ebb and flow

I spent most of last week on a little trip with the kids. We were only a three hour drive northward. But it felt like some place else entirely. How easy it can be to forget the beauty just outside your own backyard. It feels so good to rediscover it.

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We spent a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, near the national park that straddles the line between Tennessee and North Carolina. The idea for this trip began a year ago when I realized that I have loads of memories in these mountains with my grandparents and cousins, filed deep in the back of my very best pieces of nostalgia. We went almost every summer, and yet my own kids still hadn’t seen it and experienced it like I did. I decided this summer was a good time to take them, and then my sister decided to bring her two along as well, and my mom and grandad even drove up for the last night. We found a perfect cabin on the river in the foothills of the mountains and more or less let the kids run wild.

We unloaded our things on the afternoon of the first day and indulged in s’mores that night. Campfires and cousins in a cabin are the very best ingredients for summer memories, I think. It doesn’t take much at all to make something feel special.
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Something unique happens when you get away as a family. Kids sense the tension easing from your own back, I think. They walk lighter, just like you do. Happy with the littlest things – porch swings and smooth river rocks and open windows when we sleep. Vacation always feels like such an indulgent place, even when it’s close to home.

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We braved an amusement park one day to appease the kids, standing in crowded lines with countless other travelers at Dollywood. I can remember loving thrill rides when I was growing up, but it’s been something like 18 years since I’ve been on a roller coaster. Jude dragged me through the line for a coaster that shoots you like a cannon at 73mph high above the rest of the park. I didn’t love it like I used to; in fact, I sort of clenched my teeth and my belly and went for it to please him, but it felt terrifying in this way that I definitely didn’t experience as a kid. Maybe it’s the time and distance between then and now? Maybe it’s the adult worry mind inside me? I don’t know. But I held my eyes shut the whole time and felt relief when my feet were firmly on the ground afterwards, holding an anxious fear I don’t remember feeling when I rode them before.

Both of my kids are daredevils on these rides, and I definitely used to be. But somehow it feels different to me now. Time and experience can have unexpected effects on our own sense of fear, and it can change what scares you. We ended the day with the drive back to our little cabin, and my kids were elated from the bustle of the park, but I was mostly just tired and relieved to be back to a slower pulse.
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The next morning we spent slow hours in the national park, touring Cade’s Cove, an isolated valley with a few preserved historical structures and some beautiful wide open spaces. Life feels so quiet when you are there, like there is nothing to fear at all. But as I walked through old family homes with rock chimneys and one room for 12 people or looked at cemetery markers to find countless children and infants alongside each other, I thought a lot about how their fears were completely different than mine are today but were more real than I will ever understand.

We ended the tour there with an hour-long horseback ride through the wooded trails in the national forest. These are trail horses with a guide, and the pace is a leisurely trot, so those of you who grew up riding horses will laugh at this for sure … but this is another thing that was outside of my comfort zone to say the least. (Which is extra ironic given that only one generation ago family property held horses, and my 82-year-old grandad hopped on the horse with us last week like it was no problem at all.) But even so, an hour on the back of an animal 10 times your size in the depths of a national park isn’t something in the realm of my usual experience, and I was jittery as we waited to get on.

Once again though, it was the urging of my own son who pushed me there, and it’s not the first time I’ve done something scary for my kids – and likely not the last either. So we mounted the horses and set off in the woods, crossing a rushing creek at the start of the trail and listening to the clop, clop, clop through the ferns and fallen trees. With every step that I went beyond my own comfort zone, it got easier and lighter until it didn’t feel scary at all.

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That’s the way it always goes, I’m finding. The definition of scary may be different for each one of us. What terrifies you may not bother me, and what gives me butterflies may not register on your list of worries at all. And even within my own mind, time has changed what my fear responds to. But all the good stuff is on the other side of what I fear. Always. Sometimes it’s a place you can only get to when you cross that bridge. And sometimes it’s just that quiet hum of satisfaction when you know you did what you’d thought was impossible.  But if I just push myself past that space I fear so much, it is never as scary as I’d imagined.

I am home to mounds of laundry and loads of pictures I am weeding through from our time away.  But I hope this is the lesson from our trip that sits with me for a long time – the value in that tension of bravery and rest. The satisfaction that comes from doing what you feared and pushing past your discomfort and the quiet space of rest that we need just as much as we need courage and challenges. The truth is in the ebb and flow between those two things, knowing when to forge ahead with courage and when to slow down and feel the solace that grows in quiet familiar places.

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the long view

I’ve thought a few times about how I needed to sit down to write here, but it is always in passing. When we are in the car and headed somewhere, when I’m chasing them at the pool, stirring something on the stove. Summer is a different kind of busy.

I went on a quick beach trip last week with my mom and my sister – a stretch of coastal highway I have vacationed at a million times before. Every year, it looks different than the year before. New buildings everywhere you look, but a few staples remaining the same. And the ocean never changes, which is why it’s always so soothing to us, I think. Big and vast, inhale and exhale. Farther than you can see.

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It’s weird how much things change, even when parts of them stay the same. I am late to the party on this film, but I finally watched Boyhood while the kids were away as well.  You’ve likely heard by now, but it was filmed with the same actors over a period of 12 years.  The director apparently had a general idea that he wanted to capture one boy’s coming of age from a first grader to a college freshman, and he had the ending shot in mind. But the pieces in between were written as they went along, meeting once a year to review previous footage and film new pieces. All of these moments that are ordinary childhood milestones – birthdays and classrooms and graduations and vacations – seem the opposite of ordinary when you see them presented on the screen like this as part of one boy’s life.

I think part of the reason the movie is so extraordinary is that it forces the audience to take the long view, so to speak. How seldom we do that. It’s human nature to look around at wherever you are and see it as permanent and immovable. Sometimes you look in the rearview mirror and see major moments that unfolded change for you, and sometimes it just creeps up more subtly. But life is changing all the time.

I was revisiting some Pema Chodron last night before bed, The Places that Scare You this time, and a few passages I’d underlined before caught my eye with new meaning now … “Everything is in process. Everything — every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate — is always changing moment to moment. […] Our natural tendency is to seek security. We believe we can find it. We cling to a fixed idea of who we are, and it cripples us. Nothing and no one is fixed.” 

I see what she means when she tells us not to look at ourselves as set and secure and permanently what we are right now, and I’m getting better at that these past few years as changes have forced me to grow and move and transform to something else. But I’m realizing what I need to work on is the realization that others are not fixed either. Who someone was yesterday is not who they are today, and tomorrow will reveal something else. It’s so hard to just leave room to let life move and change around you without gripping tighter to whatever your current perception is.

Yesterday was summer solstice, but the weather was not typical for late June in Georgia. The longest day of the year was clouded and dim and hardly 80 degrees. I woke up this morning to more steady rain outside my window. We end up with a few tomatoes everyday, brought in from the patio and lined up on the windowsill side by side. There’s so much that is good and fresh and lazy and easy about summer. So much time to just be and just rest. But it teaches us patience a little as well. You wait on peaches to ripen until they are exactly where you want them to be before you indulge. You tend and water and pluck and prune and know that your efforts will pay off when it’s time.

I think the thing about getting older is that, even as you sink your heels into wherever you are right now, you know there are other seasons around the corner. You can feel them tugging a little just ahead, reminding you to find what’s good right now because it’s always unfolding to something else.

 

 

same as ever, but different

Months ago, I booked a solo trip to a wellness retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the stress of the past few weeks, I was unsure if it would work out or not, so I’ve been in touch with the reception office to explain that my grandmother was with hospice and I might need to postpone. They were unbelievably accommodating and said I could wait until the very last minute to decide if I wanted to go now or later. I didn’t want to miss time with her.

As it turned out, we buried her on Wednesday with a service that was sweet and sincere and sad. I was dreading the funeral so much, and at the end of the day, my eyes were swollen with tears. But I was also astounded at how such a simple life can be the most beautiful. I loved her because she was mine. But so many others came to grieve with us because they loved her for who she was and the countless ways she touched the lives of everyone who met her. The one and only request she ever made about her final arrangements was to drape one of her mother’s old handmade quilts across her casket, and so we did.
We laid her to rest in the piercing June sun, and it is always such a surreal feeling when someone you loved and knew so well is lying in the ground. You feel aimless and unsteady and unsure for a while. It’s a new way of life you have to somehow figure out, how to exist without the person you were once so close to.

As life would have it, though I had no idea this would be the case, I threw my things in my car the very next day to drive across the Appalachian mountains alone. The retreat center’s directions warned against GPS leading you astray and included details like “go straight under the stone bridge,” “drive until the road turns to gravel,” and “turn left and proceed to the top of the mountain.”

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When I finally reached my destination and checked in with the reception office, I found my room on the other side of the property. It was raining a steady drizzle and something like 6pm. I opened the door to find a small room with a bathroom, a simple bed, one sheet, one blanket, no television, open windows, and the most glorious view of the North Carolina mountains. I forget that stillness has a sound, a hum you can almost hear.

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I have a total of 68 hours to spend here, and I can feel layers lifting as the hours pass. The food is light, and the others here are mostly quiet but kind. I’m in yoga & meditation classes about 5 hours a day. We rose with the sun today and began class without coffee which normally would hardly be possible, but it was brisk outside and the sun greeted me in a way I couldn’t refuse.

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We’ve been talking a lot about some foundational elements of yoga which we tend to forget, and I can’t help but hear it as life advice as well. “Work hard but don’t struggle. When you feel the struggle, ease out of it a bit.” And “go to the edge of your comfort, and then just gently push forward the tiniest bit.”

My life has been loss after loss this past eighteen months, I am so ready to work hard but tired of struggling. I can feel myself, even now when the grief feels fresh and heavy, finding my place a little more everyday. My voice is growing steadier, not louder. I am ready to work hard for the things that are important to me, but I’m also growing more confident in my own ability to know when to ease off and recognize a struggle when I feel one. If you have to force it, (whatever it is) it’s no good.

I have so much more to say later and more to think about and still time left here. As I’m writing this on the tiny bed, I can hear birds out my open window. My muscles are sore and my eyes are heavy. My grandmother’s last weeks taught me the value of surrender, and I am feeling it now in this place, even in a physical sense.

I indulged in a Shirodhara treatment this morning, an Ayurvedic therapy when you lie on a table and allow warm oil to be poured on your forehead in a continuous stream. It’s said to soothe the nervous system and awaken the “third eye” of spiritual understanding and intuition. I think it does accomplish that, but only because it makes you melt into the present moment and feel what is really there. Me, same as ever but different. Still here, still breathing.

 

all of it

We are back home. I spent more than six hours in a car today with two kids, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. So I am doing what I always do when I can’t sleep, and I’m writing instead.

We had a fun week. It was far from a perfect, relaxing vacation because parenting doesn’t present that scenario very often anyhow. But especially when you are the lone adult with two kids, relaxation in the typical sense doesn’t happen much.

But I stole moments here and there, and I accomplished that mostly by letting everything else go. I gave them no real rules except safety and sunscreen. We lounged and watched movies and swam and played in the sand and ate more popsicles than I care to admit. I came home exhausted from hot sun and sibling arguments, but they are high on ocean waves and sandcastles and the novelty of vacation-only Lucky Charms. (Seriously, I think that was their favorite part. I likely could have saved a lot of money and just taken a box of Lucky Charms to our neighborhood pool.) But sometimes, I think you need to hit the pause button on all of it and give yourself room to breathe with no rules and no expectations.

 

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I brought along Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to reread it. I’d set some lofty writing goals for my summer, and I thought it might help me gain focus and courage. I found myself gravitating so much to the life advice it offers though, rather than the writing advice. Early in the book, she explains, “E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”  Sometimes I feel like it is only one foot in front of me that I can see, not even two or three. But I just keep moving one step at a time.

I’m growing suspicious, to be honest, of people who plan much farther than a few steps. I’m growing suspicious of someone if they seem to have it all laid out and expect things to follow in the pattern they want. I’m learning to let things happen and try my hardest to let go of all the fear and doubt and panic. Life is in the right, always. Just do the best you can in that moment, and watch it unfold.

When I step outside of myself for a moment, I see things so differently. I see a reality that I never planned on, but one that offers moments better than anything I expected.

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I’ll undoubtedly remember this week as the vacation when I survived a road trip alone with 2 kids under 7, and then the three of us piled in one queen bed inside a condo so tiny you have to turn sideways to get past the dishwasher and reach the oven. I made spaghetti and tacos and store-bought cinnamon rolls, and we ate dinner in pajamas almost every night. I chased them all week while feeling burdened and worried about my grandmother at home, and I know that will be one of the first things that comes to mind as I recall this trip years later in my mind’s eye. But I’ll also likely remember early morning hours of reading Bird by Bird while the kids slept, and Lamott is so good to remind me that “perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.” 

I’ll surely also remember this as the trip when Jude lost another tooth and delivered a constant lecture on the approximately 148,372 facts he learned about sea turtles in kindergarten. And Norah’s freckles grew everyday while she counted seashells aloud, one by one. Who knew this is where summer of 2016 would find me? I certainly never did. But I’m grateful for all of it.

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While we have not moved her yet, my family has decided to bring my grandmother home with hospice this week. We do not know the exact hour, but it likely won’t be long. The very best moments of my life have come from being brave, staying open, loving fiercely. But this, in many ways, is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Bearing witness to the very end of a life that shaped my own so intensely.

I’m deeply sad in ways I really cannot even begin to describe, and I know that it will be months of grief as the words come together for me. But I also know that human life means this one thing if we are doing it right: we will lose people we cannot imagine living without.

I see people who hold these things at a distance, who put relatives in homes or avoid thinking about what we will all come to face one day – that we all die. Every single one of us. That idea is both the most crushing and the most freeing of anything at all.

And we cannot choose what happens to us and how it all will end, but we can choose what kind of people we will be in the meantime. And I’m trying my hardest to stay open and willing, brave and honest, here and now – even when it hurts. As Rumi says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I thought my heart had expanded enough in this season, but the universe wasn’t finished with me, I think. Here we go again. I’m holding on tight for what lies ahead – the pain and the softness. All of it.

 

beach week

Back in April, I booked a week in a little beach condo for the kids and me. We traveled so much together in my former life – much more exotic locations and expensive trips. But I’ve had such an expensive spring, and my budget looks very different than it did a couple of years ago. So we settled on a little spot on the Florida panhandle that is a short drive from home.

I’ve felt a lot of unease about this trip in light of my grandmother’s health struggles as she is still in a hospital bed in Atlanta. But we transferred her to the university research hospital to get more answers and better treatment for her, so I’m trying my best to exhale a bit and enjoy my time with the kids in the meantime.

I loaded the car on Sunday morning,  and we were on the road by 10am. I bought them each a blank notepad and a fresh box of crayons for the ride down, and that got us 3 hours of entertainment in the car. The rest of the trip was full of I Spy and Letter Hunt, and we finally arrived to our tiny condo in the midday heat.

It’s a studio apartment of sorts with one room that features a bed, a couch, a television, and a tiny kitchen where you have to turn sideways to squeeze by the dishwasher and reach the oven. We unloaded the car and put our things away, and then I braved the grocery store with the kids and at least a million other vacationers. Empty shelves and long check out lines and chaos. We came back to the condo, and I made a quick dinner that we ate on paper plates. We threw on bathing suits and raced to the beach, and we were just on time for the magic hour.

 

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I am so worried about so many things right now – family health struggles and my own bank account and the thousand things I need to address in this season of my life, but the ocean always makes you exhale in a deeper way and realize things will eventually be okay, right? (Asking for reassurance here.) Hardship comes and goes, and in this past few years, it feels like I’ve had more than my fair share. But tiny moments of peace also come and go. I try and squeeze every last bit of comfort I can from them.

 

I’m reminded again of that Mary Oliver line I don’t know what a prayer is, but I know what it means to pay attention. I’m paying attention this week. To freckles and sandy eyelashes, splashes and giggles, sno-cones at sunset.

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Waves roll in and out, over and over. The world keeps turning. Nothing is better than the ocean at showing us that paradox of change and impermanence in the face of eternity. It’s a big, wide world. And struggle exists for every single one of us eventually.

 

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We have three more days here before we head back home. So far, it is a vacation in the truest sense. The kids sleep late while I am up with the sun, and I read with coffee (or write as I am now) while they snooze. They wake and we lounge around with breakfast until we go to the beach mid-morning. We drag our things there, they play for hours, and then we return for lunch and a break from the heat. Late afternoon finds us at the pool, and we’ll shower before dinner and go straight to pajamas most nights. Then we indulge in mugs of ice cream and a movie and sleep to do it all again the next day.

Leisure can feel weird when you are in a season of struggle. We feel like we should be paying our dues somehow. But I’m remembering another Mary Oliver line where she asserts, You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. We are loving what we love this week, without regret or reason. I’m taking these tiny moments, bottling them up as best I can to float me on.

mountain weekend

I spent the weekend in the north Georgia mountains with my closest friends. Fall is just beginning here in Georgia, and it still reaches close to 80 degrees on some days. But it’s close, and you can feel it. A chill in the mornings, and when the sun is dimmed by clouds, it feels like October. We are just on the cusp of something new.

 

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It was almost dark by the time we got to the cabin on Friday. We arrived to turn on the oven and bake the dinner I’d prepped. We lit candles and opened wine and settled into the cozy space that was ours for the weekend. I never miss a beat with these few. It can be days or weeks or months between get-togethers, and it feels like it always ever did. After dinner, we explored the outside of the cabin a bit. Jittery like a little kid with all the darkness and isolation around us. I live in a fairly roomy area of the Atlanta suburbs, but even so, I can forget what it really feels like to be removed from lights and houses and shopping centers and restaurants until I venture somewhere like this.
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We talked a lot on Friday about changes and thresholds in life. I read once that we have rituals for all kinds of experiences – weddings, funerals, birthday parties, etc. You use those rituals to remind yourself that a chapter is done and another is beginning, and sometimes if a ritual doesn’t exist for something you are encountering, you just have to invent one. We decided to create some rituals of our own this weekend as each of us, in her own way, is moving forward to something new and burning away the old. The landscape of fog and barely tinged leaves was a perfect backdrop for that idea. A moment to settle in to the reality of what is left behind and what is to come.

 

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Saturday was drizzly and gray all day, but it didn’t bother us in the least. We ventured to a couple of local wineries and enjoyed back country roads.
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The second winery we stopped at was tiny and quaint, and they had a small fridge of cheeses and a fireplace when you walked in. After a little tasting, the woman who worked there suggested we buy a bottle and head around the back to the small “grotto” they have with live music. We followed her suggestion, and the rain scared away much of a crowd, so it was almost empty. We talked and laughed and just lingered in that way that wine and music and gray skies inspires. It was perfect.

After staying there for a while, we drove a bit more to find funky roadside pottery and fun spaces.

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The very best parts of the weekend were those little nondescript moments though. Huddled in a cabin with rain outside and space to breathe. Space to talk and laugh and share without judgment or expectation.

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A friend sent me a text last January with that Cynthia Occelli quote that reads, “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” Since then, I’ve thought a lot about the rhythm of seasons and the metaphor of growth in my own life. You go through periods, I think, when all you can do is the next right thing. One after the other. And you do the best you can, but it is painful and you feel buried, so to speak. Your shell cracks and it’s rough there for a while. It feels like complete destruction for certain. But the growth emerges eventually. Seasons change. Life moves forward. You find yourself different and bigger and stronger.

 

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I’m still so uncertain. But I know I’m bigger and stronger, and I know love exists in so many forms. Joy exists in so many places.  And nothing feels better than a new season.

our week away

The kids and I enjoyed Disney World last week with my mom as my university was on midterm break.  It was a trip planned and paid for ages ago before everything changed, and I feel grateful that we got to enjoy it together.

Disney is not a vacation for parents. (I’m not sure how many ways I should say that to make it clear, but really and truly, it is exhausting.) But there is something magical about seeing it all through your kids’ eyes and watching them get lost in all the fantasy.  These two had such a great time.

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It was a good lesson for me to live in the moment.  I didn’t take as many photos as I “should” have – not one single picture of all four of us together, which I kind of regret.  (Remember the days when we were little, and our parents would take a handful of pictures on vacation and that was it? Expectations are so different these days.)  But at the same time, there’s something to be said for just throwing your things in the car and hitting the road to forget everything else for a while.  It’s liberating in our current world of Pinterest and planning and iPhone sharing.

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I booked a few character dinners for them ages ago, but that is all the planning I really did.  Other than that, I just let them hold the reins on this one, and we followed along – which meant riding Buzz Lightyear too many times and walking most of Disney World with my almost-three-year-old strapped on my back in the Ergo, but it was worth it. It was a good reminder to live in the moment and enjoy what is right in front of you without thinking ahead to tomorrow or next week.  They are growing into such incredible little people these days.  It makes my heart beat a little bigger to see them interacting and growing and learning.

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As we arrived home, we were in negotiations with some potential buyers on our home, and it looks like we are officially under contract now.  It’s both exciting and terrifying.  I have no idea where I am going with the kids, but I’m trusting something good will fall in my path.  Send good thoughts our way as the kids and I begin the next chapter in this journey.