How to Navigate a Season of Endings

As summer approaches, bringing with it big changes in the life of our family, I find myself feeling out of sorts. I am graduating from my MFA program, and I don’t know what’s next in my writing life. I will no longer spend long days reading books with a critical eye and writing papers based on them. No one will be waiting at the other end of an email for my next essay. I will have a new degree in creative writing, and no tangible way of putting it to use on paper.

Just as I graduate, so will my seventeen year old daughter. Her entire life spreads out in front of her like a blank canvas. Everything is before her, and this stands in stark contrast to my own experience. I often wonder what lies ahead for me when my own canvas is already full of color, spread in thick strokes towards the outer edges. So much lies behind me. So much of my canvas is already painted.

No one told me that releasing a daughter into the world makes a mother dig deep into her own story of becoming. It is both a rejoicing and a mourning–for who I could have been, for the surprise of who I am today, and for what my girl will be. I don’t think I have the words yet for what it feels like to let her go or how hard it is to set my younger self free in the process.

I’ve reached a season of endings, and I can only see the faint outline of new beginnings ahead. Perhaps you are out of sorts or in a season of endings too. I don’t have five steps to fix it, but I do have a few guiding principles I hope will keep us moving forward into the unknown with more freedom and less fear.

Treat yourself and your open-ended questions with kindness.

In his poem Unquiet Vigil, Brother Paul Quenon writes “Be Kind. Myself, to myself, be kind.” When I read those words, I was most struck by the punctuation. Be Kind. Period. No caveats, no qualifications. Be kind to myself no matter how complicated, effervescent, difficult, or joyful the feelings. Be kind to the past me, the present me, and the me who exists in the future. This feels impossibly hard some days, but with practice, it grows easier.

Learn to love the questions.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”~ Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.

I want to place these words like beads on a length of string and finger them like beads of prayer. During a season of change, the questions I ask are more important than the answers I think I need. The answers rarely announce themselves, but rather they arrive in the quiet of living into the questions.

Hope and wait quietly.

“It is good that one should hope and wait quietly..” ~Lamentations 3:26. I often wait with fear as my loud companion. Fear drives away quiet, whereas hope invites it in. Living into the questions with a spirit of kindness allows for hope to have its way. I can ask myself questions about the future without giving in to the cacophony they can create in my soul. I do this by entering into a season of unknowns with a posture of open handedness rather than entering with closed fists. I can’t receive my past or my future when I grasp for answers or fight the questions every step of the way.

In this season of endings, I want to enter open, free, unencumbered by a need to orchestrate my own feelings into something like a mathematically correct, classical symphony. This is jazz, baby. There are no neat resolutions, but I’m improvising my way through the notes, receiving them as they come, with hope and kindness and love for unexpected melodies.

What the Garden Teaches Us About Slow Growth

***I spent some time in the blog archives recently and discovered this post on growth and hope and belonging. I thought it was worth revisiting this spring as I wait for my garden and a few quiet corners of my life to bloom.

…….

We have a ridiculous number of flower beds around our house, which is wonderful when someone else is doing the work of maintaining them, but disheartening when I have to do it myself. I want the results of regular planting, watering, and weeding without all of the hard work. My husband and I have spent hours planning, dreaming, sketching, and wandering around green houses. Sometimes we stalk other people’s gardens, and come home to tell one another about our latest drive by viewing. But, when it comes to getting my hands dirty, to digging deep, pruning, and standing in the hot sun with a hose, I bail out. Give me all the flowers! Give me none of the work.

This past autumn, our third in this home, I slipped on my blue gardening gloves, grabbed a spade, and dug over a hundred holes in the cool earth. I placed a single bulb in each hole, planning carefully for waves of pink and purple in one corner of a bed, yellow and white in another. Cupped all winter by the frozen earth, I imagined a riot of color in the spring, when the garden shakes off its slumber and wakes up.

This is my year of restoration, and I want the garden to represent what could be when empty places are no longer left blank, when they are filled with the promise of life and fragrance and color. Driving around town, I see daffodils everywhere. Tulips bend in the breeze. Sweet grape hyacinths gossip in clusters beneath towering trees. And my garden is quiet. The bulbs are slow to grow this first year of their birth. They are just pushing through the soil, while my friends boast fists full of bright yellow heads cut from gardens of their own.

My husband says the first year is always the slowest and hardest–the bulbs are just learning how to grow here. Each year will be easier. They will expand and root themselves into the places we planted them. Reclaiming and restoring the garden takes longer than I expected. As spring arrives and then summer approaches, we will have to make choices about what stays and what goes. What is restored to life and health after a long winter, what needs pruning back, what needs moving.

I’ve come to expect this now, and as I enter the spring of this year, the year resting on my cornerstone word of “Restore“, I’m beginning to see the results of the effort I’ve planted along the way. Small growth, little buds of dark green, not baskets full of blooms yet. But something is stirring. There is growth, but it comes at a cost. It’s hard work, the hardest I’ve ever known, to pull up the things that no longer serve me, to release the past, the dead and rootless, and to water, water, water the life growing beneath the surface. The first year is the slowest and the hardest. I’m still learning how to grow here.

If you find yourself in a similar season of incremental growth, take heart. Life stirs beneath the surface. Water where you’re rooted. Plant new life, prune back the old. You are a garden, bursting with the potential for life.

When Our Weakness Becomes A Strength

A few years ago, I joined my daughter’s class for a school field trip to Thomas Edison’s former laboratory here in New Jersey. The word laboratory sounds very clinical and boring, but in reality, it’s a large warehouse of a building, full of rooms fitted with dark wood paneled walls or heavy machinery or musical instruments. It is a delight.

The music room in particular held my attention. Painted strips of wood covered the walls which were lined with black and white photographs. Beneath our feet, worn oak floors bore the scars of a thousand visitors. The room itself held all sorts of instruments and multiple versions of the phonograph. In fact, the number of phonographs sprinkled throughout the entire complex bordered on overkill, until I learned that Edison spent fifty-two years perfecting this particular invention.

He called the phonograph his “baby”.

I thought all of this was amusing, charming even, until the docent made an almost throw-away comment. She said Thomas Edison, inventor of a device that reproduces the sound of music, suffered from extreme hearing loss since his childhood. While not completely deaf, he was severely hearing impaired.

Edison’s biggest weakness became the impetus for birthing his “baby”–his favorite invention plucked from his imagination.

I’ve thought about this off and on for several years, especially during times when I feel ill-equipped for the task at hand, whether it be a challenge in my parenting, creating, working, serving or simply in loving others well. My weakness can be a place where I flourish in spite of myself. This is counter-intuitive, unless I believe, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians,

“For this thing I sought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest on me.”

Allowing the power of Christ to rest on me results in strength, in courage, in tenacity. Edison showed a single-mindedness for fifty-two years, to create while wrestling against his own shortcomings. This is the kind of gumption I want for myself and for my kids. To stick with it. To dig deep into the well of my weakness, and find Christ there offering me a cup of living water to drink.

I read later that Edison could’ve chosen corrective surgery to improve his hearing, and certainly he could have invented a hearing aide. But, he’d grown comfortable with the quiet his weak hearing afforded him. He allowed books, deep thinking, creation, and invention to fill the silence. And we, the recipients of his long labor, are richer for it.

Making Peace with Our Bodies

In my early twenties, a friend invited me to a performance of the Royal Ballet in London. I’d only been to the ballet once as a child, and it had left me with the impression that I was on the outside looking in on something fragile and untouchable, but so very lovely. I agreed to join her, and wondered how I would experience the ballet this second time. I thought I would find it boring. I was in the thick of raising little ones, breastfeeding, exhausted, in a silent war with my changing body. My friend sat beside me with her leg in a cast, carrying crutches. We were a jacked up pair, as we waited to watch men and women with strong, able, obedient bodies create magic.

During the performance, the prima ballerina descended an entire set of stairs en pointe. It was so stunning, I held my breath. I stole a glance at my friend and saw tears rolling down her cheeks. Afterwards, we talked about that singular moment and how it wrenched the heart right out of us with its precision and difficulty. We left one another a few moments later–she hobbled to her taxi, and I rode the Tube home tired, but transformed by beauty.

I watched the dance movie Step Up while running on the treadmill a while ago. To be fair, I’d just watched two foreign films with subtitles and an art house film so subtle, I’m still not sure anything happened. I justified Step Up by telling myself one piece of fluff entertainment couldn’t hurt, but I forgot what watching dance does to me, how it brings me to tears every time. There is something so beautiful about the connection dancers have to their bodies that moves me in a way I don’t experience with other art forms. It evokes a longing in me for a similar connection to my own body.

I’m no longer in a silent war with my body, but I also don’t feel entirely at home in it either. Over the years, I’ve taken up various practices to help me begin a conversation with myself. I took up running in my thirties, and my body told me it is strong and resilient. But, I’m also prone to age and injuries. I practiced Pilates, and my body told me it can recover from the wild ways three pregnancies affected it. My body also revealed an inherent weakness, an incurable curvature of my spine in the form of scoliosis. We’re still negotiating this discovery. Over the last year, I added occasional yoga classes to the mix. My body tells me things in the quiet, slow movements of this practice. We share secrets, and it has been healing in a new way.

But, dance? This is the one thing I’ve always wished to do, the one challenge I’ve never attempted, having no sense of natural rhythm or grace. While watching Step Up, I recognized everything I’ve ever wanted for my own body. Dancers are at home within themselves, and this is the longing from my childhood identified–to feel that pain and beauty, fragility and strength, restraint and freedom of movement are part of wholeness. This is living at peace with one’s body. This is understanding the incarnation in a new way.

I carry a tiny seed of hope that someday, dance and I will become friends, and I will learn how to express myself without the crutch of words getting in the way. My body will reveal its secrets in a tactile, earthy way, and the untouchable art will no longer be a stage or screen away.

There You Are: A Thanksgiving Welcome

adirondack

She walked onto the stage with a microphone to magnify her slight Southern drawl. She looked into the eyes of the writers gathered in anxious circles below, and said, “There you are!”

She paused to let the words sink in as she opened her arms, embracing the room in welcome. “We’re so glad you’re here!”

With her words, shoulders around the room relaxed. Lips curled into smiles. We nodded at one another and to the speaker on the stage.  “There you are!” she said. And we knew we’d left our homes only to arrive at a new one.

….

When I enter into a new place, my thoughts often turn inward. My first thought is, “I’m here”, as I assess the emotional tenor of the room based on this internal declaration. I scan the center of the room, and inevitably end up feeling my way around the outer edges, dragging my arrival and its emotional baggage behind me.

Because I instinctively turn inward, I’ve thought a lot about the welcome I received at the writing workshop and how it changed my perspective. “There you are,” I found myself repeating, and my gaze shifted outward, while my body settled into its center. I stopped wondering what others thought of me as I sat clutching my half-used pen and scraggly sheets of paper torn from a friend’s notebook. I looked around the room thinking, “There you are, friend. There you are, fellow artist. There you are, soul sister.”

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I want to extend my thanks and a “There you are!” welcome to you too, dear friend. Regardless of what this holiday season holds for you, whether it is a less than eager reception, loneliness, over-commitment, grief, contentious disagreements, or a warm family welcome, I hope you consider this a place where you feel a spirit of kinship. I hope you find a sense of belonging as we face this crazy, broken world together. I’m just as mixed-up, sad, and defiantly hopeful as you are this November. I’m just as eager to give thanks and receive grace.

There you are, friend. I see you. Consider this your invitation to a seat at the table–you belong here. Let’s feast on hope and offer it to those we’ll be rubbing elbows with this Thanksgiving.