Georgia Love, Life and Randomness

beauty chaser

Our weekend was busy with celebration. My younger brother got married at a north Georgia winery, and as Norah and I drove over on Friday afternoon after school, I was reminded of how much I love my home state, even in the sweltering heat of August.

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North Georgia is so beautiful, and I never tire of it. Rolling hills as far as you can see and pines everywhere. I feel lucky to live where I do and have a web of family spread across a landscape that I love so much. I know the south has its quirks and limitations, but it is home like no other place on earth for me. Beauty everywhere.
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The rehearsal dinner was at a historic restaurant in a tiny town and featured fried chicken and mashed potatoes and squash casserole. The next day was full and busy with wedding prep. Both kids were part of the ceremony, and it’s sweet to see them dressed up and feeling special for occasions like this. As usual, Norah was ecstatic and energetic about her role in front of a crowd, and Jude was more reserved.

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There was a time in my life when I went to a wedding every month, I think. But it’s been a while, and as I reach my mid-thirties, these are fewer and farther between. I forget about all the preparation and excitement and jitters and tiny details. It was fun to be reminded of what it feels like to plan for such a special day.
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The kids didn’t have a clue, of course, about the tiny choices like flowers and music and bridesmaids dresses and the million worries that go into planning an occasion like this. But they did feed on the excitement which was fun to watch.

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I couldn’t get enough of my tiny groomsman. Little girls love to dress up any chance they get, so it’s no shock to see Norah running around the house in a dress for no reason at all lately. But to see Jude in a suit with a boutonniere pinned on? Slay me.
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After the ceremony, the crowd moved to the tasting area of the winery to eat and drink and talk as we watched the sun go down over the mountains. Norah danced and twirled with her cousins and stayed up way past her bedtime.

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The bride lost her grandmother just a few weeks ago, soon after my grandmother passed. There was a moment of silence for the two of them at the beginning of the ceremony, and the absence was tangible. We felt it. It is still so incredibly fresh and, in a weird way, it is actually becoming more painful these past couple of weeks. Like a wound that gets worse before it gets better. The surreal feelings wear off along with the high of the funeral and the million visitors and condolences. And then you are left with the reality that the person you loved just isn’t there anymore. It’s the weirdest thing, isn’t it? That this is how life works. That we lose people we can’t imagine living without and life just keeps happening anyway.

I’ve been revisiting Rilke a bit again lately, and in one poem, he explains “God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks us silently out of the night …Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.” It’s such a comfort to know that no feeling is final, to know that everything passes eventually.

This last two years of my life have felt like beauty and terror again and again, sometimes in the same moment. I’ve become a beauty chaser, I think. Look for it, find it, squeeze it for what it’s worth. Squeeze out every last drop you can get. It’s there in the tiniest spaces when we are open to it.

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It felt good to celebrate that this weekend. I know that beauty lies all around us all the time, but on some days, it’s easier to see than on other days.

stephen wedding

You just have to wait out the rest of it sometimes, don’t you? I think it’s also Rilke who says, “Don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”

Life never forgets us, and I know this. You just have to trust and wait and let it go on and on and on to whatever comes next.

 

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gratitude, travel

same as ever, but different

Months ago, I booked a solo trip to a wellness retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the stress of the past few weeks, I was unsure if it would work out or not, so I’ve been in touch with the reception office to explain that my grandmother was with hospice and I might need to postpone. They were unbelievably accommodating and said I could wait until the very last minute to decide if I wanted to go now or later. I didn’t want to miss time with her.

As it turned out, we buried her on Wednesday with a service that was sweet and sincere and sad. I was dreading the funeral so much, and at the end of the day, my eyes were swollen with tears. But I was also astounded at how such a simple life can be the most beautiful. I loved her because she was mine. But so many others came to grieve with us because they loved her for who she was and the countless ways she touched the lives of everyone who met her. The one and only request she ever made about her final arrangements was to drape one of her mother’s old handmade quilts across her casket, and so we did.
We laid her to rest in the piercing June sun, and it is always such a surreal feeling when someone you loved and knew so well is lying in the ground. You feel aimless and unsteady and unsure for a while. It’s a new way of life you have to somehow figure out, how to exist without the person you were once so close to.

As life would have it, though I had no idea this would be the case, I threw my things in my car the very next day to drive across the Appalachian mountains alone. The retreat center’s directions warned against GPS leading you astray and included details like “go straight under the stone bridge,” “drive until the road turns to gravel,” and “turn left and proceed to the top of the mountain.”

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When I finally reached my destination and checked in with the reception office, I found my room on the other side of the property. It was raining a steady drizzle and something like 6pm. I opened the door to find a small room with a bathroom, a simple bed, one sheet, one blanket, no television, open windows, and the most glorious view of the North Carolina mountains. I forget that stillness has a sound, a hum you can almost hear.

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I have a total of 68 hours to spend here, and I can feel layers lifting as the hours pass. The food is light, and the others here are mostly quiet but kind. I’m in yoga & meditation classes about 5 hours a day. We rose with the sun today and began class without coffee which normally would hardly be possible, but it was brisk outside and the sun greeted me in a way I couldn’t refuse.

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We’ve been talking a lot about some foundational elements of yoga which we tend to forget, and I can’t help but hear it as life advice as well. “Work hard but don’t struggle. When you feel the struggle, ease out of it a bit.” And “go to the edge of your comfort, and then just gently push forward the tiniest bit.”

My life has been loss after loss this past eighteen months, I am so ready to work hard but tired of struggling. I can feel myself, even now when the grief feels fresh and heavy, finding my place a little more everyday. My voice is growing steadier, not louder. I am ready to work hard for the things that are important to me, but I’m also growing more confident in my own ability to know when to ease off and recognize a struggle when I feel one. If you have to force it, (whatever it is) it’s no good.

I have so much more to say later and more to think about and still time left here. As I’m writing this on the tiny bed, I can hear birds out my open window. My muscles are sore and my eyes are heavy. My grandmother’s last weeks taught me the value of surrender, and I am feeling it now in this place, even in a physical sense.

I indulged in a Shirodhara treatment this morning, an Ayurvedic therapy when you lie on a table and allow warm oil to be poured on your forehead in a continuous stream. It’s said to soothe the nervous system and awaken the “third eye” of spiritual understanding and intuition. I think it does accomplish that, but only because it makes you melt into the present moment and feel what is really there. Me, same as ever but different. Still here, still breathing.

 

gratitude

sweetness and sadness

My grandmother took her final rest in the early morning hours on Sunday, before sunrise. It was peaceful and loving and perfectly fitting for a life that reflected so much grace.

My “real life” circle already knows this, but I have recorded all of my formative moments on this journal, and I know I have to write something. But words seem completely inadequate sometimes. What do you say when you lose someone who is so cherished by those of us left behind? I don’t know.

It was past 11:00 when I finally got home to my empty house last night after the funeral visitation and then family time at my grandparents’ house. Sometimes words are not enough, so we rely on rituals. This week is reserved for those rituals of mourning. Receiving visitors and food and hugs. Singing hymns and listening to prayers of comfort. Glancing at pictures from years and years of a life well-spent. And finally, on Wednesday afternoon, lowering her body in the ground.

Seeing her body somehow feels so different than it usually feels for me to attend a funeral visitation, less unsettling and less haunted. Maybe it’s because I knew her so closely or maybe it is because it was such a gradual process that I walked alongside her these past few weeks. Whatever the reason, this time it is so clear to me that it is just a shell. There’s a line from Quaker writings in the nineteenth century that says, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This past month with my grandmother taught be innumerable lessons, but that is one of them.

I think she knew this always. It’s why everyone who met her loved her so much. She spoke to you soul-to-soul without any regard to the other stuff when the world around you only ever sees the other “stuff” as who you are.

The missing will come. The void and the absence is here already, but it still feels surreal. The missing will come later, and I know loss enough to know this. I will cry those tears at some point. But right now, the things that make my eyes sting and overflow are the details of beauty I’ve observed as she made her transition to the other side. There was so much sweetness in her passing, as hard as it is for us to let her go.

There are countless moments from this month that I will never, ever forget. Making pureed sweet potatoes like baby food for her to eat, wondering how many times she did the same for me. Watching little cousins play hide and seek last Sunday in her big hydrangea bush while she slept upstairs. Rubbing lotion on her tired hands, scarred from a life of love and work. Seeing her smile and squeeze my hand when I dripped water in her mouth from a tiny sponge. Listening to my Grandaddy sing hymns to her in her Emory hospital room when she was overwhelmed and upset, and then watching him silently hold space for her in the last 10 days that she spent at home. He never wavered, even once, from what real love is. 

I will never, in all my life, forget what I have witnessed between the two of them in these last few weeks.

As I was talking with an old friend last night at the visitation, I was saying how grateful I am to be from a family that always taught me the value of loss and sadness, always showed me the whole picture. So many people in our culture don’t “do” sadness and don’t “do” death. They pretend it’s something we can somehow avoid by holding it distant. Like if you run fast enough and smile big enough and buy enough shiny new things, loss won’t really happen to you.

I wrote my grandmother’s obituary – perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever written. How do you sum up someone’s life in something like 300 words? As I wrote, I got to that last paragraph where you state the deceased’s loved ones – the list of people who passed before them and those they left behind. I realized that perhaps the most striking line of someone’s obituary is that list of who preceded them in death. It’s just a list of names that is so easy to breeze over as you read, but to really think about it and remember what loss feels like magnifies it. I listed her parents, both of them. Her oldest brother she adored so much as a mentor and her most trusted friend. Her youngest brother who died at 36 and left behind a wife and three kids. Her son-in-law, my own father, who passed at 31 and left my sister and me, alongside my mother. She held our hand so closely in that time when I know her own heart was broken, too. As I read those details and I look back, I’m astounded at the pain she endured in her lifetime. The process we all experience, letting go of people you can’t imagine living without.

Pain transforms you if you let it. I heard a radio interview once where someone referenced “the alchemy of pain” and I love that. It can be an almost magical process of transformation if you let it burn to completion in you. You can’t selectively numb emotions. You numb the pain or sadness, and your joy is dimmed as well

 

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I’m seeing already how the well of sadness from the last month is echoing in a way that magnifies the connection I have with her. It’s like I press my ear to the sadness, and what I really hear beneath it is thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Love goes on and on and on. Always.

 

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gratitude

all the hard places

I’m writing aimlessly tonight. I just see that it’s been nearly a week since I’ve written, and so much is racing by in my own head. I’m writing, writing, writing all the time by observing and thinking. But they are mostly half thoughts lately and never leave my head to find paper or screen.

She is still here, but she is close to the other side, I think. Very close. I’ve stopped in everyday, and I see her slipping. These bodies are so strange. So real and close when you are in them, yet they seem almost marginal or paper thin as you near the end. Bodies might be the way we move through the world, but they are not even half of it, are they? Just a shell to get us where we’re going.

There are specifics I will not write about until months or years have passed. Events of my past week, things that still belong to her as part of her time here. But I will say that compassion is not soft or fluffy like we are led to believe. It is hard. It means looking suffering in the face, holding space there, carrying some of it for a while, and not running away in fear or fright. It means doing things that hurt.

Every single major religion tells its followers that compassion is the way to spiritual development, yet we leave it out when it’s uncomfortable. We change the channel or write the check and forget about it. We don’t even understand what it really is. It is never easy and always tough.

Sitting with a dying person will teach you how to live.

I spent time last week looking through some old family photos while she slept. Looking at some images I’d seen before and some I hadn’t, I was struck by how irreversible life is. You always have a choice, I suppose, of how you will react to something. But once the something is done, it is irrevocable. It’s just a big, long string that unravels and all you can do is chase it.

We can wonder what our lives would be like if something else had happened. We can wonder about the million ways it would be different, but those questions get us nowhere really. It sometimes feels like a hand pushing us through all our days with these events that propel us a certain direction, and you flail and stumble for a while until you figure it out. Then walk along as best you can until another wind blows.

I found a photo of my own dad that I’d never seen before. Driving a boat in something like 1978 without a care in the world. He had no idea that his irrevocable moment would happen when he was only 31. He didn’t know my own name or face on that sunny day, and it’s easy to look back and define it all by that moment that controlled the duration of our time together. But this week, I gazed and found myself wondering exactly what it was like in the June sunshine on that boat. What the breeze felt like. What someone said just before the camera clicked. What he was responding to when he smiled. What it was like to live in that second without knowing what was coming next.

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Photos are so good to remind us of that. Thank God there were moments when we didn’t know what was coming later.

My grandmother was so independent with her need of others. Her priority was always to give to someone else and make them feel loved and at home. I remember when dating my ex-husband, he joked that her house contained some kind of time warp because you’d walk in and insist you were staying a short while, and before you knew it, six hours and a full meal had taken place. It was true. Energy is a very real thing, isn’t it? When you love others and your true intention is to give, give, give without prioritizing your own needs, people gravitate to that.

I joked to my sister, as we tended to her a few days ago in the ways that you tend to a dying person, that I was so thankful she didn’t ever know this was the way it would go. It’s only been a month, and it pales so starkly in comparison to the things she has done for me for my entire life. But if she knew we would find ourselves in 2016 bathing her and brushing her hair and rubbing lotion on her bony arms and dripping water in her mouth from a tiny sponge, she would have laid awake every night of her life dreading the burden of it and neglecting to see the beauty.

There’s so much beauty in sacrifice. The thing about heartbreak is that it breaks your heart wide open for something else to take root. I get it now in ways I never have before, in ways that many people never do. And I am grateful for every minute that has taught me what I needed to learn.

 

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So many times in my life, I’ve heard people say they passed on the chance to see a dying loved one because “I didn’t want to remember her like that.”  That idea seems so sad and small to me now.

I will remember my grandmother so many ways. With a house full of food and company. Quiet conversations, just the two of us. Countless moments of small kindness and tiny graces that she delivered to others. A beauty that radiated in a way that only comes from joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. But I will remember these last days as well, in all their brutal reality. It’s cracked my heart wide open for whatever comes next.

Grace always lives in all the hard places.

 

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Books, gratitude

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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gratitude, travel

all of it

We are back home. I spent more than six hours in a car today with two kids, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. So I am doing what I always do when I can’t sleep, and I’m writing instead.

We had a fun week. It was far from a perfect, relaxing vacation because parenting doesn’t present that scenario very often anyhow. But especially when you are the lone adult with two kids, relaxation in the typical sense doesn’t happen much.

But I stole moments here and there, and I accomplished that mostly by letting everything else go. I gave them no real rules except safety and sunscreen. We lounged and watched movies and swam and played in the sand and ate more popsicles than I care to admit. I came home exhausted from hot sun and sibling arguments, but they are high on ocean waves and sandcastles and the novelty of vacation-only Lucky Charms. (Seriously, I think that was their favorite part. I likely could have saved a lot of money and just taken a box of Lucky Charms to our neighborhood pool.) But sometimes, I think you need to hit the pause button on all of it and give yourself room to breathe with no rules and no expectations.

 

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I brought along Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to reread it. I’d set some lofty writing goals for my summer, and I thought it might help me gain focus and courage. I found myself gravitating so much to the life advice it offers though, rather than the writing advice. Early in the book, she explains, “E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”  Sometimes I feel like it is only one foot in front of me that I can see, not even two or three. But I just keep moving one step at a time.

I’m growing suspicious, to be honest, of people who plan much farther than a few steps. I’m growing suspicious of someone if they seem to have it all laid out and expect things to follow in the pattern they want. I’m learning to let things happen and try my hardest to let go of all the fear and doubt and panic. Life is in the right, always. Just do the best you can in that moment, and watch it unfold.

When I step outside of myself for a moment, I see things so differently. I see a reality that I never planned on, but one that offers moments better than anything I expected.

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I’ll undoubtedly remember this week as the vacation when I survived a road trip alone with 2 kids under 7, and then the three of us piled in one queen bed inside a condo so tiny you have to turn sideways to get past the dishwasher and reach the oven. I made spaghetti and tacos and store-bought cinnamon rolls, and we ate dinner in pajamas almost every night. I chased them all week while feeling burdened and worried about my grandmother at home, and I know that will be one of the first things that comes to mind as I recall this trip years later in my mind’s eye. But I’ll also likely remember early morning hours of reading Bird by Bird while the kids slept, and Lamott is so good to remind me that “perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.” 

I’ll surely also remember this as the trip when Jude lost another tooth and delivered a constant lecture on the approximately 148,372 facts he learned about sea turtles in kindergarten. And Norah’s freckles grew everyday while she counted seashells aloud, one by one. Who knew this is where summer of 2016 would find me? I certainly never did. But I’m grateful for all of it.

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While we have not moved her yet, my family has decided to bring my grandmother home with hospice this week. We do not know the exact hour, but it likely won’t be long. The very best moments of my life have come from being brave, staying open, loving fiercely. But this, in many ways, is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Bearing witness to the very end of a life that shaped my own so intensely.

I’m deeply sad in ways I really cannot even begin to describe, and I know that it will be months of grief as the words come together for me. But I also know that human life means this one thing if we are doing it right: we will lose people we cannot imagine living without.

I see people who hold these things at a distance, who put relatives in homes or avoid thinking about what we will all come to face one day – that we all die. Every single one of us. That idea is both the most crushing and the most freeing of anything at all.

And we cannot choose what happens to us and how it all will end, but we can choose what kind of people we will be in the meantime. And I’m trying my hardest to stay open and willing, brave and honest, here and now – even when it hurts. As Rumi says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I thought my heart had expanded enough in this season, but the universe wasn’t finished with me, I think. Here we go again. I’m holding on tight for what lies ahead – the pain and the softness. All of it.