gratitude

engine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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gratitude, single parenthood

ordinary time

Friday was weirdly cold and rainy — for a May afternoon in Georgia anyway. I attended the university’s graduation ceremony as I always do, but it felt out of place and so strange as I piled on my academic regalia and walked across campus in a cold drizzle. We usually have spring graduation on the front lawn in the sunshine, but it was moved indoors.

I drove home in the rain listening to an episode of On Being that I heard years ago and remembered well, but it was replayed this week, and I couldn’t help but listen again. (It’s no secret I love this show – likely my favorite podcast. I highly suggest subscribing if you don’t already.) Krista Tippet interviews poet Marie Howe, and I can distinctly remember listening to this in something like 2014 when it first aired. I was folding laundry in my son’s room in a house I no longer live in, and I remember dragging the phone with me from room to room to continue listening as I put away everyone’s clothes. It’s always such an interesting experience to listen to music or read a book or see a movie years after you originally did. We hear things differently as we evolve to become different people, I think.  Much of what Howe discusses in the interview relates to her weeks spent with her younger brother in his final days, and that was before I’d had a mirror of that experience with my own grandmother. There are things I hear differently in that interview now.

In the episode, she talks a lot about ordinary time, as she calls it. The moments that are nothing special and easily missed but are also the key to unlocking happiness. She reads her short poem “The Gate” (link here if you want to see her read her own work) where she says, “I had no idea that the gate I would step through to finally enter this world would be the space my brother’s body made.” It’s strange, isn’t it? The gates we step through to finally enter are never the ones we expect. I was thinking about this as the graduates walked to proudly receive diplomas Friday night, that these big moments – graduations and weddings and new jobs and big moves – these are always the ones we assume will most shape us, but it rarely works out that way. It’s the ordinary time that does it. And sometimes the heartbreak, too.

Tippet also asks her in the interview about the process of using writing to break open instead of closed, and I hear echoes of my own story and what I’ve learned through writing in this space. Howe says, “I mean, things are going to happen all the time. The unendurable happens. People we love and we can’t live without are going to die. We’re going to die. … Art holds that knowledge. All art holds the knowledge that we’re both living and dying at the same time. It can hold it. And thank God it can because nothing out in the capitalistic corporate world is going to shine that back to us, but art holds it.” And how true that is, right? I feel like all I ever hear around me is messages of permanence. That what we buy or hold right now matters and will matter forever. Art is the only thing that reflects the impermanence of our everyday lives – which is a thought a lot of people don’t want to let in. It makes you begin to question the race we all run and what it’s really for. The long hours to make the money to buy the things that you don’t have time to enjoy because you are working more to buy more. Nothing about that scenario admits that we are all living and dying at the same time.

She goes on to talk about the connection that happens with writing, saying “So I think that we join each other. It’s easier. We’re not alone. And I feel like that’s the only answer. Otherwise, we’d just think it’s only happening to us. And that’s a terrible and untrue way to live our lives. And I think art constantly mirrors that to us, whether you’re reading Thomas Hardy, or Doris Lessing, or Virginia Woolf, or Emily Dickinson, it’s just holding the human stories up to us, and we don’t feel alone. It’s so miraculous.

I’ve seen that miracle in this space, and I am so grateful for it. For every comment or email that says I get it; me, too. Thank you, thank you. Sharing our stories in all their raw honesty is really where it’s at.

Listening to this interview again almost three years after I initially did makes me grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. I know last summer, hard though it was for me, illuminated things I can never un-see. But also this time I’m in — this liminal space as theologians call it, this in-between where I don’t know with any certainty what is next and I don’t owe anyone anything — it forces me to see the this that Howe refers to. This moment, whatever it may be, is what I’ve been waiting for.

The kids were away this weekend, and though I was tired and it was cold and rainy on Friday, sunshine showed up on Saturday, and I decided to take advantage of it and head a few minutes north to spend some idle afternoon hours at a nearby winery.

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Dating when you have kids is weird and hard. There is a lot I could say about that and likely one day will, but I will say that when you are in it, you just do the best you can. I tend to forget the perfection that exists in simple quiet hours where you do nothing but eat and drink and talk and pay attention. What I value now isn’t the same it once was. Just be honest and true and make me laugh and listen.  And be willing to throw a blanket and a picnic basket in the car and spend a few hours with me doing nothing at all.

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I noticed things on the drive up that I usually don’t as I got to show him the landscape I love so much that has shaped my life. And this whole experience with him has worked that way in me as well. I’m seeing things in my own self that I never noticed were there or things that I had forgotten in the layers of all the other stuff that structures my days. There are so many pieces of my life that are deeply rooted – job and house and kids and immovable pieces of who I am. But I can feel myself bending here and there to notice what I haven’t before or to see things from a different angle, to stretch just a little beyond what I would normally do.  And there it is again – that same command I hear from every yoga instructor – stretch just beyond where you normally would and rest there; don’t force it or rush it. Let it be.

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I’m still in that liminal space and have no indication of what the future holds, but I’m learning this is where the gold is anyhow. No demands or expectations. Just being grateful our paths crossed as they have and taking what is offered to us on a sunny afternoon in May. Being grateful for what is here and not questioning the rest.

Mary Oliver tells us, “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely of attentiveness.” Who knew how perfectly imperfect it all can be when you push aside every demand and just slow down and pay attention.

Books

the rushing lens of a microscope

I find myself falling down some black hole of time lately. I wonder where my hours go, what I do. I can’t always name much at the end of the day. I grade a few papers, read and prep for class but not as much as I would’ve liked, answer an email or two, run that lingering errand, pick up kids from school, make dinner, and then 6-10pm is swallowed up with all the things required at the end of the day, and my tired head hits the pillow.

Somehow things become more involved than you think they should. As is the case with all of life, it seems. In a current course I’m teaching, I begin the semester listening to Jenny Hollowell’s “A History of Everything, Including You” with my students. (It’s featured in New Sudden Fiction, but you can listen to her read it herself on this podcast here.)

This particular story feels like some rushing lens of a microscope zooming from the cosmic confusion of the dawn of the universe to the very particular pain of an individual woman. It’s a work I can read again and again, and it resonates with me more each time. How did we get here? And I can mean that collectively, as a society, as I watch the news unfold hourly these days. Or how did I get here? I can ask that personally and know that there is no short answer for the hum that is created from all the pieces that add up to what I have become. One thing leads to another and to another, and before you know it, your life has a shape all its own that has come to pass because of a thousand twists and turns, some intentional and some circumstantial.

I have the urge to simplify everything right now. Clean the closets and throw things out that I no longer need. Check my tasks off as quickly as I can without muddling them with too much thought. Read some bulleted list of news without the analysis I usually crave. The older you get, the more you see why that’s hard though. Things have layers of attachment and value. Tasks have more thoughtful ways of being done if we take the time. News has loads of context that you don’t get with a quick bold heading or summary. People have layers upon layers of meaning and history that construct who they are and how they see the world.

Tonight is said to hold a full moon, a comet, and an eclipse at the same time. An eclipse in Leo which astrology tells us is a fire sign – known for being bold and playful and confident and creative. I don’t chart my life by a horoscope, but I love the ceremonial spaces granted to us with the changes and cycles in the sky above. And I always need a reminder that things are bigger and grander and more complicated than I can ever imagine, but yet my tiny little life in this warm house is what I hold and what matters.

Eclipses are also often representative of endings and beginnings, closings and openings. They invite us to think about what can be left behind and what threshold we need to cross next. This one is reminding me that the layers are always going to feel messy and deep and too difficult to understand, but it’s still my job to walk forward anyway, to figure out what I am meant to do in this season and this place, to find what makes me happy and do more of it. I’m ready to close this season that’s left me feeling like I’m almost drowning. I’m ready to reclaim that creative energy and move forward through the muddled complicated layers to find something simple again.

David Whyte has a poem that says, “Sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside of you. Sometimes it takes a great sky to find that first, bright and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.” 

The kids and I huddled under blankets tonight and ate take-out in the living room while watching a movie. Then upstairs for bed, and I can hear them snoring now with the perennial February sniffles that always appear this time of year. The moon is bright enough to shine through the blinds and leave some faded lines of light along my bedroom wall as I’m typing this. There’s something big inscribed across the heavens tonight three times over, but I can hear that one line written inside, too. Pulsing like a heartbeat. Here, now. Here, now. Ready to begin again.

 

 

 

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.

Books, gratitude

that second song

My summer is rushing by faster than I’d like. We’ve been off three weeks, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. I left a couple of cereal bowls in my sink for what I realized was three days, and I haven’t properly grocery shopped since we’ve been home from vacation. As it turns out, there is a lot to do to ready things for the end of someone’s life, a lot of choices to make and a lot of family to weigh in on those choices. I was with her all day yesterday, but I am staying home today, I think. To breathe and to clean a bit and to do a few rituals in my own quiet home to bring me back to myself.

As always, I am knee-deep in a lot of reading — bits and pieces scattered everywhere. And all of it is working to speak to me on some level. This week’s theme in my Richard Rohr contemplations is all about the contrast of the first half and the second half of life, as he calls it. Something always happens to shake us up, doesn’t it? Lots of things do that job if we are listening, but something is always the big one that comes at the right time to unfold something entirely new for you if you are listening.

My divorce was that for me, no doubt. My life will forever be viewed in the before and after lens of that moment. It is only after that brokenness when I became full and real and whole. But I also can see so clearly how this chapter with my grandmother is working to further that work.  I see without question, when I look in my rearview, how suffering has helped me to evolve, and I am seeing it still. Rohr claims, “The transition from the first half of life to the second half often involves a stumbling stone. […] Until you can trust the downward process, the Great Mystery cannot fully overtake you. It’s largely a matter of timing. Some of us put it off until the last hour of life. But the sooner you can do it, the better. Almost all spirituality teaches you the secret of dying before you die. If you can face your mortality and let go of this small self early on, you’ll experience heaven here and now.”

I died a small death about a year and a half ago. The shell that held my identity was completely emptied and refilled. But now, it feels like I’m dying another one – which I guess is how life works… emptying and refilling, again and again. This time is showing me, even more clearly than before, how to surrender and how to swallow whatever is given to me, no matter how bitter it seems in the immediate moment. It will nurture me eventually, and I can already feel the softening that happens before I’m molded to something else. I can remember this from before: the grief, the softness, then the light.

I’m also finishing up Bird by Bird, and a passage when Lamott is talking about spending time with her terminal and cancer-stricken friend caught me enough to note it and read it again and again late last night.

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Time is never as long as we think, is it? I guess at 35, I am not quite considered mid-life yet, but I’m getting there. And the closer I get, it feels like a shedding of something, a fire that is refining my clarity in ways I haven’t seen before. I’m tired of holding my breath, as Lamott says. There are things I am meant to do and to be, and I don’t want to miss the call to do them.

In another reading from Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, he further explains, “The first half of life is all about some kind of performance principle. And it seems that it must be this way. You have to do it wrong before you know what right might be. … In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being. But this wisdom only comes later, when you’ve learned to listen to the different voices that guide you in the second half of life. These deeper voices will sound like risk, trust, surrender, uncommon sense, destiny, love. They will be the voices of an intimate stranger, a voice that’s from somewhere else, and yet it’s my deepest self at the same time.”

It is so hard to hear that voice instead of holding your breath, isn’t it? Especially in light of crisis or even the daily demands of everyday life. I’m trying to find ways here and there to still hear it.

A couple of days ago, I went to my grandparents’ house to ready a few things to bring her home, and I was there by myself for a minute and caught her blue hydrangeas in the late afternoon light. Just that perfect slant through the trees with the contrast of the blue blooms against the dark green leaves. That second, short and fleeting in the midst of such a sad time, is what it means for me to fill up, to stop holding my breath. Her flowers that she planted ages ago that bloom in the same spot year after year. And that moment that I will no doubt remember for the rest of my life as one that managed to mix beauty and fear and sweetness and sadness all into one. Sometimes the line between what is temporary and what is eternal is not as clear as we think.

I had some time alone with her yesterday, and she’s not always making sense. But she still says I love you and I’m proud of you, and even in her delirium, she is referencing past moments and rituals we’ve known together my whole life – places we’ve gone together, dishes she’s made for me. And the sound of her voice this week is one that will stay with me forever and forever. There is such a fine line between this world and the next, a sheer curtain. I felt it so certainly in the hours and days when my babies first entered the world, and I feel it now.

I ran across a poem yesterday by Annie Lightheart that resonates with me right now. I feel lately as though I am living on two planes. One that is temporary and full of all the necessities that life demands of us — bills and laundry, and dishes, and daily actions. And one that carries a thread somewhere else, that mysterious chain I’ve written so much about lately.

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“The Second Music” by Annie Lightheart

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

When all other things seem lively and real,
this one fades. Yet the notes of it

touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound
of the names laid over each child at birth.

I want to stay in that music without striving or cover.
If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,

the telling is so soft
that this mortal time, this irrevocable change,

becomes beautiful. I stop and stop again
to hear the second music.

I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.
All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.

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It’s a second song playing underneath the daily noise. It’s faint sometimes. As she says, If the truth of our lives is what is playing, the telling is so soft that this mortal time, this irrevocable change, becomes beautiful. Can you hear it playing? I can.

 

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Books, gratitude

the way everything is met in me

So many ideas, so many things I am reading, are swirling around the same center lately. I’m sure the realist would suggest that it’s because I am just looking for the same central ideas so I notice them more, but I am such a mystic about this sort of thing. I never think it’s an accident when words make their way to me at a specific time.

I’m a fan of On Being, and I shared the latest episode yesterday. It’s an hour-long conversation with poet and philosopher David Whyte, and it is definitely worth your time if you get a chance to listen. I first ran across him about a year ago with his poem that states that “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.” It’s a passage I turned over and over in my own mind in the earliest days of being by myself for the first time.

Krista Tippet’s conversation with him touches a bit on that poem and on a lot of other things as well. They talked a bit about the “conversational nature” of life and where things intersect and take paths we don’t expect. I loved his discussion of genius when he explains that “in the ancient world, the word ‘genius’ was not so much used about individual people, it was used about places, and almost always with the world lociGenius loci meant ‘the spirit of a place.’ And we all know what that intuitively means. We all have favorite places in the world, and it may be a seashore where you’ve got this ancient conversation between the ocean and the land and a particular geography of the way the cliffs or the beaches are formed … But a more sophisticated understanding would understand it’s this weatherfront of all of these qualities that meet in that place. So I think it’s a very merciful thing to think of human beings in the same way as — that is, your genius is just the way everything has met in you.”  The way everything has met in you. To think of that – the way every piece of every thing I have experienced is met in me and the way all those tiny pieces create who I am and my life path – it’s a pretty overwhelming thought but a beautiful one, too. It makes me see people around me in a different light as well. We all have our unique genius, the way everything has met inside of us.

I’ve been reading Rilke lately, as I wrote about a few days ago, and his whole premise in Letters to a Young Poet is to fully immerse yourself in every experience, even the sad ones. To feel the weight of your own sadness so that you can find your way to the other side, too. He urges the reader to feel it all and “live the questions” which was an idea David Whyte echoed, too. He discusses this notion of feeling through questions to train what he calls “a more beautiful mind” and he insists “it’s an actual discipline, no matter what circumstances you’re in. The way I interpreted it was the discipline of asking beautiful questions, and that a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it. You just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.” I’ve seen this first hand. It resonated with me so much that I went straight to the transcript of the show to read it again.

I feel as though all I ever do is observe and ask questions. (You see that here if you read along because most of what I write is really just a combination of those two things.) I have so few answers, only questions. But asking these questions – what am I feeling? why am I feeling it? what brings me alive and makes me feel real and how do I do more of it? – the simple act of asking has led me to so many new people and paths and experiences that I’ve seen unfold in the past year or so. I overlook the miraculousness of it all sometimes when I am caught in my daily tasks, but it amazes me when I stand back to look and feel it and be amazed.

Rob Bell talks about this on a recent podcast of his as well. He says it’s the difference between our frantic what am I doing? what am I doing? what am I doing? that we ask internally all day as we hurriedly move from one task to another and the awe-inspired what am I even doing here? question that we ask if we are wise enough to notice our own genius, as Whyte would say, the way all of our experience is met in us to create this spirit that is uniquely ours. This life that is uniquely your own.

There is so much unexpected in my life, and I can be frantic in my daily buzzing. There are volumes left unanswered for me right now. But the genius loci  of my life is here when I pause to see it. These two kids I get to see everyday and watch them grow into their own ways. This home I found largely by coincidence that I call my own with deeper roots every passing week. The circle of people around me – some I’ve known for years, some who are new, and some who have meandered back to me somehow after absence. My job and the tasks of my daily life. This journal which began with a few observations years ago and evolved to something very different in a way only genius loci could create.

We had a visiting poet today on campus. She read a few pieces this morning, and then we had a hardy group of students and a few faculty members show up for the afternoon Q&A session with her. As I listened to her and watched a few eager student faces, I made the effort to pull back a minute, to see the true genius of what I was experiencing. That this is my life.

That I work somewhere I can park myself in a chair in the late afternoon and listen to someone talk about words and ideas. And then I go home and exhale a bit with two kids whose names and faces I didn’t know would ever exist a decade ago. And we eat and play and bathe and now I record a few things here as they sleep and my dog snores at my feet. And tomorrow, I wake up and brew coffee, and I begin it all again. The rhythm of my life full of things I love most and with a path that meanders with surprises along the way. That is the what am I even doing here? awe-inspired question I can ask myself. How did I get this life? How did I arrive here? It’s really only a result of asking the right questions and listening to what they evoke in me, but when I step back to see it for what it really is, it blows me away sometimes.

Andrea Hollander was our poet today, and she spoke a lot about the process of creating poetry and that she doesn’t consider it a good poem until it surprises her as she’s writing it. I feel that in so many ways. When I sit down here to write, when I make observations and ask the right questions, I arrive somewhere and realize that I knew something I didn’t know I knew. Like a deep recognition or remembrance brought to the surface. It’s why I record ideas here, even if they are hurried or jumbled like they are tonight.

In one of her poems, Hollander explains, “You know how it is when something / so startles you into your life — / you forget you are anything but eyes / or ears or mouth. It doesn’t have to hurt. / I’m talking about certain swells / of music your bones recognize / as if they’ve created them and now / they’ve come home.”

I hear the music today. The swell and the recognition, the feeling that my bones created it with their own genius loci. The way everything has met in me. I’m grateful for all the little pieces.

 

gratitude

to pay attention

My February calendar is a scary sight. The entire month does not present one “normal” week that follows our usual routine. Doctor appointments here and there – for me and also for the kids. A work conference that overlaps a couple of weekdays as well as part of a weekend. Not to mention the usual craziness that comes with kids stricken with cabin fever and sniffling in the usual winter fashion. Norah graciously shared her preschool germs with me, and nighttime sounds like a tuberculosis ward in our house. Cough cough, groan, reach for a tissue. On repeat for much of the night.

We are reaching for the smallest signs of spring. The kids and I walked to the playground to soak up some sun a couple of weeks ago when then weather surprised us one afternoon. When I arrived home tonight, neighborhood kids were already in the yard throwing a football to soak up a few last minutes of winter sun.

It’s when you are trudging through the hard stuff that you look intently for any little glimmer that shows you that warmth is around the corner. And it always is. It’s funny how those little seconds can push you through. The littlest break from something hard can encourage you to keep walking.

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I’m beginning a couple of weeks of a poetry study in my Research & Writing class. My throat is scratchy, and I’m tired. The temperature yesterday hardly reached freezing, and the wind was miserable. But as I prepped for class in my drafty office, I steeped some ginger tea and settled in for a minute to remind myself how much I love a good poem. How hard poets work to make it all seem simple, how they express the feelings that have no other name and no real language. I think what I appreciate most about poetry is its ability to boil down a single second, a single moment in time, a single image. It distills it until all that is left is its very essence.

It’s a skill I wish I could do more of in my real life. Only seeing this moment for what it is.

Tomorrow is a holiday for Jude’s school district, so the kids are away from me tonight. It feels strange and wonderful – but mostly just strange – to have a quiet house with no demands on a weeknight. I’m usually running bath water at this hour to get both kids cleaned up. Or cleaning the dinner dishes while checking off a manic to-do list in my head. Or packing Jude’s lunch while waiting on the dryer to buzz with a fresh load of clothing that needs prompt attention.

And tonight, I am here writing instead. Alone. Quiet.

I soaked in a steaming tub at 5:30pm and listened to music. I reheated our favorite soup that is leftover from Tuesday night. I poured a glass of wine and layered my favorite blanket on my lap to sit here and write a minute and see where it goes.

It’s so easy to look ahead at a list or a calendar or a monumental task that is waiting for me. And sometimes you have to look ahead to keep up. But to be here now, to see the immediate moment for what it is and nothing more – that is both a challenge and a comfort.

We were sharing favorite poems in class yesterday, and I read my favorite Mary Oliver – a poem that always reminds me what it means to pay attention.

 

“The Summer Day” 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

And really what more is there? To be idle and to pay attention. That’s where the golden light hides. Rumi says, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are 100 ways to kiss the ground.”

Even in the depth of winter, I’m kneeling and kissing. Poetry, homemade soup, music, silence. The beauty I love is what I do.