It is late July. Almost the end of the summer. How did that happen?
I got the kids back last weekend, and we spent a little time at my grandparents’ house as they helped my Granddad gather corn from the garden. We all have our own associations with passing months and seasons, but this will always be July to me. Hot as Hell and feeling the epitome of the lethargic, lazy days of summer. Plates full of corn and tomatoes. Heads full of thoughts that move a little slower now than they do the rest of the year.
We fumbled into the car with a bag of fresh corn to shuck at home and a box with a new pet turtle that we kept for a day or two before releasing him to the woods again. I could hear the kids talking with their neighbor friends on the patio when we brought him home, trading elaborate stories about what life is like for the turtle and what sort of family he’d find in the woods.
Our shoulders are pink almost every afternoon, and we are spotted with mosquito bites and exhausted when we finally hit the pillow each night. I love the energy of summer. So much opportunity for imagination in the spaces left by the abandoned schedule.
Jude participated in a little “Drawing and Painting” class each morning this week with our local recreation department. He was so proud of his creations, and I ended up with a heap of fun kid art to display at home.
They learned all kinds of fun techniques like how to create texture and use hydro-dipping for certain effects. He loves creating things with his own two hands, and it’s inspiring to watch. It’s so satisfying to make something of your own, isn’t it?
Norah was talking a few days ago with me in the car about my grandmother, asking me if I was still sad. I told her that of course I feel that sadness sometimes, but that I am so thankful I had her at all and thankful for all she taught me. When Norah asked what she taught me and I had to rattle off the list as it occurred to me, I realized that one of the things she showed me is how good it feels to make something. I’ve incorporated these things in my daily life without even realizing it — nurturing the plants on my porch and watching them grow to something bigger than I expected, baking muffins to deliver to the new neighbors, and sometimes when I’m lucky, even doing something tangible like knitting or writing. What we create somehow comes to mean so much more, doesn’t it?
I read Rob Bell’s How to Be Here back in April, and I’m not sure that I ever commented on it here, but it was such a great exploration into what it feels like to be here in the truest sense and make something of your life. He asks, “What would it look like for you to approach tomorrow with a sense of honor and privilege, believing that you have work to do in the world, that it matters, that it’s needed, that you have a path and you’re working your craft?” Our craft is our everyday experience, and I’m seeing this more and more. But actual crafts, actual handiwork, have a place in my life as well. I don’t think I always give that enough credit.
I feel lucky that someone else’s mid-life crisis essentially led to my own mid-life awakening. I see creation everywhere. In my own home, my own life, my own family. What I have to say contributes to something greater, and that sound echos farther than I can ever see or understand.
In that same book, Bell tells me, “How we respond to what happens to us – especially the painful, excruciating things that we never wanted and we have no control over – is a creative act.” I’m seeing that now as I create something new by simply staying open and curious.
I can’t see the whole mural yet, but I think it’s something beautiful.
I saw the Indigo Girls last night at the botanical gardens close to home. The amphitheater was fairly small, and listeners brought blankets and chairs to set up in the grass. It was warm, even after the Georgia July sun went down. The moon was bright, and the stars were out.
It was the seventh time I’ve seen them live. And as they began with a song that instantly took me back to 2004, I was telling my friend how crazy it is that it only takes a few opening chords on some of their songs to take me back to very specific moments in my life. “Galileo” and I’m in the back seat of a high school friend’s car while we sing with the windows down and eat Cherry Garcia ice cream we bought at a gas station on the way home from their concert the very first time I saw them. “Fill It Up Again” has me in my little grad school apartment writing papers I feared weren’t good enough and reading all day long on a Sunday afternoon. “Second Time Around” brings memories of a wiggly two-year-old and a big belly with another on the way and the quiet loneliness of a big house in the woods and a husband who was never home. It’s funny how music can do that, right? One chord or one line can take you right back and bring it all up again.
Their music has influenced me like no other, and it’s truly the soundtrack of the past 19 years of my life. They have one liners that work like mantras for me. We are better off for all the we let in.– Truth of the matter comes around one day. It’s alright. — The hardest to learn was the least complicated. — That’s the thing about compromise. Don’t do it if it hurts inside. The list goes on and on. It swells within me in that place where good art resonates, and their words have woven their way into my own inner landscape and my life story.
As I listened last night, I was struck so much by the ways my life has changed. The long list of things I’ve had to let go. The ways I am still changing. But it feels so good sometimes to exhale and lean back in the arms of something constant.
In her Dear Sugar column, Cheryl Strayed claims, “Eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself at the age of twenty will, over time, prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true you will look back in twenty years and howl.” I have changed in immeasurable ways, but as I look back at my life in the grand rearview, I see that really all I am doing is returning. Those things I knew in my core to be true, they are still true. There are a million other things I believed that I now understand are false, but my core? It’s the same. I’m just coming home.
Music feels like prophecy sometimes. They sang “Love’s Recovery” last night, a song I’ve sung along with too many times to count. I’ve always loved it, but last night she sang, “There I am in younger days, star gazing, painting picture perfect maps of how my life and love would be. Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection, my compass, faith in love’s perfection, I missed ten million miles of road I should have seen … Though it’s storming out I feel safe within the arms of love’s discovery.” And I heard the story of my recent life in exact proportions. It’s crazy to think about, isn’t it? It’s that strange sense of deja vu that I’ve written about before. Those moments when I feel in my deepest places that I somehow both knew and did not know what would manifest in my life.
I came home alone to my quiet house and climbed in the empty bed with my dog snoring at my feet. I fell asleep to that familiar noise of crickets so loud that you can hear them through the window panes. Summer in the deep south is sweltering and miserable for some; it’s comfort to me.
I’m grateful for love’s recovery and the new discoveries. And the re-discoveries most of all. It feels good to be home.
It’s July …. which, as my teacher friend said recently, feels like the “eternal Sunday evening” to those of us in academics. You know you should relax, but August is knocking with a noise louder than you’d like.
I have two solo weeks in July, and I am in the midst of one now. It doesn’t feel the least bit itchy like it did last summer. It feels comfortable and real.
On Sunday, I dropped the kids off and returned home to make my own dinner of chicken, garlic, mushrooms, and onions on toast. I sliced a fresh tomato and sprinkled it with basil from my patio. I poured a glass of Chardonnay and took a linen napkin from the drawer of the china cabinet. I sat down to a table of one.
I feel naked, metaphorically speaking, in a way I never have before. Not ever. The past years of my life have chiseled away at any facade that was ever present, but the past few weeks have melted away anything what was left in a way that felt soft somehow, not as hard and painful as before. Is this what it’s like? After an initial breaking, does everything feel softer forever and ever? I hope so.
I’ve been purging my house of so many things I no longer want. The kids aren’t here to object or distract, and I am assessing every object, every piece of clothing, every item. There is so much in my life that I don’t need now and never did. I made a promise to myself at the beginning of the summer that I wasn’t going to spend a dime on anything this summer that was not an experience or a consumable (food, for instance). I’ve only broken this rule once in order to buy funeral attire for my kids to wear, but I have been so surprised at how easy it has become to buy absolutely nothing. I’m seeing how little I truly need. Everything is perfect. Nothing is permanent. And I have all I need in each moment.
I’m seeing that it’s all the same – all the things people do to fill up – the co-dependent relationships, the drinking, the buying, the distracting – it’s all the same. I thought I was already at a place when I wasn’t leaning on that stuff. But a clarity is cracking open for me in the best way. I remember that weeks ago when I wrote about my grandmother’s last days, I said sitting with a dying person will teach you how to live. It did and it has. I think I was broken and fractured so many times in the past two years that the unimportant has fallen away, and what is left feels so light.
I took a dance class tonight, followed by a restorative stretch yoga class. I can’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve spent in those environments. Thousands? But my awareness felt so different tonight, so much sharper. The feeling of my own bones and blood, my own beating heart. I can’t explain it, but it’s just that it is mine in a way that it never has been before. All mine. And lacking nothing.
We listened to music during the yoga hour, and Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” was playing at one point. They sang, Hey, let your honesty shine, shine, shine. … Here I am as I felt the steadiness of the floor beneath me.
It feels good to be here. Light as a feather as I move from one place to another.
I’ve been home for six days now, yet I’ve hardly caught my breath. I’m grateful I have summers off to spend time with the kids, but it always takes me by surprise how quickly our days go. Neighbors have been in and out all week, water hoses and bathing suits in the backyard, a puppet show Thursday, and lake time yesterday. It’s always something.
Last Sunday afternoon had me driving home through the Carolinas. Billboards advertising fresh peaches were taunting me the whole way, but the farm stands weren’t open on Sundays. I listened to podcasts – this one and this one were especially great – and thought a lot about my experience at the retreat center and the ways I could take it home with me.
We talked a lot about prana and the power of breath to direct your energy. I spent just as much time learning pranayama techniques as I did doing yoga, and I left feeling ten times lighter than when I came. The food was vegan and Ayurvedic which I don’t think is feasible for me on a regular basis certainly, but as a cleanse, it was really effective.
Yoga poses were called in Sanskrit which threw me off at first. They’d call Bhujangasana, and I’d feel confused until I realized it was just cobra. Or Utkatasana when it’s just the same chair pose I’ve always known. I’ll never tire of learning something new though. There’s so much to be said for unplugging from everything you know and going alone to learn something you didn’t know before.
Saturday night, there was a Kirtan (the Indian tradition of call-and-response Sanskrit music) held near the main ashram. I was on the fence about going as the tradition seemed so foreign to me, but a couple of the people in my group decided we’d go together and see what it was.
I wish I could accurately describe what that room was like, but I will never be able to capture that in words. I sat on the floor for an hour listening to Sanskrit chants with a hundred other people, and I have no idea what they were saying, but I could feel it. Songs about sadness and about yearning and about joy. It’s all the same, isn’t it? Every human culture and tradition around the world is encountering the same thing – joy and heartbreak and all the stuff in between. About halfway through the Kirtan, the soloist broke from Sanskrit and began singing “Amazing Grace.” The entire room – mostly Indians who knew Sanskrit well and a few others like myself who didn’t – began to sing along. It was community magnified.
And it was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. One I cried through while a southern baptist choir sang it at her funeral three days prior.
Some people might roll their eyes while reading this and say I am too much of a mystic. That it was only a coincidence. But it was in that second that I saw so clearly that the people we love never really leave us. They show up again and again and even in the places we least expect it. When I think about that moment for a minute, really think about it, it astounds me. How did I get there? At that second? Think of all the experiences in my life – big and little – that had me driving alone through the mountains to find my way to this specific place in this specific moment as I sat on the floor and listened through tears to this specific song. Life is incredible.
In the first class, we talked a lot about the “om” chant that opens most yoga classes. I’ve said it before, many times, and I knew that it referenced the soul and the entirety of the universe and how they connect. But we discussed how it is really a blend of three sounds when done as intended – ah, oh, and mmm. As you do those slowly, my instructor explained, you can feel them moving through you to vibrate different parts of you. The ah in your belly, the oh in your chest, and the hum at the end in your head. The belly, he explained is the place of creating life (womb); the chest the place of sustaining life (breath); and the head the place of transforming life (thoughts).
He said everything in the world is either being created, sustained, or transformed. But here’s the thing I’m seeing — sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. I will think I am in sustaining mode (breathe in, breathe out, one foot in front of the other, pay the bills, do the laundry, just keep swimming), and I will look back and see that I was actually transforming the whole time.
I thought I was done transforming for a little while, done creating something new. I was ready to coast with a little more ease. But my grandmother’s passing was a clear sign that I’m not done yet. Sometimes I feel tired, but when I remain open to these gifts as they fall, even in the hard season, they somehow feel sweeter than before.
My daily meditations from Richard Rohr struck a chord again yesterday, and I had to pass it along:
I’ve been itchy this past few months, wondering if it’s “okay” that I am still in a space of in-between. (Who says what is okay anyway? Why do we think in those terms?) I’m trying to forget old ideas of “idealizing normalcy” as Rohr calls it. There is no normal. And as I look around me at the people who are the least genuine and the most hollow, I see a desperate quest for “normal” and for perfection. But the sinking Titanic is a heavy force, and it’s going down anyway – even with all the trappings of what you think is a life that somehow proves your worthiness.
Life is not a series of check boxes, and that is a concept that echoes back to the very beginning of this season for me as I wrote about before. Back then, I was consumed with the idea that someone I cared for saw me as unable to fill some imaginary list of “check boxes,” but now I see that looking at your entire life and all the people in it as a series of boxes to fill is so limiting and just setting you up for the sinking Titanic anyhow. You are just rearranging the chairs, but it’s still going down.
I have no boxes anymore, no shape. It’s morphing and changing all the time. The less I look to some definitive list of what life should be, the more it opens up for me in ways I never expected.
Between the whirlwind of the past few weeks, my stay away for a while, and the disheartening news events this week, I’ve been craving home and family. We packed up yesterday for a picnic and an afternoon at the lake.
The kids tried their hardest to catch the minnows swimming beneath the surface and collected feathers and rocks along the shore. The simplest of rituals always work to bring us back home to ourselves, I think.
I truly believe, with everything in me, that the world works in your favor when you ride along with the current. Creating, sustaining, transforming all the time.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
My grandmother took her final rest in the early morning hours on Sunday, before sunrise. It was peaceful and loving and perfectly fitting for a life that reflected so much grace.
My “real life” circle already knows this, but I have recorded all of my formative moments on this journal, and I know I have to write something. But words seem completely inadequate sometimes. What do you say when you lose someone who is so cherished by those of us left behind? I don’t know.
It was past 11:00 when I finally got home to my empty house last night after the funeral visitation and then family time at my grandparents’ house. Sometimes words are not enough, so we rely on rituals. This week is reserved for those rituals of mourning. Receiving visitors and food and hugs. Singing hymns and listening to prayers of comfort. Glancing at pictures from years and years of a life well-spent. And finally, on Wednesday afternoon, lowering her body in the ground.
Seeing her body somehow feels so different than it usually feels for me to attend a funeral visitation, less unsettling and less haunted. Maybe it’s because I knew her so closely or maybe it is because it was such a gradual process that I walked alongside her these past few weeks. Whatever the reason, this time it is so clear to me that it is just a shell. There’s a line from Quaker writings in the nineteenth century that says, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This past month with my grandmother taught be innumerable lessons, but that is one of them.
I think she knew this always. It’s why everyone who met her loved her so much. She spoke to you soul-to-soul without any regard to the other stuff when the world around you only ever sees the other “stuff” as who you are.
The missing will come. The void and the absence is here already, but it still feels surreal. The missing will come later, and I know loss enough to know this. I will cry those tears at some point. But right now, the things that make my eyes sting and overflow are the details of beauty I’ve observed as she made her transition to the other side. There was so much sweetness in her passing, as hard as it is for us to let her go.
There are countless moments from this month that I will never, ever forget. Making pureed sweet potatoes like baby food for her to eat, wondering how many times she did the same for me. Watching little cousins play hide and seek last Sunday in her big hydrangea bush while she slept upstairs. Rubbing lotion on her tired hands, scarred from a life of love and work. Seeing her smile and squeeze my hand when I dripped water in her mouth from a tiny sponge. Listening to my Grandaddy sing hymns to her in her Emory hospital room when she was overwhelmed and upset, and then watching him silently hold space for her in the last 10 days that she spent at home. He never wavered, even once, from what real love is.
I will never, in all my life, forget what I have witnessed between the two of them in these last few weeks.
As I was talking with an old friend last night at the visitation, I was saying how grateful I am to be from a family that always taught me the value of loss and sadness, always showed me the whole picture. So many people in our culture don’t “do” sadness and don’t “do” death. They pretend it’s something we can somehow avoid by holding it distant. Like if you run fast enough and smile big enough and buy enough shiny new things, loss won’t really happen to you.
I wrote my grandmother’s obituary – perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever written. How do you sum up someone’s life in something like 300 words? As I wrote, I got to that last paragraph where you state the deceased’s loved ones – the list of people who passed before them and those they left behind. I realized that perhaps the most striking line of someone’s obituary is that list of who preceded them in death. It’s just a list of names that is so easy to breeze over as you read, but to really think about it and remember what loss feels like magnifies it. I listed her parents, both of them. Her oldest brother she adored so much as a mentor and her most trusted friend. Her youngest brother who died at 36 and left behind a wife and three kids. Her son-in-law, my own father, who passed at 31 and left my sister and me, alongside my mother. She held our hand so closely in that time when I know her own heart was broken, too. As I read those details and I look back, I’m astounded at the pain she endured in her lifetime. The process we all experience, letting go of people you can’t imagine living without.
Pain transforms you if you let it. I heard a radio interview once where someone referenced “the alchemy of pain” and I love that. It can be an almost magical process of transformation if you let it burn to completion in you. You can’t selectively numb emotions. You numb the pain or sadness, and your joy is dimmed as well
I’m seeing already how the well of sadness from the last month is echoing in a way that magnifies the connection I have with her. It’s like I press my ear to the sadness, and what I really hear beneath it is thank you, thank you, thank you.
Love goes on and on and on. Always.
I’m writing aimlessly tonight. I just see that it’s been nearly a week since I’ve written, and so much is racing by in my own head. I’m writing, writing, writing all the time by observing and thinking. But they are mostly half thoughts lately and never leave my head to find paper or screen.
She is still here, but she is close to the other side, I think. Very close. I’ve stopped in everyday, and I see her slipping. These bodies are so strange. So real and close when you are in them, yet they seem almost marginal or paper thin as you near the end. Bodies might be the way we move through the world, but they are not even half of it, are they? Just a shell to get us where we’re going.
There are specifics I will not write about until months or years have passed. Events of my past week, things that still belong to her as part of her time here. But I will say that compassion is not soft or fluffy like we are led to believe. It is hard. It means looking suffering in the face, holding space there, carrying some of it for a while, and not running away in fear or fright. It means doing things that hurt.
Every single major religion tells its followers that compassion is the way to spiritual development, yet we leave it out when it’s uncomfortable. We change the channel or write the check and forget about it. We don’t even understand what it really is. It is never easy and always tough.
Sitting with a dying person will teach you how to live.
I spent time last week looking through some old family photos while she slept. Looking at some images I’d seen before and some I hadn’t, I was struck by how irreversible life is. You always have a choice, I suppose, of how you will react to something. But once the something is done, it is irrevocable. It’s just a big, long string that unravels and all you can do is chase it.
We can wonder what our lives would be like if something else had happened. We can wonder about the million ways it would be different, but those questions get us nowhere really. It sometimes feels like a hand pushing us through all our days with these events that propel us a certain direction, and you flail and stumble for a while until you figure it out. Then walk along as best you can until another wind blows.
I found a photo of my own dad that I’d never seen before. Driving a boat in something like 1978 without a care in the world. He had no idea that his irrevocable moment would happen when he was only 31. He didn’t know my own name or face on that sunny day, and it’s easy to look back and define it all by that moment that controlled the duration of our time together. But this week, I gazed and found myself wondering exactly what it was like in the June sunshine on that boat. What the breeze felt like. What someone said just before the camera clicked. What he was responding to when he smiled. What it was like to live in that second without knowing what was coming next.
Photos are so good to remind us of that. Thank God there were moments when we didn’t know what was coming later.
My grandmother was so independent with her need of others. Her priority was always to give to someone else and make them feel loved and at home. I remember when dating my ex-husband, he joked that her house contained some kind of time warp because you’d walk in and insist you were staying a short while, and before you knew it, six hours and a full meal had taken place. It was true. Energy is a very real thing, isn’t it? When you love others and your true intention is to give, give, give without prioritizing your own needs, people gravitate to that.
I joked to my sister, as we tended to her a few days ago in the ways that you tend to a dying person, that I was so thankful she didn’t ever know this was the way it would go. It’s only been a month, and it pales so starkly in comparison to the things she has done for me for my entire life. But if she knew we would find ourselves in 2016 bathing her and brushing her hair and rubbing lotion on her bony arms and dripping water in her mouth from a tiny sponge, she would have laid awake every night of her life dreading the burden of it and neglecting to see the beauty.
There’s so much beauty in sacrifice. The thing about heartbreak is that it breaks your heart wide open for something else to take root. I get it now in ways I never have before, in ways that many people never do. And I am grateful for every minute that has taught me what I needed to learn.
So many times in my life, I’ve heard people say they passed on the chance to see a dying loved one because “I didn’t want to remember her like that.” That idea seems so sad and small to me now.
I will remember my grandmother so many ways. With a house full of food and company. Quiet conversations, just the two of us. Countless moments of small kindness and tiny graces that she delivered to others. A beauty that radiated in a way that only comes from joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. But I will remember these last days as well, in all their brutal reality. It’s cracked my heart wide open for whatever comes next.
Grace always lives in all the hard places.