ordinary

I turned the last page of a book today that will haunt me for a long while, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs. I usually come here to share snippets and quotes of whatever I’m reading, but I am finding it hard to do that this time. It is hard to slice this one up. I swallowed it whole in only two sittings, and even among the chaos of this week before the holidays, I made time for it. I will only tell you that you need to read it and let it sit with you awhile like it has with me. And that I am not certain where I am going with these sentences tonight, but I only know that I wanted to remember what it felt like when I first read it.

Do you do that? I find a piece of art – a book or a film or a song that is new to me – and I want to bottle that feeling that swells inside when I first consume it.

Nina Riggs, first known for this Modern Love column, faced down a terminal diagnosis at 37, and essentially spent the final year or two of her life racing the clock to write down everything she could and make sense of what was in front of her – the living and the dying. She finished the final manuscript a month before her death, and the result is this shimmering stretch of narratives that are as much poetry (she was a published poet before this book) as they are a story. Like moments and still photographs sewn together with connections and meaning. It illuminates without burning you on sentimentality. It’s quiet but urgent. Descriptions of the ordinary that rise to become sacred. I loved it so much.

I was chiming in on a discussion about holiday stress and holiday blues with some friends recently, and I said that I sometimes get this weird melancholy at the end of the year where I look back at the previous twelve months and feel like I didn’t do enough, like I am treading water, like I have been so busy with these trees that I didn’t see the forest and I have wasted a year of my life. I feel like (Do we all do this?) everyone else is ahead of me and I am running in place somehow.

We like to mark our years in big ways, don’t we? Like one day we will look through some photo album, real or imagined, and say oh, this is the year that I went on that exciting trip, this is the year I made huge professional strides, this is the year I got married, this is the year I became something radically different than I was before and all the exciting things happened for me. But real life happens differently for a lot of us (most of us?).

This is the year I wrote a lot of words that mostly stayed on my computer and no one else read them. This is the year I finally threw out that couch I hated and bought a cheap replacement but I still couldn’t afford much else, so the rest of the room was pieced together with hand-me-downs and second-hand finds. This is the year the dog got a little older and slower and the kids got a lot taller, and I mostly looked just the same as ever. This is the year I got a promotion that in all reality just feels like a single footstep up a ladder that I am not sure is reaching where I want it to go. This is the year I finally went to the doctor for a physical and listened to my dentist and got a night guard. I started using eye cream every night. I bought a gray scarf I love. All of these tiny, insignificant steps to some place I don’t know.

Maybe this feeling of a pause is a good thing – after a few years in a row of things that shattered the frame I’d built. But I am on some sort of treadmill that is not pushing me forward as fast as I’d hoped, and the end of the year always shines a light on that feeling.

But this book cracked that open for me somehow. It is so simple, really. She describes her days as they really are, her moments as they happen, her honest difficulty in letting go of everything that lies here in this life – none of it spectacular in the traditional sense of that word, mostly what we would consider mundane and ordinary. And somehow it leaves me with tears in my eyes, so thankful for this little life that is mine. Treading water or not, I am here. We all meet the same end eventually, but right now, I am here.

Things I can tell you about today: Jude sat up quickly when I woke him up, excited for his class party. He could hardly open his eyes to the lamplight though, and he has the thickest, darkest lashes. He always has since he was a baby. They are still the same. He just sat there in bed smiling with his eyes closed and his enormous lashes casting shadows, trying to open them in the dim light. Norah’s freckles are fading now that we don’t see the sun as much, but they will come back next summer. I know about these things – eyelashes and freckles – because I see them everyday, but I forget how perfect they are. How good it feels to know them well enough that I can see them with my eyes closed and know that I will see them tomorrow again. Will that stay in my photo album one day? 2018, the year I saw the eyelashes flutter every morning and the freckles fade and reappear.

Tonight after dinner, I needed to take the dog out, and Jude’s coat was closer than mine, so I grabbed it. I can wear it now. I can wear his shoes, too. Three years ago, that would have been unimaginable. Three years from now, he will have outgrown me. 2018, the year we met in the middle of where we were and I first discovered I could wear his coats. Norah asked (again, as she does every night) if I would take a bath with her when it was her time to get clean. This is weird maybe (Is it? She is six. I don’t know.) but also it is not weird for us because neither of us makes it so, and I know one day very soon there is coming a day when she will turn her head when I change my clothes instead of saying Mama, get in and pouring warm water over my shoulders. 2018, the year we sat in the bathtub where she pretended to paint my fingernails every night.

Sometimes I wince to think of my life staying just the same as it is now for all of eternity. That is the ultimate fear, I think. That nothing will change, that I will never do the things I am meant to do. That everyone will run ahead without me. That I will keep treading water forever with no mileage to show for it. But this book is just sitting on my heart after I finished it with a quiet whisper that you hear from an old, familiar friend. Like it is something I have always known, only I had forgotten it.

 

 

 

 

 

witness

Where to start, I don’t know. July always leaves me this way. Feeling restless and maybe just the tiniest bit anxious for the start of the school year around the corner. The kids have 15 summer days left, and I have 32. We are trying to drink up every last bit.

I spent last weekend in a cabin on the Tennessee River with a few friends – near and far, old and new. We read and relaxed and explored bookshelves and coffee shops. I spent nearly half of the day Friday on a shaded porch swing with a book in my lap – something I haven’t done in ages. It’s so easy to lose the pulse of who we really are and forget the small pleasures that bring us the most happiness. We spent some rainy hours on Saturday exploring a warehouse of used books, and I came home lugging a bag with no less than nine new titles. One of them is Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass which I dove into first and am swallowing down in huge gulps when the kids are playing or sleeping. It’s her honest reflection on decades of marriage, and it illuminates big things about relationships through the language of everyday minutiae. It’s a timely read for me, and a fascinating look inside a marriage.

Shapiro focuses a lot on the passage of time and how it chisels and changes two people. As she reflects on her first date with her husband, she explains, “I want to deliver some kind of benediction upon them as – drunk on love – they meander the streets of Alphabet City. I want to suggest that there will come a time when they will need something more than love.” Or as she says later, “Our world will narrow as the storm of time washes over us. It will bleach us, expose our knots, whittle us down like old driftwood. … There is luck involved, of course. But not only luck.”

I think that’s a way that we change after divorce, especially when you take time off to be alone and think of what is next. We see that love is a choice, not luck or passion. That the long game is about decades instead of months, but at the same time, decades are made of tiny moments, tiny words that add up to something. That there are some things you can bear and some things you can’t, but that is always a choice.

Susan Sarandon’s character in the movie Shall We Dance insists that “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’” That line echos with me again and again. Especially now that I am alone. I think it’s the witness that we miss sometimes. The presence that is there in all the little everyday moments to say I see you and I hear you and you don’t go unnoticed.

I think witnessing someone in the real way is a choice, and a hard one, too. Shapiro’s book reminds us of that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways I can bear witness to myself when life feels like it is swirling and changing. It is not the same as having that steady shoulder and clear mirror of a forever partner. But there are ways, I think. Writing is one. Talking to friends. Holding on to your own center when you are the only one there.

The kids brought home some sunflowers Sunday night after visiting a sunflower farm nearby. Yesterday morning, we began the day with waffles and sunflowers and cherries. July at its best. Fresh corn is stacked in my fridge, and tomatoes line the window sill. I am doing what I can to bear witness to what is around me, to sink into what is here, even if I am the only one to feel it and see it.

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Sometimes I wonder if I will gaze back at this time, with all of its uncertainty and growing pains and lessons, and think That was it. You were in it. You were alive and real and growing and reaching. Or if I will just see it as a blur and be glad it’s over.

I hope not. The days roll by so quickly right now, and it can feel like I have no witness in these everyday storms, but even with my tired perspective, I can see that this life is something I want a witness to. A beautiful thing.

As Shapiro reflects on her own younger experiences, she says, “Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.”

I know it’s impossible to have someone sit down and tell you everything about how the story goes. But selfishly, I wish time worked that way. Some days it all feels fast and slow at the same time, stifling and loose, real and imagined. It’s so hard to bear witness to this story when what you really want to know is what’s on the other side.

the rushing lens of a microscope

I find myself falling down some black hole of time lately. I wonder where my hours go, what I do. I can’t always name much at the end of the day. I grade a few papers, read and prep for class but not as much as I would’ve liked, answer an email or two, run that lingering errand, pick up kids from school, make dinner, and then 6-10pm is swallowed up with all the things required at the end of the day, and my tired head hits the pillow.

Somehow things become more involved than you think they should. As is the case with all of life, it seems. In a current course I’m teaching, I begin the semester listening to Jenny Hollowell’s “A History of Everything, Including You” with my students. (It’s featured in New Sudden Fiction, but you can listen to her read it herself on this podcast here.)

This particular story feels like some rushing lens of a microscope zooming from the cosmic confusion of the dawn of the universe to the very particular pain of an individual woman. It’s a work I can read again and again, and it resonates with me more each time. How did we get here? And I can mean that collectively, as a society, as I watch the news unfold hourly these days. Or how did I get here? I can ask that personally and know that there is no short answer for the hum that is created from all the pieces that add up to what I have become. One thing leads to another and to another, and before you know it, your life has a shape all its own that has come to pass because of a thousand twists and turns, some intentional and some circumstantial.

I have the urge to simplify everything right now. Clean the closets and throw things out that I no longer need. Check my tasks off as quickly as I can without muddling them with too much thought. Read some bulleted list of news without the analysis I usually crave. The older you get, the more you see why that’s hard though. Things have layers of attachment and value. Tasks have more thoughtful ways of being done if we take the time. News has loads of context that you don’t get with a quick bold heading or summary. People have layers upon layers of meaning and history that construct who they are and how they see the world.

Tonight is said to hold a full moon, a comet, and an eclipse at the same time. An eclipse in Leo which astrology tells us is a fire sign – known for being bold and playful and confident and creative. I don’t chart my life by a horoscope, but I love the ceremonial spaces granted to us with the changes and cycles in the sky above. And I always need a reminder that things are bigger and grander and more complicated than I can ever imagine, but yet my tiny little life in this warm house is what I hold and what matters.

Eclipses are also often representative of endings and beginnings, closings and openings. They invite us to think about what can be left behind and what threshold we need to cross next. This one is reminding me that the layers are always going to feel messy and deep and too difficult to understand, but it’s still my job to walk forward anyway, to figure out what I am meant to do in this season and this place, to find what makes me happy and do more of it. I’m ready to close this season that’s left me feeling like I’m almost drowning. I’m ready to reclaim that creative energy and move forward through the muddled complicated layers to find something simple again.

David Whyte has a poem that says, “Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside of you. Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that first, bright and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.” 

The kids and I huddled under blankets tonight and ate take-out in the living room while watching a movie. Then upstairs for bed, and I can hear them snoring now with the perennial February sniffles that always appear this time of year. The moon is bright enough to shine through the blinds and leave some faded lines of light along my bedroom wall as I’m typing this. There’s something big inscribed across the heavens tonight three times over, but I can hear that one line written inside, too. Pulsing like a heartbeat. Here, now. Here, now. Ready to begin again.

 

 

 

that second song

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

 

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written by the same hand

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.

 

peeling the layers

The house is quiet this morning. I have time to wake-up slowly and drink coffee without leaving an inch of it cold in the bottom of the mug. Workdays without the rush of kids and school buses feel like a luxury.

But I cried yesterday for the first time in a long time, and I am not even certain why I did. Some people believe that crying releases all that stuck energy so that you make room for the new things that are coming to you — new feelings and new experiences. I’ve had such a good few months; 2016 has been exponentially kind to me. But I do feel some restless energy bubbling up to the surface and an itchy desire to make way for the new. Life is like this always, I guess. You peel away the layers to see what is next as you grow and change.

I worked late yesterday, and I opened the door to my quiet house around 7 last night. I tended to the dog for a while, made my dinner for one, took a bath, and settled in with a book. I bought Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet last month after hearing so much about it from a number of different people. It is a series of correspondence between Rilke and a young poet and it’s full of advice on life, art, and creativity. I think I will return to it again and again.

This happens to me all the time. The right words make their way to me on the written page at exactly the moment that they need to be heard. It’s that divine spark of human connection I’ve written about before. Words never cease to amaze me, how when you get them in the right order and they make their way to you at the right time, they can really change you in the smallest but most crucial ways.

As I feel the layers peeling away in my own self, Rilke explains, “Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding and in creating.” I’m also making my way through Rob Bell’s How to Be Here, and it discusses how we are all creators, in a sense. We are all charged with the task of listening to what calls us and creating the life we are meant to lead. I’m starting to see things this way. I see that my writing mirrors my life in that they are both works in progress, and sometimes I don’t gain that conclusion or clarity or insight until I get to the very end of a certain process. I get to the end and sigh, oh, that’s what I’m learning here. That’s what this did for me.

I feel a major shift lately that surprises me when I least expect it, and I’m not certain what it means. But for much of the past two years of my life, I’ve felt no stirring or envy when I see people coupled in pairs. I’ve done the work (so much work) of a relationship that didn’t give back to me in the same weight I put in. I have spent so much of the past year or two of my life completely heart sore and exhausted from that process. But I feel a stir now. I guess it’s a yearning for a partnership, which is a totally normal part of human existence, but it feels so foreign to me. It’s surprising me, and though I should be used to surprising myself by now, I am not.

And maybe this feeling will ebb and flow, maybe it will come and go in the years ahead. Or maybe it will build and pull at me in ways I don’t even understand yet. Maybe I will be in this chapter of solitude for a long time, and maybe I won’t. There are so many questions, and though I try to follow Rilke’s advice to “live the questions,” it is hard. And I am tired sometimes.

This present moment is where the gold is. I know that. The present season, without moving to the right or the left. The present feeling. Paying attention to all those tugs and whispers I feel in my own heart. Paying attention and then letting them go. I know that is the work that gets me somewhere. I know because I can see how far I’ve come by letting that happen in the months behind me. I know all of this, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hard.

Rilke’s advice in the fourth letter is to “love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you … but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without stepping outside of it … your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”  I’m finding my path now in ways I don’t even fully understand yet, and I think this love that is stored for me can come by way of lots of things – not just a romantic partnership as we all seem to hope for. And it already has come for me in many ways I didn’t expect. The whole universe has given back to me twice as much as I ever could have expected. But I think I am just finally at the part of my own journey when I can ponder what if, what if, what if. Maybe one day.

I follow Becky Vollmer on Instagram, and she posted something recently that resonated with me so much.

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I have seen firsthand how genuine self-love brought me out of a place no longer serving me. But for every bend in the road, we have to keep reminding ourselves, don’t we? It’s always the answer. To love yourself out of whatever moment you are in, to peel back the layers, take a look at the softening heart, and make way for the future – whatever it may bring.

It brings both the ugly and the beautiful, if we are paying attention and open to it. I wrote a little essay stringing together some travel reflections over on Sweatpants and Coffee if you want to read it.

For now, I’m moving on with the things that have brought me this far: paying attention, holding space for all of it, and loving it anyway.

springtime (and a present for you!)

It’s officially the spring equinox today. The sun is out, the grass is getting greener, and new things await for all of us.

The rhythm of changing seasons is such a comfort, isn’t it? No matter how cold and bleak something is looking in the present moment or what little annoyances are speaking loudly in your ear, it will come and go and eventually make way for something new. Nature mirrors everything else for us if we pay attention.

March brings my own birthday, and it also brings the “birthday” of this little journal – one I began late at night in a chair at my kitchen desk in a house that is now two houses past with a baby who is now a growing boy and a life that is now a million lifetimes ago. I never in a million years – never ever ever, I cannot stress that enough – saw this tiny space as becoming what is has been for me in my past year and a half. I chose a blog title somewhat hurriedly and randomly when I knew that I’d be writing mostly about motherhood and a little about books. I had no idea that it would become about so much more than that. A journal of pain and heartache but also one of light and gladness and immeasurable personal revelations born in moments I never foresaw.

And here we are, six years later, I’m still writing and still recording details of my days that may or may not be of interest to anyone but me. But sometimes they are, and sometimes they have led to moments of clarified purpose that propel me forward even now to some place new.

I think words have a way of healing us like nothing else can. They have a way of shedding light on confusion when nothing else makes sense. I often write about someone else’s words and how they changed me, and it is my very favorite thing to get emails from readers – during this past year they came from as nearby as Atlanta and as far away as Germany – telling me that my words have done the same for them. Personal purpose and a burning need to record my own experiences is why I sit down to write in the first place, but it’s the circle of influence and the ripples that result that keep me showing up again and again.

In celebration of the 6th birthday of this little journal, and in appreciation for every one of you who reads here, I put together a little giveaway with the help of some amazing Etsy artists to pass on to a lucky winner. I’m starting with a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, which is a compilation of quotes from her earlier works. I got my hands on it last fall when it was initially published, and it’s hard to choose a favorite passage. It’s a handy little guidebook when I’m feeling overwhelmed or lost, and Strayed’s usual no-nonsense wisdom shines on every page. The title stems from her passage in an essay on The Rumpus when she tells a reader to “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and that concept echoes on every page. It astounds me how many times in the past year of my life someone has called me “brave” when anyone who knows me knows that I am, in many ways, the opposite of brave. I am scared and cautious and careful at almost every moment of every day, but I’m realizing real bravery stems from the insistence to stand in your own truth and show your real heart. There’s nothing that requires more courage, and there’s nothing that provides those same feelings of peace and power.

To add to my bookish gift, Brianna over at BBeadazzled is giving this beauty. It seemed like the perfect accompaniment to Strayed’s work and a reminder to be brave and show up in the truest way every single day.

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And Lovewell Handlettering added this sweet little journal as well. Gratitude as a general concept and gratitude as a daily practice are two totally different things, and I cannot overestimate the ways my life has grown and changed by my persistence in recording the beauty of everyday moments in this space. It opens my eyes everyday to see the good in what’s around me. I’d love to pass on an encouragement to you to do the same.

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I have passed on quote after quote and underlined paragraphs and scribbled marginalia in so many books in the past few years and then shared those words with you here. What I’d like for this bloggy birthday is for you to do the same thing in return. What quote sets you on fire? What line have you underlined or scribbled somewhere in hopes you wouldn’t forget it? It’s hard to choose just one favorite passage, but I’d love to hear one that rings true for you right now. Pass it on and share it with the rest of us.

You are welcome to leave a comment here, or if you are reading from your phone, click on over to Facebook and leave one there if that’s easier. (This post is pinned at the top.) This Friday, the 25th, I’ll number the comments, let a number generator choose the winner, and then check in with the winner to ship your goodies!

Sharing words is my very favorite thing to do, and I can’t wait to see what bits of wisdom you scatter here. I’ll go first with a passage that has guided me immeasurably in the past year and continues to do so when I read it again and again.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

So many times in recent months I have repeated live the questions now again and again in my head, and it still amazes me that words written in 1929 by someone I will never meet can do what they do in my own life. Pretty incredible, isn’t it?

So now it’s your turn. Tell us below or over on Facebook. What words shine like a light for you? I’ll choose a winner on Friday.

Happy birthday, little blog.

a line between this and that

I’ve finished Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things this weekend after beginning it over the holiday break. I flipped the last few pages last night, long after I should have been asleep. I was sad to finish it. Don’t you love it when that happens with a book? I was sad to turn the last page and put it away, but I will return to this one again and again.

There are numerous letters and stories and quotable paragraphs in it. It is impossible to choose only one to hold as a favorite.

I think the thing that pierces me so deeply about this book is her belief and her many examples of both knowing and not knowing the things that present themselves in our lives. It’s so hard to put this into words– the surprise yet the deep-down understanding– but she manages to say what I am feeling so often these days.

These full circle moments happen in life sometimes. If we pay attention, we see them.

She explains in one letter, “There’s a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: ‘The future has an ancient heart.’ I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true—that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.”

Do you feel that sometimes? That we both know and cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives. I do. I feel it all the time, and in hindsight I have felt that in the past about my current reality.  It’s like these strangest sensations of deja vu, but not exactly. I’m not sure I’m explaining myself well tonight as it’s late and I’m tired and these moments are so hard to put into words.

It’s beyond hard to explain, but I am feeling so clearly that I’m where I’m meant to be.Where I’ve always been destined for, though it was such a painful bend in the road to make it to this spot. It’s what she describes as being “surprised and knowing at once.” And I’ve felt it enough times in my life to see the beauty in it, the wonder.

When I heaved and moaned in that bathtub and brought my squinting daughter in the world, it was the most surprising but known moment of my life at that point. The thing I didn’t think I could do, but when I did it, I realized I knew all along that it was going to happen exactly as it did in that instant. I always knew.

When I teach now in a classroom where I sat sixteen years ago – I am surprised and knowing at once. A moment I never saw coming, but somehow it feels so real and worn-in and familiar that it had to be that way.

When I lie down at night cuddled between these two and it is only the three of us, it seems. Only the three of us in the entire world. It feels like it always was that way, yet it is something I never expected – to be alone with them with no real plan as to where we are headed. Just the here and now.

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There are other moments, too. Too many or too intimate to share. Moments when life hands you such full circle perfection that it brings you this low hum of knowing underneath the surprise. A vibration that you can feel if you are still enough to notice.

I think this is what people mean when they say you are where you’re meant to be. It doesn’t always fill our ideas of what we thought we wanted, but underneath the shock or the pain or the confusion, it’s a calm surrender and a comfort. A voice that wraps us up in the smallest way to tell us we are on the right path.

In one of my favorite columns in this same book, she explains what it felt like to see her daughter wearing a dress purchased by her mother before her mother passed, one she’d saved for years in a box though she couldn’t decide why it needed saving at the time. And she says upon seeing her daughter in it, she could only think, “How beautiful. How ugly. How little. How big. How painful. How sweet” and then realizes, “It’s almost never until later that we can draw a line between this and that.”  How true that is.

I think I look calm on the surface to others, but in reality, when I look ahead, I am filled with immense anxiety. It is something I’m working on and wanting hard to change about myself. When I have a few days that are especially busy or filled with “future-oriented thinking” as my therapist likes to say, I can get a knot in my stomach that will not soften. A tremor in my hands, truly. The busy nature of day-to-day life plus the unforeseen status of what lies ahead for me (after years of what I assumed was a secure and held future) is a cocktail for mayhem on my nervous system. It is a physiological reaction I can feel when this happens, and it’s easy to get trapped in that scary and circular pattern of thinking. What now? What is next?  What now? What is next?  What now? What is next? 

But when I sit down to write, or I take a minute to think about my past and reflect on how it is intersecting with my present, I “draw the line between this and that” as Strayed says, and it brings a tangible calm to me that soothes every bit of what makes me quiver and hold fear in the pit of my stomach. It’s like a voice that says, this is not how you thought it was going to happen, but it’s how you knew it was supposed to be. It’s what I already knew.

In the closing paragraph of that same chapter she asserts,“We cannot possibly know what will manifest in our lives. We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith with that, to put it in a box and wait. To trust that someday we will know what it means, so that when the ordinary miraculous is revealed to us we will be there, standing before the baby girl in the pretty dress, grateful for the smallest things.”

The ordinary miraculous. It’s such a beautiful thing. And I see it everyday, I do– sometimes even in the biggest moments that make me catch my breath with their perfect unforeseen familiarity. But the hardest part is putting uncertainties in a box to wait. The waiting is hard.

 

 

written word

Jude has been working on phonetic sounds for quite some time, but we had a big moment last Tuesday night at our house. He read a book to Norah and me for the first time. For this English Professor mom, that is right up there with the very biggest accomplishments. It’s the beginning of so much, kiddo!  I’m excited to see where the written word will take him, the ways it will encourage him to expand and grow throughout his life.

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Books saved my life this year. Not that I would be dead without them in the literal sense, but I would be stagnant and stale – which to me is the definition of death and despair even if you are still breathing.

This week, I got Cheryl Strayed’s latest work in the mail which is actually a compilation of quotes from her previous publications and interviews. It’s easy to flip through and packaged like a handy little portable life guide –  the perfect gift for graduations and birthdays and such. I think I’ll be passing this one on a lot in the future.

In the preface to the book, she explains her lifelong affinity for quotes: they “don’t speak to one particular truth, but rather to universal truths that resonate … they lift us momentarily out of the confused and conflicted human muddle. Most of all, they tell us that we are not alone.”

If you walked in my house, you’d see how much I agree with her. Words everywhere. Scribbled on notes on my fridge. Hanging in frames on my walls. Stamped on cards in a stack on my bathroom counter. And even tattooed discreetly on my body. I find it nearly impossible to read a book without writing notes in the margins, highlighting passages, and dog-earing pages. I have books I revisit like old friends and sentences I read again and again like a meditation.

I guess in hindsight, I was bound to be an English teacher and a writer. I really can’t see myself doing anything else.

But this year, it seems as though books crossed the line from casually inspiring me to essentially serving as my life raft, something to cling to when everything else was swirling and beyond my control. They are reminders that others have done things similar to or far more difficult than what I’m doing now and that there is value in suffering — meaning to be found amidst the madness. And because of books, I feel like I am finding that meaning everyday, even as life is smoothing out for me a bit now and I’m healing.

I’ve already passed on certain pages of Strayed’s latest work to a couple of friends of mine who are encountering their own challenges right now, and I can’t help but share when I read something that I know would resonate with someone else. Nothing makes me smile more deeply than when a friend reads something and passes it along to me to say, “This made me think of you.”

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It’s simply human connection. And that’s really what it’s all about anyway, why we read and write, why we study literature. I feel as though my first task as a teacher is to teach my students to communicate effectively, but my very next task – a close second to that one – is to teach them to broaden their perspective, to glean wisdom and advice from the multitudes of people who have come before us. Billy Collins once said that all literature is about the very same thing, “Life is beautiful. Then you die.” He’s right actually. Every novel or poem or memoir touches on that very idea, but there is so much richness in that one sentiment. When we share the human experience, we see that there is unimaginable beauty and wisdom in the gray areas of life. Absolutes don’t exist.  Humans are complicated. And life is long and unpredictable and messy.

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And that’s really what reading has done for me in my past year. It’s allowed me to feel like I am simply a part of the human experience by feeling what I feel, rather than the message society often screams at us which is that you only suffer when you did something to deserve it or when you feel too much too deeply. Books reaffirm that I shouldn’t run away from feeling and questioning because feeling and questioning are the catalysts that will change your life. That is a universal truth.

Voices around us tell us that we are doing it wrong if we feel sad or lost or broken. Literature tells me that brokenness is just when I know I’m doing it right and that joy can reverberate like a bass note under all that mess.

ramblings on love and marriage

As I’m looking at the last few weeks of summer, I’m seeing that I’ve focused most of my reading efforts on non-fiction this summer. That’s a change from what I used to read, but I’ve gained a better appreciation for it in the past few years as I’ve been teaching composition classes.  In addition to that, it helps me to write better as well, I think.  And of course it encourages me beyond measure to read about someone’s life challenges and how he/she overcomes it and evolves to be better and stronger.

This week, I’ve read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed — which is part love story and part history of the institution of marriage.  I found myself underlining so many passages and nodding in agreement. I feel some guilt for saying this, and I am fully aware that it casts a shadow on my former marriage, but I was just telling some friends days ago that I know with all certainty that my life is easier now than it was a year ago. Easier.  Think about that.  I am a single mother, the only adult in the house with two children under six years old. It’s the dreaded outcome for so many, and there are things that are undoubtedly heavier – finances, the lack of security in reference to my future as I have no idea what lies ahead – but speaking strictly in terms of my day-to-day life, it is easier without a husband.

I can’t believe I just wrote that aloud here, but that’s the truth as I’m experiencing it right now.

I’ve been rolling this realization over and over in my head trying to make sense of it. I mean all relationships (and especially marriage) are work, right? So is it a bad thing that it was more work when I was with him? Do all wives feel this way and if I remarry, I just have to get used to that?  But as I’m reading this book and talking with friends about their own experiences, I’m seeing that the answer to those questions is an undoubted NO.  A relationship is work, certainly. But it should not be a constant demand for more work and effort on your part with little payoff for emotional connection and happiness. That’s the hard truth of it as I reflect on the past few years of my life.

I know many people think it doesn’t really matter if the child-rearing and domestic chores are unbalanced in a relationship, and to be honest, I didn’t used to think that mattered either. It makes it even more complicated for me because I love so many aspects of domesticity – I love to cook, I love making a home, I love tending to sick kids (well better than the alternative of having someone else tend to my sick kid).  But in hindsight, I established this pattern in my former life when I did every single one of those tasks every single day along with other things that became my” duty.”  It began with the insistence that these things were my “job” because I was choosing to quit work and stay at home with my son, but of course as a whole new person was added in the mix with a second child and then a full-time job was added as well, no responsibilities changed at all. They just grew and grew. Combine this with some very heavy work travel for the other adult in the house, and I can’t believe I made it as long as I did, frankly, and with my mental fortitude somewhat in tact.  If I am being honest here about some things I have never written about before, my mental fortitude was hanging by a thread.

My anxiety had slowly increased in the last two years of my marriage, and it would flare and subside with no easily identifiable pattern. I thought it was because I was a mom of two small children and every mother must feel that way.  I countered it with healthy approaches like meditation tracks on my podcast queue and natural supplements and unhealthy approaches like trying to control my food to an almost extreme obsession which I can even see here in my archived posts as I look back. It came to a head last fall when I ended up with a mild (as ulcers go) stomach ulcer and an almost constant quivering in my belly that made food hard to keep in for long. I was up at night unable to sleep, crying in the bathroom at 2am.   Or crying to my spouse on the phone at 7:30 am as he was states away in a hotel with the woman he’s now set to marry, and I was driving to work and looking at another string of days caring for kids alone and trying to do all the things I was expected to do.  It felt like living in a vacuum.

It ramped up so severely and so quickly that I sometimes feel like perhaps my body and intuition were warning me early last fall of what was set to explode in November, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s not that mystical, and I was just a nervous wreck.

But here’s the weird thing: I am not a nervous wreck now. Our bodies talk to us and the brain manifests itself in a physical manner often, and if you don’t respond to a whisper, the universe sends you a scream. I had whispers for years I never responded to. That’s the honest truth.

So friends and family are sometimes commenting recently –and especially back in the spring –that  they can’t believe I am doing so well in my current situation and seeming to adjust quickly, and the missing piece that answers that puzzle is that I cannot think of a single daily activity that I do now that I didn’t do before. Not one. [Emotionally I am a different story; I’ve had to paddle my way through some deep waters to start the process of figuring it all out and healing.] But in regards to the simple daily routines? It’s exactly the same. And maybe even easier because I get the occasional weekend to reboot and catch-up when my kids are gone, and I don’t have to satisfy someone else’s demands for what he wants me to be on top of the motherhood tasks and domestic lists.

I don’t want to come across as pointing fingers or blaming all of this on my former spouse either. I take full responsibility for establishing that pattern and allowing it to leave a trail of stress and emptiness behind it without seeing it as the issue it was. Writing something down always grants it power, and I’m giving that weight by saying it here. I hold myself accountable for not seeing and addressing that the little things were crushing me, and in all honesty and in hindsight, they were making me feel less valued and appreciated and increasingly disrespected in my own home. It was my job to show up for my own life and address it, and I didn’t.

But back to my original direction with this post, Gilbert’s book left me feeling validated on my feelings about the role of the little things in a household and the effect it can have on marriage and happiness. As Gilbert sadly concedes, “To get anywhere close to unraveling this subject – women and marriage – we have to start with the cold, ugly fact that marriage does not benefit women as much as it benefits men. I didn’t invent this fact, and I don’t like saying it, but it is a sad truth, backed up by study after study” (166). She then goes on to explain that married men accumulate more wealth, report themselves as happier, suffer less from depression, and even live longer than single men. Married women? The reverse is true…. They accumulate less wealth and do not thrive in their careers as much as their single counterparts, are more likely to suffer depression than single women are, and are less healthy and do not live longer than single women. All of this is supported by research and sociologists even have a name for it: The Marriage Benefit Imbalance. And if you think this research shows grim results in other god-forsaken places, but not in modern America, you are wrong.

Ladies!  Can we think about that for a minute?  Am I saying marriage is terrible and I never want to do it again? Absolutely not. But as a societal institution, even in the modern world in these modern times, it is not beneficial for us in the traditional model. And maybe you are okay with poorer health and less happiness and a greater propensity for anxiety and depression because you are blinded by love for that incredible husband and will do anything to make him happy. I am not in that position at all.

It seems as though when you are young, or when I was young anyhow, I was blinded more by youth and idealism than anything else. The thought that if you love one another, the marriage will never falter and that someone will never betray you and you will never betray yourself by getting lost in all of it. Truthfully, I think there are couples who go on like this for eternity. They are either the lucky ones or the blissfully ignorant ones – I’m not certain which way I see it yet. Or maybe they don’t exist, and these women lie in bed at night counting the ways they threw away their own fulfillment on that particular day and turned themselves inside out to make others happy. I am not talking so much about career vs children here (the debate that gets all the attention), but about true partnership and true equal ground that allows another adult to see you as you really are and value your contributions to the world and to your own household. It felt like infidelity issued some unforeseen blow on my marriage like a sledgehammer with no warning, but now as the dust settles and I look back, I see I had no partnership. Nobody to talk to everyday who saw me for what I really was and weathered the little moments with me. Much of this was circumstantial as I was the lone adult much of the time and had no one to talk to everyday about anything at all for that matter.  But circumstantial or not, it is what it is.

So where does this leave me on the prospect of marriage again? I don’t know. I know I won’t take it lightly or impulsively, and I won’t enter into a partnership with someone who does not contribute daily to all the million tiny things it takes to run a family. I guess you can never say never, but it would shock me beyond all belief if I ever embarked on a marriage again with someone who traveled regularly for work. Marriage is not the highs and the holidays; it’s the Tuesday night dinners and the Thursday morning coffee, and the million tiny moments that happen in daily life. And to be frank and hold myself accountable for the past few years, let me say without question that by that definition, I had no marriage at all.

It’s a fine line taking responsibility for your role in something yet refusing to beat yourself up about it. Should I have been clearer in my cries for help and been honest that I was drowning under the weight of someone’s expectations and feeling unseen and disrespected? Absolutely. Does that justify all the injustices done to me? Probably not. But both sides of the committed sins have illuminated lessons for me.

In Committed, Gilbert states, “To ask a twenty-year-old girl to automatically know things about life that most forty-year-old women needed decades to understand is expecting an awful lot of wisdom from very young person” (105).  Or as Maya Angelou said so famously, “When you know better, you do better.” And next time I will. Next time I will show up for my own life from the very beginning and expect someone who sees and respects me for who I am and what I do and helps me pull the weight of life because he wants to, not just because I ask it.

Some lessons take time, I think. And Gilbert alludes to this as well when she explains falling in love with her second husband and how that was different from her marriage at 25 years old. …. “It was not an infatuation and here’s how I can tell: because I did not demand that he become my Great Emancipator or my Source of All Life, nor did I immediately vanish into that man’s chest cavity like a twisted, unrecognizable, parasitical homunculus. During our long period of courtship, I remained intact with my own personality and allowed myself to meet Fellipe for who he was….To this day, I refuse to burden Fellipe with the tremendous responsibility of somehow completing me.  By this point in my life, I have figured out that he cannot complete me, even if he wanted to. I’ve faced enough of my own incompletions to recognize that they belong solely to me. Having learned this essential truth, I can now tell where I end and where someone else begins” (106).

There are so many things I am learning for sure in my current season. First is that you cannot learn and grow in the truest sense without time alone to reflect. And secondly, you cannot love someone else or even be loved in return in a way that truly fulfills you when you don’t recognize where you end and where that person begins. It’s my responsibility to see myself for what I truly am, call it what it is (even if those words are ugly like anxiety and unhappiness), and show up for myself in the truest sense.