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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

 

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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

 

 

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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

the time it takes to paint the canvas

A few days ago, my son came home with a paper invitation in his backpack that explained his artwork was featured in an exhibition at a local church’s annual Festival of the Arts. He’s in first grade, so I’ve only had a school-aged kid for a couple of years, but I have already figured out that it’s really impossible to tell with some of these functions if they are a big deal, so to speak, or if you will rearrange your schedule and drag kids out for something they would’ve hardly missed. There was no teacher email or mention on this one either, but I stuck it on the fridge and figured we’d go.

Wednesday rolled around, and it’s speech therapy after school which makes for a long day anyhow. Plus it’s the end of the month when my finances are always extraordinarily tight, so I didn’t want to splurge on dinner out when we had food at home. We race home, I make a quick dinner, and we turn around to race back out in the same general direction we came from. My mom was at my house the day before and saw the invitation on my fridge, so my parents wanted to check it out and were a little ahead of us and already there. She texted that there were A LOT of people there, and she wasn’t kidding. We arrived and took a while to find parking and shuffled in a line with everyone else to see the student exhibitions with work from 21 different elementary schools in the county – plus middle and high schools. There was visual art and ceramics and fashion design and sculpture. It was pretty amazing. And amazingly crowded. But we did spot his work along the wall with the others.

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At 6:45, they shuffled everyone upstairs to the sanctuary to list award winners, and they read a long list of 20 Honorable Mentions for elementary schools. They didn’t say his name, which did not really surprise me given the volume of art and participants, and he seemed a little disappointed, so I was whispering that it was an honor just to be included and don’t forget that your teacher chose only you for this event. Only you.

Then they listed winners for elementary school, and when they said his name for third place, both he and I perked up in surprise! I have his art cluttering my fridge and my coffee table and the back seat of my car and nearly every surface in my house, but that is mostly just because he’s my own kid and he loves to draw and paint and create. I never compare his work with others. It is such a fun experience and a rare moment of genuine surprise when you hear your kid’s name called and see them recognized in such a big way. He was competing alongside kids years older than him from 21 area schools, and it was such a special moment of pride for him. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

I emailed his art teacher early the next morning to say thank you, and she explained that she “knew it was special when she saw him painting it.” And Jude’s only mention of it weeks ago was to tell me that they were studying Van Gogh, that he kept working, working, working on it when all the other kids were done, and that his art teacher let him work slowly and take a long time to finish. (How seldom we do that, right? Such a reminder to have patience and let the canvas take shape — which is one big metaphor for raising kids and for watching your own life take shape, too.)

I’ve written a lot lately about being exhausted and pulled to my limits, which I am. The long days are the longest. But the good days feel like such a welcome break in the monotony sometimes. Wednesday was a really great moment.

As any divorced parent will tell you though, these moments do not ever look like what you’d once expected them to.

Jude’s dad was on the other side of the country, so neither of us told him when the initial invitation came home as there was no point. As we were walking out the door though, I think it dawned on Jude that this was a big deal and dad wasn’t able to see it, so he sent a hurried text message to his step-mom detailing the time and location. She dropped whatever it was that she was doing and hurried there, baby in tow.

I let him contact her without asking otherwise. We slid over in the crowded pew for her to have a place to sit. My family flagged her down in the crowded sanctuary so that she would feel less alone. We waved her off at the end of the event so that she felt included. I say all of this not to say look at me, I am amazing. I am not. We are not best friends. I say this to say that after months and months of practice, it really is not impossible to look at someone like a human being.

I wrote a little last fall about seeing her in a different light and feeling commonality and even sympathy for her in many ways. I do. And yet the hardest part of this is that, though she and I have stepped up to drop the bitterness and rise to a higher calling for the sake of my kids, there are bumps in the road beyond the two of us. My parents and I will sit down at a soccer game with folding chairs near my ex so that kids see us as one unit, and my children’s father and his own parents will stand up, fold theirs, and move to the other side of the field to make it clear we cannot do that. I will greet with a hello and get nothing back. When we are passing bags of clothing back and forth between households, I reach my hand out, but it gets placed on the ground at my feet though I am standing 3 feet in front of him and an outstretched arm would be the most respectful and least awkward way to do this. There is so much more I could say, but I will end there.

I worry a lot about how my kids absorb this as they are growing old enough to watch and observe with their own thoughts. I don’t write a lot about that dynamic here because it feels weird to do so, and I always write with the intention of revealing my own heart, but sometimes someone else’s actions and the effects on your own heart are so tangled that you cannot unwind them to talk about one without the other. I know so many readers here are coming from the same story, and I’m being transparent for the both of us. If you are in it too, I see you and I feel your sadness. If you have emerged to the other side where you are treated like a real person and a human being and not a ghost, please tell me how to get there.

Sometimes I think it’s just that women are capable of seeing complexity in a situation and rolling with it in all its gray areas so that we can put or children first. Sometimes I think that it’s because I took the time to clean up my own heart after my divorce so I can make eye contact and say hello and sit in a chair near them and it doesn’t hurt like it did at first. I know how it was in the beginning when I couldn’t look at them without tears in my eyes, but I don’t feel that anymore now that we are 2 years out and I did the hard work of cleaning up the mess inside my own self with time and reflection. If you cannot make eye contact or pass a clothing bag with an outstretched hand or answer a hello, is your heart anything but messy? Sometimes I wonder if I can be my own self without bitterness and shame and anger because I was not the one who stepped out of the marriage before it imploded. Is it actually easier in the long run when you are the one left behind in the beginning? That seems so ridiculous and counterintuitive to say, but there are ways I think it is true. I have nothing to hide or explain.

And in a literal sense, I know if I never once wrote the first word here, it would be very different. I have laid out all my fears and my sadness and my hurt and my confusion in this space, and it has only ever been my own perspective and my own heart. I have always said that. Many, many times, I have been told to be quiet and stop writing anyway, and yet I never did. This space has evolved to something else entirely where I have written about a million more things but always with the simple intention to tell the truth and lay it all bare as I feel it inside – whatever it may be.

I am revisiting some Marianne Williamson this week, and she says, “Women are still in emotional bondage as long as we need to worry that we might have to make a choice between being heard and being loved.” That passage slays me because I can glance back at every moment in my life when I felt that being heard did not equal being loved and feel how painfully that suffocates you. I think I finally realized that love is not real love anyway if it comes with the condition that you cannot be heard, so here I am still writing. And here I am still loving – even those who are hard to love. I can know that someone made choices I would not have made and maybe still has some mess left to work through, but my only ability to change anything at all is to be responsible for my own actions – whether that means making room on a church pew, recognizing my son’s desire to reach out for love from his other household, or looking someone in the eye to say hello. I think I will have to wait on the hand of time to soften all the rest, and if it doesn’t, it is still softening me. Maybe that is the other side I am meant to arrive at — not some sitcom reality where divorced parents have dinner together with their kids.

It’s our small daily choices that paint the whole canvas in the end. And though my kids don’t fully understand everything now when they see someone move a folding chair at a soccer game or decline a birthday party invitation or leave a hello hanging in the air between us without an answer, I know that they will look back and see that if nothing else, mom stayed open and soft and honest and real.

invisible notes, recorded

My kids slept until past 8am these past three days, which is beyond rare.  Even in the slow pace of summer, that doesn’t happen much. They both made their way to my bed in the middle of the night last night, so I woke up under a pile of heavy heads and limbs with my own back a little sore. The outright neediness of baby and toddler days has passed, but it sometimes doesn’t feel all that different now. Still always someone or something needing something from me. Kids or the dog or the job or the house. Or my own self which is the last thing I have time for in the frenzy of regular life.

Neighbor kids were over two weeks ago playing hide and seek, and my living room curtain rod was a casualty. One bracket came down, and the wall left behind seems a little crumbly where it was drilled in before, so it’s not a straight-forward fix. Add to that my apprehension on using a drill, and it has been abandoned for the past two weeks, along with a large box of self-assemble furniture sitting in my dining room for a full month now and at least three large piles of clean laundry upstairs that need to be put away.

Do you ever feel like the piles of unattended tasks in your life somehow take up real estate in your brain so that there is no fresh air there to move around? I prioritize what is first, squeeze by and turn sideways among all the lists and piles, glance the other way, and do all I can to function despite the unfinished mess. But sometimes it just reaches a point where I cannot do it anymore. As my students say, I can’t. [As one complete sentence.] I just can’t. I can’t do much of anything. It takes a lot for my brain to reach overflow status, but when it does, I’m done.

I think motherhood is a challenge because so much of our work is invisible to everyone else — the meals that appear magically on the table 3 times a day and the laundry that is cleaned and the school schedules that are recorded and the million other minutiae that are pulled together somehow. But when you are the only adult in the house, you can feel even more invisible somehow. Invisible to your own self, too. Treading water all the time.

Last week I tried and failed to set up my cable television myself. Then last night, I tried and failed to put the furniture together myself.  Then I drove 2 kids at 8pm to purchase heavy duty Command strips and pray they’d hold up my curtains because I had also tried and failed to drill the bracket back in the wall, and there is only so long I can stare at the fallen curtain before losing my mind when what sits in front of it is a cable box that doesn’t work and what sits above it is a water stain that I should have attended to weeks ago but haven’t.

I had a ten minute span of time this morning as I finished my coffee where I thought my curtain solution would hold and felt mildly successful, but then it fell. And I consequently cried in the shower for a good 30 minutes while hiding from my kids. The little things feel big sometimes. And I think everyone always says just ask for help, but I do that in nice or subtle ways that no one hears. Or maybe they do, and they have their own agenda to tend to which is entirely understandable.  But whatever the reason, it just sinks in sometimes in that particularly heavy way: you are alone. entirely. on your own. man up. figure it out.

I’m so exhausted from figuring it out. I feel like I am out of creative solutions, and I’m spent. Done.

The truth is I’m not done, of course. The truth is that I have felt this way a million times before, and I just keep moving and the wheels keep turning, and it works out. Every time and always. Frederick Buchner says, “Life is grace. Sleep is forgiveness. The night absolves. Darkness wipes the slate clean, not spotless to be sure, but clean enough for another day’s chalking.” Grace always comes along last. Just a little last bit, just a little more room to breathe deeply and say thanks for what is here and what shows up for me. Then tomorrow is new.

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We went to the park this morning. I was knee-deep in laundry and wanting to finish it, but a neighbor knocked at our door with a last minute invite, and both kids started jumping. So I dropped the laundry [again] and said let’s go. Jude took a notebook for his “field notes” and numbered his observations with his first grade penciled lettering. Seeing a blue bird, rubbing two sticks together to try and make fire, watching “a butterfly in spring,” and seeing a large ant.

He takes so much solace in these observations, like our time outside only really happens if these things are recorded for him to see and feel. I get that. Writing does that for all of us, I think. In so many ways, that is exactly what I do here – write my observations and experiences as they happen, not always trying to do anything with them, just writing them here to see them staring back at me and know that they aren’t invisible.

Sometimes I do that to reflect on what’s good so I can say yes, remember when? And sometimes I do that with the hard stuff, too. So when it gets better, or when it comes around again, I can say see, hear that? You’ve been there before and you did it. Just hang on; grace always comes last.

the dirt in the corner

I turned 36 this week. I am not sure how that happened. I was just 33, I thought. And before that just 29. Then 27. I am doing that thing where I double-check my age by glancing at the calendar and then doing the math from the year I was born. I can remember hearing adults do that when I was a kid and thinking, how do you not remember your age? And here I am. But somehow the second digit gets fuzzy when the years fly by quickly. I am 30-something and nearing closer to 40, I suppose. That is specific enough.

I went to a funeral the week before. My great aunt passed, and the service was in the same chapel where I sat almost 9 months ago to sing hymns at my grandmother’s goodbye. Time is a weird thing, sometimes dragging slower than we thought possible and sometimes rushing and sometimes doing something in between that still somehow surprises you.

As I sat in my seat adjacent to the wall, I could lean a little as I listened to the eulogies and the pastor’s message. He spoke a bit about her last years and how difficult they were and what a testament her husband’s love and attention was. I think he quoted I Peter 4:12 which reminds us “do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”

Hardship somehow feels like a surprise though, doesn’t it? Is that an American thing? A modern thing? A middle class thing? A human thing? I don’t know. But even now, after all the lessons I have learned, I am still sometimes surprised and exhausted at mishaps and trials of any kind.

A couple weeks ago I was off on midterm break while public schools were still in session. Jude woke first that morning and headed downstairs before I did. As I fumbled out of bed to make coffee, he came racing back up the stairs, Mama! There’s water dripping!

After what happened 5 months ago, I am ridiculously paranoid and react with almost PTSD panic about any water issues, so my heart jumped and I ran downstairs in emergency mode. As it turns out, the one bathroom that was not touched in the renovation had a leaking supply line. It was only a trickle, but it left a water spot below and a slow drip in the living room. I turned the water off at the main valve in the house, then at the street, then calmly called my plumber.

He came later that day and replaced it quickly and inexpensively, but in that process, we discovered that my hot water heater was slowly leaking a bit and on its last leg – which probably explains why my bath could only get half full these days before turning lukewarm. I took a deep breath. Here we are again. Two days later, I was $1700 poorer but have hot water and new valves throughout the house in every single sink and toilet.

It’s just life. This house is almost 12 years old, and it’s simply time for some wear and tear to be replaced. But it’s so easy to get frustrated with what Peter called the fiery ordeals, the flies in the ointment, the salt on the melon. Anne Lamott writes in Small Victories that “Life can just be so lifey. Life on life’s terms, which I don’t remember agreeing to.” Amen to that. Me either.

But at 36, I’m learning to change my expectations a bit. Leaks will happen, and funerals will too. Hot water heaters will break. Siblings will squabble. Laundry piles will grow more quickly than you want them to while bank accounts grow more slowly.

But we still have sunsets, thank God for that. And chocolate cake and music. And snoring dogs, laughing children, hot coffee, soft sheets. And occasionally I have mornings like this one where I am alone in a quiet house with a minute to be here without demands and expectations. I read Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” with my students this week. She claims “Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there.” I think if we are being honest with ourselves, all of life might be what you find in the dirt in the corner. Those little bits of time are the only way I ever get from here to there, the only way I put it all together.

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I have so many hopes for my 36th year. Big ones, like a book proposal. But lately, I just keep swimming as best I can, and these goals are pushed to the back burner. I woke up at 5:15am on my birthday and set my intention with a yoga session before I began my day. I’ve got to carve time somehow to sift the treasure from the dirt. Books don’t write themselves.

Spring is here in Georgia. Ripe strawberries are making their way to grocery stores, and birds chirp at us in the rush of our morning routines. I’m trying hard to squeeze out every ounce of energy spring offers me. God is in the details, no doubt. And life is in the tiny pieces of time we carve away from the bigger picture.