My summer is rushing by faster than I’d like. We’ve been off three weeks, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. I left a couple of cereal bowls in my sink for what I realized was three days, and I haven’t properly grocery shopped since we’ve been home from vacation. As it turns out, there is a lot to do to ready things for the end of someone’s life, a lot of choices to make and a lot of family to weigh in on those choices. I was with her all day yesterday, but I am staying home today, I think. To breathe and to clean a bit and to do a few rituals in my own quiet home to bring me back to myself.
As always, I am knee-deep in a lot of reading — bits and pieces scattered everywhere. And all of it is working to speak to me on some level. This week’s theme in my Richard Rohr contemplations is all about the contrast of the first half and the second half of life, as he calls it. Something always happens to shake us up, doesn’t it? Lots of things do that job if we are listening, but something is always the big one that comes at the right time to unfold something entirely new for you if you are listening.
My divorce was that for me, no doubt. My life will forever be viewed in the before and after lens of that moment. It is only after that brokenness when I became full and real and whole. But I also can see so clearly how this chapter with my grandmother is working to further that work. I see without question, when I look in my rearview, how suffering has helped me to evolve, and I am seeing it still. Rohr claims, “The transition from the first half of life to the second half often involves a stumbling stone. […] Until you can trust the downward process, the Great Mystery cannot fully overtake you. It’s largely a matter of timing. Some of us put it off until the last hour of life. But the sooner you can do it, the better. Almost all spirituality teaches you the secret of dying before you die. If you can face your mortality and let go of this small self early on, you’ll experience heaven here and now.”
I died a small death about a year and a half ago. The shell that held my identity was completely emptied and refilled. But now, it feels like I’m dying another one – which I guess is how life works… emptying and refilling, again and again. This time is showing me, even more clearly than before, how to surrender and how to swallow whatever is given to me, no matter how bitter it seems in the immediate moment. It will nurture me eventually, and I can already feel the softening that happens before I’m molded to something else. I can remember this from before: the grief, the softness, then the light.
I’m also finishing up Bird by Bird, and a passage when Lamott is talking about spending time with her terminal and cancer-stricken friend caught me enough to note it and read it again and again late last night.
Time is never as long as we think, is it? I guess at 35, I am not quite considered mid-life yet, but I’m getting there. And the closer I get, it feels like a shedding of something, a fire that is refining my clarity in ways I haven’t seen before. I’m tired of holding my breath, as Lamott says. There are things I am meant to do and to be, and I don’t want to miss the call to do them.
In another reading from Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, he further explains, “The first half of life is all about some kind of performance principle. And it seems that it must be this way. You have to do it wrong before you know what right might be. … In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being. But this wisdom only comes later, when you’ve learned to listen to the different voices that guide you in the second half of life. These deeper voices will sound like risk, trust, surrender, uncommon sense, destiny, love. They will be the voices of an intimate stranger, a voice that’s from somewhere else, and yet it’s my deepest self at the same time.”
It is so hard to hear that voice instead of holding your breath, isn’t it? Especially in light of crisis or even the daily demands of everyday life. I’m trying to find ways here and there to still hear it.
A couple of days ago, I went to my grandparents’ house to ready a few things to bring her home, and I was there by myself for a minute and caught her blue hydrangeas in the late afternoon light. Just that perfect slant through the trees with the contrast of the blue blooms against the dark green leaves. That second, short and fleeting in the midst of such a sad time, is what it means for me to fill up, to stop holding my breath. Her flowers that she planted ages ago that bloom in the same spot year after year. And that moment that I will no doubt remember for the rest of my life as one that managed to mix beauty and fear and sweetness and sadness all into one. Sometimes the line between what is temporary and what is eternal is not as clear as we think.
I had some time alone with her yesterday, and she’s not always making sense. But she still says I love you and I’m proud of you, and even in her delirium, she is referencing past moments and rituals we’ve known together my whole life – places we’ve gone together, dishes she’s made for me. And the sound of her voice this week is one that will stay with me forever and forever. There is such a fine line between this world and the next, a sheer curtain. I felt it so certainly in the hours and days when my babies first entered the world, and I feel it now.
I ran across a poem yesterday by Annie Lightheart that resonates with me right now. I feel lately as though I am living on two planes. One that is temporary and full of all the necessities that life demands of us — bills and laundry, and dishes, and daily actions. And one that carries a thread somewhere else, that mysterious chain I’ve written so much about lately.
“The Second Music” by Annie Lightheart
Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other
lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.
When all other things seem lively and real,
this one fades. Yet the notes of it
touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound
of the names laid over each child at birth.
I want to stay in that music without striving or cover.
If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,
the telling is so soft
that this mortal time, this irrevocable change,
becomes beautiful. I stop and stop again
to hear the second music.
I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.
All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.
It’s a second song playing underneath the daily noise. It’s faint sometimes. As she says, If the truth of our lives is what is playing, the telling is so soft that this mortal time, this irrevocable change, becomes beautiful. Can you hear it playing? I can.
We are back home. I spent more than six hours in a car today with two kids, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. So I am doing what I always do when I can’t sleep, and I’m writing instead.
We had a fun week. It was far from a perfect, relaxing vacation because parenting doesn’t present that scenario very often anyhow. But especially when you are the lone adult with two kids, relaxation in the typical sense doesn’t happen much.
But I stole moments here and there, and I accomplished that mostly by letting everything else go. I gave them no real rules except safety and sunscreen. We lounged and watched movies and swam and played in the sand and ate more popsicles than I care to admit. I came home exhausted from hot sun and sibling arguments, but they are high on ocean waves and sandcastles and the novelty of vacation-only Lucky Charms. (Seriously, I think that was their favorite part. I likely could have saved a lot of money and just taken a box of Lucky Charms to our neighborhood pool.) But sometimes, I think you need to hit the pause button on all of it and give yourself room to breathe with no rules and no expectations.
I brought along Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to reread it. I’d set some lofty writing goals for my summer, and I thought it might help me gain focus and courage. I found myself gravitating so much to the life advice it offers though, rather than the writing advice. Early in the book, she explains, “E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.” Sometimes I feel like it is only one foot in front of me that I can see, not even two or three. But I just keep moving one step at a time.
I’m growing suspicious, to be honest, of people who plan much farther than a few steps. I’m growing suspicious of someone if they seem to have it all laid out and expect things to follow in the pattern they want. I’m learning to let things happen and try my hardest to let go of all the fear and doubt and panic. Life is in the right, always. Just do the best you can in that moment, and watch it unfold.
When I step outside of myself for a moment, I see things so differently. I see a reality that I never planned on, but one that offers moments better than anything I expected.
I’ll undoubtedly remember this week as the vacation when I survived a road trip alone with 2 kids under 7, and then the three of us piled in one queen bed inside a condo so tiny you have to turn sideways to get past the dishwasher and reach the oven. I made spaghetti and tacos and store-bought cinnamon rolls, and we ate dinner in pajamas almost every night. I chased them all week while feeling burdened and worried about my grandmother at home, and I know that will be one of the first things that comes to mind as I recall this trip years later in my mind’s eye. But I’ll also likely remember early morning hours of reading Bird by Bird while the kids slept, and Lamott is so good to remind me that “perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.”
While we have not moved her yet, my family has decided to bring my grandmother home with hospice this week. We do not know the exact hour, but it likely won’t be long. The very best moments of my life have come from being brave, staying open, loving fiercely. But this, in many ways, is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Bearing witness to the very end of a life that shaped my own so intensely.
I’m deeply sad in ways I really cannot even begin to describe, and I know that it will be months of grief as the words come together for me. But I also know that human life means this one thing if we are doing it right: we will lose people we cannot imagine living without.
I see people who hold these things at a distance, who put relatives in homes or avoid thinking about what we will all come to face one day – that we all die. Every single one of us. That idea is both the most crushing and the most freeing of anything at all.
And we cannot choose what happens to us and how it all will end, but we can choose what kind of people we will be in the meantime. And I’m trying my hardest to stay open and willing, brave and honest, here and now – even when it hurts. As Rumi says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I thought my heart had expanded enough in this season, but the universe wasn’t finished with me, I think. Here we go again. I’m holding on tight for what lies ahead – the pain and the softness. All of it.
Back in April, I booked a week in a little beach condo for the kids and me. We traveled so much together in my former life – much more exotic locations and expensive trips. But I’ve had such an expensive spring, and my budget looks very different than it did a couple of years ago. So we settled on a little spot on the Florida panhandle that is a short drive from home.
I’ve felt a lot of unease about this trip in light of my grandmother’s health struggles as she is still in a hospital bed in Atlanta. But we transferred her to the university research hospital to get more answers and better treatment for her, so I’m trying my best to exhale a bit and enjoy my time with the kids in the meantime.
I loaded the car on Sunday morning, and we were on the road by 10am. I bought them each a blank notepad and a fresh box of crayons for the ride down, and that got us 3 hours of entertainment in the car. The rest of the trip was full of I Spy and Letter Hunt, and we finally arrived to our tiny condo in the midday heat.
It’s a studio apartment of sorts with one room that features a bed, a couch, a television, and a tiny kitchen where you have to turn sideways to squeeze by the dishwasher and reach the oven. We unloaded the car and put our things away, and then I braved the grocery store with the kids and at least a million other vacationers. Empty shelves and long check out lines and chaos. We came back to the condo, and I made a quick dinner that we ate on paper plates. We threw on bathing suits and raced to the beach, and we were just on time for the magic hour.
I am so worried about so many things right now – family health struggles and my own bank account and the thousand things I need to address in this season of my life, but the ocean always makes you exhale in a deeper way and realize things will eventually be okay, right? (Asking for reassurance here.) Hardship comes and goes, and in this past few years, it feels like I’ve had more than my fair share. But tiny moments of peace also come and go. I try and squeeze every last bit of comfort I can from them.
I’m reminded again of that Mary Oliver line I don’t know what a prayer is, but I know what it means to pay attention. I’m paying attention this week. To freckles and sandy eyelashes, splashes and giggles, sno-cones at sunset.
Waves roll in and out, over and over. The world keeps turning. Nothing is better than the ocean at showing us that paradox of change and impermanence in the face of eternity. It’s a big, wide world. And struggle exists for every single one of us eventually.
We have three more days here before we head back home. So far, it is a vacation in the truest sense. The kids sleep late while I am up with the sun, and I read with coffee (or write as I am now) while they snooze. They wake and we lounge around with breakfast until we go to the beach mid-morning. We drag our things there, they play for hours, and then we return for lunch and a break from the heat. Late afternoon finds us at the pool, and we’ll shower before dinner and go straight to pajamas most nights. Then we indulge in mugs of ice cream and a movie and sleep to do it all again the next day.
Leisure can feel weird when you are in a season of struggle. We feel like we should be paying our dues somehow. But I’m remembering another Mary Oliver line where she asserts, You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. We are loving what we love this week, without regret or reason. I’m taking these tiny moments, bottling them up as best I can to float me on.
The week has plowed on somehow. My grandmother is still in ICU, and she is recovering so well in many ways. But as it always goes with things like this, it is two steps forward and one step back sometimes. The neurologist is astounded at her progress, but she also contracted pneumonia – a common occurrence for elderly in the hospital. So while her spirit is strong in many ways, her body is still weak and recovering but showing signs of strength and promise. We are still in the space of in between, unsure what the future holds.
The human spirit is an amazing thing, isn’t it? As is the human body. I’ve spent some time with her this past week, and my kids are away for the next 6 days, so I hope to see a lot more of her in this week ahead. It is hard though. All of it. I’m seeing why people turn away from suffering. It hurts to face the truth: that all of us have limited time here, that life is completely out of control, that pain happens and you can’t run from certain truths. It all shines a bright light on where you are gripping too tightly.
I know I wrote a bit in my last post about Richard Rohr, and another passage of his caught my eye this week and resonated in a big way. He tells us, “The first step of the journey is the admission of powerlessness. It is where no one wants to go and no one will go voluntarily. We have to be led there through our own failure and experience of death. In men’s work, we call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross. We’re all talking about the same necessary step.” Wisdom only comes from hardship, doesn’t it? Real transformation and understanding only come from a place of absolute nothingness and uncertainty. I wish there was an easier way to get there, but there isn’t.
I have such little tolerance for bullshit right now. I wish there was a kinder way to phrase that, but there it is. I’ve written at length before about how it felt to have my former life removed piece-by-piece and as Anne Lamott says, when we lose these pieces, it is “one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from death or decay. It’s gone.” I’ve grown in immeasurable ways from this continual process over the past year or two. It’s like dragonflies or cicadas who molt as they transition from one form to another. I see so clearly what I’ve shed and left behind, and this chapter in my family’s history – wherever it may lead in the immediate future – is the same for me again.
My grandmother is in and out of understanding right now, depending on how tired she is in that given moment. But her eyes are the same. And family has been in and out all week to see her. Each of us holding her hand and helping in any small way we can and speaking gently to her worn out body like a little baby. Every time I leave the hospital, I feel both sadness and joy, worry and peace, confusion and understanding, defeat and victory.
And I want to scream so loudly that none of it even matters, none of it.
The things that fill the minds of people all day long in their cars and at their jobs and in their homes at night. How much money is in your bank account. How shiny your car is. How large your home is. The list of professional accolades that follow your name. Whose name is stamped on a handbag or what you look like. None of it matters at all, and though I thought I saw that in these months that have passed in my own life, I am seeing it even more now. I’m losing tolerance for people who just don’t get it. So many of us walk around our whole lives avoiding the real truth and leaning on these tangible signs of worthiness and never truly seeing into the life of things.
I finally picked up The Alchemist as my first summer read, and I’ve blown through 142 pages in the past couple of days. Paulo Coelho’s main character is on a journey of his own, and he finally learns that “We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it is our life or our possessions or our property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.” I’m feeling that hand with certainty in this chapter of my life, and I know that there is more written that I haven’t seen yet. In moments of stillness, it really feels like a tugging to something ahead and almost a tangible feeling that there’s a very specific path I’ll walk that is written by that hand. A whole new place I am not aware of yet.
Any time I feel fear or doubt, I can find so much comfort by looking at my life in the rearview. Every step and every turn and everything that appeared to be a coincidence at that time wasn’t a coincidence at all. Now I see how it molded and changed me and chiseled away the pieces to reveal something I never knew could take shape before. Why would I doubt that life is still revealing piece-by-piece what lies ahead? Coelho calls it “the mysterious chain that links one thing to another.” It’s the white fire of the great mystery that I wrote about before. Some things in life cannot be understood logically or explained, but they are somehow more real than all the other mess that guides our days.
I’ve known my grandparents were loved by their family and community, but this week, that is evident beyond what I ever expected. The messages and comments are overwhelming as people check in with us or send well wishes. It’s expanded beyond the usual sentiments you hear when someone is sick or suffering to reflect the central role she played in the lives of so many people and the incredibly rare person she is. One woman who is not her daughter but paid her a visit on Mother’s Day with a small gift for someone she explained “is like a mother to me.” Childhood friends of mine who call her Grandmother like l do. People who know her well and cite the countless ways she blessed their lives in the decades they have known her.
And it is simple really – when I see what she’s spent her life doing, the way she’s become so cherished to other people. She loved. The real way. Without attention to outside signs of worthiness. She has known that someone’s worth is inherent, that it cannot be bought or earned somehow. And though it is so painful to watch the hand of time and see it this closely and personally, it fills me up in the best way to see others returning the love she delivered to the rest of us for decades. That mysterious chain that links one thing to another just stretches on and on, doesn’t it? Forever and forever.
I’ve been wanting to sit down and write for the past few days, and I couldn’t. Finding the time was hard, but finding the words even harder.
I was dragging the kids through Target on Sunday afternoon to buy end-of-the-year teacher gifts and follow that errand with a grocery run, and my phone rang. It was my mom, and she was on the way to the hospital to meet my grandparents there. They’d gone to church that morning and had to leave the service shortly after it began because of a sudden and severe headache for my grandmother. This is a woman who never complains, so I knew. We all knew.
She had a hemorragic stroke, the less common type. The past few days have been a roller coaster, and she is not out of the woods yet. I spent a little time at the hospital Monday, and I’m heading back again tomorrow. Family is in and out and hoping and praying for her comfort and for the strength to face whatever comes next. I cried most of the day on Monday and felt fairly certain this was it. But grandmothers are strong stuff, it seems. She has defied the odds so far, and I have learned enough about life to know that you cannot make assumptions. We are all in that in-between space, alongside her. That space of not knowing, the excruciating absence of clarity and certainty. We know nothing other than what is in front of us.
Her influence on my life is evident to anyone’s eyes. I can’t think of many childhood stories that do not involve my grandparents in some way. I grew up on family property that placed our house alongside theirs and ran the path between the two everyday. There are specifics etched in my mind that belong to only her…. The particular taste of every dish she makes. The sound of summer crickets louder than our own voices as we sat on her back porch with droves of cousins and jars of lightening bugs we’d chased in her yard. The way she’s taught me to identify and nurture the plants that overflow on my own patio now. The hymns that still ring in my ears as I listened to them seated next to her in church for years. Every Christmas Eve of my 35 years spent at her tree. The ring of her own voice when she says my name. The way she’d crawl in to bed with me and pat my leg as I fell asleep when I spent the night with her as a child. Snapping beans in deep bowls and buckets as their huge summer garden delivered to us every July.
The list is endless, and it will always be. Forever and forever.
I don’t know that this is the end. In fact, the most recent neurologist’s report seems to think it is not and she is doing exceptionally well. But it is a reminder, if not more, that time waits for none of us. It’s a very inconvenient thing, isn’t it? To have these bodies that become weaker as our spirits grow wiser and stronger.
I dropped by Jude’s classroom this morning for their Honors Day celebration, and he received a “Little Artist” award and the award for the “Best Storyteller” which admittedly makes my English professor and writer heart happy. Art and storytelling are always the best ways to get to know your own self and others as well, I think. And as I thought more about that idea this afternoon, I’m realizing that all we really have left are stories when it’s all done. And those stories carry so much weight and meaning to each of us.
My grandparents have been married almost 62 years. I love them because they are mine, but there are so many people in their community who would say they love them because of who they are. Kind and generous and hardworking and honest and quick to love but slow to judge. A lifetime seems too short for people like that, but I know that’s not how things work.
Monday was a hard day for her. I went to the hospital that evening, and found my grandad alone in the room with her when I walked in. IV cords and beeps and monitors and clinical charts and sterile cold everywhere. But he sat there with her and held her hand on one side while I held the other. She was still in pain, and she was confused, and he draped his arm over her, but he held his head down a minute so I couldn’t see his tears, but I saw them. I have story after story of my life with the two of them, and it would be so much safer and more comfortable to leave out this chapter. To hold it at a distance. It takes courage to look suffering in the face, but I want to be there for all of it. I want to let it all in even though it hurts so much.
I get daily emails from Richard Rohr, and the one that arrived to me on Monday morning was about suffering. (Again, the words meant to find me always get there just on time.) He explains, “Spirituality is about what we do with our pain…We forget something that should be obvious: We do not handle suffering. Suffering handles us in deep and mysterious ways.” I know that this is true. I’ve deepened my own heart and grown in so many ways as a result of my own suffering, but the pain hurts so much in that moment, even as it handles you.
We are still in that space of in between, that land of not-knowing. Certainty is so much easier. The surface is far more comfortable than the depths. But the magic of suffering is that you come out deeper and stronger on the other side, and the joys are richer, too. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such sadness and brokenness as I did on Monday evening in that room, but I’ve never seen such beauty either.
You are four today. How did that happen this quickly? You are still my baby, but less so everyday. The shape of our family is changing as you walk tall beside me, and independence is your main objective when we go about our daily tasks. No, I’m doing it, Mama! is likely the most common phrase to come out of your mouth. I’m learning to back away and give you space. There’s so much value in the act of leaving space to learn and grow. I’m learning that lesson myself this year as well.
You are so many things in your fourth year. You are bold and stubborn, and you exhaust me sometimes. But you are also kind and gentle and nurturing to your little dolls and any creature you can get your hands on. You surprise the neighborhood boys by collecting worms and slugs that they refuse to touch themselves. I’ll step on the back patio to see that you’ve collected insects in a jar and given them names, stuffing leaves in the top to feed them. You are a nurturer in the truest sense. For all of your fiery independence, you balance it with the sweetest spirit as well. I hope you hold onto both of those traits as you grow.
You love your brother fiercely. But the two of you fight fiercely, too. And it can make me come completely unglued sometimes, to be honest. The sibling bickering always begins over something trivial, and I’ve learned to just walk away and let the two of you sort it out if I can. It will always be this way between you, I think. It’s the way of brothers and sisters. You know each other’s preferences and quirks, and you also know exactly how to push each other’s buttons to bring what feels like apocalyptic war sometimes. But when it counts, you are always in his corner. The two of you have only woven closer together in our past year, and I really hope you will always be that way.
You and I have woven closer together this year, too. Having a daughter in the world we live in is a scary thing if I’m telling you the truth. You are a challenge, and I fear everyday that I’m messing it up. A few weeks ago you were making your way upstairs for bath time and purposely moving at the rate of a turtle. Always aware of the clock dictating our weeknights, I was frustrated and asked you to speed it up. You responded indignantly, I’m tired mama! I’m doing the best I can.
I laughed a little as I heard my own words echoed back to me. I’m doing the best I can is something I say to you so often. There are countless moments when I wish I could somehow clone myself to accomplish a few things at once or pause our conflicts to really think solidly about my action before proceeding, but my best is all I can manage. And I’m learning my best is good enough. I want you to see yourself in the same way. Your strongest efforts are good enough. You are enough, exactly as you are.
You are fearless, and people recognize that in you. You don’t fear bugs or snakes or strangers. And I have to be persistent in watching you to be sure you don’t put yourself in danger. But for whatever reason, you will cuddle up on my side with your leg wrapped over my waist every night like a tiny monkey and squeeze and say Mama, I’m scared while we lie in the dark after your brother has fallen asleep and I’m trying to get you to do the same. Every night I say the same things to convince you that we are safe and cared for and protected. And yet every night, it’s the same ritual. It amazes me how brave you can be in the face of real danger but how easily frightened you are by the figures of your own imagination. Invisible things are always the scariest, aren’t they? And sometimes it is so hard to separate the real from the imagined.
That’s always the challenge, I think. Fear is a natural condition of being human, and as women, we are especially taught to fear so many things. We fear looking in a mirror and not seeing what people tell us is beautiful. We fear bathing suits and first dates and walking in a dark parking deck. We fear we are failing at the immense and impossible standards of modern motherhood. We fear we are somehow not enough alone and that we need a man to validate us to others. We are taught to fear so many things.
But let me explain something to you, Norah. Once you see those fears for what they are, they seem like the imaginary monsters you whisper about every night in bed — ridiculous and limiting and born of our own mental constructs. In Wild, Cheryl Strayed explains, “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
It took me a long time and a lot of hard lessons to learn to tell myself a different story. And so I tell you a different story every chance I get because I want you to grow up believing the opposite of what many of us are taught. You are brave and kind and smart and real. The rest is just noise.
I can’t wait to see where this year takes you. I love every piece of you. Happy Birthday, Norah.
I write letters to each of my kids on their birthdays, and for now, I post them here on the blog as well. If you’d like to read the others from years past, click here.
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.