Life and Randomness

still the same thing

My kids started school yesterday. (We do it early here in Georgia, but they get a few scattered breaks throughout the year.) They woke up excited, hopped on the bus with friends, and came home with details and excitement to spare. But when we sat around the dinner table last night, it somehow felt like there was no break at all. Like I was just doing this with a kindergartener and a second grader, and I blinked, and now I guess we are here with a first grader and a third grader. The days are swirling so fast.

Lying in bed last night, I was thinking of what this feels like lately. I thought about when someone has a stack of papers or a handful or receipts or something, and then the wind blows and it takes the pieces flying in all directions across a parking lot or a busy sidewalk. The person flails around unsuccessfully trying to get them back as they blow away. That is my life lately. The second I think it is in my hands, it has flown away and we are on to a new stage.

They got back from their Europe trip just over a week ago. All they wanted to do was lie down in a pile of blankets and watch a movie, and I was happy to play along. There is a lot of push and pull happening for all three of us lately. Independence and time apart this summer, and then remembering what home feels like.

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Yesterday I waved kids off from our crowded bus stop for the fourth year. Four. I can hardly believe that somehow. We have been here in this shape with these four walls for almost half of Jude’s life and most of Norah’s. This is not a transition year at all for us. No fresh start at a new school for anyone. Norah has the same teacher Jude had two years ago. We are familiar to one another, and she hugged me as I walked into the meet and greet a few days ago. I lingered at the bus stop today with a hot coffee mug and other moms who know me well and see my kids everyday. We’ve made a cocoon here, and I’m feeling more than ever that it is what I once prayed for — peace and home and roots that have grown deep in this place. When I have eyes to see that, I understand that I lack for nothing.

I listened to the latest episode of Spiritualish yesterday afternoon as I cleaned in my quiet house while the kids were gone. One of the hosts is in her mid-forties and a mother to a teenager, and the frame of the entire episode was how midlife and adolescence are essentially the same thing. Or that maybe we at least have something to learn from reflecting on what our issues were in adolescence and perhaps they just reappear in another form in midlife. This thought blew my mind and struck a chord that I keep thinking about and turning over again and again in my head.

I think what we all wanted in adolescence was the same thing – freedom and autonomy and faces that looked back at us with a recognition of who we really are. And I’d venture to say that is what people want in midlife as well.

When I taught high school, I could see so clearly that is what my students wanted, but I could also see that some students really got it and went about chasing those things in a way that worked — exploring and coming to know themselves better, making choices that were true to themselves, and sometimes challenging authority but in a thoughtful and authentic way that helped to shape the path they were carving for themselves. And of course some students chased those things in all the wrong ways — pretending to be something they were not, self-destructive behaviors and distractions, trying on relationships that anyone could see were not working for them, and pushing against authority and traditional wisdom just to prove something.

And here I am in midlife (or close to it. Is late 30’s midlife yet?) and I watch my peers doing the same thing. It is exactly the same. When we were teenagers, we realized that the structure and life we’d known was not working for us anymore. It’s still the same thing at midlife. The status quo is not working for anyone anymore, and you have two options: chasing all the wrong things and continuing to play the game or doing that hard work of self-exploration and having the courage to truly hit the reset button on aspects of our lives that are simply not working anymore. I suppose that is the difference between a midlife crisis (doing it all wrong) and a midlife awakening (doing it right). But at the root, we all want the same things.

I’m not certain where I am going with this except to say that this cocoon has felt so nice, and it is warm and familiar here, and I have all the things I have prayed for. But also I feel like I’m just getting started, and as I grow closer and closer to my 40th year, I can see that adolescence brewing again. Maybe I’ve been lucky that the storm that happened in my mid-thirties blew away anything that wasn’t working for me so that I could make new roots and start again and build my life intentionally from the ground up. In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes a letter to a class of college graduates and tells them, “About eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.” I am almost to that 20 year mark, and sometimes I do feel like howling when I see what remains that I always knew deep down was true. That weird sense of deja vu when you don’t know where the years have gone or how you got here, but you always knew you’d feel like this.

Everyday brings new challenges with my kids and within my own self. Every morning brings a million tasks to be accomplished before we go to bed to wake up tomorrow and do it all again. The challenge is to carve a meaningful life that feels true in the midst of tackling so many small things.

Last night Norah leaned a little too hard on a small table in the corner of my living room. It toppled over and sent a glass candle crashing in a hundred pieces on the floor. It was nothing sentimental or valuable, but the commotion and drama made us all jump. I scooped it up and vacuumed the tiny pieces while she cried. I told her it was fine, but the tears were flowing anyway.

A few minutes later, she went upstairs for a bath, and she said, “You know what, Mama? Practice does not make perfect.” I asked her what she meant, and she said that today at school her teacher told them there is no such thing as perfect. “Practice makes better,” she explained.

I think maybe we never completely figure it out, do we? I don’t trust anyone who says they have. We practice and we practice and we get better, and eventually our lives start to look more like our own and our freedom starts to feel more vast everyday. We pretend to outgrow our old desires, but really we want the same things at 16 and at 36 and at 46. And if we do it the right way, with a little courage and intention, we move closer and closer with every year.

 

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gratitude, kids, travel

ebb and flow

I spent most of last week on a little trip with the kids. We were only a three hour drive northward. But it felt like some place else entirely. How easy it can be to forget the beauty just outside your own backyard. It feels so good to rediscover it.

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We spent a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains, near the national park that straddles the line between Tennessee and North Carolina. The idea for this trip began a year ago when I realized that I have loads of memories in these mountains with my grandparents and cousins, filed deep in the back of my very best pieces of nostalgia. We went almost every summer, and yet my own kids still hadn’t seen it and experienced it like I did. I decided this summer was a good time to take them, and then my sister decided to bring her two along as well, and my mom and grandad even drove up for the last night. We found a perfect cabin on the river in the foothills of the mountains and more or less let the kids run wild.

We unloaded our things on the afternoon of the first day and indulged in s’mores that night. Campfires and cousins in a cabin are the very best ingredients for summer memories, I think. It doesn’t take much at all to make something feel special.
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Something unique happens when you get away as a family. Kids sense the tension easing from your own back, I think. They walk lighter, just like you do. Happy with the littlest things – porch swings and smooth river rocks and open windows when we sleep. Vacation always feels like such an indulgent place, even when it’s close to home.

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We braved an amusement park one day to appease the kids, standing in crowded lines with countless other travelers at Dollywood. I can remember loving thrill rides when I was growing up, but it’s been something like 18 years since I’ve been on a roller coaster. Jude dragged me through the line for a coaster that shoots you like a cannon at 73mph high above the rest of the park. I didn’t love it like I used to; in fact, I sort of clenched my teeth and my belly and went for it to please him, but it felt terrifying in this way that I definitely didn’t experience as a kid. Maybe it’s the time and distance between then and now? Maybe it’s the adult worry mind inside me? I don’t know. But I held my eyes shut the whole time and felt relief when my feet were firmly on the ground afterwards, holding an anxious fear I don’t remember feeling when I rode them before.

Both of my kids are daredevils on these rides, and I definitely used to be. But somehow it feels different to me now. Time and experience can have unexpected effects on our own sense of fear, and it can change what scares you. We ended the day with the drive back to our little cabin, and my kids were elated from the bustle of the park, but I was mostly just tired and relieved to be back to a slower pulse.
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The next morning we spent slow hours in the national park, touring Cade’s Cove, an isolated valley with a few preserved historical structures and some beautiful wide open spaces. Life feels so quiet when you are there, like there is nothing to fear at all. But as I walked through old family homes with rock chimneys and one room for 12 people or looked at cemetery markers to find countless children and infants alongside each other, I thought a lot about how their fears were completely different than mine are today but were more real than I will ever understand.

We ended the tour there with an hour-long horseback ride through the wooded trails in the national forest. These are trail horses with a guide, and the pace is a leisurely trot, so those of you who grew up riding horses will laugh at this for sure … but this is another thing that was outside of my comfort zone to say the least. (Which is extra ironic given that only one generation ago family property held horses, and my 82-year-old grandad hopped on the horse with us last week like it was no problem at all.) But even so, an hour on the back of an animal 10 times your size in the depths of a national park isn’t something in the realm of my usual experience, and I was jittery as we waited to get on.

Once again though, it was the urging of my own son who pushed me there, and it’s not the first time I’ve done something scary for my kids – and likely not the last either. So we mounted the horses and set off in the woods, crossing a rushing creek at the start of the trail and listening to the clop, clop, clop through the ferns and fallen trees. With every step that I went beyond my own comfort zone, it got easier and lighter until it didn’t feel scary at all.

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That’s the way it always goes, I’m finding. The definition of scary may be different for each one of us. What terrifies you may not bother me, and what gives me butterflies may not register on your list of worries at all. And even within my own mind, time has changed what my fear responds to. But all the good stuff is on the other side of what I fear. Always. Sometimes it’s a place you can only get to when you cross that bridge. And sometimes it’s just that quiet hum of satisfaction when you know you did what you’d thought was impossible.  But if I just push myself past that space I fear so much, it is never as scary as I’d imagined.

I am home to mounds of laundry and loads of pictures I am weeding through from our time away.  But I hope this is the lesson from our trip that sits with me for a long time – the value in that tension of bravery and rest. The satisfaction that comes from doing what you feared and pushing past your discomfort and the quiet space of rest that we need just as much as we need courage and challenges. The truth is in the ebb and flow between those two things, knowing when to forge ahead with courage and when to slow down and feel the solace that grows in quiet familiar places.

gratitude, motherhood

wait it out, find the shine

Continuing my funk from earlier this week with my distaste of the stubborn Georgia heat, I’ve also ended up with some kind of allergy to the fall blooms or maybe the latest incarnation of my kids’ school germs. Whatever the cause, my throat is gravely and my eyes sting.

I rallied for Jude’s soccer game today, but other than that, I’m indulging in a lot of self care this weekend. I dropped in for a yoga nidra workshop Friday night at a local studio, which was essentially a long guided meditation. I found some homemade chicken soup hiding in the very back of the freezer today for lunch. I walked in the garden with my grandad pinching off early shoots of fall greens and fresh peas. I’ve listened to podcasts and read in a quiet house. And now I am writing a bit before an early bedtime.

I caught the latest On Being this afternoon and was completely hooked on a stunning interview with Ruby Sales, a prominent player in the early civil rights movement who still works as the Director of the Spirit House Project.

Being white and growing up at the end of the twentieth century, my life has little in common with the life of Ruby Sales in most noticeable ways, but she spoke so much about faith and optimism and anger and hard work and where those things intersect. It is in some surprising ways actually very reflective of the conflict I feel present for me now, the outer pressures I wrote about earlier this week when your own inner landscape doesn’t always match what you see in front of you.

She explained that she “grew up in the heart of Southern apartheid, and I’m not saying that I didn’t realize that it existed, but our parents were spiritual geniuses who created a world and a language where the notion that I was inadequate or inferior or less than never touched my consciousness.” Can you imagine? There are countless examples throughout history of these families who somehow created a new world in their own home. A place that was a respite from the pressures and opinions of the outside world and inspired social change that influenced generations. How do you do that?  How do you achieve that spiritual genius she speaks of and create a reality for your family that is so counter to the outside world?

She explained something that became a truth for her, an unarguable mantra. One I could use more of in my own life: “I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. And you are not going to coerce me into hating.”

Remember that this world she speaks of was a world where violence was an everyday act. Spiteful words and actions everywhere. Hate marches and constant messages of your own inferiority and yet, as she says when referencing an old spiritual, “That’s the meaning of the song ‘I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart. And you can’t make me hate you. And you can’t make me hate you in my heart.’ Now, that’s very powerful because you have to understand that this spiritual — it was an acknowledgement not only that we control our internal lives, but also it contested the notion of the omnipotent power of the white enslaver. That was very revolutionary and very profound.”

Revolutionary indeed. This is common sense, I know. But it is not in our human nature to respond to discomfort or conflict by just not participating in it. We always want to push back, but no conflict can exist if you choose not to participate in it. For whatever reason, today is the day my ears needed to hear this, and it turned a light on for me in a big way.

I can learn to use this with people around me who expect me to respond to resistance or hate with more of the same. I can use this in my own practice of self-compassion by not resisting my own growth, even when it is ugly. I can use this with my own kids by not resisting their own ways when it’s often just an expression of childhood and not purposeful rebellion anyway. We control our internal lives for sure. But we don’t control much else.

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Ruby Sales closed the interview with some reflections on lessons learned, and she said, “I don’t like aging a whole lot. The ankles, the knees hurt, et cetera. But one of the things I do like is that from where I sit on my front porch, I have hindsight, insight, and foresight. And that’s a beautiful gift of aging.” Ain’t that the truth? I am half her age and just beginning to see it unfold. Hindsight and insight are coming easily now, foresight is yet to come. But one thing I am learning is that love and truth always prevail. Always. Sometimes I just have to wait them out, I guess. Sit through the funk and wait out the discomfort. Try to find some shine in the meantime.

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Refusing to participate in hate or resistance and looking for the shine is actually a revolutionary act, I’m finding. People don’t know what to do with you when you don’t buy into the conflict or the constant messages of inadequacy that we hear everywhere. This is me, same as I ever was but different. I don’t believe in “happy” as a goal or a real state of being. I believe in surrender and honesty and all the things that come with that. I believe in grief and pain and having to wait it out until a new season arrives.

The hardest part about parenting is that you really don’t know if you are doing a good job or not until your job is all over, and then it’s too late. I want to create that world of spiritual genius for my own kids, that space in our hearts and homes where we don’t recognize the world’s messages of inadequacy or its false promises of happiness in all the predictable places. That’s not where joy lives anyway.

In “A Brief for the Defense,” John Gilbert writes , “Sorrow everywhere…But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick. … We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. …  We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

Despite everything, I hear the music sometimes. It’s faint but it’s there.

Life and Randomness, single parenthood

stolen moments

Life is so incredibly busy these days. I already look at summer’s lazy pace and miss it so much. Everyday is full of things I need to do and things I don’t quite get finished. Planning for class and grading piles of papers. Putting out fires with overwhelmed students in conferences everyday. November is a rush in academics. … Then afternoons and evenings are a blur. Tuesday afternoon ballet. Wednesday speech therapy. Friday afternoon soccer practice. Saturday soccer games. It just never stops.

I try to shield any feelings of chaos from my kids. I might be thinking ahead to what I’m making for dinner and how many minutes it will take or how bad my car needs cleaning or how I’m going to pay that bill. But I don’t want them to feel it. It’s getting to that time of the semester for all of us though, made worse by the early darkness of fall time change. They are tired by the end of the day, too. We are all ready for a break.

UntitledAnd we will get one soon enough. The holidays are around the corner. But then that calls for a little fret and worry and effort on my part as well. I’m hoping to be completely done with Christmas shopping by December 1st so that I can slow down and enjoy the season. But right now, that’s another thing weighing on my daily thoughts.

I miss writing. I miss knitting. I miss reading. I miss leisurely evenings. I miss sweaty miles at the gym. I miss (I admit it) television. I watched a movie last weekend when the kids were gone, and I realized that the last time I watched anything at all was July, and I am not at all kidding or exaggerating. It so rarely happens anymore. I miss moments of mindlessness, moments of doing my own thing and recharging. And then I wonder, to be totally honest, how I will ever find the time to fit someone else in this life when I feel ready for it, how I will ever even find the time to meet someone to begin with, when this is my pace.

I stumbled on this essay by Anne Lamott a few days ago as I was compiling a few things for my composition students. She asks, “what manic or compulsive hours will they give up in trade for the equivalent time to write, or meander? Time is not free—that’s why it’s so precious and worth fighting for. […] I’ve heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour. I promise you, it is there. Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day.” I’m trying hard to find that hour, but in a house with two little kids, a dog, and one adult with a full-time job, it is not an easy thing to find. I manage to have the house quiet (most nights) and the dishes clean by 9:15 or so, but I am so incredibly spent at that time that I can’t give the best of me to whatever I am working on.

I don’t know where I am going with this except to say that I am committed to finding some pocket of time, some stolen moment in my day. I need that time and space to create or think or accomplish something that is only for me. Writing it aloud here holds me accountable. I am determined to find that time and use it well. I’m an introvert in the truest sense, and I have lived long enough in this skin to know that about myself. I need time alone to recharge or I sink quickly. I feel like I am always chasing that moment in my day to exhale and recalibrate. It doesn’t always appear the way I’d like it to.   Untitled

I try to let the little passing moments pierce me with their stillness, even if it’s only for a second. Norah skipping across campus to her classroom. Jude’s intent focus as he draws. A warm bowl of homemade soup eaten among the chaos of a messy kitchen. The flop of my dog’s ear as he rolls from one side to the other in his laziness. But these little glimpses, even strung together, cannot give me the peace or satisfaction of a full hour to myself. I’m determined to find it, wherever it may be hiding.

Moms, (or any other readers who have a full plate everyday) what are your secrets for stealing time? Where does it hide for you? I’m all ears.