gratitude, single parenthood

ordinary time

Friday was weirdly cold and rainy — for a May afternoon in Georgia anyway. I attended the university’s graduation ceremony as I always do, but it felt out of place and so strange as I piled on my academic regalia and walked across campus in a cold drizzle. We usually have spring graduation on the front lawn in the sunshine, but it was moved indoors.

I drove home in the rain listening to an episode of On Being that I heard years ago and remembered well, but it was replayed this week, and I couldn’t help but listen again. (It’s no secret I love this show – likely my favorite podcast. I highly suggest subscribing if you don’t already.) Krista Tippet interviews poet Marie Howe, and I can distinctly remember listening to this in something like 2014 when it first aired. I was folding laundry in my son’s room in a house I no longer live in, and I remember dragging the phone with me from room to room to continue listening as I put away everyone’s clothes. It’s always such an interesting experience to listen to music or read a book or see a movie years after you originally did. We hear things differently as we evolve to become different people, I think.  Much of what Howe discusses in the interview relates to her weeks spent with her younger brother in his final days, and that was before I’d had a mirror of that experience with my own grandmother. There are things I hear differently in that interview now.

In the episode, she talks a lot about ordinary time, as she calls it. The moments that are nothing special and easily missed but are also the key to unlocking happiness. She reads her short poem “The Gate” (link here if you want to see her read her own work) where she says, “I had no idea that the gate I would step through to finally enter this world would be the space my brother’s body made.” It’s strange, isn’t it? The gates we step through to finally enter are never the ones we expect. I was thinking about this as the graduates walked to proudly receive diplomas Friday night, that these big moments – graduations and weddings and new jobs and big moves – these are always the ones we assume will most shape us, but it rarely works out that way. It’s the ordinary time that does it. And sometimes the heartbreak, too.

Tippet also asks her in the interview about the process of using writing to break open instead of closed, and I hear echoes of my own story and what I’ve learned through writing in this space. Howe says, “I mean, things are going to happen all the time. The unendurable happens. People we love and we can’t live without are going to die. We’re going to die. … Art holds that knowledge. All art holds the knowledge that we’re both living and dying at the same time. It can hold it. And thank God it can because nothing out in the capitalistic corporate world is going to shine that back to us, but art holds it.” And how true that is, right? I feel like all I ever hear around me is messages of permanence. That what we buy or hold right now matters and will matter forever. Art is the only thing that reflects the impermanence of our everyday lives – which is a thought a lot of people don’t want to let in. It makes you begin to question the race we all run and what it’s really for. The long hours to make the money to buy the things that you don’t have time to enjoy because you are working more to buy more. Nothing about that scenario admits that we are all living and dying at the same time.

She goes on to talk about the connection that happens with writing, saying “So I think that we join each other. It’s easier. We’re not alone. And I feel like that’s the only answer. Otherwise, we’d just think it’s only happening to us. And that’s a terrible and untrue way to live our lives. And I think art constantly mirrors that to us, whether you’re reading Thomas Hardy, or Doris Lessing, or Virginia Woolf, or Emily Dickinson, it’s just holding the human stories up to us, and we don’t feel alone. It’s so miraculous.

I’ve seen that miracle in this space, and I am so grateful for it. For every comment or email that says I get it; me, too. Thank you, thank you. Sharing our stories in all their raw honesty is really where it’s at.

Listening to this interview again almost three years after I initially did makes me grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. I know last summer, hard though it was for me, illuminated things I can never un-see. But also this time I’m in — this liminal space as theologians call it, this in-between where I don’t know with any certainty what is next and I don’t owe anyone anything — it forces me to see the this that Howe refers to. This moment, whatever it may be, is what I’ve been waiting for.

The kids were away this weekend, and though I was tired and it was cold and rainy on Friday, sunshine showed up on Saturday, and I decided to take advantage of it and head a few minutes north to spend some idle afternoon hours at a nearby winery.

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Dating when you have kids is weird and hard. There is a lot I could say about that and likely one day will, but I will say that when you are in it, you just do the best you can. I tend to forget the perfection that exists in simple quiet hours where you do nothing but eat and drink and talk and pay attention. What I value now isn’t the same it once was. Just be honest and true and make me laugh and listen.  And be willing to throw a blanket and a picnic basket in the car and spend a few hours with me doing nothing at all.

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I noticed things on the drive up that I usually don’t as I got to show him the landscape I love so much that has shaped my life. And this whole experience with him has worked that way in me as well. I’m seeing things in my own self that I never noticed were there or things that I had forgotten in the layers of all the other stuff that structures my days. There are so many pieces of my life that are deeply rooted – job and house and kids and immovable pieces of who I am. But I can feel myself bending here and there to notice what I haven’t before or to see things from a different angle, to stretch just a little beyond what I would normally do.  And there it is again – that same command I hear from every yoga instructor – stretch just beyond where you normally would and rest there; don’t force it or rush it. Let it be.

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I’m still in that liminal space and have no indication of what the future holds, but I’m learning this is where the gold is anyhow. No demands or expectations. Just being grateful our paths crossed as they have and taking what is offered to us on a sunny afternoon in May. Being grateful for what is here and not questioning the rest.

Mary Oliver tells us, “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely of attentiveness.” Who knew how perfectly imperfect it all can be when you push aside every demand and just slow down and pay attention.

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single parenthood

on the other side of where I came from

Life is finding a predictable rhythm with fewer surprises lately, it seems. I’m grateful for it. Atlanta weather is confused about the February calendar, and it feels like spring. The flowering trees have busted wide open a month early, and there are tulips springing up beside the sidewalk as I walk across campus to class this week. We’ll have another chill in a month or so – as we always do before Easter. But for now, newness is here, ready or not. It always feels good to see the seasons change and usher in something new.

The kids had a little break from school with an extended weekend, so I got some extra time to myself. I caught up with a friend Sunday afternoon, worked late on Monday, and carried my coffee back to bed with me yesterday morning in my last few hours before kids arrived back home. I’ve all but abandoned my usual cornerstones of sanity lately – the little things that ground me – like quiet mornings alone and writing and reading and podcasts. But I am making an effort to get back at it as the seasons change. I caught the latest episode of On Being as I drove to meet my friend on Sunday, and it won’t stop tumbling in my head.

Krista Tippet interviews Alain de Botton, the writer most well known for “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person” which was the most widely shared and read piece from the New York Times in all of 2016. The On Being episode features an hour-long conversation with him about life and love and the difficulties of being human.

I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships lately and choices and companionship and all of the things that go along with it. In so many ways, I am not the romantic I once was – or at least not as naive. But I think a strength lies in my realism in a way that I couldn’t exactly understand or articulate until I heard the conversation with Botton. He tells Tippet, “In a way, there’s a lot of mundanity in relationships. And one of the things that romanticism does is to teach us that the great love stories should be above the mundane. So in none of the great, say, 19th-century novels about love does anyone ever do the laundry, does anyone ever pick up the crumbs from the kitchen table, does anyone ever clean the bathroom. It just doesn’t happen because it’s assumed that what makes or breaks love are just feelings, passionate emotions, not the kind of day to day wear and tear.” That day to day wear and tear is no joke, is it? And it seems both liberating and depressing to realize that mundane and tiring details are often what makes and breaks love, not just feelings.

I’ve been teaching Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing this last few weeks in a composition class, and I’ve had a lot of conversations on these ideas with my students as well.  What is love and what is marriage and what is the difference between those two things? What does Shakespeare tell us about those topics, and is his view restricted to Elizabethan England or is it timeless? I think as much as we like to laugh at his comedies of crazy fictional characters flying from one idea to another as a result of feelings, so many people in the modern world are not all that different.

I’m seeing someone a bit these days, and it is a hard topic to write about. (I mean what a brave soul he must be, right? What scarier topic can exist on a first date than your side job as a blogger and a writer?) But it is also a hard topic not to write about as I share nearly everything else on this journal, and it feels weird to hide it among other words here when I know what is between the lines.

For now, I will say that it is good and it is simple and lucky, and it just feels like a rest for a while after such a long season of no rest at all. For once, I am not thinking much about the past or the future. We owe each other nothing except attention in any particular moment we are together, and for now, that is more than enough. My past few years have brought experience after experience that softened and opened my perspective in ways I never expected, and I can see already that this is much the same – regardless of where it lands.

It’s funny how relationships begin, isn’t it? (And I don’t mean only romantic ones but friendships as well.) We put our best foot forward, that face that perhaps only the bank teller or the coworker sees. We smile and talk and share carefully chosen pieces and act as though we have it all together, but the cracks make their way out eventually. I am less inclined to hide them now that I am on the other side of where I came from. It gets easier to let your real self be seen as you grow older. Or perhaps I am just tired and left without the energy to conceal the mess.

Alain de Botton mentions this in the interview as well: “Look, one of the first important truths is, you’re crazy. … all of us are deeply damaged people. The great enemy of love, good relationships, good friendships, is self-righteousness. If we start by accepting that of course we’re only just holding it together, and in many ways, really quite challenging people — I think if somebody thinks that they’re easy to live with, they’re by definition going to be pretty hard and don’t have much of an understanding of themselves. I think there’s a certain wisdom that begins by knowing that of course you, like everyone else, are pretty difficult.” 

I am difficult. Like anyone else, I am not easy to live with. I tire easily, and I crave time alone. I thrive on routine that probably drives others insane. I sometimes leave cabinet doors open, and I can be messy about the things I don’t care about and ridiculously picky about the things I do. I have lots of opinions, and sometimes I make judgments quickly. My kids are wild at times, and we have grown so used to life with just the three of us that I often wonder how I will ever fit anyone else into this shape we’ve come to know as home.

But as it turns out, I think I learned a lot about relationships by living through a very long and difficult one and watching it all dissolve. And in all the twists and turns of children and family in this past two years, I have learned even more. Love is love most clearly in the confines of a family. Botton expands on that best when he explains, “Families are at this kind of test bed of love because we can’t entirely quit them. And this is what makes families so fascinating because you’re thrown together with a group of people who you would never pick if you could simply pick on the grounds of compatibility. Compatibility is an achievement of love. It shouldn’t be the precondition of love as we nowadays, in a slightly spoiled way, imagine it must be.”

That last line blows my mind with all of my 21st century expectations. Compatibility is an achievement of love, not its precondition. I think what happens when you spend so much time alone and you grow and stretch and expand so much by sitting with the discomfort is that you eventually realize that self love is the best love and that the only person perfectly compatible with me is me. There is no perfect soul out there waiting to save me or complete me because I am already whole. But connection is still the best thing I can offer and the best thing I can receive.

The details of it all are just messy, aren’t they? You fumble and move along as best you can, and sometimes you are surprised with these most beautiful moments of connection and the simplest seconds of happiness without motive or reason. But underneath it all, there is still you. Still me. Same as I ever was, but flawed and true and real.

 

 

 

divorce

the truest pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

divorce, single parenthood

some thoughts on dating

I’ve hesitated to write a post on this because it is such a complicated issue and because I feel like my comments here are usually centered on my own perspective (as memoir always is) and not others’ actions, and it is incredibly hard to discuss this topic in specific without reflecting on others.

But it’s such a central issue to everyone’s questions, and I occasionally get an email from a reader who is encountering a new chapter of unattachment and wondering what my thoughts are on dating. It’s a central issue to my own path right now, so I decided to finally type a few words on the screen — though I don’t know where this will end.

I’ll begin by asserting that I think everyone’s path to healing is different. I have met divorced women who dated every single weekend that they were away from their kids. I’ve met divorced women (and men as well) who didn’t leave their house much at all the first year and elected to hardly speak to the opposite sex for quite a while. I hold no judgment for either of those approaches. I will say, based on my personal experience and the advice of every therapist and book on the planet, that I think an actual committed and serious relationship is highly complicated and dangerous territory as you deal with the wreckage of what is left in that first year or so. But whether you choose to casually date or not? That scenario is entirely up to the person herself and what she feels brings the most healing in that moment.

Some people have flat out asked me if I’m dating yet (the best approach). Some have just asked others if I am, and then that gets back to me. Some have encouraged me to date and others have completely assumed that of course I wouldn’t go on a date “this soon” and that the idea itself is preposterous.

The answer to all of these questions is somewhat complicated. I know enough about myself to know that if I went a substantial length of time without going on a date, I could lock myself in a pattern of fear and inhibition. That is not the case with everyone, but it is with me. I’m shy, always have been. I am introverted at first meeting someone. And of course, I emerged from a situation where I’d spent 15 years with the same person, and a sudden betrayal ended it.  And, to be honest, for a while it abruptly ended my faith in men in general. (I’m still working on that one.) Combine all of these factors – personality and history – and I could easily become a homebody who reads and writes and knits and has a rich inner life but feels scared to connect and share that with anyone else. I think that type of life has its place and brings a certain kind of comfort and happiness, but as humans, we are wired to have connection with others.

I made a promise to myself last February that if someone asked me out, I’d say yes. Simply because I knew that this year would be stretching and growing, and I knew that dating again after 15 years in a relationship is an incredibly frightening thing. You only grow when you do scary things. I wish it was different, but sadly, that’s the way it is.

Truthfully, the act of sitting across a table from someone I do not know well and answering his million questions about me as we eat is pretty much the definition of the scariest thing I can do. But I am getting braver, and I’m figuring things out little-by-little.

A single friend of mine suggested I join a popular dating app to “boost my confidence” and “see what’s out there.” (You know the one with 12 million users.) That experience alone could be a post itself because it was eye-opening and hilarious, and while I don’t think it has restored my faith in men (not at all) and it was a short-lived experience, it has shown me that I am emerging quite well on my own, and there is a wide world of possibilities beyond the horizon.

So anyway, fast forward a few weeks, and word leaked out that I had a profile there. I was pretty shocked to receive written messages from someone from my former life insisting that I must be “screwing random people” and that I have a “big internet sign saying open for business” and please “don’t put yourself on Craig’s List, ok?”

I’ve been a feminist for all of my adult life, but for anyone who needs a quick refresher, I want to talk about something for a minute.

 

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The glory of slut shaming, if you are not familiar with that term from Gender Studies courses or modern culture, is that you don’t even have to actually be having the sexual relationships to be chastised; you just have to behave in a way that makes someone assume you are.

And those assumptions can come from lots of things: being attractive, being secretive (aka private) about your dating life, actually going on dates with someone when he asks, showing any remote interest in the opposite sex, not abiding my cultural norms on age and marriage, and apparently even having a profile on a dating site with more than 12 million other people.

What’s interesting to note is that these rules don’t apply to men.

When men divorce, they are expected to date immediately, I’ve noticed. Friends set them up; their own mothers encourage them to find a suitable girl as quickly as possible. And most interestingly, if nothing is said or revealed, people assume that they must be dating. And are completely okay with that.

The rules are different for us, I’m finding. Can you imagine a single man encountering judgment that he is wearing a huge internet sign that says “open for business” if he has an online dating profile? Me either. Because it doesn’t happen. That phrase alone is a reference to prostitution which is one of the oldest insults in the book used to shame women for assumed sexual relationships – real or imagined.

My past year has changed me in a million ways.  One of these ways is that I’m painfully aware of the many times in my own past that I’ve listened to someone shame a woman for presumed romantic interests when the speaker likely knows nothing of the woman’s situation at all.

So here’s a quick list of questions I ask myself before I open my mouth to comment on someone’s dating life… Is she currently in a committed relationship so that her romantic actions are secretive and could hurt someone else? …. Is she involved with a man who appears to be controlling, demoralizing, or bad for her? … Are her actions hurting herself or someone else?  …. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, and you are friends with the woman, by all means, open the conversation with her. If the answers are no, shut your mouth. Her private life is none of your business. Period.

There are a thousand things to worry about as a single mom in the 21st century. We think about our kids and how they weigh in on the already-hefty equation. We are more mindful of safety and personal agency than ever before. And as women, we are finally simply expecting to receive the respect we deserve. So if I’m conversing with someone new, I’m turning so many things around in my own mind to see how it feels with me. Which is the point, you know. How does this person make me feel? How does he appear to treat others? How does it all sit with my own soul and my own sensibilities? The last thing that we should be adding to that list is the expectation that women abide by some arbitrary rules that men are not expected to adhere to.  If it insults your soul, dismiss it. If you want to spend time with someone, do. If you don’t enjoy it, decline his invitation. That’s all that really matters in that moment.

I’ve always claimed the label of feminist, but I think it’s only recently that it is being made real in my personal life. I’ve spent my last decade walking exactly in line with the expectation of society. I was married and mothering small children and doing all of the things expected for me during my late twenties and early thirties. It’s when we step out of the cultural norm that our ideas of feminism are tested. And sadly, I’m finding that it’s also when the misguided patriarchal judgment comes out from both men and women. When you don’t follow that path expected of you, people simply don’t know what to do with you. And sometimes they deal with that confusion by revealing completely unfair and ridiculous judgment.

My friend Elizabeth and I email often, and last winter, she wrote to me, (and I’ve quoted this before when I wrote about Imposter Syndrome) “Breaking out of the molds others have made for us or the narrow minds of loved ones we once trusted is extraordinarily painful – and so necessary in order to become your best self.” I’m feeling this now as I move forward to uncharted waters, and I will feel it for many years to come, I think. Once you see things through that lens, you can’t un-see it.

I think those narrow minds and constricting molds often come from a place of fear or inexperience. Mohadesa Najumi is a British-Afghan writer whose words are hanging on my bathroom wall: “The woman who does not require validation from anyone is the most feared individual on the planet.” Seeing rude comments or judgment as springing from a place of fear and ignorance softens my response to it and certainly lessens the blow – which is helpful. Because truth be told, it is hard to shake these ideas from our own minds as women. It is hard to unlearn what you have spent decades absorbing. It is hard to see yourself through your own eyes without acquiring the filter of someone else.

So you see what’s happened here? I’ve started writing without knowing where it will end, and I have ended in the exact same place I always do.

It is my still, small voice that matters. It is my body I am living in. It is my ship I’m steering. And though it is scary at times and it’s hard to drown any voices that shout behind me, it’s a beautiful place to be. This in-between space. This moment where I don’t owe anyone anything and I answer only to my own calling.