Books, gratitude

It feels good to feel.

Last Sunday we hiked with the Boy Scouts. It was drizzly and foggy and 40 degrees and definitely not a day I would have left the house if I didn’t have a reason I had to. But we’d committed, so I packed the backpack with snacks and water bottles and extra scarves, and we set off – the three of us and the other three families who were there. Up the mountain, one foot in front of the other. The weekend before I’d hiked this same spot alone when it was 60 and gloriously sunny. (Thanks, Georgia winter.) And that day, my head was running all sorts of meandering directions which is a welcome moment sometimes, but this day, in the damp cold, it was hard to think of much else. Only the task in front of you gets your attention when it requires some physical discomfort it seems.

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We reached the top, and the boys completed a little lesson on pitching a tent and tying knots, and Norah and I found a large rock to perch on for a while. The view behind us usually stretches for miles, but it was all fog. When they were done, we walked down the mountain the same way we’d gone up – one step at a time. Then we got home, both kids laid under blankets on the couch for a while, and lentils simmered in the slow cooker. It feels good to feel something. Even when it is cold or some discomfort or some physical exertion. It feels good to feel.

Mary Oliver died yesterday. My writer-friend texted me while I was standing in line for our annual MLK convocation. I was in academic regalia and huddled in the hallway with other English professors, and then we all filed in the century-old auditorium where the university’s gospel choir met us as we walked in to take our seats. The rousing piano and the raised voices and the row of us in black. It felt like my own little funeral for her. There are memorable moments in each life that etch their shape on your mind forever, and this is one for me. Decades from now, I will say, I know where I was when I found out Mary Oliver died. And I will think of a gospel choir singing “Break the Chains.”

I think I have quoted her here probably more than any other writer. I’ve been reading so many online tributes, all of them beautiful, and one mentioned that she was always purposely ignored by a few high-profile literary critics because her work was so easily accessible. But I know that was with purpose, and I think this was one of the million things she taught me – that simple is perfect and that simplicity can stab you right in the gut where you need to feel it. Why embellish when what is here and real and simple is what pulses anyhow?

She taught me to, as she says, let the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to float a little above this difficult world, and to keep some room in my heart for the unimaginable.

I was flipping through one of my volumes of her work last night before bed, and Jude asked me what I was reading. I explained who she was and that she’d passed that day and that I just wanted to read a few lines to make me feel better. He asked to choose one to read, so I left him alone for a while with it and came back to his insistence that we read Alligator Poem. I read it aloud for us and he asked for another, so I flipped to that old favorite Wild Geese.  Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination.

I bought tickets months ago to the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Mirrors exhibit here in Atlanta. I’m lucky that my university has a partnership with the High Museum, and we had the place to ourselves for two hours. We could bring ourselves and one guest, and I chose Jude as a treat for him and a rare day just the two of us. I emailed his teacher to explain why he was missing school and she agreed yes! go! It has been nearly impossible to get tickets in Atlanta, and the lines are typically long. I’m grateful for what feels like outrageous abundance allowing us to do this. It was an incredible morning.

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Art touches that place that you cannot get to any other way. And I know this is a very cliché English teacher thing to insist, but the older I get, the more I see that there really isn’t much else that matters. That place, that indescribable space that is both tangible and weightless. People spend their whole lives trying to fill it, and it really is the simplest things that can occupy that hole. We all crave it. It feels good to feel something.

What I feel lately – despite the state of our national affairs and the weather and the early darkness and the weariness that bubbles up in my everyday life and the huge unknown territory in my future – is something like hope. I feel it fluttering in my chest when the gospel choir sings that repeated refrain of I hear the chains falling. I feel it when I read her line, for the millionth time in my dog-eared copy, asking me Do you love this world? Do you cherish your humble and silky life? And I felt it standing in the mirrored room with my favorite boy watching infinite twinkling lights. Beauty can propel me anywhere. It can float me on from here to there.

Mary Oliver’s gift was writing single lines that can slay you. But I want to share some full verses from her work “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” before I sign off tonight. She composed it years ago when she faced a cancer scare, and it speaks for itself in one massive breath that I cannot embellish or admire or talk about except to distract from it.

Thank you, Mary. For the words and the spaces between them. For teaching me how to pay attention.

______________________________________

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you’re in it all the same.

so why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it’s happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the heat,
all the fragile blue flowers in bloom
in the shrubs in the yard next door had
tumbled from the shrubs and lay
wrinkled and fading in the grass. But
this morning the shrubs were full of
the blue flowers again. There wasn’t
a single one on the grass. How, I
wondered, did they roll back up to
the branches, that fiercely wanting,
as we all do, just a little more of
life?

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Books, gratitude

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.

 

 

 

 

 

gratitude

engine

I can hardly believe there are three days left in October as I type this. Another year almost come and gone.

I mentioned this on my Instagram feed a few days ago, but I had a biopsy last week. It was a situation that began in August when I had my baseline mammogram, and it led to a second scan, and then my insistence on a second opinion when the first practice claimed I needed a biopsy. I am relatively young and have no strong family history of breast cancer, so I was hesitant to do it. But then eventually I agreed when the second specialist explained that the way it was clustered on the mammogram image did, in fact, need to be checked.

So on Friday the 19th (my grandmother’s birthday incidentally) I drove to Atlanta for the procedure, and it was honestly a little more than I’d bargained for. This wasn’t a lump I could feel; instead it was a spot deep enough that it required a sterotactic biopsy which just means that they do it while being guided by a mammogram machine. Like anyone else, I have had so much going on in the regular business of my everyday life. So I realized when I finally laid face down on the table that they elevate to access your breast and do the procedure that I honestly hadn’t really processed any of what that meant – the big stuff anyway. It was just an item on my to-do list until I laid still for 90 minutes for it to happen and that is when I finally let my head go to the what if question that this whole thing prompted.

The tech was an angel, an absolute angel. She grabbed my hand like a old friend when the needle made its way in and told me to squeeze. They like to stop the bleeding before you leave the room so that you don’t have risk of infection at the site later, and as I finally sat up, she stood there holding compression on my bare breast for another 20 minutes until it stopped bleeding so much. Then she cleaned me up and bandaged me with an ice pack and gave me a hug to send me home. As I sat there shirtless in the cold and sterile room and she cleaned me up, I remembered why it feels so ceremonial to clean someone else’s body. All the times this has happened before. In religious texts, when we read of washing someone’s feet, that first bath with a baby when they are still covered in blood from their entrance, the memories of bathing my grandmother in those last days when she couldn’t do it herself. These shells we live in. Both sacred and mundane.

In the days that followed, the initial soreness wore off, and on Wednesday the doctor called to say that magic word benign, which I knew was the statistically probable answer, but exhaled deeply nonetheless. What if, what if, what if is a scary game to play for any one of us.

And for me, if I am being honest, the physical vulnerability highlighted the fact that I am the only adult in this house. My working body is the engine that keeps this train moving, and never for a second had I thought about the possibility that it might not until last week. As is always the case with the moments that shift our perspective in life, this was so many things rolled into one. Fear and courage. Pain and relief. Dissatisfaction followed by gratitude. And the heavy realization that in ways I am very, very alone. But also in ways I am supported beyond what I realize. The friends and family who volunteered to go with me to the procedure itself and even the way that the universe delivered a stranger who treated me like a sacred friend for the hours we crossed paths.

Here is the weird thing I am learning about life: we are never alone, but also at the end of the day, we are all alone, every one of us. These big questions can never be resolved by anyone other than the one you see in the mirror.

I have a lot of catching up to do this weekend — uninspiring things like laundry and grocery shopping and cleaning the bathtubs and grading papers. But I have also spent time recuperating under blankets with soup and hot tea and some television last night. I started watching Amazon’s Forever on the recommendation of a friend. I am only 4 episodes in but struck by the quiet thoughtfulness of this show. I won’t ruin it for you with too many details, but I will say that Fred Armisen plays the most perfect husband who is always cheerful and serves his wife dinner each and every night, and they exist in a house where everything is in its place at all times. Their lives are easy and predictable. And yet there is this moment where you see Maya Rudolph’s face as he serves his perfect dinner in their perfectly clean home, and there is such boredom, such misery. It delivers those lessons that only a paradox can teach you, the ones that echo inside you for a while after you quit watching.

It is only ever the scary and the risk and the unforeseen and the unknown that makes it worth any of our time, isn’t it? Tomorrow could change everything for me — for the better or for the worse. And that idea is terrifying but also electrifying. I have no idea what lies around the bend, but I know that my life has given me a spine of steel and the softest heart, and I think those two things can withstand anything.

I picked up Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest poetry collection a few weeks ago, and my favorite poem in the book concludes with her assertion that, “We’re so anxious but deep down, in the heart place of time, our lives are resonant, rolling. They’re just waiting for us to remember them. We are here, so deeply here, and then we won’t be. And that is the most unbelievable thing of all.”

It is unbelievable, isn’t it? That we are not here forever, that every single one of us has an expiration date. That we have no idea what tomorrow will bring. That we are never alone but also we are the only ones who can do it. I am so glad, always but especially this week, that this very particular life is mine. I would not trade any piece of it for anyone else’s. This body is mine, and the engine is still rolling onward to something I cannot see.

gratitude, Life and Randomness, single parenthood

sacred

We are almost to the end of August, my least favorite month. Routines are not quite established yet, and it all feels new. Once we are in the swing of things, it makes me feel a little more firmly held. But not yet.

Yesterday’s schedule had us leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and walking back in the door at 7:20pm, a routine that will feel normal in a few more weeks, but last night I went to bed depleted and frazzled. These years and their packed lunch boxes and homework checks and ballet tights and sports practices. It’s no wonder older parents swear to me that it flies so quickly.  The rhythm of my academic life mirrors my kids’ seasons as my work schedule gains speed right when theirs does. Most weeks race like a mad dash to the finish line.

School year routines can feel good and firm and safe though – once I get used to them again. But they can also feel overwhelming. I was drowning in work tasks this last few days, unsure if I could finish things in time, and the frantic brain wasn’t helping. All of my mental browsers open at the same time, like a desk full of scribbled post-its. Yesterday morning I vowed to take a long look at my list, choose what was most important (not necessarily most urgent), and do only one thing at a time. Suddenly instead of spinning my wheels, I was checking things off my list. Multi-tasking never works as well as we think it does.

Urgency and priority are not the same thing.

The hard part about this time of year – and perhaps about parenting or even existing as a human in the modern world at all – is that it is actually up to me and only me to name the priorities in my life and to hold them sacred. No one is going to help me with that. And even worse, what the world demands of me, what is screaming loudest for my attention, is hardly ever what I truly value most. It is not easy holding those things firmly in their place at the front of my life.

I heard an interview with Wintley Phipps on the way to work this morning, and he talked about partnership and character. He said something like if you ask someone what they hold sacred and they cannot name a single thing, that person is not someone you want to be with. It’s a concept that made me stop and think and replay it in my head and then toss the word sacred in my brain and heart all day long. Sacred, holy, set apart, inviolable, unassailable, cherished, revered. (the synonym game)

He was speaking specifically about marriage and partnership, and it spoke right to me and gave voice to something I’ve thought a lot about in the last year or so and didn’t quite have words for yet. But apart from relationships, it also made me think about my own self and what I hold sacred.  What is revered most and what feels holy in my own life.

Sacred to me is never what screams the loudest for attention. It is early quiet mornings when it is still dark outside and my kids are sleeping, and I am stumbling through the kitchen to feed the dog and brew coffee. It is time with only the three of us. It is the ways they share the tiniest pieces of their days just before their eyes get heavy, just after I have turned off the lamp beside them. Sometimes sacred is something simple like a lunch at my desk with my office door closed to students, or early evening light through the kitchen window while I stir something on the stove. Sacred is laughing at something one of the kids said that I wasn’t expecting to hear. It is a handwritten card or a quick note from someone. The sound of a voice on the telephone line in the age of too many text messages. It is typing words on a screen and printing them on a page to edit with a favorite pen. It’s reading a book in the late lamplight before I go to sleep.

I am not always a pessimist about the modern world – usually quite the opposite actually. But this is one area where we are not winning at all. The very things that hold most of us together don’t happen unless we claim them and notice them. And somehow that gets harder to do with every passing year and the hurried pace we all measure ourselves against.

Perhaps my resolution for the academic year ahead is just to see things through this lens. To ask myself the right question everyday – Is this important or it this just urgent? To seek the sacred and recognize it for what it is and demand space for it everyday. I once heard boundaries described like the careful hand we place around the tiny flame on a birthday candle as the voices sing and we prepare the cake for its moment on the table. That tiny burning flame that needs a shield from the space around it in order to survive. It’s up to me to name what’s holy and to shield it from all the rest.

gratitude

the long, infinite echo

The kids are away on spring break until tomorrow afternoon, so I’ve spent the last two days getting my own self ready for work in the quiet of early mornings and coming home to that same quiet after my evening commute. It is a weird feeling. I know I’d hate it if this was my norm, but it’s a good three-day break from the usual chaos that mornings can bring when they are heading to school.

I’ve spent a good bit of the past few days enjoying my house in a way that I forget to sometimes. Home is important. This week marks three full years in this space, and I love it more everyday.

I also caught a documentary on Netflix that I can’t recommend enough — InnSaei, a film about intuition and ways the modern word has lost it. (The trailer is here if you’d like to see it.) I keep turning it over in my mind, and I already want to watch it again to hear it a second time around.

You don’t have to work hard to convince me that intuition exists in a very real way or that it’s something valuable, but this film explores it from so many different angles – including the ways that science can measure it and the ways that we can cultivate it. One thing was certain across all of the resources and all of the interviews and all of the conversation about intuition – that it only shows up in the quiet.

I’m working on this, on letting the quiet settle in the space around me without looking for a distraction. It is hard though. It is against the grain of the world we live in. But it never ceases to talk to me a bit when I let it grow and expand in spaces in my life. Sometimes you know things and you don’t even know why you know them. Do you feel that way? I can hardly count the times in my life when I knew something and later saw such a clear line between this and that. I’m getting better at feeling it in the present moment now and not just the rear view mirror.

Saturday I went for a hike alone, and when I got home I repotted a plant my mom had picked up for me a few days prior. Since that weekend was followed by a few mornings of slow silence, somehow I feel more centered than I have in a while — even though work is crazy and there are a million things to do — somehow all of the spinning plates are moving a little more slowly. I heard someone say once that people always say I don’t know what to do about a given situation, but the thing is that you do know. You always know if you are quiet enough to listen.

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I am sifting through the pieces of what 2018 has brought me already and listening hard for what they have to tell me. I hear nothing at all in the midst of everyday noise, and I think nothing has changed or I am just treading water or I am not where I should be. But the minute I take a day or two to shut it all down and let the silence swell a bit and sit with it, I hear it. I always know what to do, always know where I am. The term Innsaei apparently translates to the sea within as well as to see within and finally to see from the inside out. We don’t exactly have an English word equivalent, but intuition is as close as we can get.

I can remember when I was a kid, my great-grandmother had this massive seashell that she used as a door stop, and my cousins and I would always do the trick of holding it to your ear to hear the rush of the ocean. I remember it was just one long, infinite echo. Loud and quiet at the same time. No matter how long you held it to your ear, the rushing just kept speaking to you in one long hush. I swear intuition works that way, too. There is a hum there if I listen. As vast as the ocean, loud and quiet at the same time.

Hafiz tells us, “This place you are right now, God circled on a map for you.” I forget that sometimes until something small delivers that message. It’s always something tiny — the way afternoon sunlight comes around the curve near my house in the early evening hours, the feel of my hands in a pot of black dirt, the silence that punctuates bird chirps when I hike alone, the way words flow when I string one sentence together with another. This is my spot, circled on a map. That quiet rush inside always talking to me like a compass.

gratitude

in and out of time

I’ve been dreaming lately of a house where I used to live. Over and over, night after night, this house makes its way into my imagination.

Sometimes dreams seem like nothing more than leftover, jumbled images and scenes from my recent days, but when they come to me repeatedly, I cannot help but pay attention.

I never go inside of this house in the dream; I only see it from the exterior view. Once I stood in its kitchen with a crowd of people and looked out the windows into what was the backyard. But every other time – and this has been night after night for weeks now – I only see it from the outside. Something is always altered about it. The newest owners have put in a swimming pool, or reshaped the driveway, or built an addition. Last night I was perched farther away from it not even realizing I was there but glanced over to see that there it was again, this time with little yellow lights strung up all around the porch. One wild night, I rode a roller coaster through the thick woods and hills all around it. Another night, I waved to the neighbors from the yard. And in every one of these dreams, I meet it with no sadness or loss or panic or longing. Just everyday observation — sometimes fascination, and always curiosity. Familiar and unfamiliar, too.

I moved in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2013, and 2015. That 6 year stretch in the middle was spent in that house.

It was old(er) and drafty, and when we bought it, the carpet was terrible, and every wall seemed covered in patterned wallpaper from 1988. We spent the first night sleeping on a mattress on the floor and the following few years improving it bit by bit. We eventually bought furniture to fill every room and landscaped the yard which began as a massive muddy slope and ended as a shaded grassy hill. I brought two babies home there. Nothing matched, and none of our appliances were new until the dishwasher broke and we had to get another one. It was nothing special. But somehow everyone who ever crossed the threshold of that old house loved it and commented that it felt like home. In the end, they maybe loved it more than I did because I grew lonely in the old house on the hill with no nearby neighbors, and we grew tired of the constant need to fix and repair.

Life was so simple there though. In hindsight, naively so. Like Eve before she bit the apple and understood everything. It feels like a hundred lifetimes ago.

I hadn’t thought about this house at all in my years since. Until now that it revisits me night after night, dream after dream, in every way and angle you can imagine. Always somehow altered from what it was before but familiar enough that it’s recognizable to me.

I’ve been browsing dream dictionaries, reading Thomas Moore’s ideas, and thinking thinking, thinking. Turning it all over again and holding it up to the light. I’m not sure dreams have one perfect meaning and literal interpretation we are supposed to read as though it is a code giving us answers. But I think the subconscious finds a way to talk to us through our dreams when the outside noise may be too loud for us to hear it otherwise.

I was reintroduced to TS Eliot’s Four Quartets recently when I was studying something else. That line nearly knocks me over — the way forward is the way back. We always end up where we started. But we always look a little different than when we began.

I’ve bitten the apple, obviously. Things are not naively simple anymore. Everything is different. But there’s another level of ease and simplicity and truth to my life now that I don’t think I have felt since I’ve left that place. Maybe not ever.

Here we are again. Sometimes my back door is a little drafty, and nothing matches, and my appliances are not new. My dishwasher broke this month, so I finally ordered a new one. And when we walk in the door, it feels like home. Like a place to jump off from.

Perhaps this is why, in those dreams, I am not haunted or sad or grieving or knocking on that door longing to go inside. Every night, I simply see it, altered somehow, and I take a look as best I can with a little curiosity and a healthy disbelief that this thing is really real. That the simple life is here again in another form.

Later in that poem, Elliot goes on to say “For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, … 
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music.”

I think my current season of simple truth was heard so deeply that I didn’t even hear it at all – until my dreams had to show me again and again. I hear it now. I’m hearing the music and seeing this moment in and out of time. The way forward is the way back. 

 

gratitude

keep on keepin’ on

Somehow nearly three weeks sped past since I last wrote here. I am not even certain exactly what I’ve been doing that has had me so busy. Just regular life, I suppose. Wrapping gifts and prepping Christmas traditions and school parties and the everyday life that already leaves us feeling busy as it is.

The Christmas anticipation was fun, and the day itself was lovely, but now I’m glad it’s over. Am I allowed to say that? I am grateful for the next week or so to decompress and reflect and restore order, and I’m ready for the blank slate of a new year.

We spent Christmas Eve with my family, and the kids played with cousins. They ran around outside playing hide and seek until the food was ready, and then they returned inside to eat and play games until late. They got a few toys to play with, but the adults in my family stopped exchanging gifts years ago when we realized that we have all we need and kids are a lot more fun to shop for. (This change improved my holidays ten times over, by the way. No stress of shopping for anyone other than kids.) But this year, my granddad surprised us with one of the best gifts I have ever received. He’d found a box full of old quilt tops my grandmother had packed away. Most of these were stitched by her own mother, and a few were even pieced by her grandmother. So if you’re counting generations, that is my great-great grandmother. (!!) They were the tops only, and the rest of it was unfinished, so he found someone to finish them and one-by-one had them completed. There were enough for each of the girls in the family to get one.

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No store-bought gift could compare to this. It blows my mind to think about – each stitch completed with love and care, and it laid unfinished in a box for decades only to re-emerge as something whole and real and beautiful. We never know where our story ends, do we? We never know how what we create today will live on and on. So many things in my life feel unfinished, and I’m grateful to have this reminder to take the long view.

When we got home on Christmas Eve, my kids put the cookies out for Santa and hurried to bed as quickly as they could. They don’t always get along easily these days, but the best Christmas Miracle imaginable is that they have really played together so well these last couple of weeks. It has felt like such a gift to me when I’ve grown used to more sibling bickering than I’d like.

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They’d written letters to Santa earlier in the week. Norah’s list was a random assortment of all kinds of things that just occurred to her with no warning (typical five year old) — a stuffed animal, a doll, a pretend pet bird who can fit on your shoulder, and pineapple from the North Pole. Jude’s contained only one item that he’s been asking for since September — a Nintendo Switch.

They ran down the stairs on Christmas morning at 5:58am (yawn), and waded through their gifts. But they paced themselves on opening them and talked a little about each one which pleasantly surprised me. Jude was beyond surprised to get the Switch even though it was all he has asked for. He didn’t expect it somehow. But it cracked me up that the gifts that brought the biggest smiles and the most excitement were the North Pole Pineapple ($2.65 at Publix) and a package of root beer (impulse buy for a boy who loves it but never gets to drink it at home). You just never know what little things will bring joy.

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Christmas is so heavily laced with nostalgia and meaning. It’s easy to get wrapped up in it – especially as a parent. We try to make it perfect enough to leave some indelible imprint in their memory, but one thing I’m understanding as I begin to string chapters together for this book I’m working on is that memories are actually not made in isolation. When we remember one thing or one moment, it is actually laced with meaning and layer upon layer of association — not just that one day in time.

I’ve made such a conscious effort this past few years to see Christmas as any other day – with a few extra celebrations. I do the best I can to show them the traditions that can ground us, the reason for the holiday, and the value of both giving and receiving. And then I let it go. I do not compare to what it looked like before or what it might look like in the future or what it looks like in homes outside of my own.

All I know now is that I do the best I can and that somehow the three of us fill the room with enough light to drown out any shadows of inadequacy or comparison that may be lingering in some dark corner of my own mind. 2017 is the year I figured out that fear and negativity and dissatisfaction do not grow when you don’t feed them.

Some holidays are hard and some years are hard, and we just have to accept that sometimes. Life doesn’t look like exactly what we thought it would, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we just move right along to what is good about right now and perhaps even what is better than we expected as a result of the unforeseen. I recently ran across a Maya Angelou quote on Instagram and some commentary relating it to the holidays and what they can feel like when we lose ourselves in some expectation of comparison and think we have failed if we do not make it The Best Christmas Ever. Angelou says, “My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness. Continue to allow humor to lighten the burden of your tender heart.”

The holidays became a lot easier for me when I realized that, in actuality, they are just another day in a series of 364 other ones where we get to create magic and possibility and joy and comfort and peace and fulfillment. What Maya seems to be saying there to me is keep on keepin’ on. And so I am. With root beer and North Pole pineapple and cozy nights at home under my new quilt. The best is yet to come, and there is always more. Christmas joy is like no other, but that same peace waits for me all year long when I slow down enough to see it.