Of eggs and small actions and big days

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One of my most precious eggs is rolling away.

That is OK. It is right. It is the fitting culmination (and simultaneous beginning, of course) of a huge creative endeavor.

It is amazing to me, how every finished creative work is the accumulation of so many, many small actions. Many of those actions are tedious–adding layer over layer of color, driving the car to a school, making dinner, putting a comma in and taking it out and putting it back in again. Cutting out a hundred tiny leaves.

And yet, there is a certain joy in them. There must be, or we wouldn’t persevere.

Tonight I join with a cast of amazing, talented women on a stage. There will be joy in the culmination, the celebration, the finished product. But no small part of it will be because–not in spite of–all the small actions each of us has taken to live and craft and share the stories we’ll be telling.

This truth, and my ability to live by it, is an egg I can keep within the walls of any shelter I might find or make.

On the precipice

Kate, one of the members of the Portland Listen to Your Mother cast, recently won an Oregon Book Award for her memoir, Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear.

I have only just started reading it, but I can see that it will be just like Kate:  funny, warm, smart, sharp. Poignant without being sappy, tender without being soft.

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We had our last rehearsal for the show on Saturday, and of course we all wanted to hear about what it was like for her, winning that award. As she shared what she did that day and how she felt, how she prepared a speech and had to cut it down, what it was like to sit in the audience, waiting for her category to be announced,  then listening to them read the first few lines from her book and knowing before anyone else that they were hers, I just grinned, happy for her and happy for myself in the way any of us are when in the company of someone else who’s lived our own unusual experience.

Because I won one of those awards once, too. Although 2003 is now seeming like quite a while ago, it’s one of those clubs that you get a lifetime membership to, and you feel an instant sense of kinship with anyone else who also belongs to it.

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During the potluck after rehearsal,  someone asked me about my book. I said that, like Kate, my experience had been unusual. I hadn’t sent a manuscript out; my publisher came to me. I’d met him in a poetry workshop in college, and in my first years of teaching I hadn’t written much, but I started again when my children were born. When he saw those poems, he told me that I had a book he wanted to publish.

“I started writing again because I wanted to remember it all,” I told these new friends. “Writing is how I remember, how I experience things more fully. I didn’t want to forget anything.” Then someone asked if I’d written any other books.

Well, no, I haven’t.

They asked if I still wrote poetry.

Um, no, not really.

Short prose, then?

Uh, kind of. (Somehow, what I do here didn’t seem legit enough to claim.)

At this point, I felt awkward and uncomfortable and lesser-than in the way I often do when others start talking to me about my writing. I mentioned that when I won the award I was raising young children and teaching high school full-time, and…

I mumbled something about how I always thought I wrote poetry because the pieces were so short, that I could sustain the focus needed to make them be what I wanted them to be.

I added something else about receiving a writing residency a few years later, where I got a whole week to do nothing but write–and how that was a turning point for me, though not the kind my benefactors had intended. I saw what I could do when I had time for sustained focus, how different the writing was…

I’m pretty sure my voice trailed off around there.

What I didn’t say was, after the residency I stopped writing in the way I once had because it just hurt too much. The things I had to write about hurt. My kids were leaving childhood, and I was a newly single mom, floundering in a life I’d never wanted for us. I was still teaching full-time, and the kind of time I saw I needed to write in the way I wanted to was just not something I could manufacture or claim. The margins of my life were too thin. Writing felt like another busted-up dream I couldn’t glue back together. So I let that one go.

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Our potluck talk turned to kids, and I found myself connecting with another mom-of-a-high-school-senior. We shared how wrenching this time with our children has been, how the process of letting them go is both exquisitely painful and beautiful. These last few weeks have been especially so for me, as my daughter has been trying to decide whether or not she will go 3,000 miles away to school this fall.

A choice like that brings so much into stark relief.

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I came back to an empty house on Saturday afternoon, its rooms silent but my head full of the voices and stories of these women that writing–and sharing my writing–have brought into my life. Feeling the swell of my own regrets and desires and possibilities, I realized that I am not so different from my daughter, poised on the border between one life and the next. Sad and a little scared to let go of the first, but looking forward with hopeful anticipation to the next.

I began reading Kate’s book, which I loved, and then went looking to see if I could find a copy of my own to give to her. Which is where I found this, a poem I’d all but forgotten.

Between My Daughter and Me

There will probably be times of distance,
winds of one disappointment or another
pushing us away from each other–
or perhaps our separation will be literal,
miles of mountains, plains, or oceans
that cannot be easily traversed,

and I will have to remember this day
when she sat snug between my legs
in the bow of the boat, her head nestled
into my shoulder’s hollow as she held my hand
and sang into the wind, the sun behind us
just beginning to sink into warm, brown hills,
the waters below us parting, a rippling mosaic
of light and shadow stretching ahead of us
as far as we could see.

Those words–“miles of mountains, plains, or oceans/that cannot be easily traversed”–were a club my 35-year-old self swung at my 51-year old heart, battering it open. She knew in only the most abstract way that there would come a day when I could not cradle my girl within the confines of my limbs, my life, my love. She had no idea how her words would simultaneously shatter and soothe an older self who would rediscover them at the very moment she is launching her daughter into the sky of her own life, standing on the precipice between what they’ve been to each other and what they are going to be.

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Remembering that day in the boat and how complete and whole and joyful I’d felt in those moments with my daughter, feeling so fucking grateful that I’d found the time to gather those words so that fifteen years later I could remember that day in the boat, so that it was not lost in the oblivion of small moments that have made up most of the days of the last eighteen years, and simultaneously grieving all the other moments I have lost since I decided that I couldn’t both live the moments and gather the words,  I sat alone and ugly-cried tears of gratitude and grief for all that I’ve been given and all that I’ve lost and mostly for how I just wish there had been more time. More time to hold my children, more time to find my words, some way I could have been more of what I wanted for both myself and for them.

Talking with that other mom, I said what has become my mantra in the face of loss:  “The size of our pain is commensurate with the size of our love.” I mean, I get it:  I know how much I have, how blessed I have been.

This truth and knowledge makes the pain easier to bear, but make no mistake:  It doesn’t in any way lessen it.

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Of tunnels and respite and light

2016-03-29 20.19.48Raising teenagers is hard. Combining families is hard. Raising teenagers in a combined family? Hard². Throw in some cognitive difference, some mental illness, some career challenges? You’ve got hard to the nth power.

Back when our children were younger and parenting time agreements with our former spouses were different, Cane and I had every-other-weekend mostly to ourselves. We used to joke that we didn’t understand why everyone didn’t get divorced, because it was so nice to have some grown-up time while the kids were being well-cared for by other people who loved them. It was the kind of joke you tell to help yourself feel better about things that hurt, but like all jokes, this one contained a kernel of truth.

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Last Friday it was not an exaggeration to say that we really couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a few days at home with no kids. It had been so long that we’d forgotten what it was like. We’d forgotten what we were like–just the two of us, at home, doing at-home things.

Last weekend, we got to remember.

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It was the first, glorious weekend of sun in the northwest, which may just be the most magical weekend of the year here. Flowering trees were in full flower, and shoots of all kinds were shooting.

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I got early morning time in my studio, which has become the happiest of my happy places.

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There were hours at the nursery and in the garden. We swept the deck, and cut back dead foliage, and planted onions and herbs and flowers.

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We hit up an estate sale, which prompted good thought and discussion about possessions and collections and how we’re spending our lives’ energy and the fruits of our work.

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We strolled through some favorite Portland neighborhoods so I could take photos of houses, for a creative project that is becoming my new obsession. (More on this in another post.)

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We remembered days when lying on a blanket in the park was the most luxurious of pleasures, so we stopped at a thrift store for a park blanket. We found a wonderful corduroy quilt and then took a short nap in the park.

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I also found there this perfect, tiny cup for a small cacti that’s been waiting for a home. Cups with plants might be another new obsession.

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We missed our children and talked about them a lot, but we also realized how much we’ve missed us–the us that made us jump onto the train of our life as a family.

There is still so much transition and upheaval and unknown in the terrain we’re traveling. We know that this weekend we were just coasting through the easy valley of a welcome and much-needed respite. I sometimes say that I wish I could fast-forward to the fall, when I know we’ll be in a different place with more certainty to it, but I’m trying to stay present and take as much in as I can during these last months of living with my children. Because we can’t know what’s really around the coming turns, I am trying to appreciate everything I have and cherish it right now, today.

Still, it was nice to see a flash of light at the end of my parenting tunnel, to remember an important part of why it is we’ve been working so hard to stay on the rails.

Hoping you are getting what you need in these first few weeks of spring, too. Would love to hear how things are going for you in the comments.

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My life’s work

Near the end of last year, an old friend told me that she had come to consider the raising of her daughter her life’s work. I thought of that two Saturdays ago, as questions of raising children and “life’s work” swirled all around me.

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That day was my children’s 18th birthday. It was the day I accompanied my daughter to a university that prides itself on helping its students discover their vocation, the thing they were put on earth to do to make it a better place. It was the day I went way outside my comfort zone to audition for the Portland show of Listen to Your Mother, sharing a version of a post I published here last fall.

It felt like a big day to me.

This is a space where I explore creativity, and I can think of no more creative work I’ve engaged in than raising my children. I’ve only fairly recently realized that I’ve answered the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question, and that what I’ve most been is a mother–not a teacher, not a writer. I recently encountered a highly accomplished educator who has achieved more in a short career than I ever will (as an educator), and when I learned that she has young children, I was fairly astonished. I realized that I took myself out of the running for such things as soon as my children were born. I stopped considering anything that would take me out of the house in the evenings or that would require me to work in the summers. It wasn’t that I felt I needed to in order to be a good mother. It was that I didn’t want to miss out on mothering, and I was fortunate that I was able to make the choices I did.

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So, to spend the 18th birthday of my babies with one of them at a university she may be living at a mere 6 months from now, and to travel from there to an audition to share my voice with a larger audience than I’ve ever shared it with before all felt poetically fitting.

I am in the midst of a most uncomfortable time. Part of me is so profoundly sad that my time of daily, active mothering is coming to an end. Nothing has brought me greater joy or fulfillment. Part of me is profoundly weary from daily, active mothering (which I’ve been doing for 21 years, not 18), and I’m looking forward to some relief from the grind of food and laundry and driving and all the myriad tedious things that mothers do. Part of me knows that my children are ready to launch (or, at least, for the first stage of launching) and that they need me to let them go. Part of me wants to cling tightly. Part of me is mourning the loss of the role that’s filled my life for more than 20 years. Part of me is excited about what else I can do in the space that’s opening.

That is why I am so glad that on the same day my children became their own, legally independent people, I did something so affirming of the other kinds of creative work in my life. And, it seems so fitting that this new creative endeavor is so closely connected to the one that has most defined me:  mothering.

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I’m so happy (and thrilled and terrified) to share that I get to be in the Portland show of Listen to Your Mother, a venue in which mother-writers share their words on stage. Like everything right now, this is a mixed experience. I’m excited and scared. I’m filled with both anticipation and dread. I know it’s a good thing that will lead to good growth, but it feels super-uncomfortable. I’ve done poetry readings in the past (although it’s probably been a good 7 years or so since I’ve done that), but those were small audiences in intimate venues. This will be a large audience, on a stage, with lights shining in my face and no one facing the audience but me.

I know I’m going to need to take my cue (and some courage) from my daughter. Just about a year ago, I watched her take the stage to run for a statewide position in a student organization. She was alone on a stage, with lights shining in her face, facing an audience of several thousand of her peers.

She was amazing. Poised, articulate, funny, and powerful. She nailed that speech (and went on to win a national office just a few months after that, after making another one). And you know what? If I can raise a daughter who can do that, I’m pretty sure I can hold my own on a stage, too.

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I think, perhaps, we do our children a real disservice when we ask them what they want to be when they grow up. Such a question implies that there will be a stage at which we arrive, when we become the thing we are meant to be, when our vocation is realized. Maybe it is like that for some people, but for me I think it was never meant to be that way. I think that what I’m going to be when I grow up is a question I am still answering, and that, even though I can’t always see it clearly, all the things I do are part of a unified pattern. I think the universe threw me a little birth day gift on Saturday, let me glimpse for a few moments the interweaving of all the threads. I still can’t clearly see the pattern of the fabric, but I’m going to keep weaving anyway, joining strands of experience into the whole cloth of my life.

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It’s been a wild ride. And it’s not over yet.