the unexpected

This week hasn’t gone as expected, but I feel like that concept more or less applies to my entire life as it’s unfolded. You learn to roll with it, I guess.

We spent the earlier part of the week getting ready for the start of school with fresh haircuts and new shoes and unopened boxes of shiny new pencils. Jude’s orientation was Tuesday, and we met his teacher and a few classmates and even indulged in some shaved ice. (Starting school in early August as we do down south, we need it!)

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Then after all of our preparation and excitement and best laid plans, Jude came down with some mystery virus the day before school began. I pulled out all the usuals with rest and water and smoothies and Thieves oil, but it was no good. He missed the first two days of school, which is probably not such a big deal when you are six, but it feels that way to your mom. Yesterday was such a shuffle: sick Jude missing his first day, Norah’s orientation scheduled that night, and nobody nearby to help easily. My mom dropped by to sit with Jude just in time for me to race to Norah’s orientation, and we walked in the door just 6 minutes before it ended.

It sometimes feels like I run circles around us like a loose chicken to put together all the moving pieces, and my kids are completely oblivious about what it takes to get us from A to B. That’s the way of childhood though, and I hope they don’t realize how precariously our house and schedules and weekday moments were strung together until they are old enough to understand all of it. Family is work. So much work. The weekends and holidays can feel sweet, but the minutes it takes to get you from one weekend to the next? So carefully orchestrated and planned so that we all arrive in the right place.

I’m getting better at accepting that things do not always unfold the way I expect them to. It’s pretty unbelievable to me to take a look at the countless ways that life is teaching me this lesson in the last year. Over and over again – the delivery is different, but the message the same. It’s that constant reminder that things change. People don’t stay and circumstances are not predictable. But I have everything I need in that tiny, still space inside if I can quiet the outside noise and less important stuff. Strength and stability mean something very different to me now than they did years ago. I know I am the only one who can create it.

I tried to make the most of Jude’s extra two days of summer with couch cuddles and reading another installment of The Magic Treehouse. It’s hard to turn off the worry and the picture of what you expected and be in the present instead. But we tried.

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I’m reading Krista Tippet’s Becoming Wise right now, and though I just started it, there is so much it has to offer. She insists “that we are made by what would break us. Birth itself is a triumph through a bloody, treacherous process. We only learn to walk when we risk falling down, and this equation holds — with commensurately more complex dynamics — our whole lives long … You have your own stories, the dramatic and more ordinary moments where what has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.” 

Dramatic and ordinary moments alike, they can all teach us wisdom if we are paying attention. I know with certainty that what has gone wrong opened my gift to the world in a way I didn’t expect. And I guess that’s the good thing about the unexpected is that it works both ways. The heartache and trials can surprise you, but the rewards can, too.

no roadmap

It’s been a week or so since I sat down to write, and though I hate the term “writer’s block,” that is what it feels like a little this weekend. But I make myself come to this space regardless of what I have to say. Most of the time, the biggest truths come along between the written lines anyhow.

We are wrapping up the summer with only 4 days left until school begins for Jude. We’ve  been swimming with cousins and playing with neighbors and staying in our pajamas for hours after waking up. I don’t feel ready for the start of the school year, but it’s almost here anyway.

Jude spent hours yesterday chasing butterflies while we were playing with family. I joke that he is the Butterfly Whisperer. He will quietly sneak up behind them as they pause on a flower and gently grab their wings. It takes so much concentration, and then he’s proud of his accomplishment.

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We played with them a minute and watched them flutter in a Mason jar for a few hours and then had a butterfly release on the back patio just before dinner. Both of my kids are growing so fast, just like every mom says, but I am astounded at how much they comprehend. How much they observe and the conversations they have with me, the ways we understand each other and know each other well. Motherhood is not easy, but they are getting easier, no doubt. I’m grateful we are hitting our stride.

There are so many things swirling in my head that I haven’t mentioned here because I am not sure how to say them gracefully or how much to say. I don’t talk much about my former life circumstances because it feels so, so far away. Like another lifetime. But that little TimeHop screen on my phone shocks me back to reality sometimes. Two years ago this summer, I was cooking out with friends for the Fourth of July in my married home without so much as a hiccup on the horizon. Two little years ago, we vacationed in Mexico together. But I look at those photos now, and only my children even look familiar. I have changed a million times over, and it looks like a stranger next to me.

It has changed somehow. Instead of the overwhelming shock and heartbreak I felt a year ago, it just feels like some weird sense of disconnect. Like that could not really have been my life before. I hardly remember it somehow.

He is welcoming another child in two months. The kids told me, nonchalantly, back in March as I stirred dinner on the stove one Sunday evening in the late daylight. I expected as much, but the speed at which it all has happened is still enough to make my head spin sometimes. Two little years after we were vacationing in Mexico together without a hiccup on the horizon, and I am writing this sentence on a couch in my own home with my own life and dreams unfolding as I watch my two gain independence. And he is likely in a baby aisle somewhere surveying pacifiers and buying breast pumps and diapers. Life is stranger than fiction indeed.

My close circle in day-to-day life knows this, of course, but I have not mentioned it here. It’s a weird thing to be — this nothing to the other child. Not a step-mom, of course. Or an aunt, or a side mom. A stranger really. But one whose children are half-tied. The thing about divorce is that it never really leaves you. It’s not a cheating boyfriend you can be angry at and avoid the rest of your life. As it turns out, it’s a whole other family who shows up in your driveway twice a month for weekend visitation. If you have any chance at all of inner peace, you have no choice but to face your shit, as people like to say.

That’s precisely what I have spent the last twenty months doing. facing my shit without distraction or avoidance. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. Like most things in life, you have to somehow just figure it out, though there is no roadmap. I’m figuring it out pretty well, I think. But I do often think about how much time it takes to get it all sorted out. How much I change from month-to-month. How much I learn with every experience, every conversation. How much every challenge leads me inward, inward, inward to what I alone can offer.

Life is just one big, long unfolding, isn’t it? You really don’t know where it’s going to lead and what will happen in the meantime. I’m grateful for the freedom to figure it all out in this season without demands or expectations, but I can’t help, in my flawed human nature, to wish I had binoculars to somehow see what lies ahead at the end of the road. I think the answers almost always surprise us all.

like a gift

My friends and I have had this weekend on the calendar for a while as a chance to catch up and do something fun. In the past few days, we decided maybe a North Georgia winery would be a treat, and we made plans for a tasting followed by dinner followed by staying the night at my house.

I wish I could somehow reach back to that person who was so itchy and uncomfortable in a house by herself. That person who was so scared and intimidated at a new life alone and trying to fit in new boxes. There’s this thing no one tells you about single motherhood after a divorce which is that it absolutely sucks sometimes and you think you might not make it out alive, but then once you get past the transition, your solitude will feel like a gift. You wake up. You suddenly have time again to do anything you want – to catch up with friends, to try something new, to dream and plan for what’s next, to invest in yourself. When you sink your heels in instead of trying to fly as fast as you can to the next chapter, you see it’s actually such an incredible place to be.

I woke up yesterday to the usual sound of the dog whining to go out. I let him out, brewed coffee, and took it back to bed with me. I read a little (a book that is not typical for me but I loved it) and drank a second cup of coffee in the bed, cuddled under my covers and surrounded by the quiet of a house that is clean, for once. I traded funny texts with a friend for a while and eventually got out of bed to do a little yoga and get in the shower.

When friends showed up in the afternoon, we piled in the car for a drive to the mountains just north of where I live and indulged in a wine and chocolate tasting at a small winery.

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After we finished, we sat outside for a while with breezes that were more generous than the usual July heat and then eventually headed into the small town nearby for dinner and hours of conversation. We laughed a lot. We walked around in the blue summer dusk after dinner and then piled in the car to head back to my house.

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This morning, I made waffles with sliced strawberries and we talked about big and small things until well past noon before realizing what time it was. After they left, I headed to my neighborhood pool to sit alone in silence, swim a bit, and finish my book. This afternoon brought a few house tasks and a quiet dinner alone and now some time to write so that I don’t forget all these tiny pleasures.

I wanted to round out my summer by reading a book about goal setting and “manifestation” which is a term that understandably makes people roll their eyes. It’s not as easy as claiming you want something and having it delivered on your doorstep. But when I dusted off the journal I used at the Jen Pastiloff Atlanta workshop last year, I see this list of things that felt so incredibly far away for me that have become my daily reality now: writing for an audience of connected readers, deepening my friendships, feeling comfortable and authentic as a mom on my own with my two, a sense of home and community for us, comfort in my solitude.

These are things I lusted after a year ago as such far away goals, but when I look at my life as it is now, every one of these things is my daily reality. Every one.

I’m not done yet. I have more to do. I’m ready for the next chapter, and I think it’s going to be a big one. I wrote a list today in that same notebook, and I trust that these things are coming for me. Moving in the direction of joy is the answer, I think. When you feel that stir of curiosity, that voice that says yes this is it, you have to do it. There’s that famous Rumi passage that claims, “What you seek is seeking you,” and you can feel it push, push, pushing when you follow your own calling. It’s incredible to see the way your heart finds its purpose, bit by bit.

There are so many things I will never be because that is not who I am, and the older I get, the less afflicted I am by the list of things I am not and the more interested I become in the list of things I am. There are so many dreams I’m fulfilling that only unfolded after a long, meandering path that no human could ever have orchestrated. If I made a list of all the seemingly random occurrences that led to my life unfolding in the way it has, I would never stop writing. One tiny thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. And eventually you arrive at a destination that feels like home. I had no idea this season would feel like such a gift.

 

mural

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

soundtrack

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.

finally here

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.

 

creating, sustaining, transforming

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.

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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:

“…We often remain trapped in what we call normalcy–‘the way things are.’ Life then revolves around problem-solving, fixing, explaining, and taking sides with winners and losers. It can be a pretty circular and even nonsensical existence.
 
To get out of this unending cycle, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place here. We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because our false certitudes are finally out of the way. This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.
 
A good therapist and a good minister will always open up larger vistas for you, which are by definition risky, instead of just ‘rearranging the deck chairs’ on a sinking Titanic.”

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.

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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.

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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.