves – these are always the ones we assume will most shape us, but it rarely works out that way. It’s the ordinary time that does it. And sometimes the heartbreak, too.

Tippet also asks her in the interview about the process of using writing to break open instead of closed, and I hear echoes of my own story and what I’ve learned through writing in this space. Howe says, “I mean, things are going to happen all the time. The unendurable happens. People we love and we can’t live without are going to die. We’re going to die. … Art holds that knowledge. All art holds the knowledge that we’re both living and dying at the same time. It can hold it. And thank God it can because nothing out in the capitalistic corporate world is going to shine that back to us, but art holds it.” And how true that is, right? I feel like all I ever hear around me is messages of permanence. That what we buy or hold right now matters and will matter forever. Art is the only thing that reflects the impermanence of our everyday lives – which is a thought a lot of people don’t want to let in. It makes you begin to question the race we all run and what it’s really for. The long hours to make the money to buy the things that you don’t have time to enjoy because you are working more to buy more. Nothing about that scenario admits that we are all living and dying at the same time.

She goes on to talk about the connection that happens with writing, saying “So I think that we join each other. It’s easier. We’re not alone. And I feel like that’s the only answer. Otherwise, we’d just think it’s only happening to us. And that’s a terrible and untrue way to live our lives. And I think art constantly mirrors that to us, whether you’re reading Thomas Hardy, or Doris Lessing, or Virginia Woolf, or Emily Dickinson, it’s just holding the human stories up to us, and we don’t feel alone. It’s so miraculous.

I’ve seen that miracle in this space, and I am so grateful for it. For every comment or email that says I get it; me, too. Thank you, thank you. Sharing our stories in all their raw honesty is really where it’s at.

Listening to this interview again almost three years after I initially did makes me grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. I know last summer, hard though it was for me, illuminated things I can never un-see. But also this time I’m in — this liminal space as theologians call it, this in-between where I don’t know with any certainty what is next and I don’t owe anyone anything — it forces me to see the this that Howe refers to. This moment, whatever it may be, is what I’ve been waiting for.

The kids were away this weekend, and though I was tired and it was cold and rainy on Friday, sunshine showed up on Saturday, and I decided to take advantage of it and head a few minutes north to spend some idle afternoon hours at a nearby winery.

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Dating when you have kids is weird and hard. There is a lot I could say about that and likely one day will, but I will say that when you are in it, you just do the best you can. I tend to forget the perfection that exists in simple quiet hours where you do nothing but eat and drink and talk and pay attention. What I value now isn’t the same it once was. Just be honest and true and make me laugh and listen.  And be willing to throw a blanket and a picnic basket in the car and spend a few hours with me doing nothing at all.

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I noticed things on the drive up that I usually don’t as I got to show him the landscape I love so much that has shaped my life. And this whole experience with him has worked that way in me as well. I’m seeing things in my own self that I never noticed were there or things that I had forgotten in the layers of all the other stuff that structures my days. There are so many pieces of my life that are deeply rooted – job and house and kids and immovable pieces of who I am. But I can feel myself bending here and there to notice what I haven’t before or to see things from a different angle, to stretch just a little beyond what I would normally do.  And there it is again – that same command I hear from every yoga instructor – stretch just beyond where you normally would and rest there; don’t force it or rush it. Let it be.

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I’m still in that liminal space and have no indication of what the future holds, but I’m learning this is where the gold is anyhow. No demands or expectations. Just being grateful our paths crossed as they have and taking what is offered to us on a sunny afternoon in May. Being grateful for what is here and not questioning the rest.

Mary Oliver tells us, “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely of attentiveness.” Who knew how perfectly imperfect it all can be when you push aside every demand and just slow down and pay attention.

wide open

It’s been 16 days since I last wrote something, so here I am with no agenda but with a determination to mark this month somehow so that I don’t forget it happened. It’s still dark out, and I’m typing as fast as I can before the kids wake up. The only way to get it done.

I proctored my final exams yesterday morning – which means I am only about 240 paragraphs of grading + one long assessment report away from my summer break. My composition exams are always at 7:30am (university schedule dictates that, not me) which means I leave the house at about 6:30, Norah in tow. It takes a lot of coordinating. My mom always stays with us the night before to get Jude off to school since his bus comes a full hour after I leave. Then we drive, I check Norah in, I proctor, I grade, and I scribble our other spring priorities on the planner — dentist appointments this Friday, birthday party coming up, pediatrician visit, graduation ceremonies, and the list goes on.

Spring is crazy always, but the older they get, the busier life feels. And I wish there was a way to change that, but it mostly just comes with the territory. We have all these lofty ideals of what parenting will look like, and then we have the reality. These two pictures are generally not all that similar to one another.

I spent Friday night at a international festival nearby with countless food trucks and vendors and entertainers from all over the world.  After doing these sorts of things alone for the past 2 years, we finally have someone tagging along with us every now and then, and thankfully he has what seems like endless patience. There were a few sibling spats, some occasional long lines, and a little whining. But there were also some memorable moments and big smiles and full bellies. Jude climbed a rock wall and has watched my video footage repeatedly to relive his fearless pride. Norah charmed a few high school football players who were selling bottled water, and she lugged the bottle home and to bed with her that night. After one, long, exaggerated sip, she explained, “That ‘festibal’ was so fun, mama. This water is so good. I think it’s from China.” (This coming from the child who requested a hot dog over dozens of delicious international options.) Their imaginations are wild and unleashed these days, but their excitement and pride is, too.
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I decided to forego the occasional summer camps that I usually use to break up the routine. Instead, I figure we can do things together nearby and maybe squeeze in a road trip or two and a weekend away.  They have private swim lessons lined up in May so that I can finally exhale at the pool every now and then. (They are both so close to swimming efficiently, but one mom and two kids is not getting it done as securely as I’d like.) I find these sorts of things bouncing in my head a lot — that they cannot swim yet and that we still use training wheels and that my first grader can’t tie his own shoes. There are so many life skills I know they need, and it stresses me to remember that I am the one who needs to teach them when truthfully laundry + homework routines + mealtimes and bedtimes take up every ounce of time and energy lately. Do other moms think about this sort of thing? Envisioning some future where your adult child cannot ride a bike and knowing that it is all your fault for not teaching him?

I’m in a weird place in my own life and in the life of my little family. I’m used to being independent and managing a household and all of the things necessary to get us from day to day. But then sometimes I realize with such weight and truth that I really could use an extra set of hands. I think families come in all shapes and sizes, and we are happy and feel complete in our comfort and routines. But I also think there is a reason it takes two people to create human beings – because it takes two people to tend to their growth if you intend to have any energy or sanity left. I try to do the job of two, and sometimes I am pretty good at it. But sometimes I fall short. I’m human, and I have a full-time job outside of this house, and there are only 24 hours in a day.

I tend to look at motherhood like project management these days, employing the village where I can to get us where we need to be. Delegating what I need to – like swimming instruction – and playing on my own strengths, trying hard not to worry about the rest and knowing that it will come together when it does and they will be okay. Eventually, we all will be. I give them a lot of wide open time to play and explore on their own, and even though that is mostly out of necessity for me, I tell myself that has its advantages, too.

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Among all the chaos and the sibling fights and the demands of the calendar, I do see so much independence growing among the both of them this year. I can see that kids need space and autonomy to grow and find their own way. I’m praying the goals and milestones will happen somehow in this stretch of time.

When I think back to my own life, I see how many times I have met goals this way, too. I chug along in the regular mess of life and look back to see I ‘ve actually learned something and crossed that big item off the list and somehow arrived at the goal along my own path. I’m hoping it’s the same for them – that they will look back and see the safety net of my own arms and our food on the table and our home and routines — and that wide open space of childhood everywhere else.

invisible notes, recorded

My kids slept until past 8am these past three days, which is beyond rare.  Even in the slow pace of summer, that doesn’t happen much. They both made their way to my bed in the middle of the night last night, so I woke up under a pile of heavy heads and limbs with my own back a little sore. The outright neediness of baby and toddler days has passed, but it sometimes doesn’t feel all that different now. Still always someone or something needing something from me. Kids or the dog or the job or the house. Or my own self which is the last thing I have time for in the frenzy of regular life.

Neighbor kids were over two weeks ago playing hide and seek, and my living room curtain rod was a casualty. One bracket came down, and the wall left behind seems a little crumbly where it was drilled in before, so it’s not a straight-forward fix. Add to that my apprehension on using a drill, and it has been abandoned for the past two weeks, along with a large box of self-assemble furniture sitting in my dining room for a full month now and at least three large piles of clean laundry upstairs that need to be put away.

Do you ever feel like the piles of unattended tasks in your life somehow take up real estate in your brain so that there is no fresh air there to move around? I prioritize what is first, squeeze by and turn sideways among all the lists and piles, glance the other way, and do all I can to function despite the unfinished mess. But sometimes it just reaches a point where I cannot do it anymore. As my students say, I can’t. [As one complete sentence.] I just can’t. I can’t do much of anything. It takes a lot for my brain to reach overflow status, but when it does, I’m done.

I think motherhood is a challenge because so much of our work is invisible to everyone else — the meals that appear magically on the table 3 times a day and the laundry that is cleaned and the school schedules that are recorded and the million other minutiae that are pulled together somehow. But when you are the only adult in the house, you can feel even more invisible somehow. Invisible to your own self, too. Treading water all the time.

Last week I tried and failed to set up my cable television myself. Then last night, I tried and failed to put the furniture together myself.  Then I drove 2 kids at 8pm to purchase heavy duty Command strips and pray they’d hold up my curtains because I had also tried and failed to drill the bracket back in the wall, and there is only so long I can stare at the fallen curtain before losing my mind when what sits in front of it is a cable box that doesn’t work and what sits above it is a water stain that I should have attended to weeks ago but haven’t.

I had a ten minute span of time this morning as I finished my coffee where I thought my curtain solution would hold and felt mildly successful, but then it fell. And I consequently cried in the shower for a good 30 minutes while hiding from my kids. The little things feel big sometimes. And I think everyone always says just ask for help, but I do that in nice or subtle ways that no one hears. Or maybe they do, and they have their own agenda to tend to which is entirely understandable.  But whatever the reason, it just sinks in sometimes in that particularly heavy way: you are alone. entirely. on your own. man up. figure it out.

I’m so exhausted from figuring it out. I feel like I am out of creative solutions, and I’m spent. Done.

The truth is I’m not done, of course. The truth is that I have felt this way a million times before, and I just keep moving and the wheels keep turning, and it works out. Every time and always. Frederick Buchner says, “Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day’s chalking.” Grace always comes along last. Just a little last bit, just a little more room to breathe deeply and say thanks for what is here and what shows up for me. Then tomorrow is new.

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We went to the park this morning. I was knee-deep in laundry and wanting to finish it, but a neighbor knocked at our door with a last minute invite, and both kids started jumping. So I dropped the laundry [again] and said let’s go. Jude took a notebook for his “field notes” and numbered his observations with his first grade penciled lettering. Seeing a blue bird, rubbing two sticks together to try and make fire, watching “a butterfly in spring,” and seeing a large ant.

He takes so much solace in these observations, like our time outside only really happens if these things are recorded for him to see and feel. I get that. Writing does that for all of us, I think. In so many ways, that is exactly what I do here – write my observations and experiences as they happen, not always trying to do anything with them, just writing them here to see them staring back at me and know that they aren’t invisible.

Sometimes I do that to reflect on what’s good so I can say yes, remember when? And sometimes I do that with the hard stuff, too. So when it gets better, or when it comes around again, I can say see, hear that? You’ve been there before and you did it. Just hang on; grace always comes last.

long uphill climb

I’ve had a few days alone as the kids are on spring break and on a trip with their dad. Truthfully, I’ve got neither the cash nor the time for a trip right now, and I am always a little anxious with them away, but I’m so happy they get the chance to go. I am in full swing at work with only about 4 weeks left of class this semester. Student meetings and a visiting poet today and papers pouring in and reports to complete for administrative purposes. I’m almost drowning, but I don’t mind since I’ve come to associate this frantic April pace with a long rest that is coming soon enough.  Summer is around the corner.

Yesterday my friend indulged me in a belated birthday treat that we’ve had on the calendar for weeks. I went to a traditional Korean sauna, and it was outside of my comfort zone in ways (gender segregated nude areas), but it always feels so good to push myself to do something new. I don’t do it enough. I ended up getting a “body shampoo” which actually means someone scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed every dead skin particle off my body and left me feeling like a baby. It was a perfect ritual to mark spring and newness. I need to shed so many things, I think. And so often our bodies are the tools through which we can get to something else. I see that idea reflected more and more as I age.

After that, I spent five hours lounging in their various saunas – lined with anything from amethyst to charcoal to clay. As we walked out into the Atlanta spring sun, it felt like nothing was left in my skin that was there when I walked in. Newness is good.

Life has evened out in a way that, to be totally honest, makes me feel really strange. I spent the last two years shedding layer upon layer, and now what? I am just here and moving along at a usual pace and there are no scary surprises or catastrophes or major adjustments. I think yesterday’s experience felt so good because it has been too long since I jumped out of my comfort zone (after two solid years of living every single second outside of it). It’s easy to fall back into that human desire for complacency and consistency, isn’t it? Sometimes we need experiences – little or big – to shake us up again.

Two summers ago, I read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea at the recommendation of a friend. It resonated with me in a major way, and I like to revisit it every now and then. Lindbergh says, “It isn’t for the moment you are struck that you need courage, but for that long uphill climb back to sanity and faith and security.”

I think I am on the long uphill climb now. The part where I am out of the woods, but now I figure out what I want and how to get it and do the hard work of plowing ahead to get there. I want so many things — stability and comfort and solid ground but also persistent renewal and new challenges. I’m grateful for the wide open road in front of me, and the different sort of stability that I feel having spent two years on my own feet in some rocky waters. I don’t want those same kind of rocks again, but I do want some new terrain on this uphill climb. I want to see new places and have the faith to pursue what I know is coming for me. More.

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Our back patio is overflowing with so much green  – thanks to my grandad’s generosity and my inherited love for homegrown food. The kids help pick greens every night now – lettuces and chard and kale that make their way to the dinner table. We’ve created this place somehow with neighbors and friends and our own little village of sorts. I was making dinner one night last week to glance up and catch a glimpse out the back patio door of my two playing with a crowd of neighborhood kids with bare feet and short sleeves and late daylight. It was the simplest of moments but the one I scribbled on paper for my gratitude jar that night. Here we are in a home we love with predictable routines and a solid foundation.

I’ve heard that saying “what you take for granted someone else is praying for,” but now I see it in my own life in a different way. What I have now, this little life with all of its routine beauty, is what I so desperately prayed for years ago when I really couldn’t see my out to the other side yet. And here I am. But now I want more, and I can feel it just out of reach. That’s the secret perhaps – to always be reaching for more and pausing in between to listen to that voice that tells you what you really want.

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.

on the other side of where I came from

Life is finding a predictable rhythm with fewer surprises lately, it seems. I’m grateful for it. Atlanta weather is confused about the February calendar, and it feels like spring. The flowering trees have busted wide open a month early, and there are tulips springing up beside the sidewalk as I walk across campus to class this week. We’ll have another chill in a month or so – as we always do before Easter. But for now, newness is here, ready or not. It always feels good to see the seasons change and usher in something new.

The kids had a little break from school with an extended weekend, so I got some extra time to myself. I caught up with a friend Sunday afternoon, worked late on Monday, and carried my coffee back to bed with me yesterday morning in my last few hours before kids arrived back home. I’ve all but abandoned my usual cornerstones of sanity lately – the little things that ground me – like quiet mornings alone and writing and reading and podcasts. But I am making an effort to get back at it as the seasons change. I caught the latest episode of On Being as I drove to meet my friend on Sunday, and it won’t stop tumbling in my head.

Krista Tippet interviews Alain de Botton, the writer most well known for “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” which was the most widely shared and read piece from the New York Times in all of 2016. The On Being episode features an hour-long conversation with him about life and love and the difficulties of being human.

I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately and choices and companionship and all of the things that go along with it. In so many ways, I am not the romantic I once was – or at least not as naive. But I think a strength lies in my realism in a way that I couldn’t exactly understand or articulate until I heard the conversation with Botton. He tells Tippet, “In a way, there’s a lot of mundanity in relationships. And one of the things that romanticism does is to teach us that the great love stories should be above the mundane. So in none of the great, say, 19th-century novels about love does anyone ever do the laundry, does anyone ever pick up the crumbs from the kitchen table, does anyone ever clean the bathroom. It just doesn’t happen because it’s assumed that what makes or breaks love are just feelings, passionate emotions, not the kind of day to day wear and tear.” That day to day wear and tear is no joke, is it? And it seems both liberating and depressing to realize that mundane and tiring details are often what makes and breaks love, not just feelings.

I’ve been teaching Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing this last few weeks in a composition class, and I’ve had a lot of conversations on these ideas with my students as well.  What is love and what is marriage and what is the difference between those two things? What does Shakespeare tell us about those topics, and is his view restricted to Elizabethan England or is it timeless? I think as much as we like to laugh at his comedies of crazy fictional characters flying from one idea to another as a result of feelings, so many people in the modern world are not all that different.

I’m seeing someone a bit these days, and it is a hard topic to write about. (I mean what a brave soul he must be, right? What scarier topic can exist on a first date than your side job as a blogger and a writer?) But it is also a hard topic not to write about as I share nearly everything else on this journal, and it feels weird to hide it among other words here when I know what is between the lines.

For now, I will say that it is good and it is simple and lucky, and it just feels like a rest for a while after such a long season of no rest at all. For once, I am not thinking much about the past or the future. We owe each other nothing except attention in any particular moment we are together, and for now, that is more than enough. My past few years have brought experience after experience that softened and opened my perspective in ways I never expected, and I can see already that this is much the same – regardless of where it lands.

It’s funny how relationships begin, isn’t it? (And I don’t mean only romantic ones but friendships as well.) We put our best foot forward, that face that perhaps only the bank teller or the coworker sees. We smile and talk and share carefully chosen pieces and act as though we have it all together, but the cracks make their way out eventually. I am less inclined to hide them now that I am on the other side of where I came from. It gets easier to let your real self be seen as you grow older. Or perhaps I am just tired and left without the energy to conceal the mess.

Alain de Botton mentions this in the interview as well: “Look, one of the first important truths is, you’re crazy. … all of us are deeply damaged people. The great enemy of love, good relationships, good friendships, is self-righteousness. If we start by accepting that of course we’re only just holding it together, and in many ways, really quite challenging people — I think if somebody thinks that they’re easy to live with, they’re by definition going to be pretty hard and don’t have much of an understanding of themselves. I think there’s a certain wisdom that begins by knowing that of course you, like everyone else, are pretty difficult.” 

I am difficult. Like anyone else, I am not easy to live with. I tire easily, and I crave time alone. I thrive on routine that probably drives others insane. I sometimes leave cabinet doors open, and I can be messy about the things I don’t care about and ridiculously picky about the things I do. I have lots of opinions, and sometimes I make judgments quickly. My kids are wild at times, and we have grown so used to life with just the three of us that I often wonder how I will ever fit anyone else into this shape we’ve come to know as home.

But as it turns out, I think I learned a lot about relationships by living through a very long and difficult one and watching it all dissolve. And in all the twists and turns of children and family in this past two years, I have learned even more. Love is love most clearly in the confines of a family. Botton expands on that best when he explains, “Families are at this kind of test bed of love because we can’t entirely quit them. And this is what makes families so fascinating because you’re thrown together with a group of people who you would never pick if you could simply pick on the grounds of compatibility. Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be the precondition of love as we nowadays, in a slightly spoiled way, imagine it must be.”

That last line blows my mind with all of my 21st century expectations. Compatibility is an achievement of love, not its precondition. I think what happens when you spend so much time alone and you grow and stretch and expand so much by sitting with the discomfort is that you eventually realize that self love is the best love and that the only person perfectly compatible with me is me. There is no perfect soul out there waiting to save me or complete me because I am already whole. But connection is still the best thing I can offer and the best thing I can receive.

The details of it all are just messy, aren’t they? You fumble and move along as best you can, and sometimes you are surprised with these most beautiful moments of connection and the simplest seconds of happiness without motive or reason. But underneath it all, there is still you. Still me. Same as I ever was, but flawed and true and real.