gratitude, motherhood

rocks in the pockets

It’s been more than a month since I have written here. The summary is that it won’t stop raining in Georgia. I mean days and days and days in a row of constant hazy clouds and rain. We all had the flu at the same time in early February. And it’s that general stretch of the year that is hard to plow through anyway. I feel tired all the time, and I am struggling to find the beauty. I have been in that space lately of one foot in front of the other. Just limping along and knowing that the sun returns eventually.

When I write that all in one paragraph it sounds like a lot of dramatic complaining, but really it is simply life. As life happens. Ebb and flow. As I’m typing this, it is early morning, and I can see that there is finally some sky behind the clouds, a sun trying to shine today.

The hard part in seasons like this is that life is rolling on anyhow with all of its demands. I hardly left my couch last weekend as I caught up on a heavy grading backlog from my sick days. Then this weekend has brought two hours of taekwondo belt testing, a scout meeting to work on building a pinewood derby car, hosting a crowd of neighborhood boys for dinner, and attending a memorial service yesterday afternoon.

It was for the mother of a friend, an old friend dating back more than 20 years. As I expected, I saw loads of people yesterday I hadn’t seen in decades. Time is such a strange thing. I’ve been listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle lately, and I’m trying, though it’s hard, to lean into this idea of losing my story of the past, present, future timeline and see the now instead. I think it is in my anxious personality to be “future oriented” as my therapist kindly put it once – in other words, to always be looking forward to what is next and lining up all the pieces to make that next thing happen. But the problem with that, in addition to creating loads of anxiety, is that I miss the now.

This service was for a family I was close to in my adolescence, that period when it is developmentally appropriate for you to distance yourself from your own parents or see yourself as so very different from your friends’ parents. But one of the things that struck me so deeply as each of them spoke yesterday of who she was as a mother and the legacy she leaves is that somehow we all get to that place that once felt so far away – because there I sat, looking around to see each of us grown with families and lives and heartbreaks behind us where once it was all naive optimism and teenage worries. Truth be told, we are not far from what our parents were when we first became friends.

Time is such a strange illusion, and it feels like a carousel sometimes – the way one life can circle back on itself again and again. Past and future are just this story I have in my head, but occasions like this are one of those weird times where the past collides with where you stand today in a tangible way and you are reminded how much of an illusion time really is.

I’m still thinking of my friend this morning, having seen his family’s heartbreak so fresh yesterday. And I’m thinking about all of the times that pain pushed me through to the other side, to that next thing I was meant to become, that next skin I was meant to shed. It’s Eckhart Tolle who says, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.” It’s a passage I have held onto when something is not the way I wanted it to be. But I forget that maybe that is true for little things, too. The thousand ways that everyday life can teach you if you let it.

Watching years roll by on a calendar is painful when you think too much about it. It aches to see my kids grow older and know that this year is one we are leaving behind.  Last week, as we sat in the pediatrician’s office for Norah, she was sitting on my lap and pulled out a rock from her pocket. She has this habit of collecting small rocks on the playground and smuggling them home, and I usually only find them when I hear the loud thunk beating a rhythm in the dryer. I was telling her this – that I always find them in the dryer – as she pulled it from her pocket to show me. I didn’t realize the other mom in the waiting room was listening to us, but as she stood up to lead her teenaged son to an exam room, she stopped and said to me, “I miss those. I miss finding rocks in the pockets.”

How many details in my life right now are rocks in the pockets that I will miss one day? I don’t even just mean with my children but with everything. These details I fail to notice everyday will be softened with that lens of nostalgia one day as I look back.

Toward the end of the service yesterday, they showed a slide show of sorts that ended with an Anne of Green Gables quote that I somehow didn’t note before. I haven’t thought about those books since childhood when I was obsessed with them – another nod to the carousel of time as I sat in the service. Montgomery writes, “It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.”

How close that enchanting realm is, just beyond the commonplace. Rocks in pockets and dinners at our little table. My soft and steady sleeping dog. The view of a bright sky after so many thick clouds. The smile of old friends with decades between here and where you began. When I push back the illusion of time and lose my storyline, I move that thin veil aside to see the glimpse.

Advertisements
Georgia Love, gratitude, kids

from this angle

There are 7 more days left in the school year, and my kids are on overdive. Something fun happens everyday – Field Day and end of the year countdowns and yearbooks and cupcakes.

Last weekend, I hosted 19 kids for Norah’s sixth birthday party, and somehow the house is still standing.  We had donuts instead of cake and invited kids over in pajamas for breakfast, sending them all home by noon. When two o’clock rolled around, my two were somehow ready to play again and headed out on foot in the neighborhood to see what was happening. 4pm found me in a rocking chair on my front porch where I could vaguely see and hear the lemonade stand to supervise but not have a heavy hand. Every now and then, I could hear Norah’s voice yell, “Come get your LEMA-LADE!” This is one of her last pronunciation errors to hang on, and I selfishly don’t want it to fade.

I have these moments where I cannot believe it is May already, almost half the year gone. Cannot believe that I have two elementary schoolers who dress themselves and have ideas and friendship dynamics of their own and see their own world as limitless and completely safe at the same time. This is a Golden Age for us, and I am not unaware of that. I am grateful for it daily. Time is the only constant and it is rolling faster than I’d like.

I was talking with a friend recently about the messes and the joys of summertime, and she explained her sentimentality with all things summer with her own son. I get it. When I look back at my own childhood, it is somehow always eternally summertime. Hours and days of no structure at all and playing in the woods with my cousins and my sister. Watermelon, popsicles, bright red tomatoes.

We have a nature trail that runs behind the homes in our neighborhood, and the kids love to walk it all the time. Jude and his gang have built a fort of sticks and limbs and an old tarp. When he described this to me over dinner one night a while ago, he told me it was “a proper fort, Mom, a real one.” I don’t ever use that word in that particular context —  proper. There are moments when you step outside the frame to see your kids evolving in their own worlds. He lead me over there a couple of weeks ago to show it to me, and he’s right. It’s a proper fort, complete with an entrance and stones to line its edge.

Two weekends ago, they invited friends over for Sunday morning pancakes, and we went walking along the trail after breakfast. We got to a clearing lined on one side with honeysuckles, and the smell took me right back to something like 1989 when I’d run along the path between my house and my grandparents. I stopped and showed them how to pluck and string a Honeysuckle to get a drop of nectar on your tongue. They were enthralled – all four of them – and stood along the edge of the vines for a long time, plucking and stringing for that tiny drop.

Untitled

My kids have a childhood so very different from my own in many ways. They have Kindles and know what a smartphone is and see a globe much smaller than what I saw. We are settled in the suburbs with a small green square of grass and only three of us in this house. But there are ways it echos my own childhood, too. Lemonade stands and long summer days and dirt under your fingernails when you finally come back inside after hours of play. Fort building and honeysuckle eating and other kids to explore with.

It feels good to stand here on the outside and watch them build a world of their own. And I can see from this angle how deeply colored the aisles of memory are, knowing one day they will walk past a patch of Honeysuckle and be taken right back to the place we are now. This is my middle and their beginning, and it is such a sweet spot when I look through that lens to see the rolling hands of time as something that both pushes us from place to place and sometimes dissolves into nothing. Some things are eternal.

motherhood, single parenthood

the hum and rush

Something is brewing in the air here in Georgia, everywhere it seems. Our neighbors to the south and the east are prepping for Hurricane Irma, and we are prepping for whatever is left of her when she makes her way a few miles northwest to us. It’s always hard to know exactly how anxious we should be in situations like this. Truth be told, we never really know what’s coming.

Against this backdrop of potential disaster, we are doing the everyday things required of us. My school year is in full swing. I know many of their names and faces by now, and the first set of essays will come pouring in this week. The kids have settled into their routines as well. Wednesdays have us going straight from school to ballet to the soccer field with no time in between.

Untitled

I pack snacks and water and rely on the slow cooker to have dinner ready for us when we walk in at 7pm. It’s so hard to find that balance between being sure they are enriched and active and pursuing what they want yet not overbooking us to the point of exhaustion. I rely on little things to set the pace and give us routine in the chaos – dinner at the table and nightly routines and leisurely walks to the bus stop in the mornings. But I think I need to just accept that some seasons are busy. Late November will slow us back down when soccer games are behind us and chill is in the air with earlier sunsets and soup on the table.

A longtime friend of mine created an online retreat with seven days of journals and meditations, and I have been making my way through it this month in the early morning quiet hours before the rest of the house is up. It’s structured around 7 women who made history turning their own struggles to something beautiful for the rest of us, and day 6 focuses on Anna Julia Cooper. I wasn’t all that familiar with Cooper before, but she published a book in the nineteenth century that characterized her idea of God as a “Singing Something” and a divine spark in each of us. This idea resonated with me so much – that song we can all hear if we are paying attention. I even wrote about this before in the last days with my grandmother, how it can sometimes feel like there are two tracks playing in our lives, the everyday tasks and the real melody that creates the whole dance to begin with.

It’s harder to hear in seasons of relative ease and routine, but disaster of any kind – whether it is personal or global – tends to wake us up to that song. It’s also Anna Julia Cooper who tells us “One needs occasionally to stand aside from the hum and rush of human interests and passions to hear the voice of God.” That hum and rush is loud sometimes isn’t it though? I’m realizing that I need to carve that space of silence in my days somehow or it’s not going to happen. It’s been two weeks since I’ve written here for that very reason.

I’m looking ahead at the season in front of me as a challenge to listen beyond that hum and rush of the everyday, determined to find pockets of silence in my day to write or read or think. Or maybe just listen to that Singing Something that always steadies us with the vastness of the whole perspective over the busy tasks of everyday life. There’s always something bigger when we listen.

motherhood

making it up as we go along

The semester began with a bang, as it always does. I assumed I’d get started a little more gradually, but it didn’t work out that way. I’ve still got another week before students are sitting in front of me, but in the meantime, there is so much to do. It’s hard to feel anything but overwhelmed. Even as I type this sentence, I am thinking about how I really should be working on a syllabus instead. But I know the value that comes from sitting a minute to write, so I’m ignoring the screaming to-do list for just a little while today.

The kids are more or less settled into the groove of their school year, so now it’s my turn to move past that rocky transition. Working + mothering is crazy-making, and I know that. And yet still here we are always, wondering how it will all get done and if I can juggle all of the things all of the time.

I caught an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson this week during my commute, and her words have been tumbling in my head ever since. She spoke a bit about her book, Composing a Life, and a bit about her background growing up as the daughter of famous anthropologist Margaret Mead.  So much of what she said had me nodding in agreement and feeling a little light bulb inside, but I know better than to pick up a new book in August when I am knee-deep in reading for classes. (I did find a little summary and commentary over here on Brain Pickings that you can check out if you find a quiet moment.)

We always hear about moms “juggling” working life and home life, but Bateson insists that word evokes a “terribly anxiety-producing metaphor” to her ears, and the more I think about it, she’s right. It’s how so many of us feel though – and how society tells us it works – like we are just barely holding all these balls in the air and if we look away for a minute or don’t move fast enough, we drop something and it all comes crashing down. Bateson suggests that she decided to use composing a life rather than juggling a life because she “was looking for a metaphor that would allow [women] to realize that the effort they were making to work out a new kind of woman’s role was creative. That it was an art form.” What a difference that one perspective makes – to compose rather than juggle.

I’m composing all the time, and most of it is improvisational. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, that I’ve never lived this exact life before. This phase for my kids, this season, these demands. I respond to each challenge as I feel I should with the energy and resources I have in that moment, and I learn new skills along the way. But I think I do the same thing that a lot of other women do and feel like maybe things are less valuable if they aren’t working in a predictable straight line. In my married life, I assumed I’d be on the way to a PhD by now, but that is a remote and distant thought in my current world.  But other paths and opportunities have opened up that are far beyond anything a classroom or dissertation could give me, so sometimes I wonder if derailed plans are really all that bad, or if they have a way of showing us what we need to see in order to create our most fulfilling lives. Maybe interruption and unexpected detours are the very best thing that could happen.

In this age of women-can-do-anything pressures, Bateson claims, “It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. … How does creativity flourish on distraction? What insights arise from the experience of multiplicity and ambiguity? And at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? These are important questions in a world in which we are all increasingly strangers and sojourners.” 

Let that sink in for a minute if you are juggling composing like I am. These are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. I move from project to project, it seems. My typical approach lately is to sit down on a Sunday and assess what my short list of priorities are and try my best to tackle them. It changes week-by-week, and I flutter from one thing to the next, but as she reminds me, at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement? I feel like I am desperately improvising all the time, but as I look back at the past few years of my life, I still see something taking shape. Maybe even some significant achievements.

Aging is such a gift. As my kids are growing a little more independent, and I finally have the time to think about what I want for my own self professionally and not just personally, I think I need to continually remind myself that perhaps circles and winding paths are better than straight lines and that composing is always better than juggling. Who knows what the final piece of music will sound like, but what I’m picking up along the way promises it will be some version of beautiful.

It reminds me of that Parker Palmer quote, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” None of us even know, do we? Or if you think you do know, maybe you should shut off the external noise and listen a little harder to the ways you can bend and flow.  Otherwise you wake up living someone else’s version of success which is not success at all but misery instead.

It is early Sunday morning, but the sun is already bright outside my window. My list is a mile long today – laundry to finish and soccer gear to buy and meal prep to do and a syllabus to write. But I’m vowing to let that subtle internal miracle happen when you change your perspective. Changing my lens from juggling to composing, moving forward to create something beautiful among the chaos.

 

gratitude, motherhood

flashlights and nachos

There are two days left in June, and as it always goes with kids and summer, I don’t know where the time is going. The days blow away at a pace that makes me uneasy. Here we are anyway though – looking at a new month on the horizon. The calendar doesn’t wait for anyone.

Last week Norah participated in a little “ballet camp” that she specifically asked for by name when I was attempting to let summer camps and entertainment fly under the radar. It was a lot of juggling back and forth with other responsibilities piled on top here and there. But it was worth it to watch her at the little showcase they gave us Friday afternoon. She was so proud of what she learned and came home with Moana songs and memorized choreography on repeat for days.

IMG_8053

Saturday we followed up the ballet time with an all day play date and some afternoon lake time with friends. It was cloudy all morning long, but the sun suddenly appeared around three in the afternoon, and we hurried to the lake to catch what was left of the day. As it turns out, we caught the magic hour by accident. Low-lying sun, shimmering water, thin crowds, and a cool breeze. The kids swam and splashed for hours. Eventually it was nearing dinner time, but we didn’t want to leave. When we finally loaded up the car to drive home just before dusk, the rains came back. The whole time felt like a little gift for us – in the midst of an otherwise dull and humid day. It was there for the taking when we jumped on the opportunity.
Untitled

The night before brought storms as well. It’s been a rainy summer in Atlanta. I’d just finished dinner and then sent neighbor friends back home to their own houses before I chased my two upstairs for their showers. Jude was getting dressed in his room and Norah soaking in the tub when the power went out. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but it was about to be, so we gathered flashlights and spread a blanket on the floor. I pulled nachos from the oven, smashed a few avocados, and we sat down together for an impromptu living room picnic by flashlight.

I don’t know if it was the darkness or the coziness or the novelty of it all or what, but the kids were happier than I’ve seen them in ages. Like deep joy happy, belly laughs and silliness and kindness and not a single sibling jab. As we finished up, Jude asked to sit in my lap on the floor for a minute and then said with every bit of serious sincerity, Mama, this is the third best night of my life. It cracked me up, the things we do for them and the ways we stretch above and beyond to create memories and happiness for our kids. Then here we are, just the three of us — eating nachos from our own oven, in the dark in our pajamas, piled on top of Christmas blankets in June. It’s not really half as hard as we make it, is it? It’s these stripped down moments without any real planning or pretense or forced orchestration from me that work like glue to hold us together.

Untitled

This week I’m alone as they are at dad’s. I’m checking tasks off the list like crazy, working on freelance, and diving headfirst into projects I’m dying to finish, or at least solidly begin. But I’m also making time for Brene Brown’s online course on parenting with COURAGEworks. I’m only halfway through, but I can’t say enough great things about it. There are so many activities I’m excited to show the kids when they get home and open up some important conversations.

In the first lesson of the course, she reminds us that “Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow.” She talks a lot about love and belonging and how to create a home that encourages those two things. I tend to worry a lot at this season of my life that I don’t give them enough or that I don’t have the time or resources to give them what they crave. But in reality, I think it’s just this sense of belonging that they love most. A place where we can be imperfect together and know it’s okay. It’s here in this space that we thrive and grow in the best way, all three of us.

I’m seeing so clearly as I move a little further down this parenting path that love and belonging are best nurtured in these messy, imperfect, everyday moments.

Books, grief, motherhood, summer

rhythm and echo

We are two days away from the end of the school year, and our pace has been non-stop. In a two-week period, I’ve dragged both kids to swim lessons, hosted a birthday party, and attended a pre-k graduation, an elementary school field day, a ballet rehearsal and recital, and a first grade awards day. I guess this is how May works when you have school-aged kids. It’s a lot.

The Georgia weather is heating up, but every now and then, we get a break with some cloudy skies and cool rain. I love where I live always but especially this time of year with so many things to see and do. We’ve been planting summer herbs and flowers this week, and we have a little patio tomato plant the kids check on every day. When dinner time rolls around, I have to work hard to convince them to come in. Late sunsets are driving our rhythm.

Untitled

The Dog Days will be here soon enough, but right now, warm sun feels like such a novelty. I am bone tired though. I think the adrenaline of this past month’s events has worn off a bit, and now I’m just exhausted. I have a lot of goals for my own self, but life lately revolves around these two in a way that doesn’t really leave space for my desires. It’s an eternal conflict for moms everywhere, and I’m not alone in this. But boy is it hard to make room for me sometimes.

I’m reading a pretty incredible little book right now called On Living, a hospice chaplain’s reflection on stories her patients have shared with her and her observations of what matters as people ready themselves to cross that bridge. It sounds sad as I’m describing it, but it’s not at all. It’s a reminder in the best and clearest way about what matters and what doesn’t.

The author reveals in an early chapter that she was surprised when she began that role to find that dying people almost always just talk about their families – more so than some big, lofty conversation about spirituality and the great beyond. She claims that people talk about their families at the end because “that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. […] This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, and this is where our purpose becomes clear.”

This week marks the first anniversary of my Grandmother’s stroke, and the first year of any tragedy is so hard. All those what I was doing last year and what I didn’t know then thoughts bounce around every day. And I’m expecting it to be this way a bit for the next month or so. It was a year ago that I wrote this post, and every word still rings true even though everything has changed.

It seems strange and confusing to be sitting on my patio today watching my two with sidewalk chalk and listening to their laughter with neighborhood friends – knowing that one year ago I was at the hospital and so sad and confused and disheartened. Life moves on, and especially as a mother, it fills up with all these tiny moments like watering patio tomatoes and setting the table and listening to explanations of sidewalk art and playground games. I guess what you eventually figure out is that the little stuff is actually the big stuff.  It grounds us and restores us and even defines us.

Last summer, I saw first hand the role of family as a way to talk about God and meaning and the way we create our lives. I saw how my Grandmother had created hers over decades of all these tiny tasks that probably seemed meaningless in the moment as she was doing them but echo so loudly now that she’s gone. I still hear it everyday.  I want the echo I leave one day to be just as deep and wide.

 

 

birthday letters

Year 5: A Letter

Dear Norah,

You are five today. Five! I say this all the time, but I am not sure where the time is going. In ways I feel like you were just born, and in ways I feel like you have always been here. I don’t remember much of what life was like without you, and your constant enthusiasm and curiosity never leaves a dull moment. You are always observing, asking questions, and exploring anything you find that piques your interest. You never slow down, and nothing is beyond the scope of your imagination.

UntitledI can count on you to make me laugh, everyday and without fail. Every time I feel overwhelmed or disheartened or just exhausted (which is pretty much everyday in this season of our lives together), you find a way to show me the light. Unlike your brother and me, it is pretty rare that you are serious about anything for very long, but I think God knew what he was doing when he placed you in our household because your sunshine brightens the room and lightens my load, and I am forever grateful to you for that. I can’t stay discouraged for long when you are here to cheer me up and remind me to see the good and find the playful in any situation.
Untitled

Sometimes you and I are like oil and water. I look at you with frustration and wonder who this creature is and how she works because we are so different. But I think our differences are what make us work well together. I know I have a lot to teach you, but I think you have a lot to teach me, too. How to lighten up and laugh and say hello to strangers. How to ignore my best laid plans and be a little spontaneous sometimes. How to stay up late. How to laugh with your mouth wide open and touch frogs and worms without shuddering. People say we look alike, but in reality we are not mirrors at all. You are the yin to my yang, and sometimes I think you are a lot wiser than I am. Your demeanor always shows what you believe on the inside – that everything will be alright and that life is mostly good and fun and play. Grown-ups are quick to forget this, but I feel like with you I have this reminder every day.

Katie-13For all your fiery energy though, you are still sweet and gentle. Your teachers tell me when other kids fall on the playground, you are the first to check on them. You are kind and earnest. You are easily impressionable and want so badly to please those around you – your peers and your teachers and your brother included. The sibling bickering feels like it will kill me on most days. (Mom, he’s touching me!) But every once in a while, I get to see a glimpse of how it used to be before you guys reached this age of competition – and how I hope it will be again one day when you are grown. He doesn’t admit it often, but he loves you just as much as I do.
Untitled

This was a big year for you – you learned how to write your name and how to identify all your sounds and letters.  You sort your own toys in a way that makes no sense to me, but it does to you. You dress your dolls in their clothes and throw them on your hip when we walk in a store like you have a real baby. You create these ridiculous scenarios of imagination and ask me to participate… Mama, pretend your name is Millie and mine is Hallie and we are kids but we live by ourselves, okay? Pretend you are cooking for us now and we live in a treehouse and this doll is our baby sister. You have a whole world inside your own head, and it is my favorite thing about this age.

Last week you learned to swim. I decided that my nerves could not handle another summer of two non-swimmers, so I enrolled you and your brother in a week of private instruction. By day three, you were jumping off the diving board into 8 feet of water and swimming to the edge of the pool. I’ve seen you do it with my own eyes, and yet you panic now when we swim and the water reaches above your own head. So here I am again for the summer – not teaching you to swim but teaching you to believe that you can swim. If that isn’t one huge metaphor for what it’s like to exist in the world as a woman, I don’t know what is. (And you know your English teacher mama loves a good metaphor to teach me the lessons I need to learn.) So let’s make a deal now, okay? I will remind you who you really are and what you are capable of, and you do the same for me. We both have what it takes to swim, even when the water gets deep. Sometimes people are the last to recognize their own power, so I am telling you now that I see it already in you – when I watch you explore or listen to you talk or even just see you sleeping at night in your bed. I know that what lies in front of you in your own life may feel insurmountable in the moment. I know because I’ve been there.

Untitled

But I can also see so clearly that spark in you that tells me you can do anything you set your mind to. Five is just the beginning, and every day I find a new reason to love you. Happy Birthday, Norah.

Love,

Mama

 

** I write letters to my kids on their birthdays to give to them when they are older, and I post some of them on this blog. You can see past letters here.