Books, single parenthood

witness

Where to start, I don’t know. July always leaves me this way. Feeling restless and maybe just the tiniest bit anxious for the start of the school year around the corner. The kids have 15 summer days left, and I have 32. We are trying to drink up every last bit.

I spent last weekend in a cabin on the Tennessee River with a few friends – near and far, old and new. We read and relaxed and explored bookshelves and coffee shops. I spent nearly half of the day Friday on a shaded porch swing with a book in my lap – something I haven’t done in ages. It’s so easy to lose the pulse of who we really are and forget the small pleasures that bring us the most happiness. We spent some rainy hours on Saturday exploring a warehouse of used books, and I came home lugging a bag with no less than nine new titles. One of them is Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass which I dove into first and am swallowing down in huge gulps when the kids are playing or sleeping. It’s her honest reflection on decades of marriage, and it illuminates big things about relationships through the language of everyday minutiae. It’s a timely read for me, and a fascinating look inside a marriage.

Shapiro focuses a lot on the passage of time and how it chisels and changes two people. As she reflects on her first date with her husband, she explains, “I want to deliver some kind of benediction upon them as – drunk on love – they meander the streets of Alphabet City. I want to suggest that there will come a time when they will need something more than love.” Or as she says later, “Our world will narrow as the storm of time washes over us. It will bleach us, expose our knots, whittle us down like old driftwood. … There is luck involved, of course. But not only luck.”

I think that’s a way that we change after divorce, especially when you take time off to be alone and think of what is next. We see that love is a choice, not luck or passion. That the long game is about decades instead of months, but at the same time, decades are made of tiny moments, tiny words that add up to something. That there are some things you can bear and some things you can’t, but that is always a choice.

Susan Sarandon’s character in the movie Shall We Dance insists that “We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness.’” That line echos with me again and again. Especially now that I am alone. I think it’s the witness that we miss sometimes. The presence that is there in all the little everyday moments to say I see you and I hear you and you don’t go unnoticed.

I think witnessing someone in the real way is a choice, and a hard one, too. Shapiro’s book reminds us of that. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways I can bear witness to myself when life feels like it is swirling and changing. It is not the same as having that steady shoulder and clear mirror of a forever partner. But there are ways, I think. Writing is one. Talking to friends. Holding on to your own center when you are the only one there.

The kids brought home some sunflowers Sunday night after visiting a sunflower farm nearby. Yesterday morning, we began the day with waffles and sunflowers and cherries. July at its best. Fresh corn is stacked in my fridge, and tomatoes line the window sill. I am doing what I can to bear witness to what is around me, to sink into what is here, even if I am the only one to feel it and see it.

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Sometimes I wonder if I will gaze back at this time, with all of its uncertainty and growing pains and lessons, and think That was it. You were in it. You were alive and real and growing and reaching. Or if I will just see it as a blur and be glad it’s over.

I hope not. The days roll by so quickly right now, and it can feel like I have no witness in these everyday storms, but even with my tired perspective, I can see that this life is something I want a witness to. A beautiful thing.

As Shapiro reflects on her own younger experiences, she says, “Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.”

I know it’s impossible to have someone sit down and tell you everything about how the story goes. But selfishly, I wish time worked that way. Some days it all feels fast and slow at the same time, stifling and loose, real and imagined. It’s so hard to bear witness to this story when what you really want to know is what’s on the other side.

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divorce, single parenthood

the right kind of loneliness

I’m on day 5 without the kids – something that only ever happens in the summer – and so far I’ve taken a yoga class, cleaned out my garage, completed two books, watched a full season of something on Netflix, hiked a nearby spot, cleaned out the kids’ closets, made a few trips to Goodwill, begun my book proposal, and accepted a freelance writing job. Today I have another yoga class and a lunch with friends on the books.

I guess as it turns out, I am not all that good at relaxing. I say I’m fine with being alone, but as always, the body keeps the score, and I’m up early every morning with more energy than I should have — all that end-of-the-school-year exhaustion hardly palpable this week as I suddenly have the fire to complete every task under the sun.

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I know I’m tired and craving stillness on the inside, but you have to carve away the layers to get to that spot, or I do anyway. I hope to get faster about that eventually, but for now, I can remember that this is how it works for me always. I squirm a lot and try to move to the right or the left instead of just sitting with it. I self-medicate with busyness. And then the buzz slows its pace little by little until the stillness finally arrives.

I can remember what this was like the first summer I was on my own, and it’s not nearly that bad anymore. But I’m surprised to feel that anxious fire still there a bit even now, two years later. You think you have mastered something and moved beyond it, but there it is again. I’m remembering what Pema Chodron wrote in When Things Fall Apart, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. if we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. it just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter…”

I think part of this, if I’m being honest with myself, is that since I’m seeing someone, it’s been months since I’ve had an extended time of being alone like this. He’s on a big trip across the country with family this week though, so I have to sit with it awhile again. Timing is never accidental, and I think I needed this. (We all need it from time to time.) There is no barometer that can allow you to check in with yourself except stillness and solitude. It’s also Pema Chodron who reminds me, “Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It’s restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company. When we can rest in the middle, we begin to have a nonthreatening relationship with loneliness, a relaxing and cooling loneliness that completely turns our usual fearful patterns upside down.”

This is the ultimate test of joy and contentment, I think. Can you sit with yourself without distraction for any period of time? Strip the roles away piece by piece – mother, wife, girlfriend, employee, friend, sister – whatever they may be. Strip it all away and stay awhile with the person underneath all of that. Sitting in the loneliness, the right kind of loneliness, for a minute, an hour, a day. It shines a light on all the places where you are holding something too tightly.

I can remember writing something in the early days when my life exploded, and I said I knew that there are women who grow stronger and wiser from life’s heartache but that I didn’t know how they got there. Now I know though. It’s that time alone to feel the pulse of what you need and want and what life is teaching you. That’s how you get there.

I’m recognizing the value of it all and trying to be grateful for it, even in the itchy silence of an empty house. Stillness and solitude always show me what I need to know.

single parenthood

birth pains

It’s been a hard week. I am in the midst of grading final exams, and I have so much catching up to do. April was a fun month, but I was distracted with a thousand tiny things, and now I’m making up for it, I guess.

The body never lies, does it? I’ve become really good at telling myself that I am fine and it’s not that stressful and I can handle anything. But then sometimes I hit a wall, so to speak, and my anxieties manifest themselves in the body when I haven’t been listening to anything else. The tightness in my center, the exhaustion. It forces me to slow down when I’ve been ignoring stress and pushing my limits. I’ve learned to be grateful for those signals.

I was talking to a friend last night about how I’ve been in reacting mode for the past couple of years of my life – checking all the things off the list and putting out fires in front of me one-by-one. First there was signing documents and changing my name and selling and buying a house and moving and the never-ending list of tasks that comes with two kids at two different schools and a full-time job for me.

But here I am now. I’m looking ahead at a summer break that begins in two weeks, and I have no burning needs shouting to be met. No fires to put out. I’ve chipped away at that first layer of simply reacting, and I’m pressing my ear to my own center to see what I can hear stirring. It’s a vast open space, and truthfully, I’m terrified.

I feel like I’m free-falling. And it’s a moment I didn’t expect given that I’m grounded in ways I haven’t been in quite some time. The routines and budgets and tasks are ironed out. The anniversaries are all behind me. But now it’s just me. Here. With anything I want in front of me and unexplored territory inside of me. I know myself so much better than I ever have, but there is an enormous piece of my identity that depends on no one now. And after a decade of being consumed by all of these roles – daughter, teacher, friend, wife, mother – it’s hard to remember sometimes that there is someone in there who doesn’t owe anyone anything.

I’m not even sure where to begin.

I encountered this a little last summer when I had so many hours away from my kids, and I wrote about how difficult that was. Now I’m ready, in some ways, to encounter that time again. I know what to expect and what it feels like. But I also have fewer burning needs to fulfill for others this summer, and the urgency of my transition is over. Now it’s truly just me in solitude. I’m looking forward to experiences and adventures with my kids, but I know that solitude is where the surprises happen. I’ve seen firsthand how beneficial it can be but also how uncomfortable it is when you are so used to fulfilling roles for everyone else. So few people get the time and space to delve in in the way I do in this season of my life. I am grateful for that. But it’s also uncomfortable.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez explains, “human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” I look back at this journal from my past few years, and I feel that I have given birth so many times to myself over and over. And here we are again. I feel a new one coming as the reacting is done and now it is all up to me. It’s like labor pains in those hours before birth. I feel my spirit and my body preparing for what is next. It’s both terrifying and thrilling. And it’s exhausting. I think the truth is that it hurts to be born again and again. Becoming is work.

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This past few weeks, I’ve been craving home and comfort and belonging. I’m sure that is the natural result of this free-falling feeling. When we don’t know where to begin, home is always the answer. Sometimes your literal home and sometimes just that space inside yourself where you can hear the familiar quiet of your own being.

I brought a friend dinner last night as she’s housebound recovering from surgery. We’ve known each other for something like 20 years, and conversation is always comfortable. Never stilted. Before I drove over, she sent me a warning text that her room was messy and I responded my whole life is messy – don’t even worry about it. We shared pasta and wine and talked about the personal and the political and all things in between. I drove the winding roads on the way home after dark listening to Joni Mitchell sing a song I’ve heard countless times: Something is lost and something is gained in living everyday.

The losing, the gaining. The ending, the beginning. The new terrain, the coming home. Again and again. Rebirth is work.

 

 

 

gratitude, single parenthood

snow and quiet

Atlanta was bracing for something more exciting than we we ended up with, but we were left this weekend with a little dusting and some uncharacteristic windy chill. The high is only 30 today, but the sun is bright, and I can hear drops running down my gutters right now as the rooftop thaws.

I went to take the dog out last night before bed, and the neighborhood was quiet. Just the slightest dusting can feel special when you live in Georgia.

southern "snow"

The kids are away this weekend, and it brings more consolation than sadness – if I can be honest. I have been trapped inside with them for days at a time alone more times than I’d care to remember. In 2011 when Jude and I spent 7 days alone in the house unable to conquer the driveway and neighborhood streets. In 2013 when I had two kids under 4, both sick. And again in 2014 when Atlanta was hit with a lot that year and I had a husband working in sunnier climates. I love my kids. I do not love winter and the thought of icy streets and no snow plows. When I remember the frayed nerves that resulted from days on end of no real adult contact in those storms, I’m grateful for the time alone to pause this weekend.

This morning, I wandered down the stairs at 8:30 to brew the coffee, and I already heard the chatter of neighborhood kids outside with hats and mittens. It brought a tinge of sadness and a tangible ache for a minute, but as I’ve settled into the rest of the day busying myself with things around the house, the solitude feels worn and comfortable.

I was told that this would happen eventually, that being alone would get easier. It felt so unnatural in the beginning, but I am there finally.

Winter takes a lot of deliberate focus for me to see the bright side and push through. It can feel long and dark. I’ve been making a conscious effort since the new year began to be still and use the early dark and time at home to tend to what’s close. It’s working well to calm the restlessness or anxiousness or dreary outlook that can sometimes emerge from winter.

Ram Dass so famously said, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” And one good thing about this time of year is that it is so quiet – if you let it be. School and work and activities keep us rushing, but by 6pm it is dark and we are home and glad to be here. The kids are in bed by 8, and I make myself (no matter how much I don’t want to) turn off the distractions and unroll my yoga mat for half an hour. This goes in the category of duh, why didn’t I know that already? but that half hour has brought so much foundation and awareness to the rest of my day. It’s funny how much I’ve paid for occasional classes in a studio in years past, and it’s the home practice that is making such a difference for me. That’s how it always goes though; it always starts at home, all of it.

Looking to something or someone else to get you somewhere has hollow results. You have to see the abundance in your own self. Winter is good to remind me of that. All these little things – baking a bit, getting an extra hour of sleep, lighting candles after dark – they all echo what I already know which is that what you need is all right here.

gratitude, Life and Randomness, single parenthood

real talk

This is real talk here today. I’m admitting some ungraceful moments, but I’m just going to pour it here so that it doesn’t fester inside.

I decided to take my kids to The Compassion Experience this year as I’d heard so many positive things about it before. I thought it could be a good antidote to holiday greed and give us a space to think and talk with a new perspective.

I chose a Sunday night just after the kids got home from their father’s which was the WORST possible idea in hindsight. They are always complete lunatics and erupt in predictable tears and tantrums in the three hours that exist between the 5pm drop-off and bedtime. I read everywhere that this is completely normal and expected as kids return to their primary custodial parent, and I know that it illustrates their comfort level with me and their feeling of safety. Any therapist will echo that. But it is hard in the moment, I admit. They save all of their tears for me, it seems. Monday morning we are back to normal, but Sunday nights following a weekend away are rough.

Anyhow, I selected Sunday because I didn’t want to do this amidst the weeknight rush, and I was pleasantly surprised as we walked through the rooms of the exhibit. Both kids were listening closely, asking questions, looking curiously.

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There is such a disconnect though – between our reality and the reality in front of us as we walked through. Our warm beds and clean water and award-winning schools, their communities full of poverty that bring concerns we never think about. I can bridge this disconnect with empathy and compassion, and for a brief moment, my kids can, too. But it is all so far away from us in the land of excess.

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I’ve been wanting to sponsor a child for a long time, and I know from my experience growing up that reading their letters and hearing their stories can be so fulfilling and enlightening for kids here at home. It feels like a personal commitment and a friend. And almost anyone can manage $38 a month. So at the end of our time there on Sunday, we were glancing at the cards and deciding on a child to sponsor, and I made the terrible mistake of explaining our sponsorship in terms my own kids could understand. (“We can send her pictures and letters, and it’s just the cost of one toy, and it helps her go to school and see a doctor and eat healthy food.”) And my normally mellow, sweet, kind-hearted kindergartner had a full-on tantrum of the worst kind. Put that picture back! I want toys! I don’t want to send her our money! at a volume that assured it to be my most humiliating parenting moment ever. Hands down.

I was so shocked that I stood there stunned for a minute and tried to reason with him, but nothing worked. He was out of it (expected 7 pm meltdown after a weekend away), and I asked my mom (thank God she was with me) to guide him out while Norah and I finished the sponsorship process. When we got home, he was still not himself and not exactly understanding the significance of why I was so bothered by his behavior. But eventually, before bed, he came around a bit. He wrote me an apology note on his own accord – complete with kindergarten spelling. (Really, this kid!) And I found him crying in the bathtub which opened the door for us to talk about a lot of things.

This makes the third time he’s come home on a Sunday night for me to find him crying in a room alone, and it leaves me so broken. Growing pains are hard for all of us right now. I’m grateful he feels comfortable talking to me, but the things he says are enough to break my heart.

Add this to my car accident on Saturday night, and this past few days have felt heavy. I didn’t work that into my last post because I wasn’t really ready to talk about it yet. But a driver took an illegal left turn and plowed into me on Saturday night. I emerged fine, but a few feet’s difference, and the impact would have been on my driver’s side door. And you can’t help but think of the what if scenarios that leave you terrified.

The kindest woman stopped as a witness, and I am forever grateful for her. She hugged and offered water and spoke to the police and told me what to do as I was still a little shell-shocked. My brother came to pick me up, and the hassle of insurance and such will consume most of my week, but I’m okay. Which is obviously what matters.

But sometimes it just feels like so much. It’s moments like this that I realize I’m alone in a way I have never been in all of my adult life. And it’s such an unfathomable thing for me that the first person I would have called to help for the past 15 years of my life is the absolute last person I could call and expect to help in my roadside moment on Saturday. It’s weird not having a person, you know? Or it is for me when I’ve spent all my life having someone. These are lessons so many people spend their twenties learning, but my timing is not the standard path, and I’m just learning them now.

Despite these moments when solitude feels so vast and heavy, the universe is sending me constant messages I am not alone; I know this. There are so many friends who would have been willing to come and get me as I was stranded on Saturday; my family who was there to help me in a moment’s notice; the kind witness who stopped and stayed with me until help arrived. There are miracles that exist everyday in my life if I have eyes to see them… One of which is that I escaped without harm on Saturday night. I see this and I know this, and I prayed these prayers of gratitude all weekend.

But it’s so easy to get caught up in our own little worlds, our own little problems. I got so frustrated with Jude for doing this on Sunday with his insistence that his toy box not suffer for us to send someone else food and schooling. But here I am doing the same thing as I have so much to be grateful for, and I still get overwhelmed with the relentless, gritty mess that life leaves sometimes – the broken car, the piles of laundry, the unexpected bills, the stinging comments of someone who doesn’t have any care or empathy for me now and likely never will.

It really is up to us, isn’t it? To choose how we will perceive the world around us. To choose what we will focus on and what mark we will leave. 2015 has brought so much to me, some incredibly hard times and some almost unbearably good moments, too. In these last few weeks of the year, I’m trying to hold a space of gratitude for all of it. For all it’s shown me.

It was midnight by the time my brother dropped me off on Saturday night at home. The kids were gone and the house was quiet, and I turned down the sheets in my big empty bed. I’m sometimes alone in what feels like a vast, empty world that is spinning faster than I can keep up. But I’m in my own living and breathing body. I’m safe and cared for and alive in both new and old ways, and I recognize that all of it is a miracle.