On Motherhood and Living in the Present

As I shuffled through seventeen years of memories captured on film, her doe eyes followed me from photograph to photograph. So did her smile–gap-toothed, then crooked, braced, and at last, perfectly straight. I discovered her all over again–at two years old, at ten, at sixteen. A highlight reel of both the extraordinary and the everyday scrolled across my computer screen. Her life unfolded over four continents of landmarks, oceans, and mountains in far flung places.

I watched, mesmerized, as she opened her arms to the waiting world.

As seventeen years scrolled by me in a blink, I re-discovered my daughter, but to my surprise, I also re-discovered myself. Years of photographs found me either front and center with an arm slung around her shoulder or hovering close in the background–a flash of tanned leg, a turned back, extended arms carrying flaming candles on chocolate cake. Other times, I stood behind the camera, narrating the story of my daughter’s life as it blossomed in slow motion right before my eyes.

Bloom. Click. Blink.

I’ve carried a secret fear for years–the fear that the complexity of my inner life eclipses the day to day living of my outer life. I  spend too much time in my head, in a book, in emotions and words stored up for no one but me. I often wonder if I become so wrapped up in my own inner stories, that I forget to live the one unfolding in front of me.

I worry that I missed it all, that the doe eyes and ready smile and open arms are a product of my imagination, rather than permanent tattoos inked onto the skin of my day to day.

The photos reminded me of the truth; I co-wrote the narrative of her life. I didn’t miss a thing. Every first, every last, every familiar gesture, every friend, every party, every rolled eye, and crooked grin. I flutter in and around all of them, sometimes front and center, sometimes just outside the frame, sometimes behind the lens as a witness to her story unfolding.

I couldn’t erase the smile from my face as I read her story in photographs. This second reading of her life confirmed my fears are unfounded. I was present, and I remember each of those moments with clarity.

I remember now too, how those photos only tell part of the story. They don’t tell of the private moments when I sang her to sleep or read her books at bedtime. They show nothing of the prayers whispered, the hopes met or deferred, the dreams dreamed, the tears cried, or the sleepless nights that make a surprise return when teenagers begin dating and driving.

The photos tell a story, but the heartbeat behind all that living? It’s pure poetry.

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The One Question I Ask Again and Again

“Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. They keep trying to perfect the one problem they were born to understand.” ~Alberto Moravia

For forty years, I’ve asked the same question, “What does it mean to belong?” I’ve “lived the questions”, as Rilke so lovingly suggests, and I still feel as if I’m hovering around the answer, searching for a place to land. Belonging is more than fitting into the shape of a place, but rather feeling at home in one’s body, mind, and spirit. It is belonging to a family. To a cause. To a community. To an ideal. To an art form. It is belonging in one’s skin, and being fully at home with one’s self, and this is a journey I continue to travel. Searching, circling, seeking a way in.

One of the great joys in life is discovering by what means we find a way in to the problem we’re meant to understand. Words are my way in, the means by which I seek understanding. I tie them like small scraps of string along the path to help me journey towards the problem, but also to find my way into the answers. So often, understanding comes not only from moving forward, but from making our way back. Back into our past relationships, seasons of life, and life experiences. Back to the familiar questions knocking at the door of our heart.

Moravia’s words have proven true not only in my life as a writer, but simply as a human being. One doesn’t need to be a writer or composer to identify and seek answers to the common themes in their life. I wish someone had told me to look for the threads tying my life together–look for the themes and questions that continued to knit their way into my soul. It took me nearly seven years of writing to discover what problem I’ve been trying to understand and a lifetime before that.

I’ve asked so many questions and spilled so much ink while asking myself what it means to belong, and yet I feel so far from perfecting an answer. I feel comforted by the fact that I’m not the only one who continues circling around the same idea–all of the great artists do. And the not-so-great artists. And the rest of us ordinary people too.

Every day I step out into the questions in faith, I grow closer. I tie my scraps of string, moving forward and back and forward once again. It’s a journey with paths that diverge and cross and lead to places of loss and also wonder. What a miracle it is to step into the mystery with my words as a guide, making peace with the fact that I may never find the answers, but perhaps the  answers will find me.

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What is the one problem/theme/idea you find yourself returning to again and again? What helps you understand?

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.

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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 Small Talk Isn’t So Small After All

The vets staying at the Veterans Hospital in town hang out at the local strip mall. We see them every time we stop for milk and a five dollar bunch of flowers. Often, there will be one or two vets smoking on the corner, leaning heavy into a cane or crutch. They call to one another across donuts and coffee, or chat in the aisles of the Rite Aid. Sometimes their wounds are obvious–lost limbs, disfigurement, a limp. And other times, it’s the faraway stare, the nervous glance over their shoulder, the war-weary eyes that hint at invisible damage.

I pulled into the parking lot last week, and an older veteran stood on the corner of the Stop and Shop and followed my car with his eyes. I got out, grabbed my bags from the trunk, and he continued to stare. His face told a thousand stories, and his leg, permanently damaged in one skirmish or another, told a story too. I tried to look away.

Minutes earlier, I’d huffed my way out of the house after hours of household chores, while my husband lay prone on the sofa with a cold drink and an ipad in his hand. My annoyance led me to speed my way to the store, slam the car door, and attempt to sneak by the man without so much as a nod hello.

He called out to me, “Hey there! I used to drive a car just like yours. Do you love it? Is it a stick shift?” For a split second I wondered if I could walk by and pretend not to hear him. His left leg held all of his weight, and my polite, fake, smile held mine. I turned to face him.

We chatted cars for a minute, and while I considered how much time this conversation would cost me, he considered sharing a piece of his history. His story tumbled out. He spoke of the years he was stationed in Germany, the multiple languages he speaks, and his love for European travel. He told me of a car just like mine that saved his life in a head on collision with two other vehicles on a German highway. He told me a story of near misses, something akin to salvation.

After we chatted for a while, and I turned to enter the supermarket, he called out a blessing on me and then again on my family. I mumbled a brief thank you, and I walked away thinking I should say something to bless him too, but the words buried themselves in my own discomfort. The conversation was as awkward as you imagine it to be between a war vet and a harried housewife, but I walked away feeling as if I was richer for this chance meeting with a stranger. Near misses can cause one’s fake smile to transform into a real one, and one’s harried heart to enlarge in size.

I am so quick to dismiss the gift of a timely conversation. I almost missed out on a opportunity to see God in the face of another human being that day. I almost rejected the gift of a blessing from a stranger. When the man reached out in conversation, I wondered what he wanted or needed from me, not realizing I was the one with the greater need. I needed to stop tending my small wounds, exit my own story, and receive the gift of another’s.