A few days ago Google photos sent me a little overview of the month of March. Back in January, I made a promise to myself to be more present in my days. To notice them more, so that when I got to the end of another year I wouldn’t feel as if they’d all slipped past me when I wasn’t looking.
I wrote a post at the end of that month in which I looked back over it, which was a way of noticing. The days had been short and some weeks even shorter, but the month looked long in the rearview, when I saw how many good things had actually filled its 31 days.
I meant to do the same at the end of February, but you know how things can go. And here it is nearly the middle of April (or it likely will be by the time I get this posted), but it’s not too late to look back at March. (You can do things like this when you’re making up your own rules as you go.)
I had one really big event in March–a trip with the women of my extended family to my great-grandparents’ first home in Croatia–but the rest of the month was full of a rather ordinary kind of good. The first bulbs poked their heads above ground. I ate a great deep-dish pizza at a library training in Chicago. I got to teach some kids how to use databases. My daughter sent me texts and snapchats that made me laugh. The bulbs grew, and I pulled weeds, and I went for a walk where I took photos of modest little houses for a project I started years ago and will likely never do anything with. I got scared by a spider (which wasn’t exactly good but made me laugh) and ate a great donut and then I took a plane (or three) to Croatia. The bulbs fully bloomed while I was gone.
It was a good month. It’s a good life.
The same day that Google reminded me about my month, I came across this article on living “a mediocre life,” which asks:
“What if I am not cut out for the frantic pace of this society and cannot even begin to keep up? And see so many others with what appears to be boundless energy and stamina but know that I need tons of solitude and calm, an abundance of rest, and swaths of unscheduled time in order to be healthy. Body, spirit, soul healthy. Am I enough?”
Solitude. Rest. Calm. Enough.
I’ve caught myself lately saying, “I’m turning into an old person,” in response to such things as being in bed on a Saturday night at 10:00 or really looking forward to eating German pancakes on Sunday morning at a neighborhood bakery. I say it as if doing such things and/or being an old person is a bad thing. But if healthiness rooted in the presence of small, everyday pleasures–as well as the absence of hangovers, headaches, and drama–is part of being an old or boring or mediocre person, well…bring it on.
We don’t ever ask the bulbs in spring if they are enough, or to be more than they are. We just let them unfurl (or not), and accept that whatever they do is what they were meant to do. We don’t curse the tulips and daffodils for being common or for needing certain conditions to grow. When we see them, we’re just grateful that they’re here, again, both testament and witness to another year, and that we didn’t have to do anything extraordinary to make them bloom.
Lately I’ve been wondering if the way we think of seasons as metaphors for our lives might be all wrong. What if the prime of our life is not summer, but winter? I spent a lot of the past two decades with my head buried, living my way through a lot of short, dark days, doing a whole lot of growing and energy gathering in an underground, crocus-ey sort of way. It was not a bad time, but maybe it was not the summer of my life. Maybe this, right now is the springtime of my life. My mediocre life.
You will find yourself, on a cold February night, at the end of a snow day in the middle of a long week, sitting in a basement wine bar that really isn’t much more than a hallway lined with small tables and chairs. At the end of that hallway there will be a wall draped with fabric and twinkle lights, which will pass as the backdrop for a small space that will pass as a stage.
You will find yourself there because one day a few weeks earlier you were looking up summer concerts and saw on an event calendar an act called The Lariza Sisters, and you remembered your former students Crystal and Angela Lariza, and how the last time you saw them, just after Angela graduated, they were playing their first music gig at a local coffee shop. You will have realized that The Lariza Sisters on the calendar must be the same ones who once sat in your English class talking about trying out for American Idol.
You can’t recall all that many of your former students, certainly not by name. There were literally thousands of them by the time you left the classroom, and most have blended into a singular monolith of memory, but there are some who remain distinct. Crystal, her friend Mary, and Angela are three of them. You still think of Crystal and Mary as CrystalandMary because you don’t remember ever seeing them apart, and it may be that you remember Angela, who was quiet and earnest and sweet, mostly because she was attached to CrystalandMary, who were loud and irreverent and sassy, but none of those things are the most important ones about either of them or why you’ll find yourself in that wine bar on that Wednesday night.
What will matter is that when you see The Lariza Sisters on the event calendar you’ll know you have to go because you remember them and their dreams and you want to see how both are playing out.
As it will turn out, The Lariza Sisters won’t be headlining that night because Angela will have recently decided to pursue “a different passion,” and Crystal will have joined a new band–but as luck will have it, Angela will be in the audience because it is Crystal’s birthday, and they will sing together for a few songs, and it will be all kinds of magical for you, like you were just meant to be there on this random weeknight so that you could see some things you need to see.
As you’ll watch Crystal sing with her new partner and talk about how their songs came to be written, you will feel awed, as you often are, by the creative pulse that beats in some of us, and the things we do in answer to it. Later, on a break, in the midst of talking with Angela about her decision to put music in the place of hobby rather than career, Crystal will tell you that she is 29 now and feeling the pull for a baby but doesn’t know how she can do that and music, and you’ll tell her the story of how your daughter, when she was 6, told you she never wanted to be a mommy because she always wanted her art to come first, and how you told her she could do both–make art and mother–and she said, “But you don’t, Mommy.”
As soon as the story leaves your lips you’ll wonder if you should have told it because you’ll never not be a teacher (even though you haven’t really been one for almost a decade now), and you’ll never not be an artist (even though you haven’t published anything for even more years than that), and you’ll never not be a mom (even though your babies just turned 21), and in the presence of these two young women you’ll feel a little bit like all three things to them, and you want to do right by them in each of those roles.
You’ll wonder what story you needed to hear when you were 29 and making the same kinds of decisions Crystal and Angela are making now. What kinds of stories you wish you’d heard. You’ll think about how it is all well and good for people past those decisions to say: Follow Your Passion! Make Art!–but that we all have real needs for food and shelter and love and there are all kinds of ways to follow your passion and make art. You know that now (but you didn’t then) and you’ll wonder if you should say that, too.
But there won’t be the time, and it won’t really be the place, and the moment will pass because you’ll all just be happy to see each other and laugh about the silly things CrystalandMary used to do and catch up just a little bit with what the past ten years have held for each of you.
Walking back to your car after the show, warm from the glow of wine and music and memories, you’ll wonder, as you often do, at how so few artists achieve what we think of as success, the kind that includes fame and fortune. “So many people have talent,” you’ll muse to your companion, who was also once your partner in teaching and everything else, and also, like you, an artist of sorts. “But you also have to have luck and timing and a certain kind of drive to make it like that,” you’ll say, thinking of the two of you and the choices you did and didn’t make. And you’ll wonder if Crystal and Angela know yet how many different kinds of success there are and that they’ve already achieved many of them. Thinking of your own successes and failures, and of all that you’ve won and lost, you’ll wonder what you should wish for, for them.
Later still, you’ll think about how these two were the last of your students; Angela graduated in your final year of teaching, and Crystal the year before that. You’ll feel such a pang, remembering those years, because you know nothing you do now feels as meaningful as what you were doing then–raising your children, building a family, loving a partner, teaching and knowing and caring for all the Crystals and Marys and Angelas. That you can’t remember each of your students now doesn’t mean they didn’t matter to you then.
You’ll think, Those were golden years, and part of you will roll your eyes at yourself for thinking such a sappy, trite thought and part of you will remember all the things that were not golden about that time–divorce and tight finances and worry and exhaustion and turning away from writing–and part of you will feel wistful and sad that you couldn’t see more clearly, back then, how much shine there was in your life.
Before you leave, Crystal will put in your hands two of her CDs, and for the next few days you will play them in the car. Instead of driving to and from work listening to the dreary news of the world or the banal chatter of radio DJs, you’ll lose yourself in the voice and strings and words of these women who once shared two years of their life with you, and you’ll marvel at all they’ve become.
You’ll know you can’t take credit for much of it. You’ll doubt that their ability to transform their lives into story and song has much of anything to do with anything they did in your class, but you’ll know that at least you didn’t kill it, that thing inside of them that sings. You’ll think of all the children who lose that–their wonder and their songs and their pictures and their words–and you’ll know that it’s not nothing, that you played some small part in keeping that alive.
You won’t be able to know what they get out of their creative work and whether or not it’s enough for them, but at the very least, you’ll think, they have put into the world something that is making a small part of yours brighter, and that light they’ve given you is something you can pass along to someone else, somehow. Maybe not in the ways you once did or hoped, but somehow. And you’ll turn up the volume, and keep driving, and look just a little bit harder to see what is shining right now.
You can hear some of Crystal and Angela’s music here. And here’s a song with Crystal’s new band that feels like a fitting end to this post:
When my kids were two, I decided–based on conventional parenting wisdom–that it was time for them to be potty-trained.
I did all the things a parent was supposed to do. I bought a potty seat. I read potty books to them. I talked it up. I took the kids shopping for big boy and big girl undies. I chose a date to begin–our first day of summer vacation. We were psyched and set.
In the first 45 minutes of Operation Potty they each went through 3 pairs of big boy/big girl undies–frankly, a urine output the likes of which I’d never seen–and I deduced that something in my approach was not working for them. “Should we try again another day?” I asked. They nodded their agreement with my new plan, and I think we were all relieved to know that I still had a good supply of diapers.
I decided to wait until they told me they’d like to try again. They never did. “Well, they won’t be going to kindergarten in diapers,” I told myself as we all went back to school that year, a mantra (adaptable to any number of issues) that got me through their toddler years.
Sometime that fall, the daycare ladies took over the job of teaching my children how to use a toilet. My daughter, from the get-go a lover of feedback, extrinsic rewards, and instruction from someone other than her parents, was highly motivated by and successful with stickers on a potty chart. My son, not so much. As that school year ended, several months past their third birthday, he showed little inclination to embrace his big boy undies, no matter which super-hero adorned them. He didn’t care about stickers or M&Ms or any other kind of reward.
“How come you don’t want to wear big boy undies and use the potty?” I asked one day in May. In complete sentences, he explained that he wanted to wear Pull-Ups because they did not require him to stop playing if he felt the need to pee or poop.
“Well, you have a really good point,” I conceded. “No one likes to have to stop playing to go to the bathroom.” I then explained that even though his reasoning made sense, he was still going to need to wear regular underwear like the rest of us.
“Why?” he asked.
Why, indeed? “Well, it’s just something we’ve all decided that people do. You can’t go to kindergarten wearing Pull-Ups,” I added. “They won’t let you.” Acknowledging the necessity of kindergarten, he agreed that he could not wear Pull-Ups forever, and that he might as well begin his life in regular underwear fairly immediately.
I asked him if we could choose a day that we could give up the Pull-Ups, and we reached a mutually agreeable one–the day we were to return from a family vacation in June. On that day he put on big boy undies and never looked back (and never had an accident).
This week those toddlers–my babies–turn 21. 21!
What strikes me most when I look back over the course of their lives is how constant their core selves have been. Although the particulars of their personalities and ways of being in the world are wildly different, both of my children act from places of reason, strong conviction, and a desire to meet goals that matter to them. I understood from their earliest days that I was never going to be able to bluff, bluster, bribe, or BS my children into anything they couldn’t see an authentic reason for doing.
What also strikes me, when I look back at the potty story and so many others, is my faith in both themselves and me. I took the conventional approach to toilet training, but when their behavior told me I’d likely misjudged something, I quickly abandoned it without doubting myself or worrying about anyone’s judgement. Maybe I was simply too tired from the physical crush of early parenting to put up much of a fight, but I like to think I had enough confidence in myself and my children that I didn’t worry about doing things differently from other parents. Once they entered kindergarten, I easily shifted my mantra to the next milestone: “They won’t be _____ in middle school,” I’d mutter when something wasn’t going for us the way it seemed to for others.
Later, when my daughter was in early middle school, she shared her opinion that a friend’s parent was “too easy,” and let her do things she shouldn’t.
I thought of all the things I allowed that many other parents typically didn’t and wondered if she was trying to tell me something about myself.
“Do you think I’m too easy?” I asked, half-wary of her answer. (“She doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” my mother has often said of her, and her judgments can be sharp.)
She thought for a moment. “No,” she finally said. “You’re strict about the right things.”
“What are those?” I asked.
“Mostly safety, I guess. I know there’s some things you’ll never cave on, so I don’t even try to get you to.”
Considering that this child had told me, when she was eight, that she’d realized that I couldn’t actually make her do anything, her perception of my parenting felt like solid-enough ground upon which we could make our journey through their adolescence together.
A time came, though, when that ground opened up beneath me, leaving my son on one side of a chasm and me on the other. Floundering in shock and fear, I lost faith and confidence in both of us.
Maybe I had been all wrong, I thought. Maybe I had been strict and loose about the wrong things. Maybe I should have been more like other parents. Maybe I’d been arrogant to think I knew best. Maybe I had failed him. Maybe I was failing her. Maybe I didn’t really know my son at all, this man-child who suddenly felt like a stranger much of the time. And did I really know her, or was another invisible-to-me fissure going to split wide open, leave me scrambling and clinging to the edges of what felt like an abyss?
“He’s still in there,” my mother assured me, more than once. “He’s still him. Just hold steady. You’ll both get through this.”
I wasn’t sure. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed reflexively for the standard parenting handbook, even though much of it had never really seemed to work for my kids. Because maybe I had been wrong about that, too. Maybe I had just been too weak to do the difficult things parents need to do. I judged myself harshly and for the first time worried about the judgment of others.
My grip on him tightened, hard, as I tried to push him back into the shape of the person I’d thought him to be, the person I thought he was supposed to be. The tighter I grasped, the more he pulled away, and the harder I clutched in return. I’m guessing you can imagine how well that worked, for both of us.
It wasn’t until he was graduating from high school, when I was lamenting to a friend, a teacher at an alternative school, about how he’d completed his last class, that she gave me the first plank in a bridge to span our divide.
“It must have taken him a lot of strength to stand up to all the adults in his life,” she said, gently. “It sounds to me like he met the goals he set for himself, on his own terms, against a lot of pressure to do what others wanted of him.”
“That’s something really positive,” she added, looking straight at me. “That’s a quality that might serve him very well.”
And, suddenly, just like that, I could see him again.
I could see that the son I feared I’d lost had been there all along, and that he was not fundamentally different, really, from the pre-schooler who couldn’t see any good reason to wear big boy undies when Pull-Ups allowed him to meet a more meaningful goal than the one I’d set for him–when all he’d really needed from me was some validation of his priorities and some measure of control over his choices.
What if I’d been able to see and give that later, when the stakes were higher and the challenges more complex? What if I’d looked harder for options amenable to both of us, and allowed him some true choice in which ones to take? What if I’d stopped thrashing around in my pond of fear long enough to have seen that it was, after all, only a pond, and not an ocean, and that he wouldn’t be _____ when he was 21? How might things have been different for him, for us?
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and the rear view is littered with coulda, woulda, shoulda’s. It was hard to know, at 17, where we’d be at 21. It was hard not knowing if he would be OK, if he would make it to 21. Some kids don’t. Had his story gone a different way than it has, I would probably have a different interpretation of….well, everything.
But it didn’t, and here we are.
When we birth a child, we are creating a new life not just for them, but for ourselves, too. All I really know, as I approach the 21st birthday of life as my children’s parent, is that I have been some combination of wise, foolish, and lucky. I know that the question of how we should best carry our children is a hard one to answer in the particulars, but that in general the answer is to hold on loosely–somehow both tight enough to keep them, but not so tightly that we kill the very thing we are desperate to protect.
As my children and I approach the end of our transition to adult parent-child relationships, my only true regret is that I didn’t understand sooner that my job wasn’t to make them fit into the world as I see it, but was instead to teach them how to navigate their world as the people they were born to be. I believe now that if we think we can make our kids into some image we have of who they should be, we are only fooling ourselves about our power. We are not those kinds of gods. And if we try to be, we risk missing the chance to truly know and love the complex and often confounding and profoundly gorgeous beings our children are, have been, and will always be.
Happy birthday to us, loves of my life. What a gift and privilege it’s been to mother you.
In the month of Mary Oliver’s death–she of the question so often asked it’s become a cliche: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”–my son showed me how I could get a weekly reporting of the time I spend on my phone’s screen, which apparently averages more than two hours a day (!). It was the same month news broke that leaving Facebook makes people happier, and that I had conversations with more than one friend about time and our deep desire to feel its passing more slowly. The convergence of these things gave me pause, and as the month that passed so swiftly closed I found myself taking stock of it.
On the second day of January–of the year–I shared here that I spent the first day of it immersed in human creativity at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and that I wanted many more such days in the coming year. I was pleased to spend a good part of one Saturday at a Portland museum with a dear friend, followed by lunch at a Japanese cafe where my tiny, perfect sandwich came wrapped with a simple paper bow that sparked a surprising amount of joy in both of us.
The impulse to create that always follows immersion in other peoples’ creative work got me browsing through my needlework books and perusing embroidery designs on Pinterest and pulling out an old project I hadn’t touched in over a year. I used it to learn the techniques I’d long been meaning to try in Zakka Embroidery by Yumiko Higuchi.
I had a too-brief but sweet visit with my son, and found inordinate pleasure in being able to buy my baby new shoes. As he expressed reluctance at letting the old ones go (“I’ve got a lot of good memories in those shoes”), I caught a fleeting, surprising glimpse of myself.
Through her frequent Snapchat updates, I got to watch my daughter discover herself in a whole new country.
Speaking of Snapchat, the kids and I were one day able to find within our three different time zones a narrow window through which we could simultaneously communicate with each other. This also gave me inordinate pleasure.
I went for a few walks in familiar places and discovered things I’d never noticed before.
I read a good book that altered my view of Circe, a fierce (and touchingly human) goddess, and of mythology.
I got my hair cut. A lot.
“I want my outside to better match my inside,” I told the woman who cut it, an old friend who has known me nearly two decades. Sometimes I am still surprised when cold air chills my neck or when I pass by a mirror, but I’m getting used to it.
I started a different book after I finished Circe, one about a gentle middle-aged man who runs a barely-surviving movie theater in a barely-surviving town, and who, after barely surviving an accident, comes to feel “like a character myself, well-meaning but secondary, a man introduced late in the picture.” Of his life, Virgil wishes he could “spool back and watch earlier scenes, to scout for hints and shadows, clues as to what might be required of a secondary actor when the closing reel began.”
It’s a bit like “Gilmore Girls” with all the quirk and more heart and none of the fast, shallow humor.
I spent time with my tired old dogs, who force me to sit down and rest for part of each day so that they can have time on my lap. We tore through the new season of Grace and Frankie together. (Daisy reminds me of Frankie. She wags her tail a lot.)
I discovered not only that I can hang a curtain rod by myself, but also that discovery’s corollary pleasure of feeling self-sufficient.
And on the last morning of the month, I noticed that it is now almost light again when I leave for work, and that there was a tiny scallop of moon hanging in the branches of the neighbor’s tree.
There were a few other things I didn’t capture photos for: working with some bad-ass school librarians, signing up to volunteer with a non-profit organization, twice weekly sessions with a personal trainer. There were the gifts of an evening with a best friend that included good food, smooth wine, and rich conversation. Driving to her took me through my old neighborhood for the first time since I left it, and the heaviness that settled in the pit of my stomach as I drove streets that were once the warp and weft of every day was both painful and joyful, a reminder of old hurt and validation that moving away from it was the right thing to do.
None of my days were very remarkable, and there were some challenges in this month, too. Still, looking back at it, I can see that on balance it was a good one, full of discovery and creativity and connection with people I love.
Although learning that I spend more than 2 hours a day on my phone feels a bit alarming, I am not going to give up any of the apps I use on it, not even Facebook. In most of those 2+ hours I am talking with friends and family, or taking care of business, or getting inspired or informed about things that matter. It might be a way of stepping out of life, but it can also be a means of entering in. Early in the month a friend I’ve really only known through Facebook shared with me that he begins each day by smiling and telling himself that it’s going to be an amazing day. This is the kind of thing I normally roll my eyes at, but the morning after our conversation I remembered his words and smiled. My smile was more about feeling silly and grateful for my happy friend’s presence in my life–but that made it real. I found myself smiling at the start of most days after that, and though some played out in decidedly less than amazing ways, each started with a genuine smile–a much better beginning to a day than reaching for my phone and scrolling through the (generally dreadful) news of the world.
It’s a tricky thing, this business of the phones. Of life, and time, and how we spend all of our precious things. Virgil Wander anticipates of a simple birthday party that it will be “gorgeous and lush and difficult,” which seems to me a pretty good description of most days, if we take the time to really see them. Looking back over the first 31 of this year, I’m understanding that it is not so much what we do with them that matters, but that we do, and how, and that I share Mary Oliver’s aspiration to be a bride married to amazement. I’m understanding that the way to savor time–which is really about savoring our brief existence–is not to pack more or better things into it, but to better notice the gorgeous within every 24 hour’s lush and wild difficulty .
Sometimes a picture isn’t worth a thousand words, even when there’s two of them. There’s so much they don’t show.
My Facebook feed has contained more than one response to the challenge to post a first profile picture with the most recent, presumably so we can see how hard the last 10 years have aged all of us. (I prefer the framing of one of my friends, who has re-cast it as a 10 years of aging celebration–because so many who were here 10 years ago aren’t now.)
This, of course, got to me to look back at my profile pictures. My very first one was posted about 10 years ago. I don’t think it looks all that different from the one I updated to just a week or so ago (but before I whacked off most of my hair). I’m not quite sure what to make of that.
I feel as if the past five years have most certainly aged me. Hard. Some part of me is a little disappointed to see that they haven’t distinctively marked me–as if, perhaps, the years couldn’t have been as significant as they feel if they don’t show on my face in a more concrete way.
On the other hand, I look at that woman from 10 years ago and recognize that she and the one on the right are, in fundamental ways, in the exact same place: Entering into what feels like a new life, equal parts sad, hopeful, and scared. Trying to make the best of it, to embrace the lessons and release the regrets. What does that mean? That I have made no real progress at all in a decade? Is that why my face looks mostly the same?
Earlier today, I read a post from Jena Schwartz on the idea of having one’s shit together–which is really about the false notion that we can reach some state of stasis, in which we will have arrived…somewhere. Some place we can count on being stable and fixed and right. But, as she says, there is no true end or arrival to anything, as long as we are still living:
The thing with end times is that they aren’t really the end. What will come after this moment of chaos and crumbling?
The woman on the left, she knew she was in the end times and was scrambling her way to what would come after the chaos and crumbling. She didn’t even let the dust settle before she began rebuilding, which would probably explain some of what came later.
Five years after what I thought was my end time, a friend was going through a difficult divorce. (Is there any other kind?) We talked about it a lot, and many of those conversations recalled for me my own experience of ending the family I’d made with and for my children, and how disorienting and uncomfortable and flat-out painful that time had been. I remember going home one day after one of those conversations and saying to the person I lived with, “I am so thankful to be past that, to know that the foundation of my life is solid.” Even as I said it, though, and believed it, I felt an urge to knock on wood or to take the words back, as if saying them out loud would jinx me. It was a time I now know was the very beginning of what would become my next important end, and maybe some part of me could only intuit then what the woman on the right understands fully now: Nothing is guaranteed.
We are all one accident, diagnosis, situation, revelation away from chaos.
Despite good, hard efforts and hopes and wishes and prayers and affirmations and anything else we might throw at a problem, including money and therapy, some just can’t be solved–and everything falls apart, even the things we hold most dear. While there are moments of mistakes and words that become regrets, often it’s ultimately no one’s fault, not really. It’s just how it is.
What to do with that knowledge? It can feel like a burden, but if you view it–like this challenge–through the right frame, you can see the gift in it.
For the woman on the right, it’s a relief to know that she can stop chasing after a certain kind of security. She can let go of the idea that she’s some kinds of failure because she’s never been able to keep it. She can live more in the day and moment she’s in, appreciating what she’s got right now because she knows that, more likely than not, a day will come when she doesn’t have it, and there’s nothing she can (and therefore should) do about that. On a bright, cold winter weekend day, she can both feel sad about what’s passed and comforted as she looks up and feels kinship with trees stripped bare of their leaves, marveling at their backdrop of sapphire sky and the sun that illuminates every lovely knob, twist, and wrinkle of their branches, knowing that another spring is coming, and soon.
Who am I kidding? I could never fit what I want to say on a postcard. About anything.
This morning of my last full day here, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin” is the earworm playing on the radio in my head. What a long, strange trip it’s been, indeed.
If you’ve been reading here awhile, I’m sure you know I’m not just talking about my trip across the pond. I’m talking at least about the last few years. Maybe my whole damn life.
But the trip, painful as it has at times been, has also been good and necessary. As my friend who so generously offered me this place to stay and be for the past few weeks said, “You needed to disrupt the pattern you were in.” She is right.
A year ago at this time, I was stuck in a different pattern, one I vowed to break on the eve of 2018. I did. The whole of the year just passed was about the breaking. It was about delving into what had happened in order to understand how I got where I was and get myself to a different place.
Now, it’s time to move on from that, too.
Maybe the secret to a good life is knowing when it’s time to move on to the next thing. Because, if we are truly alive, there is always a next thing coming. Not understanding that–believing in some sort of happily ever after, despite all evidence that such a thing is, literally, only the stuff of fairy tales–has been a source of much angst and anguish. There is no ever after to anything: democracies, marriages, moods. All are in a state of constant evolution. All require perpetual attention and care to remain healthy.
So, this is my official declaration of moving on.
Do I know exactly what life will look like going forward? Not really. I expect it will look, on the surface, much as it has. When the plane taking me back to the US touches down, I’ll still be living in a country in crisis. I’ll return to the same house and the same job. I’ll buy my groceries at the same store. My same creaky old dogs will drive me crazy in the same old ways, and I’ll turn to the same friends for comfort, advice, wisdom, and company.
While I can’t tell you from the vantage point of January 2nd what, exactly, I will add to or drop from this thing called my life, I can tell you that the last year has brought clarity to the kinds of things I need in it. A vision statement, if you will. (Most of us who have experienced the crafting of those for our places of employment might cringe at that term, but it’s actually a very useful thing, if it is authentic and is used to determine actions and make decisions.)
Just this morning, a friend from school wrote on Facebook that he has lived more life than he has left to live, and so it is important that every second count. To which I say, Amen!–even if you actually have more left than you’ve lived. (Wish I could have more fully valued every second much earlier. But, live and learn. Live and learn.)
This does not mean that every second has to be unicorns and rainbows, but it does mean that suffering needs to happen for the right reasons. There will always be suffering, but I’d sure like a lot less of the needless or unproductive kind. His words, and a message from another friend–along with countless conversations with so many people over the last year, for which I am deeply grateful–prompted me to put down in writing what I need going forward to make every second count. I’m going to share it here, with hope that it might be helpful in some way to at least some of you who read here:
What I need in my life:
To figure out more what matters to me. To create things. To be healthy. Friends and family. Peace within my work, despite its proximity to despair. To understand the past but not live in it. To find beauty and joy in a world that is ugly and fucked up. People who care about the things I care about. Kindness. Intention. To be valued and cared for by the people I choose to let into my life. Distance or separation from those who can’t give value and care to me. People who know themselves well enough to be honest in their words and actions with me. Comfort with my uncomfortable understanding that, in spite of the ways in which people can and do love and support each other, we are also, ultimately, on our own.
Perhaps an annual vision statement is a more useful exercise than making resolutions. My list above is not a set of actions or promises. It is instead a set of principles I can go to when making decisions about how to spend those precious minutes left to me in the coming 365 days. It’s something I can use to determine what to let in and what to keep out. I know that if I can do that, I’ll most certainly need a new list–or at least a revised one–a year from now. Change is the only constant, damnit and thank goodness.
” I sure wish I–we–could give him more, and that in the pages of the days in the coming year he might find…a life with more independence, freedom, and connection to his fellow humans.”
There are many wishes I put out into the universe over the course of 2018. Most seem not to have been answered (yet, or maybe not in ways I hoped they would be). But this one, it was, and if I had to choose only one of my wishes to be granted in the previous 12 months, it would be this one.
In the past year, my brother has made a transition from living in our parents’ home to living in an Adult Family Home for developmentally disabled adults. This has been in the works for several years. My parents, along with other aging parents of adults unable to live without assistance, joined forces to create a home and community for their children.
My parents have worked long and hard to make this transition happen, first in working with the community and agencies to bring the house into existence, and then to ensure that it would be a place that met my brother’s needs. The transition for Joe from their home to his new one was slow and executed with lots of caution and planning. In Joe’s 20s, they tried to find a place for him to live away from them, and it failed miserably, for a lot of reasons. This time, he’s been involved from the beginning, attending board meetings and fund-raisers and seeing the house as it was renovated.
It has been a strange and amazing experience for all of us, but especially for my parents and Joe, who had lived every day together for nearly 55 years. So much in my life has been topsy-turvy in terms of traditional timelines (which is what happens when you marry an older person with half-grown children while you’re still in your 20s), and this added another unusual wrinkle: Both my parents and I have been adjusting to empty nests at the same time.
What has been most wonderful, though, is seeing my brother blossom. There’s really no other word for the change in him. He is non-verbal, so I can’t know exactly how it is for him, but he just feels different. Happier. He has a community of peers, and he’s out in his larger community every day. He contributes to his household. He has his own life, and while I have had moments of sorrow and regret that this is coming to him so late in life, I am mostly just so grateful that it’s come at all. It is something we never thought possible.
My mother has expressed some surprise at how it’s all gone, and at how he has changed. She’s been surprised at how easily he’s taken to such a profound change, after so many years.
“Mom, ” I said, “no one wants to live with their parents forever.”
It’s been a hard year in many ways for me, but this development has been a bright, sweet spot. His home is supported by Olympic Neighbors, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating homes and healthy, meaningful, and community-based lives for adults with developmental disabilities in Jefferson County, Washington. If you’d like to support them, you can learn more about how to do that here.
Wishing all of you good things in the year to come. Thank you for riding along on all the journeys with me here.
Two days ago I published a little piece here about a trip I’m on right now, and then I deleted it almost immediately. It didn’t feel true.*
It is true that I am (and have been) in London, on a trip that looks pretty fabulous on paper.
It is also true that I have been mostly unhappy on this trip, despite all the gifts and privileges that, combined, should have made this the most wonderful time of my year. Instead, I have mostly been lonely or angry or sad. And most of the time I’ve been those things, I’ve also been upset with myself for not being able to be joyful about what I have rather than sad or angry about what I do not.
Today, Christmas, all of those feelings intensified. I was so blue I wanted to do nothing but descend into a black hole of Netflix binging, but I made myself go out for a walk instead. I stomped around Regent’s Park, wishing I could just go home, frustrated with myself for not being able to change my attitude or outlook or approach to the time on this trip, disliking myself for not being the kind of person who would be thrilled to be here. I felt exactly like the kind of person I don’t want to be: someone who dwells on the negative, someone who is unappreciative, someone who wallows in their misery–which only made me feel even worse than I already was.
I really wanted myself to just snap out of it.
“You feel what you feel,” a character on some show I’ve watched too much of in the past week said to another, “It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.” Meaning: You don’t choose your feelings, so don’t judge yourself for them. Her words popped into my head as I plodded up Primrose Hill, stopping me short.
No, I thought, she’s right; we don’t choose our feelings. They just are.
Still, there are plenty of voices telling us that we can choose how to respond to them, and that if we choose the right responses we won’t suffer.
I’m just going to flat out say that I think that’s harmful, bullshit thinking right there. I’ve learned that I can’t will my feelings away or simply choose different ones–believe me, I’ve tried–and suggestions in “inspirational” memes that we can feel almost aggressively hostile. People with depression don’t choose their feelings. People grieving or living with trauma don’t choose their feelings. Those feelings just are. It’s hard enough to deal with those difficulties; we don’t have to intensify them by blaming ourselves for feeling badly about them.
Which got me thinking about what we can actually choose when we’re feeling shitty, and I realized that I was already doing one of those things: Physical activity. That is something we can will ourselves to do, and it was something I was doing even though I didn’t want to.
Hey, I thought, maybe I’m not just a weak-willed, dour, negative person after all.
As thoughts of blame and judgement cleared, I found myself thinking also about what I know about trauma and grief, and it occurred to me that sad and angry and lonely might actually be exactly what I need to be feeling (fabulous trip be damned), and that they might be walloping me right now precisely because it is the first time I have been able to take a real breath since (maybe?) March. Maybe I have been unable to summon the motivation to do much on this trip because nothing is what I need to be doing.
I’d like to tell you that something equivalent to clouds parting and sun breaking through happened, but it didn’t. I just felt a little less shitty.
It didn’t make my Christmas great, but it made it alright. I had a day that was mostly OK, with a few moments of true joy and light. I sure had bigger hopes than that for Christmas in London with one of my favorite people, and I’m feeling embarrassed that when people ask me how I’m loving it I can’t honestly tell them that I am, but I’m going to put today in the victory column. A win doesn’t always look the way we think it should.
And I’m offering this story–plain as it is, but true–in case it might help anyone else who is struggling with something today. Consider it my Christmas gift to you.
*Updated 12/27: I made it public again. It’s not that it was untrue. It just wasn’t the whole truth. And sometimes we need to let things sit a bit before knowing if what we wrote is truth.
A little more than twenty years ago, I found myself one morning strapped into a car on the Stratosphere, the Las Vegas roller coaster with a run that took its passengers off the roof of a high rise and suspended them over the city’s famous Strip.
I was there with my extended family, celebrating my grandmother’s 80th birthday, on the cusp of my own middle-age. I hadn’t been on a roller coaster in years, and, somehow, riding the Stratosphere that July morning seemed as if it were an opportunity I should not pass up. It really wasn’t my kind of thing (nothing in Vegas was my kind of thing), but I didn’t know when I might have such a chance again, if ever. I did not want to be the kind of person who passes on opportunities that might not come around again. I wanted to be the kind of person who tries things that aren’t really her kind of thing. I wanted to be the kind of person who experiences all that life offers. I wanted to be less like my usual self and more like my grandmother, a woman who brought her clan to Vegas to honor eight decades of living and made everything fun.
So that is why, after drinking a Bloody Mary and eating a spicy sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwich, I decided to carpe the shit out of my diem and let myself be buckled in to a car set to go screaming down a steel track that would hold me more than 900 feet above air over the side of a building. Me, who feels a bit lightheaded at the top of the Marquam bridge every single time I drive over it.
It was long before the days of inspirational internet memes, but I imagined the moment feeling something like this:
Panic started within seconds of the car’s moving, when I realized that my decision was irrevocable. No matter what the experience was to be, there was no turning back from it. The long, slow ascent to the first drop, during which I could do nothing but contemplate what was coming, may have been the cruelest part of the ride. I spent the entire time telling myself that I wasn’t going to die (or that, if I did, I wasn’t likely to be aware of it) and that it would be over relatively quickly and that I would survive it.
All of which proved to be true, but still: It was fairly awful. In fact, I hated every single second of it and nothing about it made me a better person.
“That was so awesome!” my younger cousin squealed when she exited the ride. I was already slumped on the ground, head spinning, hoping I wouldn’t throw up. Thanks to the Bloody Mary, the sausage, and my own proclivity for motion sickness, the ride for me didn’t end when the car stopped moving. It was a good 45 minutes before I could really walk again, and it was half a day before I no longer felt nauseated.
Well, I thought at the time, that was a really stupid decision. I should have known better. I should have known myself better. I lost half a day of this trip because of some idea I have about who I want to be (youthful! spontaneous! adventurous!) that is different from who I actually am.
If there’s one thing my life story would illustrate, it is that I do not learn lessons well the first time they are presented to me. And because of the way life or the universe or whatever works, the lesson delivery ramps up in some way on each subsequent go-round.
This is why, in the days leading up to my departure for a trip to London over the holidays, I found myself feeling not unlike the way I felt when strapped into that roller-coaster car.
When the opportunity to travel to London for several weeks over Christmas presented itself to me last fall, turning it down seemed like the kind of folly I could only regret.
After nearly a week on my own to decompress and learn the lay of the land, my daughter (on her way to a semester abroad in Sweden) would meet me there, and we would stay for free in a friend’s flat, taking care of her dog while she returned home to the states for her winter break. London! Christmas! Mother-daughter bonding! Free lodging! Sweet dog!
Who would turn that down?
Certainly not the kind of woman I still would like to be, one who regularly travels outside of her comfort zone and, as a result, finds it expanding. I would still like to be adventurous, spontaneous, free-wheeling. Dare I say it? FUN. (Yes, in all caps.)
My friends who know and love me encouraged me to go. “You have to,” they said. “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.” (What none of us talked about was the deeper reason why I might have wanted to go away for Christmas, which is that it would be my first one since the life I’ve been mourning the loss of ended.)
And so, I said yes. I told my friend I would care for her dog. I told my daughter I would meet her in London. I bought a plane ticket. I ignored that feeling in the pit of my stomach and the little whisper in my head that said, “Don’t do it.” As the day to leave grew closer, the pit grew larger and the whisper louder, but I was already strapped in. Tickets had been bought. Arrangements had been made. “I will be fine,” I told myself. I watched a sappy Nancy Meyers movie and even though I know her entire oeuvre is the grown-ass woman’s equivalent of an old-school Disney princess fairy tale, I let myself imagine a journey that would somehow shift me toward being more of the kind of woman I’d like to be.
“Aren’t you so excited?” people asked in the days before I left. I smiled noncommittally in response, unable to admit the truth to anyone but a long-distance friend. “I feel sad and anxious,” I confided, missing my dogs and my house and my routines before I’d even left them.
There were a few mishaps, but nothing catastrophic. I looked foolish at customs, where I didn’t know my friend’s address or place of employment and couldn’t produce evidence of my return flight home. My cell service wasn’t set up as I thought it would be, and that caused a few stumbles (such as not being able to produce proof of my return flight home at customs). Henry, the dog, didn’t immediately warm to me. But after a few days, I settled in. I learned the spot to get a most delicious pastry rolled in sugar and cinnamon. I went to a pub by myself and thoroughly enjoyed my burger, chips, and book. I walked miles every day. I fell a little bit in love with urban living and searched Redfin for condos in the heart of Portland, imagining a home even smaller and closer in than the one I downsized to last spring. Henry and I bonded.
I know this is the paragraph where the the magic is supposed to happen, where something comes along to change my perspective and part the clouds, letting my sunshine back in. But–spoiler alert–it’s not. The closest I’ve come to a meet-cute was when a man young as my son and scruffy as Henry smiled at me and asked to pet the dog–an encounter I was inordinately grateful for because it was the first conversation I’d had for days that didn’t include a credit card transaction.
Truth is, in spite of some truly lovely moments, there have been more in which I’ve been lonely and missing home and wishing I hadn’t come. Because, I’m not the star of a Nancy Meyers movie, and when I was saying “yes,” to this adventure, I was forgetting another piece of ubiquitous internet advice/philosophy/religion:
Yes, I am in a whole new place–a really wonderful place–but I am still me. As much as I believe travel can take us out of ourselves, it also takes us in. By stripping us of much that is familiar and comfortable, we can see more clearly who we actually are.
And who I am is not the kind of person who is going to easily strike up conversation with strangers. I am not the kind of person who is going to fall into some interesting new situation of some sort an ocean away from home; I’m far too cautious for that. I am a person who likes routine, familiarity, and feeling competent, none of which travel is conducive to. I am an introverted, socially anxious homebody who is exhausted from a challenging school year and the loss of a life she didn’t want to lose. I am a woman walking around in a rather thick, brittle shell that she hopes will protect the bruised soft tissue at her core. Being away from home for the homiest of holidays isn’t distracting me from that, much as I hoped it might. It is helping me see it all the more clearly, and that I am not going to Eat, Pray, Love my way out of pain I haven’t yet made peace with. And now that I’ve seen all that, what I’d really like to do is go home where my daughter and I can binge Netflix on our own couch and we can sleep in our own beds and I can recuperate in my comfort zone from all the other things I never wanted that have pushed me out of it in the last 12 months.
Before you go thinking that I’m just not trying hard enough–that I need to be more open to what this experience has to offer, I want to assure you that I’m not this woman:
I’ve gotten out. I’ve ridden the tube and the bus. Hell, I even got lost on the tube. (Okay, I have been to Starbucks twice, but only for their internet.) And this post really isn’t about asking for sympathy or advice, and I know (I know) all the ways in which I am privileged and lucky as hell to be where I am right now. I KNOW. (So please keep any judgement to yourself, too. Thanks.) I’m just offering this story in case any of you are also struggling a little with how your life right now isn’t resembling a Hallmark holiday movie–even, or especially, if you’re fortunate enough to be in some situation where it seems it should or could–and how every time you see an inspirational meme floating through your social media feed of choice you feel like posting this one in response:
I am far too much like Anne Tylers’s Macon Leary, the Accidental Tourist who writes travel guides for those who wish they were at home. Only, I’m pretty sure that there is no kooky, bad-clothes-wearing dog whisperer waiting in the wings to heal my grief and fill my life. Our real lives so rarely follow a traditional narrative arc; most of us are living our way through a much more meandering kind of tale, one in which nothing much dramatic really happens–more Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky than just about any character in any popular film.
I wish I could tell you a better story here. I wish there was some satisfying denouement, or even something resembling rising action. I am still in the middle of the ride of this trip, so maybe there is more to come. But so far, all I got for a take-away to this rather flat narrative is this:
Because in high school I was fascinated by Spoon River Anthology, and 15 years ago came close to finishing a poetry manuscript with the working title Yearbook, and two years ago met a writer whose memoir blew open my ideas about both poetry and memoir, and sometime in October saw an article about Marian Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead floating by in my Facebook feed, and two weeks ago attended the reading of a writer-teacher I first met a quarter-century ago, and earlier this month joined an online poetry writing group and last week found myself commenting to another writer there, “I’ve never written about my work as an educator, not really. I guess instead I have migraine and fibromyalgia,” and the next day a second-grader took a swing at me and a first grader with the oldest eyes I’ve ever seen in a child’s face began meditating in the middle of library read aloud, and the writer-teacher reminded me 2 days ago that “if you don’t keep open the channel to your soul, you will pay for it,” I have a written a piece that is, perhaps, the beginning of something my whole life has been leading me to.
The Student Who Shot My Other Student
He was a quiet boy, a sandy-haired freshman in the second row of my second period class. Unremarkable, really. I liked him, and not just because it was my first year of teaching and I was open to liking all of them. (I wasn’t. That didn’t come until later.) I liked him, maybe, because there was nothing not to like.
I wish I could tell you more than that about him. But it was nearly 30 years ago and I don’t remember much beyond the top of his head, bent over his desk while he wrote, and his eyes that watched me when I talked to the class. I remember them as kind, but maybe they were simply absent of malice. Maybe I’ve filled them with what I wanted to be there.
I remember him more for what he wasn’t than what he was.
I didn’t know, then, that a secretary’s voice on the intercom announcing an emergency faculty meeting is usually a call to tragedy.
The boy he shot and killed in a dispute over drugs (in a mountain quarry not far from a place I would live after fleeing the city)–that boy was my student, too, though in a different period. A boy with hair bleached loud as his mouth, a joker. I liked him, too, though he was trouble and troubled. I hadn’t known they were friends. My colleagues met the news with silence or sighs before treading back to their lives. I walked numb from the choir room to the parking lot, shocked by all I didn’t know, throat thick and arms slack, for once empty of papers to grade. After dinner that night, I made a new seating chart for each class.
Later, when I was pregnant with a son, his teacher father and I struggled to choose a name for him. For nearly every one we considered, one or the other of us had an association with a student. Each name belonged too much to someone else or to hard memories we didn’t want attached to our dream.
In the end, though, we gave him the name of the student who shot my other student. It was a family name on both sides of ours and the only one we both wanted. At the time I told myself I was claiming something I shouldn’t have to give away, and that the boy I’d hardly known had nothing to do with the one I would raise. Now I like to think it could have been a different kind of claiming, a way of calling home the man-child who once sat in the second row with his head bent over his papers, a kid who, but for the grace of any of our gods, might have been any of ours. I like to think it could have been, maybe, a way of filling the seats left empty in the rooms he once occupied.