I can feel my life changing all the time as I grow and evolve and as my kids grow and change as well. We are sailing far past the baby and toddler days. I don’t monitor anyone’s bathroom habits much anymore. (Thank you Lord sweet baby Jesus. So glad that is over.) I don’t wake in the middle of the night unless there’s a nightmare or a sickness. I don’t keep extra clothes in my car for accidents. I don’t structure my days around nap time. There’s a lot of freedom that comes with this new era, and I’m finding that I’m relieved to see it arrive. It’s no secret that I loved my days with tiny babies, but it’s only magical because it’s a passing season. Now we are on to something new.
But the thing I didn’t foresee with this new chapter is the busy school schedule. School-aged kids always have something going on, it seems. This month alone brings two birthday parties, a field trip, a school-wide field day, a class breakfast, end-of-the-year teacher gifts, and a ballet recital. It’s always something.
I got Norah to her ballet dress rehearsal on Saturday, and the two of us took a moment to get her dressed in my office since it’s a few steps from the university theater where her performance was held. She was so sweet with her tiny tutu and tights that never quite fit without a few wrinkles at that age. She met her class backstage, and their excitement was tangible. You could see that each of them felt so special, but they also loved the camaraderie of their matching ensembles. It reminded me so much of my backstage ballet memories and friendships.
She rehearsed her piece twice over, and I changed her again and brought her to her dad’s where she was staying this weekend. After that, I went to the gym and headed to the grocery store, and was generally feeling exhausted from the crazy pace of May and resigned to a night of take-out and pajamas on my couch as a result. My phone buzzed in the check-out line though, and a friend urged me to head out with a large group of us. I’d originally thought I needed to take a pass to focus on mom duties this weekend, but it didn’t take much nudging to change my mind, so when I got home, I threw the groceries in the fridge, changed clothes as fast as I could, and raced out to meet my carpool.
What is it about a group of strong women that makes us capable of getting straight to real talk right away? My friends have always been significant to me, but I think as I age and experience life, I get even better at recognizing kindred spirits. I’m grateful for all of them. It sometimes seems like the universe plops these people right in front of me, and maybe it does. But I know I am responsible for that, too. The energy you send out returns to you. If you focus on the right things in life, those ideas always rise to the top of whatever other noise there is, and you eventually find yourself surrounded by like-minded people.
We ate and laughed for hours, and no topic was off limits for conversation. Someone decided we should head nearby to a basement dance club that plays old 90’s hip hop, and even those of us who swore we were only coming for dinner and were headed home by midnight (famous last words, right?) followed suit with a little convincing.
Is there anything better than the combination of girlfriends and laughing and dancing and music that brings nostalgia? I really don’t think there is. Dance is such a life force in the same way that yoga is for me. It feels like meditation in a different sense. There are so few experiences in life that force you to focus on exactly what is in front of you at that moment and nothing more. We spend so much time thinking about what our bodies look like in our day-to-day lives as society continually screams these messages at women particularly. What we forget to notice is what it feels like to be in your own body. Dance does that like nothing else can.
I took it for granted, growing up inside the walls of a ballet studio, that my body would always feel that familiar to me. I spent at least five nights a week for well over a decade dancing with friends in one way or another. Life is different now, but sometimes you get the chance to do it all over again with a familiar soundtrack, and it fills you up in the best way. When I read Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection last summer, I noted a passage where she explains how her research reflected that dance is a necessary part of whole-hearted living; she claims that “laughter, song, and dance create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration, or healing: We are not alone.” It’s those communal moments with different individuals moving to the same music that place you inside your own body in a way that is necessary and often forgotten but somehow also allow you to tap into something greater – that emotional and spiritual connection Brown speaks of.
I only got something like four hours of sleep before Norah’s show the next day, but it was all worth it. After dressing her and dropping her off backstage, I studied the program while I was seated in the theater and waiting. I noted when her dance was scheduled and was preparing myself for the usual happy-sad mom tears that come at moments like this. But I surprised myself that I didn’t shed a tear at all for her piece.
Instead, I choked back a swell of tears that caught me by surprise when the first piece in the program began. It was a modern ballet performed by dancers I do not know at all. But something about the combination of the choreography, the lights, and the swell of music softened me in that place where good art always resonates. That deep recognition “your bones recognize as if you’ve created it,” as Andrea Hollander says. That missing piece that connects you to something outside of yourself. We are body and soul – all of us. And dance in any form reminds me of that every time.
Norah seemed to enjoy her time on stage, and I snapped a few pictures outside the theater. When we were home later last night, she asked if she could wear her costume the rest of the day, and I said yes. She played inside and lazed around on the couch in her lace and crinoline. And as I was making dinner, I looked out the patio doors to find her outside in the backyard twirling and twirling all by herself. The May sun was slanting a bit in that way it always does a couple hours before dark, and it would catch a glinting sequin every now and then. It felt so real and true to see her living in her own body and her own world without regard to anything else.
At the end of the day, as I turned off lights and headed upstairs to bed, I stopped to scribble a note for my gratitude jar like always. I was surprised as I reflected on the day that my best moment was not the big performance or the dressing room excitement or seeing her proud face with the flowers; it was the shimmering sunlight and the twirling dress and her quiet joy as she went round and round all by herself.
I went to bed last night exhausted and deflated in that perfect way that a full weekend can leave you. I wish I had another day to recover from this past week, but Monday waits for no one, and my alarm felt even earlier than usual today.
I took half a day off last week to chaperone a kindergarten field trip with Jude. Apparently there’s a small wildlife preserve and zoo nearby that I hadn’t even heard of until the permission slip made its way home. I couldn’t believe a few northbound, winding roads lead me to lions and alligators and white tigers and all sorts of unique creatures to look at.
It was far smaller and less crowded than a city zoo, and the walking trails were leisurely – even with the madness of a group of school kids. It was so rewarding to watch him play and interact with his classmates as they laughed in disbelief at how close they came to some of the animals. The unusual cool snap was weird for Georgia May, but its short-lived timing made for a fun day.
It was close to 9pm when I got home from our graduation ceremony on Friday night. That event usually brings relief as it always signifies the end of the academic year, but somehow I’m not really slowing down yet. Assessment tasks lie ahead and a few committee meetings, and I’m realizing that my calendar doesn’t really slow down until the kids’ lives reach a slower pace. To be honest, I am counting down the days (18 to be exact) until we are officially on break.
Saturday morning brought a birthday party for Norah’s classmate at what is unarguably her favorite place on earth. She was in heaven.
I’d already promised her a trip there and a new doll for her own birthday before this invitation came, so this made for a lucky chance to celebrate a little friend and also get Norah’s gift as we left. She wanted a boy baby this time, and she named him Daniel.
It makes me laugh to see how much she loves this place, but I admit there is something so weirdly charming about it. Maybe it’s the memories from my own childhood summer trips there with my sister and cousins. Or that very particular powdery smell on a Cabbage Patch Doll. Maybe it’s the feel of the space on the side of the road growing wider and wider as you drive northward toward the mountains and find it perched on a hill around absolutely nothing else.
Whatever the case, it might as well be Disney World to her. It’s just as special seeing it through her eyes as it was to me as a child. We drove home tired and happy, and I spent the rest of Saturday afternoon planting flowers and herbs in containers on my back patio. Summer is almost here.
Sunday brought Mother’s Day which – as all the holidays go – was not so hard this year at all. The “firsts” are over, and here we go again. I don’t care in the least about the gifts or lack thereof, especially at this stage of life with such young kids. (I’m certain gifts were never at the top of my love languages anyhow.) We settled in for a picnic at the lake which is exactly what I wanted. Just time with the three of us doing something that felt special.
This spot never feels ordinary, but we haven’t been since last July, so it felt especially good to spend a few hours there yesterday. An inauguration of long summer days to come.
I feel incredibly lucky about so many things in my life, and where I live is pretty close to the top of the list. We are an hour’s drive from the mountains and minutes from the lake, and the longer we are here, the more we discover sweet spots hidden here and there.
I have a lot of love for my home state, and we are fairly close to where I grew up, but this particular space is all ours with sights that are becoming more comfortable and familiar with every passing month. I’m watching the two of them develop roots here and know places by name, and it feels good to see their budding familiarity. There’s a lot of freedom that comes with belonging.
We left the lake sandy and sleepy and stopped for boiled peanuts on the way home. A couple hours later, we headed to my grandparents’ place to celebrate Mother’s Day with family. You can create a sense of home anywhere in the world; I’m sure of that. But there is something to be said for watching your own kids grow up among the same familiar landscape you did. They played outside with their cousins for hours, and we got home just in time for bed.
Jude awoke with a night terror last night around 11. He’s done this three or four times in the past few weeks, and it’s scary to witness. He shakes all over and cries and mumbles nonsense, and though his eyes are open, he’s not really awake. The shaking was so terrible last night that I turned on a light and got him water to drink, hoping he’d snap out of it and settle back down. (And of course now I’m reading today that you aren’t really supposed to do that, but it’s better to just be there so they don’t get hurt and try to guide them back to bed.)
He has no idea where he is when this is happening – mostly because he is not awake at all but still in a state of deep sleep. I know I’ve felt that panic on a much lesser scale at moments in my past when I felt like I wasn’t quite sure where I was, figuratively speaking. But our feet are on solid ground now with familiar spaces and sights but also familiar routines that belong to the three of us. There’s so much space to be found in belonging somewhere. The circle we know can somehow give us the strength and permission to reach outside of it to something bigger and brighter.
We have moments, all of us, when we wonder if we are on the right path and headed in the right direction. Or for me, I have stretches of days or weeks when I am not thinking much about the big picture. It’s just one foot in front of the other to accomplish all the things that need to be done. It’s one of the reasons I come to this space so often. I make myself sit down to write even when I’m not feeling it because it makes me pause, reflect, think. It makes me take the long view when I can hardly see what is in front of me.
I feel like all I do is put out fires. In September my home air conditioning had a hiccup that I was able to fix pretty quickly. In November, I was in a wreck which I wrote about before. In February, I was in a meeting at work when I got an urgent message to call my neighbor – which is a terrifying feeling. I was genuinely afraid my house was on fire, and almost relieved to hear that it was “only” exploding pipes in my front yard. I called the county water division to have them come turn off the water supply and then promptly called a plumber. By the time I got home from work, they were fixing it, and I turned over a $500 check. These bigger fires happen among the chaotic heat of the tiny ones that are simply part of parenting – remembering picture day and field trip forms and therapy appointments and ballet recitals and all of the things that dictate my weekly calendars.
Last week, my car air conditioning was acting pretty unreliable. It was not consistently cold, and by Friday afternoon, it was not cold at all. Norah and I commuted the 45 minutes home with the windows down, but it was already reaching 80 degrees, and any native southerner will tell you that you cannot mess around with a/c down here. So I suffered with it over the weekend but took it to a nearby shop on Monday morning hoping that it was a cheap and easy fix.
It wasn’t cheap or easy. It was the compressor. I needed a whole new one which is something like $900 in most cases.
So I called a couple of places and decided to go with the dealership where I purchased my car as they’d offer me a loaner car for the day it was in the shop. Jude was in school, and Norah and I pulled up to the service center that afternoon, and I unloaded her and both carseats and went inside to fill out paperwork. She was holding a mason jar full of worms that she’d captured earlier that day and refused to put down. (This child!) And for the most part, she was her enthusiastic self as we sorted out the details. I drove off with a borrowed car and a plan to return the next night after dinner with both kids to pick up my own car and pay something like $900.
There are things worse than this. There are mothers in Syria with bigger questions than I have. There are people reading these words right now with bigger problems than I am facing. But hardship is not a competition, and on Monday night, it felt so heavy. All of it. I went to bed panicked about money and tired of putting out fires and just craving someone else to help with all of this, to be honest. I know I am strong enough to shoulder any burden I face, but some days I grow so incredibly tired of shouldering it alone. I want someone else to make the phone calls and sort out the details for once and someone else to say it will be okay.
We got up the next day. I got Jude off to school, and Norah and I drove in. I graded like a madwoman to get it all done in time for that night’s final deadline. And that afternoon at my desk, my phone rang. The service coordinator for the dealership called me, and I’ll spare you all the details, but he basically said the mechanic observed me unloading car seats and tending to Norah, and he felt like he should pull a few strings for me. They did every last bit of my service for free. All of it.
I could hardly utter a string of thank you thank you thank you on the phone because I was so shocked. But when I hung up the tears came for sure. I drove home after a parent meeting for Norah and ate a hurried dinner with the kids. Then we buckled ourselves back in the borrowed car and headed out to get mine. When we drove home an hour later, the orange sunset was blazing on the driver’s side of the car, and the kids were begging for ice cream. I stopped to get them each a vanilla cone, and Norah said Mama, this is a good day, right? as it dripped down her chin. She was happy to be out past our normal hour and indulging in a treat – completely oblivious to how memorable the day was for me. How good it really was in that moment as relief poured from me for the first time in ages.
They are oblivious to it all, I hope. The stress and the worry and the never-ending questions that tumble through my head as I try to look at the long-term. It’s like looking directly at the sun. I’ve learned not to do it. I don’t know where I will be a year from now or a decade from now. But I hope they will always see the ice cream runs and the bath time laughs and the backyard play and not see how heavy it feels for me sometimes. At least for now. I want to shoulder the weight so that they don’t feel it.
I told a shorter version of this story on my personal Facebook page, and tonight I received a message from the mechanic who serviced my car. He said he “had a gut feeling [I] needed help” and looked me up on that same gut feeling. And he explained, “When I saw you on the service drive, something from deep within me placed a story on your situation, without knowing a thing about you. I could just sense a far deeper story to you … when I handled your repair order, I felt that it was meant to be and something needed to be done.”
In Mary Oliver’s poem “The Ponds,” she asserts, I want “to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world. I want to believe I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery. I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing– that the light is everything.”
I’m casting aside the weight of facts tonight. I’m floating above this difficult world to see that white fire of mystery for what it is. There are things in life that you cannot even begin to explain or understand. The light is everything.
It’s been a hard week. I am in the midst of grading final exams, and I have so much catching up to do. April was a fun month, but I was distracted with a thousand tiny things, and now I’m making up for it, I guess.
The body never lies, does it? I’ve become really good at telling myself that I am fine and it’s not that stressful and I can handle anything. But then sometimes I hit a wall, so to speak, and my anxieties manifest themselves in the body when I haven’t been listening to anything else. The tightness in my center, the exhaustion. It forces me to slow down when I’ve been ignoring stress and pushing my limits. I’ve learned to be grateful for those signals.
I was talking to a friend last night about how I’ve been in reacting mode for the past couple of years of my life – checking all the things off the list and putting out fires in front of me one-by-one. First there was signing documents and changing my name and selling and buying a house and moving and the never-ending list of tasks that comes with two kids at two different schools and a full-time job for me.
But here I am now. I’m looking ahead at a summer break that begins in two weeks, and I have no burning needs shouting to be met. No fires to put out. I’ve chipped away at that first layer of simply reacting, and I’m pressing my ear to my own center to see what I can hear stirring. It’s a vast open space, and truthfully, I’m terrified.
I feel like I’m free-falling. And it’s a moment I didn’t expect given that I’m grounded in ways I haven’t been in quite some time. The routines and budgets and tasks are ironed out. The anniversaries are all behind me. But now it’s just me. Here. With anything I want in front of me and unexplored territory inside of me. I know myself so much better than I ever have, but there is an enormous piece of my identity that depends on no one now. And after a decade of being consumed by all of these roles – daughter, teacher, friend, wife, mother – it’s hard to remember sometimes that there is someone in there who doesn’t owe anyone anything.
I’m not even sure where to begin.
I encountered this a little last summer when I had so many hours away from my kids, and I wrote about how difficult that was. Now I’m ready, in some ways, to encounter that time again. I know what to expect and what it feels like. But I also have fewer burning needs to fulfill for others this summer, and the urgency of my transition is over. Now it’s truly just me in solitude. I’m looking forward to experiences and adventures with my kids, but I know that solitude is where the surprises happen. I’ve seen firsthand how beneficial it can be but also how uncomfortable it is when you are so used to fulfilling roles for everyone else. So few people get the time and space to delve in in the way I do in this season of my life. I am grateful for that. But it’s also uncomfortable.
In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez explains, “human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” I look back at this journal from my past few years, and I feel that I have given birth so many times to myself over and over. And here we are again. I feel a new one coming as the reacting is done and now it is all up to me. It’s like labor pains in those hours before birth. I feel my spirit and my body preparing for what is next. It’s both terrifying and thrilling. And it’s exhausting. I think the truth is that it hurts to be born again and again. Becoming is work.
This past few weeks, I’ve been craving home and comfort and belonging. I’m sure that is the natural result of this free-falling feeling. When we don’t know where to begin, home is always the answer. Sometimes your literal home and sometimes just that space inside yourself where you can hear the familiar quiet of your own being.
I brought a friend dinner last night as she’s housebound recovering from surgery. We’ve known each other for something like 20 years, and conversation is always comfortable. Never stilted. Before I drove over, she sent me a warning text that her room was messy and I responded my whole life is messy – don’t even worry about it. We shared pasta and wine and talked about the personal and the political and all things in between. I drove the winding roads on the way home after dark listening to Joni Mitchell sing a song I’ve heard countless times: Something is lost and something is gained in living everyday.
The losing, the gaining. The ending, the beginning. The new terrain, the coming home. Again and again. Rebirth is work.
We spent part of our day at the small strawberry farm that we visit every year. It is close to home and familiar, and by now, the kids know its hilly landscape and gravel drive. We arrived around 11:00am today, and Georgia springtime showed up for us in her very best way.
It’s the beginning of the growing season here, so many of the berries are still firm and green, and it took some hunting to find red ones. They were there though, shining like jewels under the wide green leaves. The kids would spot one far away and take off running to get it. It took us a while to fill two large buckets, but eventually we did.
We followed berry picking with a little time in the farm’s petting zoo and playground, and we ended up on a wagon ride where we ran into neighbor friends. I can hardly believe the community that emerged for us in the past year or so. It’s a natural thing, nothing spectacular. But this house and these sweet spots so close to home and these friends we’ve made — they’ve all worked together to build roots when I didn’t even see it happening. And now here we are, settled in our lives as a family of three. Watching seasons come with familiar sights and faces. It’s all so ordinary, but it feels miraculous sometimes.
Simple things fascinate kids at these ages. I know this is a limited window in the grand scheme of things. I’m glad that — despite the chaos and demands of life with two little ones — the joy is easy to come by. Any little trip to see something new can feel like such a treat to them.
We arrived home three hours later with pink cheeks and more strawberries than I know what to do with. My two shared berries with neighborhood kids on the back patio while playing with sidewalk chalk all afternoon. I could hear them scheming elaborate ideas with friends just as I remember doing the same with my cousins when I was younger. They made their own bird feeders from ice cream cones with peanut butter and birdseed while we were at the farm, and this afternoon, we hung them on the tree I can see from our kitchen window.
Today wasn’t all perfection. Their sibling bickering this morning almost killed me. I’m bone tired and was relieved to get them in bed asleep tonight. I’m listening to the dryer hum right now as I’ve settled in to write a bit, and I’m thinking of the mountains of laundry still left to do this weekend. The sticky floors I need to deal with tomorrow. I’ve got stacks of essays to grade and more coming in on Monday, and the final deadlines of the semester are looming over me and feeling impossible. I’ve got bills and worries and so many unanswered questions as I look at the stretch of weeks in front of me.
But the universe just delivers sometimes when you’re paying attention enough to see it. The sunshine, the spring breeze outside all day, the berries, their intent little faces as they hunted for the ripest ones. It pierces in the best way when I let it. As for the never-ending stress amidst the rest of my life, I don’t know. But spring Saturdays don’t happen often, and today we honored what was here for us.
In her poem “Landscape,” Mary Oliver writes, “Every morning I walk like this around / the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart / ever close, I am as good as dead. / Every morning, so far, I’m alive.” That’s all I can say sometimes, but I’m finding that it’s all that matters, too. Open. Alive. Here. So far. Now.
Summer is coming. It’s about to bust wide open in that way it always does in the deep south. Produce stands are popping up along roadsides already, and soon enough the days will stretch long and hot. Here we go again. Like every year before but like something completely new.
My alarm rang at 5:30 yesterday morning to begin the daily grind, and the very first thought that bounced through my head was I’m so thankful it’s Friday. Jude barged in the bathroom soon after I got out of the shower and asked if he could go downstairs to watch television while I got dressed. He’s obsessed with these Minecraft tutorials on Youtube lately. I made coffee and took the dog out, and then soon enough Norah came down the stairs in her underwear. She claimed she was hot in the middle of the night and took off her nightgown to throw it on the floor.
So there we were: tired mom with coffee in hand, kindergartener watching Minecraft tutorials, and almost-naked preschooler piled on the couch before sunrise. She picked It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown from the shelf – of all things – and asked me to read it. A Halloween book in April at 6:20am wearing nothing but underwear. It’s how we roll these days.
When you grow older and look back on your own childhood, the smallest details can bring nostalgia – the particular plates you ate dinner from every night, the music you listened to on a certain road trip one summer, the curtains that hung in a kitchen window for years, or that singular dish your mom would make in a way that only she can.
I wonder sometimes about the bizarre list of things my kids will one day remember about our daily lives together: the loud hum of the wheat grinder because it’s how I insist we make Saturday waffles, the predawn cuddles on the couch, my books scattered everywhere and stacked on every surface, the board games we always spill out in the same spot on the foyer rug after school, the lettuce pots we pick from on the patio in the spring, the lakeside spot we visit in the summer, the old graying dog that snores loudly enough to drown conversation and follows us from room to room.
Some routines are habits I’m happy to see them absorbing. Norah draws pictures on tiny scraps of paper sometimes to add to my gratitude jar and calls it her “happy thing,” knowing what it means for me as a nightly ritual. And I’m sure there are other habits that I don’t even realize they are observing and taking on as their own patterns. It’s one of the scariest things about parenthood, a concept you can’t dwell on too heavily. The notion that they are always mirrors, always sponges. Reflecting and absorbing.
Truthfully, this house feels like Crazytown more often than not. I cling to routines because they give me something to hold onto. But in between the daily milestones and markers on the clock and calendar, we walk a path that closely borders chaos.
Sometimes I would give my right arm for some help in this house. I crave the comfort and certainty of having a partner to discuss parenthood with, and more than that, a partner to lend a hand when bath time and dinner time and clean up and homework are all happening at the same time. Single parenthood is no joke – especially for the primary custodial parent doing the daily work required to get everyone where they need to be, literally and figuratively.
But sometimes I feel so clearly that this is a unique season. Even if I stay single forever, this is our only time that he will be 6 and she will be approaching 4 and I will be exactly where I am in my own life and it is just the three of us. Always, just the three of us. I’m grateful for this time and the memories it’s giving us.
We had something to do almost every night this week – a neighbor who stayed with us as his parents needed help one night, the usual speech therapy appointment, and an annual art show at Jude’s school. I pushed aside the usual dinner plans one night for an impulsive stop at a Chinese restaurant the kids love. It is greasy. And predictable. And mediocre at best. But it felt like a treat as I pulled in the parking lot unplanned on a school night and the kids fumbled out of the car and ran in to look at the fish tank while we waited on a booth. We indulged in whatever made us happy in that moment. It felt good.
We were reading descriptions of all the Chinese zodiac signs that were printed on the place mat and assigning them to each other based on birth years. And Jude said of one of the descriptions (The rabbit, maybe? Now I’ve forgotten.) you are that one, mom. It says shy and a peacemaker and you are those things. It’s funny that he sees these things in me. I am not shy with them as I have to be the voice asking questions and moving and advocating for them, but he’s right in a sense. I’m an introvert at heart, and I hate conflict. When life’s demands calm down and I can breathe a minute, I am exactly as he sees me. I worry that they will only ever remember me as the frantic orchestra director, the air traffic controller, the drill sergeant, the one giving orders to everyone else to keep all the balls in the air in our crazy juggling act. But kids see your true nature, I think. Even when you have to push it aside to tend to all the fires that await you as a parent. I guess they can see it shining through a bit.
It’s tiring. And one day, I hope to arrive back on a sure footing with less worry and uncertainty and perfectly balanced meals on the table every night and a house that stays clean more than chaotic. But maybe that never happens until they leave home, and I’m starting to accept that with gratitude. I find the glimmers in the smallest seconds, pausing images in my own mind and recording them here. And I’m just going to trust that they can sometimes see the real me through the madness.
So many ideas, so many things I am reading, are swirling around the same center lately. I’m sure the realist would suggest that it’s because I am just looking for the same central ideas so I notice them more, but I am such a mystic about this sort of thing. I never think it’s an accident when words make their way to me at a specific time.
I’m a fan of On Being, and I shared the latest episode yesterday. It’s an hour-long conversation with poet and philosopher David Whyte, and it is definitely worth your time if you get a chance to listen. I first ran across him about a year ago with his poem that states that “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” It’s a passage I turned over and over in my own mind in the earliest days of being by myself for the first time.
Krista Tippet’s conversation with him touches a bit on that poem and on a lot of other things as well. They talked a bit about the “conversational nature” of life and where things intersect and take paths we don’t expect. I loved his discussion of genius when he explains that “in the ancient world, the word ‘genius’ was not so much used about individual people, it was used about places, and almost always with the world loci. Genius loci meant ‘the spirit of a place.’ And we all know what that intuitively means. We all have favorite places in the world, and it may be a seashore where you’ve got this ancient conversation between the ocean and the land and a particular geography of the way the cliffs or the beaches are formed … But a more sophisticated understanding would understand it’s this weatherfront of all of these qualities that meet in that place. So I think it’s a very merciful thing to think of human beings in the same way as — that is, your genius is just the way everything has met in you.” The way everything has met in you. To think of that – the way every piece of every thing I have experienced is met in me and the way all those tiny pieces create who I am and my life path – it’s a pretty overwhelming thought but a beautiful one, too. It makes me see people around me in a different light as well. We all have our unique genius, the way everything has met inside of us.
I’ve been reading Rilke lately, as I wrote about a few days ago, and his whole premise in Letters to a Young Poet is to fully immerse yourself in every experience, even the sad ones. To feel the weight of your own sadness so that you can find your way to the other side, too. He urges the reader to feel it all and “live the questions” which was an idea David Whyte echoed, too. He discusses this notion of feeling through questions to train what he calls “a more beautiful mind” and he insists “it’s an actual discipline, no matter what circumstances you’re in. The way I interpreted it was the discipline of asking beautiful questions, and that a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.” I’ve seen this first hand. It resonated with me so much that I went straight to the transcript of the show to read it again.
I feel as though all I ever do is observe and ask questions. (You see that here if you read along because most of what I write is really just a combination of those two things.) I have so few answers, only questions. But asking these questions – what am I feeling? why am I feeling it? what brings me alive and makes me feel real and how do I do more of it? – the simple act of asking has led me to so many new people and paths and experiences that I’ve seen unfold in the past year or so. I overlook the miraculousness of it all sometimes when I am caught in my daily tasks, but it amazes me when I stand back to look and feel it and be amazed.
Rob Bell talks about this on a recent podcast of his as well. He says it’s the difference between our frantic what am I doing? what am I doing? what am I doing? that we ask internally all day as we hurriedly move from one task to another and the awe-inspired what am I even doing here? question that we ask if we are wise enough to notice our own genius, as Whyte would say, the way all of our experience is met in us to create this spirit that is uniquely ours. This life that is uniquely your own.
There is so much unexpected in my life, and I can be frantic in my daily buzzing. There are volumes left unanswered for me right now. But the genius loci of my life is here when I pause to see it. These two kids I get to see everyday and watch them grow into their own ways. This home I found largely by coincidence that I call my own with deeper roots every passing week. The circle of people around me – some I’ve known for years, some who are new, and some who have meandered back to me somehow after absence. My job and the tasks of my daily life. This journal which began with a few observations years ago and evolved to something very different in a way only genius loci could create.
We had a visiting poet today on campus. She read a few pieces this morning, and then we had a hardy group of students and a few faculty members show up for the afternoon Q&A session with her. As I listened to her and watched a few eager student faces, I made the effort to pull back a minute, to see the true genius of what I was experiencing. That this is my life.
That I work somewhere I can park myself in a chair in the late afternoon and listen to someone talk about words and ideas. And then I go home and exhale a bit with two kids whose names and faces I didn’t know would ever exist a decade ago. And we eat and play and bathe and now I record a few things here as they sleep and my dog snores at my feet. And tomorrow, I wake up and brew coffee, and I begin it all again. The rhythm of my life full of things I love most and with a path that meanders with surprises along the way. That is the what am I even doing here? awe-inspired question I can ask myself. How did I get this life? How did I arrive here? It’s really only a result of asking the right questions and listening to what they evoke in me, but when I step back to see it for what it really is, it blows me away sometimes.
Andrea Hollander was our poet today, and she spoke a lot about the process of creating poetry and that she doesn’t consider it a good poem until it surprises her as she’s writing it. I feel that in so many ways. When I sit down here to write, when I make observations and ask the right questions, I arrive somewhere and realize that I knew something I didn’t know I knew. Like a deep recognition or remembrance brought to the surface. It’s why I record ideas here, even if they are hurried or jumbled like they are tonight.
In one of her poems, Hollander explains, “You know how it is when something / so startles you into your life — / you forget you are anything but eyes / or ears or mouth. It doesn’t have to hurt. / I’m talking about certain swells / of music your bones recognize / as if they’ve created them and now / they’ve come home.”
I hear the music today. The swell and the recognition, the feeling that my bones created it with their own genius loci. The way everything has met in me. I’m grateful for all the little pieces.