refugee

As I type this (or try to), I’ve got a house full of kids playing hide and seek while the rain pours outside. I hear screaming and laughing, and I’m guessing I will throw a few words here and then leave it alone for hours and return to it later tonight when the kids are sleeping and the house is quiet. This is the way everything works in my life lately – half finished bits and pieces that eventually get done, but never on the timeline I prefer or expect.

There are five straight days of rain in the forecast here, but it held off for us yesterday and we took advantage – a soccer game followed by a visit to my granddad’s place followed by a trip to our favorite local pumpkin patch. I always over-plan fall Saturdays, but they come and go so quickly around here. I just want to be sure we get every last drop.
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What a week it was. The news is killing me – from Vegas to Capitol Hill to Tom Petty. One foot in front of the other is the only way I slog through it lately, and sometimes it looks like the entire world is on that same page with me, none of us really knowing how to do this.

I also ran across this dense and lengthy article online this week. A few points in it reminded me of what I touched on in my last post – that thing that happens to women when we pass 35 and inch closer to 40 and don’t see things the same way any longer. The author tells us, “I think of what my friend who grew up in Mexico once told me: ‘The 30s are the adolescence of your adulthood,’ she said, ‘and when you reach 50, it’s a restart—empieza de nuevo—a second chance.'”

I’m wondering if my empieza de nuevo might begin a little early. Sometimes it feels that way. Not that life isn’t still hard. It is. The same pressures the article emphasizes – from kids to career to finances to single life with no confirmed expiration date – are all true for me. But I don’t know; sometimes it feels like I just got used to facing stuff I didn’t want to face, and now I’m not scared of much of anything anymore. Life is hard. But I know I can handle it somehow.

I’ve been revisiting some Tom Petty this week – like most everyone else I know. I can’t help but think of my favorite of Petty’s songs, one that felt like an anthem for as long as I can remember, but especially in this season of my life. When I hear Everybody has to fight to be free. You don’t have to live like a refugee in his voice, it leaves a bigger mark than just reading those words or hearing them spoken. Art and music continually amaze me in how they capture what we can’t quite say in our everyday lives but always feel just the same. And this week, I’m reminded again with his passing that what we create outlasts us – whether it is art or music or words on the page.

Petty apparently wrote that song about music business pressures and recording label arguments in the 70’s. Whatever the case, I feel its defiant message in my own way and always have when I hear its melody. Life pushes us here and there, but we can refuse it, too. Refuse the feeling of being evicted from our own space and lay claim to what is ours anyhow. It can take a long, long time for some people to own up to every bit of their lives without fear and without that ever-present human reflex of distraction. But the closer I get to that place of honesty and accountability, the more fearless I become. I can think back to moments that I felt like a refugee in my own life, running from myself. But once you find that center to call home, you can stop running. It is the best gift my life has given me.

We wrapped up yesterday’s busy schedule with a showing of The Jungle Book with the university’s theatre program. I wasn’t so sure it was the best idea, to be honest. Sometimes things go awry when you ask kids to pay attention and be still after such a packed schedule all day long. But the minute we sat down in our seats and they saw the set, they were hooked. They waited excitedly and passed the fifteen minutes before curtain call playing I spy, taking blurry selfies on my phone, and counting the twinkles and lights on the stage.

 

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The minute the house lights went down, both kids were following closely and watching for the next character to make an entrance. We followed Mowgli through his journey from a crying baby to a man who is finally ready to leave the only place he’s ever known. The play closed with the main character crying into his own palms as he began his journey to another place and wondering what the salty water was falling from his eyes. The character of Baloo uttered those words (straight from Kipling’s version as well) Let them fall, Mowgli. They are only tears.

It’s only ever tears, right? Though it always feels like ours are unique and somehow harder to bear than anyone who has come before us. But really, we are mostly all the same. Every single hardship in our lives teaches us the same thing – that we don’t have to feel like a constant refugee, that we can learn to stop running and eventually come home to ourselves. And when we are really lucky, we find the empieza de nuevo on the other side.

 

 

 

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sinking the ship

The sign of a good date is always when you return home to pour yourself a glass of Cabernet and take it to bed with a handful of Pirate Booty stolen from your kids’ lunchbox stash, right? Then you open the laptop to write a few words and wonder if you will ever even post them.

I don’t write a lot about dating. There are lots of reasons for this. First of all, there are the privacy issues. This blog is public, and anyone can read it, and nothing emotionally intimate grows between two people when it is shared with the whole world. You have to draw that sacred circle around the two of you pretty tightly until you get solid roots – or that’s my opinion anyway. Dating is something I like to experience in the moment. And to listen to my own wisdom, I need to be present enough to hear my gut. For me, that sometimes means not stepping out of it to write about it. Writing makes me take a step back to get the panoramic view. It makes me leave the moment. When I am with someone else, I like to be there in the truest sense.

Then, of course, there’s the simple issue that there are more important things to write about. Sometimes I date. Sometimes it’s really fun. Sometimes it’s not. I have some funny stories and some boring ones and some sweet ones, too. But frankly there are more meaningful things in my interior life to talk about and to chronicle here.

But sometimes it feels disingenuous to leave it out entirely when I share so much more in this space. So here I am, trying to string a few words together and tell you the truest things I can say.

I read an article earlier this week about emotional labor in domestic partnerships. I posted it on my personal Facebook page and was surprised by the resounding YES I heard through likes and comments from plenty of happily married women and single ones, too. There was another essay on Huffington Post titled “The Default Parent” that ran a couple years ago with a similar concept. I can remember reading “Default Parent” when I was still married at that time, and thinking I’d never read anything else that summarized my family life so perfectly.

I am still the Default Parent, the one responsible for 100% of the mental and emotional labor in my household – because I am the only adult in my household after all.  But it’s not as heavy now as it was when I had that mirror of another adult in the house who somehow got to live there without all the stress a Default Parent carries. Resentment. I had it in spades.

Fast forward three years, and here I am now. And I cannot begin to describe to you the degree of change I have undergone in reference to nearly everything in my life, gender roles especially. I will never do that again. I will never carry it all and remain in a partnership that drains every ounce of me like that. I’m not scared to walk away.

I feel powerful in a way that I never have before. I am independent in my own everyday life which is a liberating thing, but I have an unprecedented freedom in my future planning as well. I don’t ask anyone’s permission before I make plans on a Saturday night. If I feel like it, I dance in the kitchen with my kids while making dinner, and I don’t have to listen to someone else tell me to turn the music down. On the weekends my kids are here, yes, it is exhausting, and there is no one else to get up early and make them pancakes, and sometimes the string of 14 solid days with no one else to share the load makes me want to pull my hair out.

But on weekends I’m alone, there’s also no one else to tell me to take my toast downstairs before I get crumbs in the bed. Right now, as I type this. It is 10:48pm on a Friday night, and there are pillows piled in all the empty spaces on my bed. The sheets are soft, and in a little while, I will tuck them under my chin and scoot over to the very center of the bed with no worries about where my arms and legs end up by dawn. I will sleep until I want to get up, and then I will do what I want to do for hours and hours.

This is my life now. All mine.

Sometimes I am filled with this almost tangible longing to share it with someone else. Where is My Person? Where is he? I want someone to lean on.

But for every time I long for someone else, I think about how lucky I am to do whatever I want to do, and sometimes, to be completely honest, it feels like maybe I want to stay in this place for a long, long time. I cannot tell which I want. Maybe this means I have not met the right person yet, and maybe this just means that this is what it feels like forever after once you have finally arrived at that place where you enjoy your own company.

Do you know how many times I have have sat across the table from a man with all of the right credentials – attractive and successful and everything he should be – and heard every little word he’s saying with a resounding clarity telling me I’m better off alone? Is this where 36 finds you? Maybe so. I know he’s out there somewhere, but I’m willing to wait rather than settle. This is the thing I didn’t expect – that I’d feel so good here. So comfortable and real and solid in a way that I think makes it really hard to mold myself into a new shape to fulfill someone else’s desires.

Something happens for women when we near this spot in our lives. When we pass 35 on the calendar and our kids grow out of diapers and sippy cups. I felt so alone when I divorced at 33, but here we are a few short years later, and I am surrounded. I’m watching marriages drop like flies through the layers of my social circles. There goes another one. Here it comes, I guess. That time when the statistics tend to rear their heads and the one in two begin to fall away.

I hear it when I go out with girlfriends who are happily married with no real intention of leaving. They talk about changing. About seeing him differently now. About feeling his reins a little too tightly sometimes. About changing and seeing their own reflection a little differently. About how it feels like a lot to try and figure out sometimes. All these layers of a life well-planned built on the underpinnings of their own character at the age of 25, and now they feel the weight all these years later.

My inbox is full of it, too. There’s nothing I love more than hearing from readers who reach out across the wide internet to tell me that something I’ve written resonates with them. For most of 2015, the emails were from women who were in the wake of divorce or infidelity, and I still get those as well. But more so these days, I hear from people who feel that thread of self-discovery and reinvention in a more universal way. They find pieces of my own path that feel true to them, even if the details are different. Just last month, a California reader tells me, “I am in an itchy time.  It’s uncomfortable and confusing and just plain not fun.  Even within a good marriage, individual growth can be so hard.” We corresponded back and forth a bit with some ideas and solidarity and reading suggestions, and she explains something I know so well, “I was telling a friend recently that I feel like I’m molting, whether I want to or not, and it’s leaving me feeling so soft and tender and vulnerable and scared.  I think I’m trying to find myself again, the same way you had to after your divorce.” I hear this all the time. Face to face with friends across a table. In comments and emails with people I’ve never met before who find me across the internet. The story is the same. Growth and discovery and trying to find a place for a partnership in the midst of all that.

I know these women worry about how their marriages can possibly grow and change and leave room for who they become. And judging by the wave of divorce that seems to come as we near our 40th year, I guess a lot of marriages don’t survive that. In ways maybe it is easier for me with all this space to grow and no one to judge or tamp it down or box me in. But likewise, I worry that I am growing too big, too solid. The cold hard truth of the matter is that there aren’t many men who will fit the bill now. When you reach a place where you aren’t willing to settle, you have to swallow that hard truth that this could take a while.

Sometimes it’s character that drives me away from someone. He reveals something in conversation that doesn’t settle well with me. (A gift of divorce is seeing those red flags so loud and clear.) Sometimes it’s talk about him that makes its way back to me through mutual circles we share. Sometimes it’s timing when underneath it all, I can see an incredible well of potential, but he’s not where he’d have to be for this to work. Not enough time and space between his last relationship and this one, not enough individual accountability and clear-sightedness to make solid choices and be someone I can lean on. There’s character. There’s compatibility. And there’s timing. Each of which is no small feat. All three together? A unicorn. But every person I meet is my teacher. I observe, I listen, I pause there a moment if I feel I should, and I move on when it’s time. Sometimes I am up for the challenge, and sometimes I go months and months without any desire to share as much as a coffee with anyone. It ebbs and flows.

I’ve written about Richard Rohr before. I get his daily emails, and so much of what he writes speaks straight to me and straight to these common refrains I hear from friends and strangers alike. He talks a lot about the “first stage of life” and the “second stage of life.” The first is when we are obsessed with playing the game – the education and jobs and titles, the house and the things we fill it with, the money. The second comes when we have something that shakes us enough to lead us to see how empty the first one was. That is when we reinvent and love as we are meant to, when we make it real.

I remember reading him once when he was cautioning that not everyone wakes up. Some people reach the last months of their lives still stuck in that first stage of life. He explains that usually happens from people who never encountered that much heartbreak to begin with and those who just rush through a potential awakening by “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” I love that metaphor. You can rearrange those chairs all you want – buy a new house, get a different job, attach yourself to a different partner. But that boat is still going down.

I think what has happened to me in my mid-thirties is that I decided to sink the whole ship. No rearranging anything to mimic what was there before and do it all over again. Something brand new has to emerge in its place if it’s going to somehow float me safely through the remaining decades of my life.

It’s the same thing I hear from my single friends and my married friends, too. From readers far and wide. I don’t fit in that box anymore. And I want to be seen.

 

 

 

bottomless reservoir

It is finally the weekend after what felt like the longest week ever for no real reason at all. My kids and I were both out of school a few days the week prior – due to Irma’s storm path and power outages – so maybe that interruption threw us off a bit. For whatever reason, it’s been hard to keep the rhythm and forward motion this week.

I flew through JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy last week on Audible. (As a side note, this year marks the first time ever that I’ve had a kid-free commute as a working mom, and I am loving it! Catching up on audiobooks and podcasts makes it fly by and feel like a bit of an indulgence instead of a chore.) There are a lot of varying opinions on this book, and it’s received a ton of criticism. It has its weaknesses, no doubt. But on the whole, I loved it so much, and it won’t leave me alone – which is the best measure of a book well written. I’ve been tumbling its scenes and lines in my head ever since I finished it, and it will stay with me a long time.

It essentially tells the story of a man not much younger than I am who grew up poor in Appalachia and is now a Yale-educated lawyer. There is a lot in between those two pieces, and therein lies the story. There were things that I related to as a southerner, and there were things that seemed like far-reaching generalizations that were nothing at all like my own childhood. But I think it is a brave and unflinchingly honest look at his own family and at the difficulties of rising from one social class to another.

He makes it clear that were it not for his Mamaw and Papaw, as the calls them, he wouldn’t be where he is today at all. Though the personality of his feisty Mamaw could not be farther from my gentle Grandmother, I share that common thread of owing much of who I became to my grandparents.

Vance tells us about his grandparents’ insistence that he work hard to rise above his current place in life and that “Mamaw often told a parable: A young man was sitting at home when a terrible rainstorm began. Within hours, the man’s house began to flood, and someone came to his door offering a ride to higher ground. The man declined, saying, ‘God will take care of me.’ A few hours later, as the waters engulfed the first floor of the man’s home, a boat passed by, and the captain offered to take the man to safety. The man declined, saying, ‘God will take care of me.’ A few hours after that, as the man waited on his roof—his entire home flooded—a helicopter flew by, and the pilot offered transportation to dry land. Again the man declined, telling the pilot that God would care for him. Soon thereafter, the waters overcame the man, and as he stood before God in heaven, he protested his fate: ‘You promised that you’d help me so long as I was faithful.’ God replied, ‘I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter. Your death is your own fault.’ God helps those who help themselves. This was the wisdom of the Book of Mamaw.”

That was the wisdom of the Book of My Grandparents as well – that God helps those who help themselves. It’s a concept I continue to think about, and I can trace that line to where I am now. I still think I have a ways to go, and I know that it is entirely up to me where I end up. My final destination is up to my own stubborn ambition and determination to help myself – and to the choices I make and the karma I create which follows all of us eventually.

I’ve always believed it was a combination of fate and choice that gets you where you are, and this just gets clearer and more defined for me as I steer my own ship now – a privilege I never really had until I was 33 years old and fate pushed me off that seemingly comfortable boat into some rough waters that have smoothed out now to give me more space and freedom than I’ve ever had.

Something strange is happening these past few months  where instead of seeing this season of my life as a storm to weather, I’m feeling its very best pieces passing so quickly that I’m a little scared to let them go one day. My main fear, as I wrote about a few weeks ago after the Jen Pastiloff workshop, is that I won’t finish the work I know I’m meant to do because I drown in the little things. I know this season I’m in is ripe for my own ambitions, and I guess the challenge is to hold onto that even when life moves me to another page. This season might be one for my own ambitions, but it’s also ripe for drowning in the responsibilities of single parenting, and I feel that, too. My intentions and ideas are clearer than ever, but unfortunately, my pace is more frenzied than ever as well.

My kids have this thing about sleeping in my bed. If they had their choice, they’d be there every night, but they are getting bigger, and it just gets too crowded, so I bribed them a year or two ago with a sticker chart and a grand prize of a 5 dollar bill to get them out. It worked for the most part, but they still beg or use any special occasion (Mom, I had a fever today, so I need to sleep in your bed, right?) as an excuse to sleep there. It’s not that I even care all that much, but I just sometimes want some tiny piece of the day to be mine, some tiny space in this house to be mine. I try to limit the indulgence when I can.

But Jude read some ghost story last week that completely frightened him worse than I have ever seen, and every bit of it was real to him. You could tell by the way he described it and the expression he wore when he was telling me. He begged to sleep with me, and I said yes – which of course elicited It’s unfair! tears from sister, so there we all were. All three of us huddled in my bed with the last blaze of September heat outside my window, heavy heads and limbs all over me all night long. Three nights in a row last week.

I feel like this is the dance we constantly do over here. Sometimes it is me pushing them away for a little freedom and sometimes it is them doing the same to me. We are all trying to spread our wings a little wider and needing one another to give us space, but then also needing each other a little closer sometimes. I think that is the magic sauce in any good relationship – to give that person space to breathe and be but also be willing to drop everything to listen and just be there when you’re needed.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells us about his sister’s tears when his Papaw died, how she suddenly felt that she’d taken advantage of him. What he said when reflecting on that is something that will stay with me for a long time: “To this day, being able to ‘take advantage’ of someone is the measure in my mind of having a parent. For me and Lindsay, the fear of imposing stalked our minds, infecting even the food we ate. We recognized instinctively that many of the people we depended on weren’t supposed to play that role in our lives, so much so that it was one of the first things Lindsay thought of when she learned of Papaw’s death. We were conditioned to feel that we couldn’t really depend on people—that, even as children, asking someone for a meal or for help with a broken-down automobile was a luxury that we shouldn’t indulge in too much lest we fully tap the reservoir of goodwill serving as a safety valve in our lives.”

My kids see me as a bottomless reservoir, and I know this for certain. It is the thing that drives me crazy sometimes. That feeling like an invisible stagehand as I’ve written about before. The one packing the lunches and washing the ballet tights and checking off the homework charts that no one else in the world sees at all. But it’s still my greatest privilege and my greatest responsibility.

I’m writing and planning and dreaming in tiny pockets of time when I can. But for now, it still feels like the three of us here and the whole world out there – waiting for me to find it when I can.

the hum and rush

Something is brewing in the air here in Georgia, everywhere it seems. Our neighbors to the south and the east are prepping for Hurricane Irma, and we are prepping for whatever is left of her when she makes her way a few miles northwest to us. It’s always hard to know exactly how anxious we should be in situations like this. Truth be told, we never really know what’s coming.

Against this backdrop of potential disaster, we are doing the everyday things required of us. My school year is in full swing. I know many of their names and faces by now, and the first set of essays will come pouring in this week. The kids have settled into their routines as well. Wednesdays have us going straight from school to ballet to the soccer field with no time in between.

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I pack snacks and water and rely on the slow cooker to have dinner ready for us when we walk in at 7pm. It’s so hard to find that balance between being sure they are enriched and active and pursuing what they want yet not overbooking us to the point of exhaustion. I rely on little things to set the pace and give us routine in the chaos – dinner at the table and nightly routines and leisurely walks to the bus stop in the mornings. But I think I need to just accept that some seasons are busy. Late November will slow us back down when soccer games are behind us and chill is in the air with earlier sunsets and soup on the table.

A longtime friend of mine created an online retreat with seven days of journals and meditations, and I have been making my way through it this month in the early morning quiet hours before the rest of the house is up. It’s structured around 7 women who made history turning their own struggles to something beautiful for the rest of us, and day 6 focuses on Anna Julia Cooper. I wasn’t all that familiar with Cooper before, but she published a book in the nineteenth century that characterized her idea of God as a “Singing Something” and a divine spark in each of us. This idea resonated with me so much – that song we can all hear if we are paying attention. I even wrote about this before in the last days with my grandmother, how it can sometimes feel like there are two tracks playing in our lives, the everyday tasks and the real melody that creates the whole dance to begin with.

It’s harder to hear in seasons of relative ease and routine, but disaster of any kind – whether it is personal or global – tends to wake us up to that song. It’s also Anna Julia Cooper who tells us “One needs occasionally to stand aside from the hum and rush of human interests and passions to hear the voice of God.” That hum and rush is loud sometimes isn’t it though? I’m realizing that I need to carve that space of silence in my days somehow or it’s not going to happen. It’s been two weeks since I’ve written here for that very reason.

I’m looking ahead at the season in front of me as a challenge to listen beyond that hum and rush of the everyday, determined to find pockets of silence in my day to write or read or think. Or maybe just listen to that Singing Something that always steadies us with the vastness of the whole perspective over the busy tasks of everyday life. There’s always something bigger when we listen.

witness

Where to start, I don’t know. July always leaves me this way. Feeling restless and maybe just the tiniest bit anxious for the start of the school year around the corner. The kids have 15 summer days left, and I have 32. We are trying to drink up every last bit.

I spent last weekend in a cabin on the Tennessee River with a few friends – near and far, old and new. We read and relaxed and explored bookshelves and coffee shops. I spent nearly half of the day Friday on a shaded porch swing with a book in my lap – something I haven’t done in ages. It’s so easy to lose the pulse of who we really are and forget the small pleasures that bring us the most happiness. We spent some rainy hours on Saturday exploring a warehouse of used books, and I came home lugging a bag with no less than nine new titles. One of them is Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass which I dove into first and am swallowing down in huge gulps when the kids are playing or sleeping. It’s her honest reflection on decades of marriage, and it illuminates big things about relationships through the language of everyday minutiae. It’s a timely read for me, and a fascinating look inside a marriage.

Shapiro focuses a lot on the passage of time and how it chisels and changes two people. As she reflects on her first date with her husband, she explains, “I want to deliver some kind of benediction upon them as – drunk on love – they meander the streets of Alphabet City. I want to suggest that there will come a time when they will need something more than love.” Or as she says later, “Our world will narrow as the storm of time washes over us. It will bleach us, expose our knots, whittle us down like old driftwood. … There is luck involved, of course. But not only luck.”

I think that’s a way that we change after divorce, especially when you take time off to be alone and think of what is next. We see that love is a choice, not luck or passion. That the long game is about decades instead of months, but at the same time, decades are made of tiny moments, tiny words that add up to something. That there are some things you can bear and some things you can’t, but that is always a choice.

Susan Sarandon’s character in the movie Shall We Dance insists that “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’” That line echos with me again and again. Especially now that I am alone. I think it’s the witness that we miss sometimes. The presence that is there in all the little everyday moments to say I see you and I hear you and you don’t go unnoticed.

I think witnessing someone in the real way is a choice, and a hard one, too. Shapiro’s book reminds us of that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways I can bear witness to myself when life feels like it is swirling and changing. It is not the same as having that steady shoulder and clear mirror of a forever partner. But there are ways, I think. Writing is one. Talking to friends. Holding on to your own center when you are the only one there.

The kids brought home some sunflowers Sunday night after visiting a sunflower farm nearby. Yesterday morning, we began the day with waffles and sunflowers and cherries. July at its best. Fresh corn is stacked in my fridge, and tomatoes line the window sill. I am doing what I can to bear witness to what is around me, to sink into what is here, even if I am the only one to feel it and see it.

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Sometimes I wonder if I will gaze back at this time, with all of its uncertainty and growing pains and lessons, and think That was it. You were in it. You were alive and real and growing and reaching. Or if I will just see it as a blur and be glad it’s over.

I hope not. The days roll by so quickly right now, and it can feel like I have no witness in these everyday storms, but even with my tired perspective, I can see that this life is something I want a witness to. A beautiful thing.

As Shapiro reflects on her own younger experiences, she says, “Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.”

I know it’s impossible to have someone sit down and tell you everything about how the story goes. But selfishly, I wish time worked that way. Some days it all feels fast and slow at the same time, stifling and loose, real and imagined. It’s so hard to bear witness to this story when what you really want to know is what’s on the other side.

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.

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.