gratitude, writing

Stretch

I’ve passed another birthday on the calendar since I last wrote here. 38 now. A year away from the 9-number which always seems heavier somehow than just flipping the official page to the next decade.

I started this blog when I was just celebrating 29. I divorced at 33. I have shed at least a thousand skins in this span of time. To me, that is the strangest thing about aging (so far) — that you just keep becoming these new versions of yourself, refining and evolving all the time. We really have no clue what we will become in another ten years, if we are doing it right.

I felt such a shift this year, though not much changed on the outside. It’s ironic how some years work like that. Things can change on the outside in huge ways and you pass your birthday and feel mostly the same. Or years like this come along where things look mostly the same from the outside view, but I’ve evolved more inside than I have in quite a while — an enormous shift beneath my skin, like pieces of a puzzle moving closer to where they should be or the plates of the earth settling tightly along fault lines. I commented last weekend on my birthday that this is the year that I learned that no ship is coming to save me because I’m already on the boat. It is the closest I can come to explaining what this feels like.

I didn’t set out to be particularly brave as I turn the page to my 38th year, but that is what has happened this past few months anyhow. As the year closed, I finally felt ready to send my book proposal out to literary agents, and that process continues now. In January, I submitted some other writing to a few publications that are a tier above what I have aspired to before. I applied for a couple of summer workshops which is a terrifying concept if I think too much about it — to travel alone to a place where I know no one and sit in a room with writers and instructors and revise my own work according to their observations. But I just took a leap and decided to lean in to something scary. Acceptance rates are low, and it is extraordinarily competitive, but I figured why not. This weekend I’ve worked a little on a submission to a new (to me) academic conference as well. I’m just casting a large, wide net out to the edge of what I’m comfortable with, stepping out on a limb a little farther than I usually do. And now I guess I just wait to see what sticks, see where it all lands me.

This theme is following me everywhere — courage and risk. I’m taking an online course with a group of women, and last week’s focus was on courage and fear. I attended a work event on Friday, our annual Women’s Leadership Colloquium, and heard an author and business expert speak about the behaviors that transform careers and create leaders, and as expected, a willingness to take a risk was the thread that ran through much of the data she presented. The event closed with a chamber choir singing an arrangement of that Eleanor Roosevelt passage where she tells us, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I think the thing you think you cannot do looks different for every one of us. And it has looked different for me at different chapters in my life. I can think back to all the moments in my life that rise to the top for me because of their joy or their ecstasy or their beauty or their strength or their reward or just the amazement of it all. Most of them occurred as I did the thing that I thought I couldn’t do. When I pulled my daughter to my own chest in the dimly lit water of a hospital tub instead of a bright operating room. When I went back to work with two toddlers at home and wondered if my brain had shriveled too much to work in academics any longer. When I left a marriage behind, a relationship of 15 years, without any plan or idea of what was ahead for me. When I swallowed my own sorrow long enough to sit with my grandmother in her last weeks and watch with real eyes what was unfolding as she transitioned. And little moments too, the smallest things that can bring the biggest shifts — the conversations I have mustered the courage to have, the essays I have mustered the courage to write and submit.

Spring is here finally. The window is open behind me as I’m typing this, and I can hear neighborhood kids on the trampoline next door. My own two will walk in the door in one more hour, and my quiet house will be noisy again. Every night, the sun is hanging on for just a little longer before setting, and summer is on its way eventually. I am ready to shed another layer — that hardest one perhaps. That one that hangs on longer than you’d like, the fear and trepidation. I want to stretch as far as I can reach, and then stretch a little more, just beyond what is comfortable and one step closer to the horizon beyond what I can imagine. I want to stretch everyday, relentlessly, just one inch at a time, until my span is wider than ever.

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single parenthood

it will write itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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