still reeling

It has been two full weeks of silence in this space. I’ve come here once or twice this week but always leave it blank and unsure of what to say.

Like everyone else, I am still reeling from the election results. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say or that I am rendered speechless. It’s that I have so much to say that I don’t know where to begin.

I have learned volumes in this past 5 days. I have read and read and performed an autopsy of sorts on the Democratic party and the American political process to try and understand what happened. I have read a lot of enlightening things, and I am listing them at the end of this post for anyone who is as hungry for answers and information as I am.

I have learned that not everyone who voted for Trump is racist or misogynistic. They just turned their heads to it in efforts to champion their one or two issues that he represented – guns and abortion are at the top of that list here in the south, but healthcare and steel mills and immigration are on the list elsewhere in the country. I learned that there is a huge divide in this nation between rural and urban. An enormous distaste for the elite and even a bitterness toward academics and higher education that I never knew existed. Until now. The Democratic party will have to fix this to move on. My eyes have been opened this week for certain.

I have been called mean and condescending and accused of enthusiastically “killing babies” because of my major reservations about Trump’s promises. People probably wish I would shut up about it, but I am frightened.

To normalize this election as though it is no different than a usual pendulum swing is not okay. Trump is not a typical Republican, and we all know this. Would I be writing this if Rubio or Kasich won? Absolutely not. The pendulum swings, and I am okay with that. Donald Trump is not a typical pendulum swing. He’s not a typical anything.

Never before have we elected a President with absolutely no experience in public office. None. One who claims if we have nuclear weapons we should use them. Who asserts that he will deport 11 million immigrants, including young students who have never known any other home, and that he will do this swiftly and with force without any regard for how it will upset the civil peace or economy of our nation. A man who has not only been accused of sexual assault but claims that bragging about it is “locker room talk” to be excused. A man who humiliated Meghan Kelly on television and bullied Ted Cruz by publicly threatening to “spill the beans” about his wife’s personal medical struggle with depression. A man who wants more than three million Muslims living in the US to register themselves with the government to be tracked in a database. A man who is currently considering a leader of the Alt-Right movement to be his Chief of Staff. A man who claims global warming is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese and wants to handle the delicate balance of trade by taxing goods that come from there without regard for what implications a trade war will have on this nation.

To pretend we have done this before is laughable. To tell people to shut up and stop being scared is dangerous.

I think the most disappointing thing to me in this election is to watch how the Evangelical Church has handled it. Being a southerner, I am surrounded by those who hold that blend of faith closely, but their silence on these issues is deafening. And their support of him is shocking. I understand that the vast majority of them voted on abortion only and will always vote Republican on that issue. But I guess I was expecting them to have more open conversations on this – to explain that they voted on one issue but are appalled by other things he’s said and most importantly to hold him accountable. Now is the time they could stand up and have their voices heard and be a welcoming voice for the church and a comforting voice to those hurt and scared by Trump’s campaign, and yet I’m not hearing it at all. As someone who grew up surrounded by the church and still respecting and holding dear a lot of people who are part of that movement, it breaks my heart. And it saddens me because I see so clearly that history will look back to see that their silent support of Trump and refusal to openly denounce his hatred will be the end of their relevance and positive influence in modern America. There are voices within the church that are working hard to redeem it – Beth Moore, Max Lucado, Glennon Doyle Melton, Rachel Held Evans – but whether they can speak loudly enough, I don’t know. The whole thing breaks my heart.

I’m reaching the point where I am tired of hand-wringing and sadness and fear though. I want to act. I thought I’d leave you with a link on how to contact your local representative to voice your concerns. I hear phone calls and snail mail is best, so if you are concerned, then have your voice heard.

I also wanted to pass along these few essays which have bubbled to the surface of all I have combed through this week. They are worth a read if you have time.

Christian Blogger Shannon Dingle’s I Want to Help You to Understand My Lament

Harvard Business Review’s What So Many People Don’t Get About the US Working Class

NPR’s Fact Check of Trump’s First 100 Days (calmed me down a bit actually)

Voted For Trump? I Have Only One Plea

The New Yorker’s An American Tragedy 

Video of Christoph Walz speaking on normalizing Trump

 

Last night’s SNL aired past my bedtime, but I did see the opening song this morning, and Leonard Cohen’s words echoed in a way that brought me tears. There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard the holy or the broken hallelujah. Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before he Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah. 

This has been on my mind almost constantly since Tuesday night, and I know it will calm a little in the weeks to come. I’m trying hard to make space for peace and stillness at home. I will do what I have always done but with more conviction and dedication than before: read, teach my students to think critically, model strength for my own children, call out hatred and misogyny when I see it, write, laugh with my colleagues, teach my children kindness, and pray for a culture that has grown so used to sexism and anti-intellectualism that we prefer a spectacle over substance.

I pray that his outrageous promises were just false words to gain momentum and get voters and that it will be like any other Republican presidency. But if we take him at his word, it is a very scary thought.

I’m not giving up. Instead, I’m using this to wake up. No matter how you voted, let’s stop sleeping. Pay attention. Do good. Have your voice heard.

 

feel the pulse

We are on day 16 of the post-flood demolition and renovation, and it’s starting to wear on me. At first I was surprised at how little we paused for the interruption, but now I’m growing tired of the mess. It’s hard enough to keep two kids reasonably sorted out with their own things in even the best of circumstances. But my coffee table is in the playroom and the television on the living room floor as I type this. My laundry room is not usable. Everything turned upside down for a little while longer.

I think this experience has taught me a lot of things – as difficult experiences usually do. I’ve learned that a physical space it not what determines a home and that home is the space I have created between the three of us. But I’m also beginning to see that my home routine turned upside down is a trigger for me in terms of stress and exhaustion. I am the ultimate introvert and homebody in many ways. My house is important to me as a little refuge from the rest of my day – which can be exhausting to say the least. All day long, I hear demands scream loudly, and home is usually my space of familiar and real, a place where I can feel the pulse of who I am. But right now it doesn’t feel familiar at all. I’m working to carve out little spaces that feel cozy despite the madness. But my little office / writing room is really the only spot not affected by this mess right now. Our things are shifted all over the place, and my kitchen isn’t all that inviting with its cement floors.

That said, I am finally reaching the fun part in this process. I spent part of yesterday perusing flooring choices, and I’ve got paint samples to try later today. I’m shopping light fixtures online and trying to make decisions carefully and thoughtfully.  I purged so much unnecessary stuff this summer, but this process is basically like moving all over again as the work is completed in each room, so it’s an opportunity to streamline even more. When else do you get the chance to do this? Not much. There is a silver lining to the mess for certain. My home will be all mine from top to bottom when it is done, and I have this time to make it what I want it to be.

Physical spaces carry such an energy, don’t they? I went on a ghost tour last night with a couple of friends, and we walked around old historic estates, tiny houses once inhabited by mill workers, and a historic cemetery with unmarked graves. Whatever your beliefs are about the spirit realm and whether or not we can feel or connect, I know places have an energy to them. We feel this in churches, in historic spaces, and in our own homes, too.

As I reflect on the homes or spaces that have meant the most to me over the years, I can see how little comfort is determined by the actual objects on your walls or size of your house or condition of your furniture. Love and hospitality shine through without regard for that – as does greed or selfishness or a preoccupation with appearance or money. Energy doesn’t lie. You either feel welcomed and at home or you don’t, and so little of that is a result of aesthetics. You can breathe a lot easier when a space is authentic, and I’m trying to remind myself of this as I make decisions in this renovation. What feels like us? What works best for the lives we lead? What is left in this space that is a piece of my old life that doesn’t apply anymore? Out with the old and in with the new.

My grandmother’s passing taught me a lot about this, too. When I was a kid, I only saw abundance everywhere in her home. Always food for us to eat, always space for us to play without feeling like we were intruding or unwelcome, always little comforts that made you want to stay longer. My grandad is still there, of course, but we have cleaned out little bits of her things here and there, and I have stayed there a good bit this month in light of my own house’s mess. And again and again I’m surprised to see the simplicity in their home. I saw abundance when I was younger because of the energy present with love and hospitality and authenticity, not because of anything I could touch or see.

It’s the smallest objects that carry meaning as we sifted through a few of her belongings after she died. Old clothes I passed on to a friend to use in a quilt for me. Christmas ornaments I can remember hanging year after year on her tree. Old photographs and cards. Nothing of material value at all.

A couple months ago, I found a birthday card she’d given me and decided I wanted to use the handwriting on a piece of jewelry. I told my grandfather about this, and he decided he wanted to gift one to each of the women in my family – aunts and cousins and my mom and sister – all of us. I ordered them from Leo’s Mark and couldn’t be happier with the result. I’ve hardly taken mine off since I got it.

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All of her cards always said We love you, never I love you. It made sense for them and how they are and is a testament to their partnership and not just the sweetness of who she was. And every time I put it on, I think of her. The older I get, the less stuff I feel like I need in my life. But I am also learning how it feels to surround myself with a few things that are meaningful and purposeful. I’m working to do this in my home, my closet, my office, everywhere. Even in my own heart and daily interactions. Do someone’s words offer something meaningful and purposeful? If so, I take them to heart. If not, I let them fall away.

Leo’s Mark did such beautiful work with these necklaces, and they have all kinds of ways to honor a loved one if you have handwriting samples of any kind. They were incredibly helpful in designing and orchestrating all of this, and they’re offering readers 10% off with the coupon code MAMATHEREADER10 if you want to treat yourself or someone else to something that is both beautiful and meaningful. (What a perfect holiday gift!)

There is a Iain Thomas quote that says, “And everyday the world will drag you by the hand yelling, ‘This is important! And this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this!’ And each day, it is up to you to yank your hand back, put it on your heart, and say ‘No. This is what’s important.'” I’m honoring this time in my own life to let the unimportant fall away and watch what happens as the outside of my life begins to align more sharply with my own heart. Keeping my hand on my heart everyday to feel the pulse of what matters.

sifted

We are cleaned up and dried out. The renovations will begin soon. For now, I’m sharing a bathroom with the kids, and my kitchen floor is bare cement. We have no sheet rock on the downstairs ceiling or sofas in the living room, and Jude will sometimes lie on a blanket on the floor and inspect the ducts and wires exposed. It’s the awkward holding moment before the rebuild, where everything is uncomfortable and foreign and weird, but there is something really lovely on the other side of all of this if we just be patient. I know this well. Patience comes easier than it used to.

I’m reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior (along with everybody else, it seems), and it is so hauntingly familiar to me in moments. I find myself nodding and revisiting my own parallel moments as I read along. She speaks about crisis as a turning point, and she explains that it means to sift, which I didn’t know before.

Sure enough, I examine the etymology for myself and see that it is associated with to separate or judge in Greek, to sift or separate in Latin, and even a sieve in Old English.

I can remember visiting the tourist stops in North Georgia as a child and panning for gold, taking the sieve and lowering it in a muddy trough, scooping up sand and mess and shaking the metal sieve back and forth again and again to find the small gold flakes left behind. We’d pick them out and place them in tiny vials filled with water and stare at them all the way home on the drive back. The gold specks I found myself were somehow so much more valuable to me than something I could buy in a store.

Pema Chodron tells me that “nothing goes away until it has taught you what you needed to know.” And I think maybe she’s right. What if all of these moments that first appear to be crises are actually my teachers? If I listen close enough, I think they are.

With each defining moment in my past two years, I see the sieve working to let go of what I never needed to begin with. I am lighter and lighter and lighter with every crisis. It makes me laugh to think about the rhythm of our past week and the way it was remarkably unaffected by my actual ceiling caving in. The ceiling caved; I had the mess cleaned up; and here we are chugging along like always.

On weekends I have the kids, I give them a “kids’ choice” night where they call the shots on dinner, and we huddle together and watch a movie. As usual, they voted for pizza last night, and proclaimed it the Best Movie Night Ever! because we could spread blankets across the empty living room and lie on the floor while watching Ninja Turtles. Where I used to see mess, I now see magic and connection and possibility. Maybe what I needed to know, as Pema Chodron says, is that what matters isn’t going anywhere. No house can hold it. No title can contain it. No half sibling changes it. When I wasn’t paying attention, the past two years of time with just the three of us somehow cemented these threads even stronger than they were before. Ceiling or no ceiling, home is the space between the three of us. I knew that from the beginning, but as it all fell away last week, I learned what safe feels like. It’s all right here.

Jude’s birthday party was today, and I ordered the cake three days ago when he walked into Publix with me and decided he wanted the Godzilla one. I reserved a pavilion at the nature preserve nearby, and he spotted a pinata in Target this weekend. Nothing matched. It was perfect.

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Kids played and explored on the nearby nature trail. (Thanks, Pinterest scavenger hunt printable stapled on a brown paper bag.) They sang and had cake. They played some more. We came home to more play time with neighbors, and Jude dove into his new gifts. I roasted a few vegetables for a light dinner and bathed both kids, and the doorbell rang at 7:30 with a neighbor delivering a slice of pumpkin pie straight from the oven and oozing in that perfect way that happens when you cut it too soon to keep its shape.

How is my busy, overwhelming life with so many unanswered questions about my future somehow actually easier in the present than when my path was straight and predictable in front of me? Everything is simplified. Necessity calls for it when my finances, my energy, and my time are so restricted. But look what happened in the meantime. The strongest stuff remains, and the rest doesn’t matter. I have no one to answer to but the voice inside my own self, and she requires no check boxes.

The good thing about rock bottom – whether that is a life turned inside out or a house stripped of what it once was – is that it gives you a chance to rebuild exactly how you want it and take away all the extraneous mess that weighed you down to begin with. The view from the bottom seems pretty great today. I am the one to set the course. I’m tired and worn and sleepy, but I can see for miles and miles.

it will write itself

Sometimes a story is so big and messy that I don’t know how to tell it. Do I start at the beginning? Do I begin in the middle and move outward? Or do I give you the frame, the skeleton, and then fill in the color for you?

Here is the frame: in 48 hours, Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for literature, my kids met their new half sibling, my son turned seven, and half of my house flooded.

I heard my phone chime on Thursday morning as I drove to work, and she was in labor at the hospital. The same date, as life would have it, that I checked in the hospital to labor with my first baby as well. It took almost two days to get him out, and her outcome was much faster, but a shift has been working in me these past few months somehow, and the dam finally broke.  Now I see that everything has changed. Two parallel tracks now. Two separate families. Two entirely different worlds as our kids bounce between mom and dad’s houses. And most importantly, two different mothers exist now – each with her own children.

Divorce is real and final, and I have accepted myself as a single mother for almost two years now, but there is something different when someone you spent fifteen years of your life with has truly begun another family. It was surreal as they Facetimed the kids just an hour or so after birth and I saw the image on the screen. That tiny squealing baby, that other mother next to the father of my own kids. The image of him starting all over again. But all set against the contrast of mirrors and memories buried in my own mind from a time not so long ago.

My son turned seven yesterday, and my world is different than it once was. This is the first year I’m not posting his birthday letter on the blog – just quietly placing it in the safe with the others. He has his own ideas now, his own self, his own need for privacy and understanding. But I remember the beginning so well. Arriving at the hospital late at night, waking up the next day with contractions. The nineteen hours of work and the eventual surgery and those first few days when it was just the three of us, no one else.

It was the most incredible feeling to see that you created something with this other person, and that thing you created is a whole new life. A whole new family. Her reality is very different, I’m sure. And I cannot speak to any other mother’s experience. But a weird shift is happening where I feel compassion for her and a genuine sense of bewilderment at how different it must be when the other partner already has children. Do you still get that sacred bubble of time and space where you are the only people in the world who matter? That feeling that this is it; this is your family?  I don’t know. I hope so because even now as I stand confused at the memories behind me and what they meant or didn’t mean to him, my earliest days of motherhood are among the fullest and happiest memories I have as my heart broke open to make way for the path ahead. I want so badly for her to have that growth as well, that enhanced understanding of the world around her and recognition of her own power. I’m rooting for her in a genuine way that I didn’t expect to manifest like this. Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?

So the kids went to sleep Thursday night, and I cried in the bathtub for a while, if I’m being honest. Not so much at the sadness of the situation but at the way that life hands you something that is such a combination of ugly and beautiful that you don’t know what to do with it. This is my path, and that is hers. But we are one and the same. As Bob Dylan himself says, “Behind every beautiful thing, there is some kind of pain.”

I awoke at 4:30 unable to go back to sleep, but even when my alarm rang at 5:30, I laid there a while longer. I stumbled to the shower, grateful it was Friday. And as I was stepping out, I saw water pouring from under my sink. When I say pouring, I mean an ocean of water flowing faster than I could think. I open the door of the vanity to see a broken pipe and water spewing with what felt like the force of a hurricane. I used every brain cell available before coffee which is approximately three of them, and I did what all 35 year old grown women do in a crisis. I called my mom.

As I’m flying through the house in my dripping bathrobe, Norah wakes up, and I tell her there’s water everywhere. She gets excited like it’s an adventure, and I am downstairs in my robe panicking on the phone to my mom and looking frantically for the main cut off. These are things I should know as a single adult and homeowner, but there seems to be no room for this information among the files of school permission slips and food preferences and doctor appointments and work to-do lists in my head. After about three minutes, I realize that knocking on a neighbor’s door at 5:50am is a good way to give someone a heart attack and why should they know where my water cut off is? We have a fire department half a mile from my neighborhood and there is water falling through my kitchen ceiling at this point, so I call 911.

“Ummm, hi. We are fine. No one is hurt. But my house is flooding and I’m looking for a main cut off outside and in my house and I cannot find one. I’ve been here a year, and I am the only adult here, and clearly I should know this but I do not know what I’m doing. Obviously.” The operator told me to head outside, and they would meet me there. And it occurred to me that I was not wearing real clothes. So I threw some on, and woke up Jude who was somehow still sleeping through all this, and we headed outside together.

Fire truck at the house at 6:00am. Kids on the porch wrapped in blankets waving at them. And I look down to see that I am bra-less with a shirt on both inside out and backwards. We are a circus.

In three minutes’ time, they had it off. From beginning to end, the pipe was open maybe 15 minutes – if that. The damage tells a far bigger story though.

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I managed to get Jude on the bus at 7:30, homework intact and hair combed, which is perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of my life forever after. (And thanks to a neighbor who let him brush his teeth there and walked him to the bus stop while I called insurance.) One by one, I checked the things off the list. Insurance claim number, restoration services. Right, left, right, left. Just keep moving.

We will be okay, and I know this. The kids bedrooms are untouched, and the kitchen is clean now and usable without the ceiling. Fans are here, and we are almost dried out, and the work of renovations will come soon. But the ceiling fell – literally and in that other way, too. Life is reminding me that sometimes you just have to start all over and that I can do hard things.

I know a day will come when I will think, remember that 20 month period when my husband left, I moved two little kids, he married someone else, Jude started kindergarten, I got in a car accident, I had gum surgery, my grandmother died, my ex had a baby with the new wife, and my house flooded? All in less than two years’ time, and here I am still standing on my own two feet somehow. Nothing scares me anymore. Nothing at all.

The house is not uninhabitable, but my granddad heard what happened and offered that I stay with him for the weekend since the kids are gone anyhow. I happily said yes and brought loads of heavy, wet laundry and a weary spirit. We talked a good bit, but we sat in silence a good bit as well, and it was good for the both of us. Talking with him does me more good than talking to anyone else lately because he takes the long view. He’s never looking at the here and now that can overwhelm and scare me. Always steady and always keeping in mind the greater arc of my story and the bigger picture, he brings me calm. Who knows what the long view is with my two and their half-sibling and the challenges of blending families, but the three of us are the family I can feel and touch and support and fight for. The rest is not my story to write. It will write itself, as he reminded me. It always does.

My weekend felt eerily similar to when I would stay there as a little girl. The floors creak in the same spots they always have and the sheets smell a very particular and comforting way I can never bury beyond the surface of my memories. Though I haven’t slept in that house in more than a decade, I know his nighttime rhythms well. The television was playing Saturday night’s rotation of gospel hymns, and he offered me ice cream before bed as we sat together and listened. I’m looking now, just across a river, to where my faith will end in sight. There’s just a few more days to labor, and then I’ll take my heavenly flight.

I cannot tell what is across the river in this life. I don’t know how the story ends when my season of growth and labor is over. I have grown so much from this season in my life, but if I can be honest for a minute, I am tired of growing. I know I can do hard things, and I can do it all alone if I need to. But I’m ready for rest. I’ve heard it said that if your obstacles are bigger than you’d imagined and God is making you wait, then be prepared to receive even more than what you asked for. I hope this is true. The wait feels long, and I’m ready to lighten the load.

But despite it all, I fell asleep last night grateful to rest in a space I know well enough that my bones recognize it. So much can change, but what matters always stays the same, doesn’t it? Me, myself, here, now. Safe and strong.

broken open

Fall is over in a blink in Georgia, so I’m trying to take it all in. We are sleeping with the windows open, but I always wake in the middle of the night to feel a chill and then close the window pane and spread the extra blanket over the bed. I made our favorite soup last week, and I’m already craving it again. My school days are busy with the frantic pace of midterms and the grading pile that ebbs and flows, but I live for the afternoon light everyday. What is it about October light just before dinner that makes it so perfect? I wish I could bottle it up for January’s darkness.

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Saturday brought a soccer game followed by a visit to a local pumpkin farm. It’s a small family operation just down the road from where I grew up, and our families have known of each other for ages. On the way over, I texted my cousin that we were headed there, and she walked over from her house next door to the farm. It feels good to belong somewhere with a long history, but autumn makes you crave it even further. We all settle in a little more snugly, I think. In whatever ways we can.
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We ate popcorn and boiled peanuts, and I watched cousins get lost and found again in a corn maze. We took the hayride around the pond like we do every year and followed that with the long and important task of picking out the perfect pumpkin.

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My grandad came with us as he works pretty steadily lately to stay busy and occupied when he can. There is still a hollow spot in the space where she has always been, that lull in the conversation. It is so stark at their house especially, where Norah will wander upstairs when we’re there and say it’s because certain rooms “still smell like Grandmother.” And they do. The scent lingering everywhere – literally and metaphorically.

On the other hand, I’m also finding moments when it’s getting more comfortable in ways as well; her absence is a little more predictable and familiar now – which is always a scary moment in the grieving process. It almost seems like the person lingers and hovers for a while in a very real way. You can feel their touch and see their belongings and hear the voice and smell the scent. They are close for a while to gently ease us out of the solid presence we are so used to, and then they fade a bit so that the haze wears away from your vision, and you can handle what life is sending you next as you create space and possibility instead of loss. Everything she taught me is still here and even somehow distilled to a cleaner and more concentrated form. But her physical self isn’t hovering in the way it first was.

This is life. This is how it goes. Seasons change and leaves fall and people fade from our lives in that way they are made to do. Mary Oliver says, “to live in this world you must be able to do three things — to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” That is so much easier said than done. But here we are, four months after her passing, in the midst of a new season she has never seen. It looks both terrifyingly unfamiliar and newly beautiful all at once.

It’s also Mary Oliver who claims it is worthwhile “to break your heart, by which I mean only that it break open and never close again to the rest of the world.”

As I look back, heartbreak has broken me open again and again. It is never happiness and assurance and predictability that get you someplace new, is it? A decade spent in the classroom – first high school kids and eventually university students – gives me a special glimpse into that phase of life when you feel so sure about everything and everyone. When you assume that the path in front of you will unfold exactly like you see it in your mind’s eye. How funny that loss is what actually moves us on the path if you let it happen and feel it honestly.

Here I am in the thirty-fifth October of my life, and I’m seeing that you really are not capable of understanding that without a few decades on this earth. Life chisels away all the rough edges when we let it. It makes me look forward to the Octobers ahead as I will undoubtedly deepen and soften in ways I don’t yet understand.

Leaves fall and seasons change, and autumn is here to remind me again that nothing is permanent. It’s hard to wait on the hand of time to reveal the treasure to you, but it always does eventually.

the truest pieces

It’s the first day of October, and Georgia somehow finally got the message. I grabbed a sweater and a full cup of coffee as I took the dog out this morning. I felt a real chill. Fall is here. Finally a new season.

I drove a few winding roads to my grandparents’ place today and accompanied my grandad to my grandmother’s grave site to place new flowers for the season. Today would have been their 62nd wedding anniversary.

They were never the types to revel in attention and didn’t want a party or big occasion for their 50th. So twelve years ago, my sister and I orchestrated a secret campaign for letters from family and friends far and wide and put them together in an album for the two of them. It’s at their house still, overflowing with pictures and letters from a life spent together and the world it creates when you love like that. As it turns out, they were a fixed center point, a solid unmovable ground, not just for me but for loads of others, too.

We walked the cemetery a bit with him today and watched him take out flowers that were hardly faded and replace them with new ones. Huddled over the iron vase in the bright fall sunshine on what would have been the beginning of year 63, he carved a bit at the tough foam base of the arrangement and fit it snugly on the metal marker.

He is honest and real and can do hard things. Do men exist like that anymore? I honestly don’t know.

I ran into my former mother-in-law at a soccer game two weeks ago, and she asked me if my grandad was meeting women yet with plans of another wife. I didn’t even know what to say to that. He is in his eighties and spent a lifetime with her. There are tears in his eyes still when he talks about her sometimes, and there’s not yet grass fully on her grave. Is this really how people do it now? They just skip all the hard parts and move on to the next distraction.

I am nearing the two year mark of single motherhood, and people are starting to ask of me (and of course, ask others about me) whether or not I’m seeing someone. There is so much I could say on this topic, volumes I could write, but the short answer is that I’ve changed in a thousand ways in this season of my life, and the bar is set high.

Something happens to you when spend time alone and do things you never thought you could do, when you carry the impossible. I take out the trash. I sleep alone. I pay the bills. I’ve attended real estate closings alone. Parent conferences alone. Soccer games alone with my chair for one. Cub Scout meeting alone with dads everywhere else. And at first it is all terrifying and depressing, but then you break through that initial moment, and it liberates you from everything that tied you before. I’m doing hard things, but I’m okay. What you want in a partner is a list that begins to change with the first passing seasons of your time by yourself, and the bar creeps a little higher each time.

And in the midst of all that, my grandmother got sick, and I watched my grandfather do all of the hardest things. The taking care and the letting go. Never once in those last days did he try to control her pace as she drifted. He just left a sacred space between them for her to do what she needed.

He is 6’2 with clear blue eyes and an uncommon steadiness and more strength and integrity than anyone I’ve ever met. I was there in June when a hospice nurse told us it would likely be less than a week or so until the end, and after the nurse left, I could hear him sobbing in the room where she was laying as I waited downstairs. Never once pushing her to abide by his own plans and always holding steady in the hard work of compassion.

I hear talk shows and see articles passed around online where people talk about marriage tips and what to do when you are struggling in a partnership. I’m realizing that people think marriage is hard these days because you aren’t always happy. Because you feel tired and you work too much and the kids are always demanding something and the other person can’t make all that go away. Is that hard? Really? Because now that I’ve seen what the hard part really is — the grieving and the accepting and the letting go — burnt dinner on the stove or noisy children or a cluttered bathroom counter don’t seem like a cause for unhappiness. Whatever “happy” means anyway; it’s always a moving target when you depend on the other person to provide it.

It’s all connected though, I think. If you can’t do the hard work of putting aside your own selfishness in the earlier years, what do the later years look like? It took 62 years to build what they had, and I understand that. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that maybe the little things are actually the big things. Honesty and integrity start with lending a helping hand and showing respect and saying I’m sorry and meaning it. If I knew then what I know now. But isn’t that always how it goes?

I’m so grateful for every bit of it — my own pain in the earliest days of discovering something that felt like a knife’s edge, the itchy pain of being alone and figuring out what it all meant after the dust settled, and even the hardest pain of watching this season happen in the lives of the couple who was always my fixed center point, and likely always will be.

I’m grateful for the chance to start all over and do it right. And I don’t care how long it takes. The truest pieces of a life well-built always grow slowly.

second shift

Hi, remember me? It’s been a while.

I’ve come to realize that there are two distinct selves when you are in academics: my summer self and my school year self. My summer self is rested and grounded and sane, while my school year self feels like I’m treading water and a little breathless over here. I have a rare weeknight that is kid-free right now as it’s fall break for Jude, so they are spending the second half of the week with their dad. It almost feels like more of a luxury than a weekend off somehow – to come home from a day at work and have a few hours alone and quiet. A few nights without that second shift that working mothers know so well.

Dinner tonight was one fried egg on toast with mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, a random concoction I decided I wanted and didn’t have to ask two others’ opinions on. I graded a few essays. I watched an actual television show from beginning to end which I haven’t done in ages. (This is Us. Worth the hype, I think!) I’ve been bad at even attempting any sort of balance these days. This was a goal I told my therapist I’d work on, but I am failing miserably. The minute the kids are in bed, I take a few seconds to clean the kitchen and then I’m asleep just behind them. The idea of time alone sounds nice, but the thought of sleep sounds even better. 9pm feels like midnight these days. It’s one foot in front of the other right now. I think I will come up for air soon, but not quite yet.

I did hit the pause button a little on Monday with a day for only my boy and me. Norah was in school, and he’s on fall break. We dropped her off that morning, and he hung out in my office a while so I could tackle a few tasks and then we spent the morning at the children’s museum and stopped for lunch before heading to a local farm for a little while. We picked a few things we had a taste for and then sat at a table and shared boiled peanuts and kettle corn before piling in the car for the drive back.

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It’s still hot here, but the change is coming. Early in the mornings, I can feel it the tiniest bit. We do a lot of pretending it’s fall here in the south before it actually feels like it. Life works that way, too, I think. Sometimes you have to act as if before you actually arrive there. And then it always comes eventually. You just have to trust that if you keep putting one foot in front of the other and put your heart in the way of change, it will come.

Last week consisted of the usual 5:30 am wake-ups and full days with the addition of soccer practice, a soccer game, an introductory Cub Scout meeting, a surprise morning carseat puke on the way to school (every parent knows that horror), and a dead goldfish.

Thursday night found us huddled in the tiny downstairs bathroom with a makeshift funeral, the three of us singing a hymn and watching as we swirled him to his eternal home. I live in a zoo. I forget sometimes to step out of the frame for a minute and see my life for what it is. That load of laundry that stays wrinkled in the dryer for three days and that email that went unanswered for far too long — these are the things that run through my head at the end of the day. When in reality, it’s actually somewhat impressive that I am dressed and reasonably prepared and professional in any capacity at all. I grade student work between ballet class pick-up and dinner prep, and I notice the smudges on my floor every single day as I walk right past them without mopping. I type hurriedly here in an attempt to record anything at all and hit “publish” without a lot of care and discernment. But it is what it is right now. Imperfect is better than not done, and this is life and the season I’m in.

We went to a family reunion last Sunday, and I was flipping through old albums amazed at how much the rural south has changed in only a couple of generations. You can see by the lines of worry on their faces that they worked hard, and in ways life was an endless struggle.

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Sometimes I think that we believe we are somehow beyond this now, that we’ve all grown bigger and better, but in actuality, that is not the case in every way. I have infinitely more possibilities in my life as a woman. We now realize that there is more than one way to skin that cat, as we say in the south. There is more than one way to mother and more than one path to walk, and things aren’t so restrictive and laid out for you. I’m grateful I have choices. But life is still hard work – just a different kind of work.

Society tends to tell us we must be doing something wrong if it feels hard, if we don’t always live in a magazine spread. But I’m here to say I think that’s wrong. Choices give us more opportunity to find fulfillment, but you’re still tired and still working hard if you’re doing it right.

The key is to work hard for the right things. Somewhere between the Cub Scout meetings and the dinner table conversation and bath splashes, between the goldfish funerals and the sticky floors, I think I’m doing something right

Take a minute. Pause the endless task list, watch the television show, eat the chocolate, call a friend, sit in the silence for a second. See your life outside the frame, and know it’s not hard because you’re doing something wrong. It’s hard because it’s real and worth it. So to those of you treading water right now, I raise my hand to say I see you, and I feel it, too. Your best is good enough. It’s hard work, but maybe we’ll make it after all.