Notice that.

Week Two of summer vacation is nearly over. By now, I’m used to the rhythm of my summers. One week “off duty” with a quiet house and no demands other than those I impose on myself. Then the next week is a whirlwind of kids and neighbors and pool time and crafts and noise. Rinse and repeat, alternating between both extremes all summer. It’s the perfect balance, and I’m grateful for both extremes — the noise and the quiet. I guess in hindsight I’ve come a long way since that first summer of restlessness. It’s our fifth summer in this house, and we have settled in another layer deeper this year. The kids remember nothing else, and lately neither do I.

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I’m juggling too many things at once (my own doing) in my weeks away from the kids. I get excited about the empty time in front of me to accomplish what has been on the back burner all school year. A few house projects happening at once and a few writing efforts, too. And of course reading two books at the same time as well — Only Love Can Break Your Heart for a dose of fiction and The Body Keeps the Score for my non-fiction itch. Both of these, when I think about it, carry different hues of the same message: the many ways the past can still talk to us and what choices we are left with when we don’t want it to invade the present.

I’m moving faster through the non-fiction work than I expected. It’s an incredible read. Van Der Kolk somehow manages to present his scientific findings and his own valuable experience as a psychotherapist in a way that’s grounded in complex research but readable for all of us. I’ve seen this book mentioned in a million places for years, but I think I needed this particular moment in my life and this specific amount of space from my own past experiences to dive in.

This topic is too huge and too complicated and too personal to paint all of it here for you, but there are small take-aways in his book that are useful for any one of us. His basic premise is that trauma resides in the body and that you can’t think your way past it. You have to look to the body for the gateway to move former trauma out of yourself and reclaim your relationship to the present.

So many of us think of trauma as only the kind with a capital T, the one terrifying, catastrophic moment that happens. Sometimes it is exactly that. But small traumas are stored in the body as well. There are endless examples of these kinds of things — relentless stress in a period of your life that places unreachable demands on you, battling an illness, bullying, betrayal, childhood neglect, the death of someone close to you, situations where someone was deliberately cruel to you or deeply humiliating, etc. Van Der Kolk walks the reader through stories from decades of his own practice that have demonstrated this brain-body connection and given him the tools to help patients move past their own traumas.

We all know that these mind-body-spirit connections exist. You get a stomach ache when you’re anxious. Your pulse races when you’re angry. Your cheeks get pink when you’re embarrassed. But to read his volumes of research and experience on how trauma hides in the body illustrates it in a new way for me. He says, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are ‘Notice that’ and ‘What happens next?’ Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

Curiosity over fear is a mantra I’m working towards in 2019 anyway, and lately I’m trying to be especially mindful of that concept when looking at my own self and even my own body. Instead of holding self-judgment about something, I’m leaning in with curiosity.  When my pulse races about an imagined future outcome that hasn’t even occurred yet or my heart sinks with that heavy feeling of sadness, I don’t resist it anymore but instead I say notice that and then what happens next? It’s amazing how losing that resistance lessens the power of the thing that was causing me pain to begin with.

I suppose Notice that and What happens next? are good phrases for nearly every challenge in life. I’m in a transitional space this summer as I move from one job to the next. That major change began with my own subtle discomfort and then a few months of giving myself the space to notice what was beneath it. I have no idea what will happen next in the big picture of my life. But I can watch what happens in small moments when I pay attention to what is brewing in my own heart and head.

I’m stretching wider than I have before in the next couple of months with some travel in June and a writing workshop in July. I feel the familiar gnawing voices of fear and anxiety when I stretch wider than a familiar, prescribed circle. I’m working to notice those voices, give them space and look at them with curiosity. But then I just wait with patience for what happens next as I reach beyond what I’ve known before. The beauty always lies just beyond the fear.

 

unknowable appetite

I ran across a word the other day that I don’t hear much anymore – wistful. It’s been ringing in my ears ever since. The dictionary tells us it means full of yearning or desire tinged with melancholy. Always the word girl, I go one layer deeper for a closer look at yearning, and I find a tender longing.

Tenderness, gentleness, warmth.  Longing, craving, pining, wishful, ravenous.

The synonym game always gets me somewhere.

I realized as I unloaded our mounds of sandy laundry yesterday that it is somehow July again already. High summer always finds me square in the middle of this place – this weird restlessness. Maybe it’s the stale heat, maybe it’s that June is a little lazy with my teacher schedule, and then I get itchy for something else. Maybe it is my natural rhythm. I am not sure the answer, but I accept it now. I know it comes in and goes out, and I let it move on through. The July Restlessness, the wistful undercurrent.

I want so many things for my life – things that are crystal clear for me. Goals and aspirations and plans. But under that, there is this other pool of swirling desires that shows up every now and then, and it is something I cannot name. Is it possible to want things to change but also kind of want them to stay the same forever and forever? That is what this time of year does for me.

Childhood is always counted in summers somehow. Last week was the very best of it for us.

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Lazy mornings when we’d drag our things to the beach and stay until late lunchtime. Sandcastle building, seashell hunting, and a million refrains of “Mom, watch this!” Nightly Redbox rentals piled on the sleeper sofa in a tiny condo.

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Vacationing with kids is really just parenting in a different location, but once you accept that and loosen the usual reins a bit, it becomes fun again. Summers mark the passage of time in that way that Christmas does. You know it will come around again, but it is guaranteed to look completely different. It’s like trying to hold water in your hand and watching it flow through your fingers. 

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I have so much time away from them in the summers that it changes the dynamic between us a little bit. We miss each other, I think. I am better at slowing it down knowing that they will walk out the door at the end of the week. Maybe that contributes to this wistfulness, too. More time and space to think about what I want, and sometimes that list is very specific and goal-oriented, but sometimes it is harder to pin down. It is something just barely beyond the reach of where I am.

I’m surprised to find ravenous at the end of the list of synonyms for longing. But ravenous is exactly how I feel sometimes lately. Swallowing books whole, watching films in the early evening hours with a quiet house and a table set for one, podcasts and music (so much Ryan Adams lately) and new ideas and content anywhere I can find them. Hungry for something I cannot name, but words and art always satisfy the appetite.

Desire is a strong force. It unlocks everything for us. Even when it swirls in some unknowable place, it feels good to know it’s here — calling me on to whatever is out there beyond my reach. Or whatever is inside that I haven’t given words to yet.

 

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being before doing

It’s the day after Memorial Day, and summer break is officially here for the kids. It somehow doesn’t feel like I’m on break yet, but they are away next week, and I’m sure my 7-day stream of solitude will let summer’s real feeling come soon enough.

For now, it has been end-of-the-year awards and Boy Scout ceremonies and pool parties and a revolving door of neighborhood friends coming in and out. Popsicles and bare feet. It rained most of the day yesterday, and it is still falling as I type this. The house is a mess of legos and crayons, and I am trying to remember how numbered these days are to prevent my going crazy about the tiny doses of chaos.  I have such high hopes for this summer. Books to read and lines to write and spaces in my life and my house that need a reset. And yet I haven’t done a single piece of that yet because I’m chasing kids and making lunch to clean it up and then making a snack to clean it up and then making dinner to clean it up. And rinse and repeat.

My Richard Rohr emails come every night while I’m sleeping, and I use them to center myself before the chaos of the day. Every week, he takes a different focus, and for a good three years now, I have watched my life unfold in ways that always seem to parallel what he is writing about that particular week.  This week’s focus is on purpose and vocation, and he’s been providing passages from Parker Palmer’s work.

Palmer says, “[My newborn granddaughter] did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. . . . Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person. The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price. . . .The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?'”

I know all of this and have heard it in so many forms and ways, and yet I still forget sometimes. It’s so easy to get caught up in the lists and the goals and the specific hopes and forget the essence of all of it, forget what runs underneath all of that. That who you are is the platform under what you do. That being comes before doing.

Palmer also references Frederick Buchner who insists that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” It’s a line that keeps running through my head as guidance for big picture questions – like what is my path – and little moment dilemmas – like how to find a happy balance in these four walls. Where my gladness meets what is needed is where the sweet spot exists. (I re-listened to Rob Bell’s “You Listening to You” last week, and he comments on this as well. My purpose cannot be different than what brings me gladness. God doesn’t design us that way.)

I’m not sure if it is a woman thing or a parent thing or just an aspect of my personality that I can sometimes be a little scared of following gladness for the sake of joy and nothing else. I have viewed it as an extra, a bonus, instead of a guidepost to determine if I am on the right track. I lean in and I exhale and I have fun in the moment, but then it’s easy to roll that soundtrack in the back of your head that tells you that it’s not that simple. But what if it is? I’m not talking about the low level happy pursuits that bounce in and out and don’t linger. But that hum where the real stuff is, that rushing current underneath, the one that’s quiet but real.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this today except to say that this season always brings out the urge to slow it down. Hot afternoons and late daylight and no pressing schedules or school night routines. I’m vowing now to remember the who before the what, the being before the doing. And I guess most of all, just allow myself to follow the gladness and let that guide me. As Rilke says, “Let life happen to you. Believe me; life is in the right, always.”

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 long view

I’ve thought a few times about how I needed to sit down to write here, but it is always in passing. When we are in the car and headed somewhere, when I’m chasing them at the pool, stirring something on the stove. Summer is a different kind of busy.

I went on a quick beach trip last week with my mom and my sister – a stretch of coastal highway I have vacationed at a million times before. Every year, it looks different than the year before. New buildings everywhere you look, but a few staples remaining the same. And the ocean never changes, which is why it’s always so soothing to us, I think. Big and vast, inhale and exhale. Farther than you can see.

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It’s weird how much things change, even when parts of them stay the same. I am late to the party on this film, but I finally watched Boyhood while the kids were away as well.  You’ve likely heard by now, but it was filmed with the same actors over a period of 12 years.  The director apparently had a general idea that he wanted to capture one boy’s coming of age from a first grader to a college freshman, and he had the ending shot in mind. But the pieces in between were written as they went along, meeting once a year to review previous footage and film new pieces. All of these moments that are ordinary childhood milestones – birthdays and classrooms and graduations and vacations – seem the opposite of ordinary when you see them presented on the screen like this as part of one boy’s life.

I think part of the reason the movie is so extraordinary is that it forces the audience to take the long view, so to speak. How seldom we do that. It’s human nature to look around at wherever you are and see it as permanent and immovable. Sometimes you look in the rearview mirror and see major moments that unfolded change for you, and sometimes it just creeps up more subtly. But life is changing all the time.

I was revisiting some Pema Chodron last night before bed, The Places that Scare You this time, and a few passages I’d underlined before caught my eye with new meaning now … “Everything is in process. Everything — every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate — is always changing moment to moment. […] Our natural tendency is to seek security. We believe we can find it. We cling to a fixed idea of who we are, and it cripples us. Nothing and no one is fixed.” 

I see what she means when she tells us not to look at ourselves as set and secure and permanently what we are right now, and I’m getting better at that these past few years as changes have forced me to grow and move and transform to something else. But I’m realizing what I need to work on is the realization that others are not fixed either. Who someone was yesterday is not who they are today, and tomorrow will reveal something else. It’s so hard to just leave room to let life move and change around you without gripping tighter to whatever your current perception is.

Yesterday was summer solstice, but the weather was not typical for late June in Georgia. The longest day of the year was clouded and dim and hardly 80 degrees. I woke up this morning to more steady rain outside my window. We end up with a few tomatoes everyday, brought in from the patio and lined up on the windowsill side by side. There’s so much that is good and fresh and lazy and easy about summer. So much time to just be and just rest. But it teaches us patience a little as well. You wait on peaches to ripen until they are exactly where you want them to be before you indulge. You tend and water and pluck and prune and know that your efforts will pay off when it’s time.

I think the thing about getting older is that, even as you sink your heels into wherever you are right now, you know there are other seasons around the corner. You can feel them tugging a little just ahead, reminding you to find what’s good right now because it’s always unfolding to something else.

 

 

mural

It is late July. Almost the end of the summer. How did that happen?

I got the kids back last weekend, and we spent a little time at my grandparents’ house as they helped my Granddad gather corn from the garden. We all have our own associations with passing months and seasons, but this will always be July to me. Hot as Hell and feeling the epitome of the lethargic, lazy days of summer. Plates full of corn and tomatoes. Heads full of thoughts that move a little slower now than they do the rest of the year.

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We fumbled into the car with a bag of fresh corn to shuck at home and a box with a new pet turtle that we kept for a day or two before releasing him to the woods again. I could hear the kids talking with their neighbor friends on the patio when we brought him home, trading elaborate stories about what life is like for the turtle and what sort of family he’d find in the woods.

Our shoulders are pink almost every afternoon, and we are spotted with mosquito bites and exhausted when we finally hit the pillow each night. I love the energy of summer. So much opportunity for imagination in the spaces left by the abandoned schedule.

Jude participated in a little “Drawing and Painting” class each morning this week with our local recreation department. He was so proud of his creations, and I ended up with a heap of fun kid art to display at home.

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They learned all kinds of fun techniques like how to create texture and use hydro-dipping for certain effects. He loves creating things with his own two hands, and it’s inspiring to watch. It’s so satisfying to make something of your own, isn’t it?

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Norah was talking a few days ago with me in the car about my grandmother, asking me if I was still sad. I told her that of course I feel that sadness sometimes, but that I am so thankful I had her at all and thankful for all she taught me. When Norah asked what she taught me and I had to rattle off the list as it occurred to me, I realized that one of the things she showed me is how good it feels to make something. I’ve incorporated these things in my daily life without even realizing it — nurturing the plants on my porch and watching them grow to something bigger than I expected, baking muffins to deliver to the new neighbors, and sometimes when I’m lucky, even doing something tangible like knitting or writing. What we create somehow comes to mean so much more, doesn’t it?

I read Rob Bell’s How to Be Here back in April, and I’m not sure that I ever commented on it here, but it was such a great exploration into what it feels like to be here in the truest sense and make something of your life. He asks, “What would it look like for you to approach tomorrow with a sense of honor and privilege, believing that you have work to do in the world, that it matters, that it’s needed, that you have a path and you’re working your craft?” Our craft is our everyday experience, and I’m seeing this more and more. But actual crafts, actual handiwork, have a place in my life as well. I don’t think I always give that enough credit.

I feel lucky that someone else’s mid-life crisis essentially led to my own mid-life awakening. I see creation everywhere. In my own home, my own life, my own family. What I have to say contributes to something greater, and that sound echos farther than I can ever see or understand.

In that same book, Bell tells me, “How we respond to what happens to us – especially the painful, excruciating things that we never wanted and we have no control over – is a creative act.” I’m seeing that now as I create something new by simply staying open and curious.

I can’t see the whole mural yet, but I think it’s something beautiful.

 

 

 

 

soundtrack

I saw the Indigo Girls last night at the botanical gardens close to home. The amphitheater was fairly small, and listeners brought blankets and chairs to set up in the grass. It was warm, even after the Georgia July sun went down. The moon was bright, and the stars were out.

It was the seventh time I’ve seen them live. And as they began with a song that instantly took me back to 2004, I was telling my friend how crazy it is that it only takes a few opening chords on some of their songs to take me back to very specific moments in my life. “Galileo” and I’m in the back seat of a high school friend’s car while we sing with the windows down and eat Cherry Garcia ice cream we bought at a gas station on the way home from their concert the very first time I saw them. “Fill It Up Again” has me in my little grad school apartment writing papers I feared weren’t good enough and reading all day long on a Sunday afternoon. “Second Time Around” brings memories of a wiggly two-year-old and a big belly with another on the way and the quiet loneliness of a big house in the woods and a husband who was never home. It’s funny how music can do that, right? One chord or one line can take you right back and bring it all up again.

Their music has influenced me like no other, and it’s truly the soundtrack of the past 19 years of my life. They have one liners that work like mantras for me. We are better off for all the we let in.– Truth of the matter comes around one day. It’s alright. — The hardest to learn was the least complicated. — That’s the thing about compromise. Don’t do it if it hurts inside.  The list goes on and on. It swells within me in that place where good art resonates, and their words have woven their way into my own inner landscape and my life story.

As I listened last night, I was struck so much by the ways my life has changed. The long list of things I’ve had to let go. The ways I am still changing. But it feels so good sometimes to exhale and lean back in the arms of something constant.

In her Dear Sugar column, Cheryl Strayed claims, “Eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself at the age of twenty will, over time, prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true you will look back in twenty years and howl.” I have changed in immeasurable ways, but as I look back at my life in the grand rearview, I see that really all I am doing is returning. Those things I knew in my core to be true, they are still true. There are a million other things I believed that I now understand are false, but my core?  It’s the same. I’m just coming home.

Music feels like prophecy sometimes. They sang “Love’s Recovery” last night, a song I’ve sung along with too many times to count. I’ve always loved it, but last night she sang, “There I am in younger days, star gazing, painting picture perfect maps of how my life and love would be. Not counting the unmarked paths of misdirection, my compass, faith in love’s perfection, I missed ten million miles of road I should have seen … Though it’s storming out I feel safe within the arms of love’s discovery.” And I heard the story of my recent life in exact proportions. It’s crazy to think about, isn’t it? It’s that strange sense of deja vu that I’ve written about before. Those moments when I feel in my deepest places that I somehow both knew and did not know what would manifest in my life.

I came home alone to my quiet house and climbed in the empty bed with my dog snoring at my feet. I fell asleep to that familiar noise of crickets so loud that you can hear them through the window panes. Summer in the deep south is sweltering and miserable for some; it’s comfort to me.

I’m grateful for love’s recovery and the new discoveries. And the re-discoveries most of all. It feels good to be home.