Chop wood
Carry water

I heard that message in a meditation today and I’m doing my best. My nervous system is a wreck, a jangly mess of tangled wires and antennae picking up signals from everyone around me and bouncing them back and forth like a pinball machine. I spent most of yesterday in tears, and when I wasn’t crying, I was working in the yard, schlepping heavy pavers and bags of sand in an attempt to shunt some of that energy out of my body.

Make breakfast like a prayer

I heard that in my head this morning when I was walking the dogs, trying to stay present and remembering how damn hard it is to just do what I’m doing when I’m doing it with every fiber of my being. My brain wants to jump ahead to problem-solve and make lists and let my body navigate the daily dog walk. It’s a struggle to force myself to feel the ground beneath my feet, take in the cool breeze on my skin, smell the neighbor’s jasmine blooming, watch the crows hop from place to place on the wires above us.

Chop wood
Carry water

My friend Susan used to say that to me when I was a kid and I was freaking out. I don’t honestly remember if I ignored it, rebelled against it, rolled my eyes, or took it in, but somewhere it lodged itself in my body so it could come back out today when I needed reminding. And as hard as it is, the moment I start doing it, I can feel my nervous system calm down. Walking up the stairs to get a load of laundry, I repeat silently

chop wood

carry water

with the rhythm of my breath. When my mind starts to drift, I note that I am gathering laundry and I focus on how my leg muscles feel as I go down each stair, how the muscles in my forearm feels when I turn the doorknob to the laundry room, what my core feels like as I bend at the waist to push the clothes in the washing machine.

The hamster-wheel part of my brain is back there somewhere worrying that I am moving too slowly, that I won’t get everything done.

Make breakfast like a prayer

My friend Jen says that and I do my best. Slicing potatoes, cutting chunks of sausage, watching the egg yolk and white swirl together as I whip them. Sitting down, I focus on the taste of a perfectly crisp bite of potato and marvel at how often I shove food in without really experiencing it. The hamster squeaks at me that I’m being ridiculous and clichè.

But there is more air in my chest and belly. My jaw is relaxed. My limbs soft and comfortable. And by 10:30, I have walked the dogs, started two loads of laundry, eaten breakfast, helped my daughter navigate buying her parking permit with the city clerk, watered all the plants, cleaned and decluttered the kitchen countertop, and connected with three different dear ones via text.

It is enough.
The hamster is still spinning, but he is not yelling at me anymore. There are a lot of things left to do today, and I am reminded of something another strong, wise woman once said to me:

there will be enough time for all of the things that matter

She said this to me years ago, like Susan, and I wanted desperately to believe it then. I’ve heard it echo in my head often since then and she is right. It is amazing to me that I never believed that, or even considered that it could be true until she said it, but once she did, I began to trust it.

The things I accomplish today are the things that will be important to accomplish. One step at a time.

this breath in
this breath out

So many wise, simple phrases from so many wise women in my life. And each one of them calms me, centers me, puts me squarely in the middle of a place that feels held in abundance, connected to an energy that fuels me. I am grateful. Nothing has changed outside of me – there is still pain and chaos and uncertainty and suffering. What has changed is that I know my work is to chop wood, carry water, make breakfast like a prayer, believe that there is always enough time for the things that matter.  This breath in. This breath out.

We know about biorhythms – the idea that human beings have certain cycles they go through that affect wellness and health. Circadian rhythms dictate when our bodies release hormones to help us sleep (melatonin) and wake up (cortisol). Other cycles include menstrual cycles and control fertility and reproduction. We know that our biology and physiology are affected by the rhythms of nature as well – mood and energy are affected by the number of hours of sunlight in the day, and for people who live in the extreme parts of the planet where there are endless days of light and then later, endless days of darkness, it is well-documented how their moods and productivity are affected. Similarly, people who work the “night shift” or graveyard shifts often have a difficult time synchronizing their sleep/wake patterns and can suffer from depression or anxiety and develop sleep disorders.

School-aged children have rhythms for their school “year,” at least in the United States, where they can expect to be in classes nine months of the year and then have summers off. We have decided that a work week ought to be five days on, two days off (if you’re lucky – many people with more than one job or who are engaging in work that requires overnight or weekend shifts don’t often get that cycle). In the case of summer, it is widely acknowledged that this began because of the agrarian cycle – that is, that families needed children home during the biggest growth and harvesting time of the year so that they could pitch in and get the work done. Now that our society is increasingly not driven by agriculture, there is a push to eliminate this and have school run throughout the year, and I have to say, conceptually, that seems to make sense, but when I think about cycles and rhythms and nature, I wonder if it’s a really bad idea.

If human beings have biological cycles that are influenced by the natural world, such as circadian rhythms, and if when we push past or ignore those influences we tend to struggle, I think it makes sense that there are additional, natural cycles that make sense to adhere to as well.

As we are in Fall in the Northern Hemisphere right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to watch the plant life around me ready itself for a hibernation of sorts. I remember learning in my Plant Systematics class in college that it’s best to plant new trees in the early fall so that they will take root and then rest during the winter before “waking up” again in the Spring and starting to grow. It seemed counterintuitive to me, given that soon after planting, the leaves would fall away and the ground would become hard and cold. Wouldn’t it make more sense to plant them in the Spring when they are beginning to really burst forth with new growth? My professor said no way. Fall is the time when trees focus their energy on developing roots – just because we can’t see it happening doesn’t mean it isn’t. In the Spring, the tree’s energy is directed toward flowers and leaves and new branch growth, which doesn’t leave much for roots, and since roots are what the tree really needs to thrive, Fall is the time.

Several years ago, I became aware of a similar phenomenon in my own life. I have the privilege to work on my own schedule, and I noticed that there were distinct times when I would become less productive as a writer. I do much of my “writing” in my head, and that part was definitely still happening, the deep thinking and rumination, but as far as putting actual words on paper that resulted in coherent essays or book chapters, it wasn’t showing up. I got frustrated with myself and tried to disrupt my normal practices, forcing myself to sit in a chair and type words, figuring that I was being “lazy” or just not trying hard enough. Everything I wrote during those times was garbage.

Generally, about halfway through February, I found myself on fire with ideas – writing writing writing and producing pitches and essays and making headway on manuscripts. Whew! I was back. Until about October – when things died again. It took me a few cycles to figure this out – I wasn’t *not* working during this time, I was simply not producing visible results. Everything I thought about, scribbled little notes about, chewed on in my mind, during this fallow time somehow made its way in to my finished products in the late winter or following spring, like buds on a tree. Beating myself up during the time when I was working on roots wouldn’t change anything about the end result.

Our culture is so obsessed with progress. Goals. Continual growth. But the truth is, there is no such thing as constant growth where you surpass old milestones over and over again. Yes, trees get larger and larger, but they do that with a built-in fallow period, where they rest. We know that much of brain growth in humans occurs during sleep. To expect ourselves to be continually setting goals, working toward them, setting new ones, working toward those, setting more, working toward those, and only expect rest to happen at the end of our lives (retirement, for the folks lucky enough to afford it) is making us sick. The natural world knows that we need rest on a regular basis – that there are times when resting is actually in our own best interest if we want to stay healthy and keep growing. Education researchers know that giving kids time to sit with new ideas and incorporate them on their own after they’re introduced is important. Instead of packing class time full of content from beginning to end, kids process information better if they’re given opportunities to ruminate on new content, turn it over with classmates in discussion, let it rest.

All the signs point to the importance of rest and fallow states, both for physical and mental health, but our culture isn’t set up for that. We revere the folks who can survive on four hours of sleep, praise the kid who goes to school, plays sports, and has a part time job, and expect parents to work full time and then come home and help kids with homework, prepare meals, do laundry, drive to extracurricular activities, and volunteer for the PTA. The failure has come for us humans because we’ve centered the system and not the collective good. Centering the system is what leads us to ask questions about where we can impact “the economy” or why it’s dangerous to let our kids have the summer to play instead of looking for jobs that will look good on a college application or going abroad on a service trip (that will also look good on a college application). It means that the families who see their kids burning out and falling to pieces feel as though they have to find a way to help their kid do the “personal work” of assimilating to the system as opposed to listening to their own inner guidance that will tell them what they need (often, rest and a recalibration of their energy toward their passions and values).

But this centering of the system, where has it gotten us? Centering the system is also centering those who benefit from the system (often, white, male, capitalist, Western-ideals, individualism-as-paramount) and sacrificing the rest of the people to that system. This is how we end up with an increased suicide rate among adolescents, college sophomores declaring majors because they have to, not because they actually have spent the time cultivating their own ideas about what is important to them and what their true passions are. This is how we end up with mid-life crises where people who believed in and followed the system suddenly come to realize that their own satisfaction and well-being are not important in this schema.

So why center the system? Why buy in to it? Because we’ve been told that it will keep us safe. But we’re learning on a large scale that that was nonsense. Actively disrupting our own biological rhythms and imperatives, cycles of work and rest, the phenomenon of belonging and cooperation, has meant that we are divided and miserable, and burning our own planet. Our blind faith in the system (or desperate clinging to it as a life raft in the middle of a burning sea) leads us to ask questions like “how will we pay for universal health care” (centering the system) instead of asking ourselves whether or not we truly believe that each and every person deserves to be cared for (centering the collective).

When we as parents and educators of kids shut down conversations about disrupting the public education system for the good of all by saying “it’s too expensive” or “that is too hard” we are acknowledging our allegiance to the system and not to our children. Many of my personal heroes have been people who didn’t follow the “traditional” pathways, but who recognized their own worth and the value of connection to others and forged ahead. Those who followed them often did so because that message stirred something inside them – a longing to be like that, to find themselves rooted in and cared for by the community, not isolated by a competitive, capitalist, lone wolf system.

Our world is literally burning and flooding right now because we’ve centered the system (and the folks who benefit from it in the short term). We have some choices to make and I, for one, feel like listening to the kids. If we haven’t completely crushed their sense of wonder and curiosity and passion and desire to belong to something bigger than themselves, they will lead us.

My last post pointed you to my friend Jen and her work that helped me set a new tone for my life. I have several pages of notes from a day I spent with her last year in a tiny little cabin on an island in the Pacific Northwest and every now and then when I’m feeling a bit lost, I revisit them and find new nuggets of wisdom.

Last week, I unearthed the notebook again and found a loose sheet of paper I’d tucked inside. It features just eight words, spaced out and written in sky blue pen. I don’t remember when I wrote them, but I vaguely recall sitting down one morning with my coffee, lighting a candle, and doing metta meditation to start my day. When I finished the meditation, I reached for a sheet of paper and wrote what came to me. I do this often, and it doesn’t always make sense in the moment, but capturing them for later has proven to be powerful.

Sometimes, I have epiphanies or sudden shifts in thinking that have profound effects. It’s a little like an earthquake that suddenly and irrevocably changes the landscape of my mind and heart and life. But more often, I’m learning that making substantive changes takes intent and practice. I have to embed and embody new ways of being in to my life so that they become habits, and these seven words are emblematic of that hard work.

Patience

Being patient requires me to trust in the abundance of the universe, the kindness of people, the rhythms of life. Like a surfer whose timing is off and has to watch a perfect wave pass by without begin able to ride it, I have to wait and know that it’s only a matter of time before the next good one comes by and lifts me. Once-in-a-lifetime stories are romantic and cinematic, but not really an accurate reflection of the way life works.

Perseverance

This also asks that I trust – in my own ability to keep moving, in the fact that one step will lead to another. It doesn’t mean that I have to know what all the steps are, or where the ultimate destination is, just that the next step will come and then the next and the next. And it doesn’t mean that I can’t rest, only that I listen closely so that when I’m called to start moving again, I hear it.

Passion

This word is sometimes over-used, but it is also under-rated. Being able to tap in to the things that drive me, that motivate me, that stir that feeling in my belly that excites me and makes me smile is a skill, if only because it asks that I acknowledge that those things are intrinsically worthy, that they are enough, important, valid (whether or not they lead to monetary success). I’ve been in relationships where my passions were trivialized and called “cute” or “sweet” and I learned to doubt myself, but I’m (re)learning.

People

We are designed to live in community, and many of us enjoy it, but we aren’t taught to be comfortable resting in it, being held by it, surrendering to the give and take. We cannot accomplish the things we want to do without other people, and celebrating our victories is not nearly as sweet when we do it alone. A willingness to be seen and heard and see and hear others is vital in my journey to a better life.

Paths

Not path. Paths. Plural. There is no one path, there are many, and they connect to each other. It is ok to head down one path, change my mind and veer left or right or even make a u-turn and head right back to the last fork in the road. It is perfectly acceptable to travel for a long time down one path, decide that I’ve learned all I can from it, and hop off or run as fast as I can to a different one.

Plans

Gloria Steinem said, “Hope is a form of planning.” This P brings together passion and perseverance and bathes them in hope. It gives me a place to start and a goal to strive for, even if things ultimately go sideways. As long as I remember that a plan is simply a blueprint and I get to decorate the walls however I damn well please, I can see opportunity in it rather than feeling limited by it.

Presence

This is often the hardest P for me. It requires a willingness to pay attention to what is happening, even when it’s scary or uncomfortable, and especially when life is joyful. Having learned to be dismissive of my own successes (‘humility is sexy,’ I was once told), I have to practice being intentional about noticing when I feel joy and imprinting it on my brain and my heart. Paying attention to my instinct to minimize my own efforts or hedge against jinxing myself and correcting it to bask in the feeling of happiness is a lot of work. Noting my reaction to fear or sadness and counteracting the shrinking by opening up further has only gotten easier the more I am present.
When I remember these pillars (ha! another P), I am rewarded with a sense of peace. When I slow down, envision them, act with intention to give them a place in my life, and embody them, I begin to transform the way my brain reacts to the world so that the old lessons of scarcity and bootstrapping and fear fall away.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve wrestled (well, thumb-wrestled) with something that keeps cropping up for me. It’s nothing major – thus, the thumb-wrestling – but nevertheless, it keeps showing up for me and I keep nodding at it and then moving on with what I’ve been doing.

Six days ago, I started a ten-day program with my lovely and amazing friend, Jen Lemen, that has re-surfaced all of this and put it front and center, and it’s profound and moving and scary as hell. In a good way.

This morning, I woke up and sat in metta meditation (part of the program involves saying metta every morning) on my deck. Surrounded by fragrant plants and bathed in sunshine, I opened up as wide as I could and by the time I was finished, tears were rolling down my face unabated. As is my ritual, I wrote down the messages I’d heard as I sat and texted Jen to download.

The next, very critical piece of this for me is to walk. I have access to a gorgeous arboretum about six blocks from my house, so I leashed the dogs up and we headed out. There is something about opening myself up and making myself vulnerable and then walking to the trees and sitting in quiet for a while that grounds me and lets the messages of love and compassion sink deep in to my bones.

Between my house and the arboretum is a play field and this morning, there was a t-ball game in full swing as the dogs and I approached. There was a father and son (young, maybe 4 years old at the most) playing catch off to the side, and we rounded the corner just in time to see the little boy running as fast as he could with the ball in his hands, racing on chubby legs and laughing and then he just crumpled in to the grass, his legs giving way beneath him as he rolled on to his back and giggled with his face to the sun. Then he sat up and stared down at the grass next to him, the game of catch completely forgotten. He pulled a blade of grass, ran his hand across the top of others to feel the tips on his palm, and was generally engrossed where he sat. His dad kept trying to coax him to get up and throw the ball back, come back to the game, but the little boy just sat, smiling, playing in the grass.

I began crying again. I have been falling, over and over again, for the last 18 months. Not hurting myself, not upset, just falling. And after each time, I get up and go right back to the thing I was doing when I fell.

As I watched that little boy, my heart swelled with nostalgia and longing. I remember being a kid and staying where I fell for a while. I remember the joy of it, the discoveries I made that I wouldn’t have seen if I had just gotten right back up and kept playing.

It’s time for me to let myself fall and stay where I am for a while. My body is crying for me to let it be, to pay attention, to sit in that place and be still and quiet and open up to different possibilities. I’m listening.

*If you’re curious about the program with Jen, please check out Jen’s Instagram and look for information on the Path of Devotion. She’s starting another group July 1 and it is life-changing. She is a gentle, wise guide if you’re looking to create new, meaningful rituals and rhythms in your own life, and you pay what you can.

I am writing my way in to my body. This is difficult, but not counterintuitive. In the last ten years or so, I’ve discovered that what I used to think was counterintuitive was simply fear. Instead of doing what I was told to do (don’t poke at that, don’t examine the pain, pretend it isn’t there or deny it or minimize it) for most of my life, I have learned that opening up, asking questions, and leading with curiosity is actually the most intuitive thing I can do.

So, while it has been a while since I sat down to write, I am agitated and hyped, uncomfortable and tense, and too far in my head. It is time to write my way in to my body.

The word agitated conjures up the washing machine of my youth – the golden colored 1970s top loading contraption that swirled clothes to clean them by violently twisting them back and forth. The one I had to stand on my tiptoes or levitate off the ground in order to reach that last sock or pair of underwear caught on one of the fins of the center agitator before tossing it all in to the dryer. Is this agitation getting things clean? Is it separating the dirt from the substance?

I am an extreme empath, especially when it comes to my daughters. When they are overwhelmed or upset, joyful or incredibly excited, I am too. I feel it in my core – like that washing machine agitator of old. I think sometimes I need that twisting motion, that constant shifting and moving inside me in order to parse out what is mine and what is theirs. Especially when the intensity is driven by fear.

It is my job as Mom and holder of space, purveyor of radical acceptance and unconditional love to operate from a place of calm and curiosity and centeredness. In order to do so, I have to filter out the fear.

It is Spring and I am eager to burst forth in to new growth and projects. Last fall I went to a plant sale and bought two tiny dogwoods and a lilac. They were in 1-gallon pots and at the time, they were simply sticks standing upright – not even impressive enough to be called a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I was skeptical that they would grow at all, but even after the 15 inches of snow we got this winter (unheard of in Seattle), a week ago, they each sported one tiny leaf. Today, they are all decked out in green, leaves growing by the minute thanks to the rain and sun breaks we have had. I like to imagine that all winter they lay resting, knowing that the time would come for them to busily push forth new leaves, maybe even agitating deep inside as the Earth rotated and the days got longer, readying themselves for the burst of energy it takes to produce new growth.

I think I’m a few weeks behind, but I’m going to get there.

Today would have been my 25th wedding anniversary.

I’m trying to figure out how I feel about that. Honestly, it’s not that I woke up with any particularly different feeling today. And I did my usual things – letting the dogs out, feeding the cat, making my coffee, checking in with Eve who is two hours ahead of me in the Midwest. It wasn’t until I decided to double-check the date and match it with The Tarot Lady’s daily card reading that I realized it was February 26.

And it wasn’t until I stopped and did the math that I was certain it had been 25 years. But as soon as I confirmed it, I felt prickly warmth in my cheeks and a small lump forming in my throat.              
I focused on breath. Expanding my ribs outward and upward. Shifted my feet to balance the weight between both legs.

One of the headlines I read this morning in my news crawl said GRAND CANYON TURNS 100. That was another thing that gave me pause. Not because I was trying to figure out how I felt about it, but because it seems absurd.

The Grand Canyon is not 100.

The fact that human beings named it and stated that we were giving it some sort of special protection (from us, if we’re being honest) is turning 100. The Grand Canyon has been there for a long time.

Human-centering.

I’m pretty sure that’s a big part of the problem, isn’t it? That we think everything is about us and we only see the world in terms of how it affects us, what it can provide for us, or how it can harm us.

In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston recounts a memory from her childhood where she climbs a tree in her yard and gazes out at the horizon.

“Every way I turned, it was there, and the same distance away. Our house then, was in the center of the world.”

Today is a day. The moon is not in a particularly unique phase, there is no unusual meteorological activity happening in the part of the world where I stand, the calendar is a human construct, as are wedding anniversaries and the particular significance of one’s 25th. It is not even my 25th, as I am no longer married.

Unpacking the flush in my cheeks and the tightness in my chest requires an examination of what I think I would have received were this truly my 25th wedding anniversary. Accolades from friends and family for having maintained a marriage for a quarter of a century. Some significant gift from my husband along with a nice dinner or small gathering of loved ones. Perhaps cards from our children. All of that may have led to some pride on my part – an acknowledgment of the work and effort it took to stay married for this long – and perhaps an extra burst of love and affection for my husband as I quickly flashed back through carefully curated memories of special times.

The Grand Canyon is not 100.
I have not been married for 25 years.

We have both existed before these milestones that would define part of us.
We will both continue to exist and evolve and have value regardless of any external measure of time.

There is something powerful in recognizing the set of relationships to which I exist today – not centering myself in them and imagining spokes radiating outward, but simply pointing to them. It is nearly impossible to talk about them without centering myself, without using the words “my” or “me.” But if I can resist putting words to it, instead getting really immersed in how it feels to be part of this bigger community of people and animals and land and sky and water, I remember that I am held firmly and safely and that, here, time is not relevant.

I want to say it started the day E got home from college, but the truth is, it began somewhere back in October. I’m a stocking-stuffer fiend, to say the least. I start collecting things early – a small face mask someone said they loved, an ornament that will encapsulate the achievements of the last year, a pair of fuzzy socks just perfect for lounging. There are not many things that give me more of a jolt of joy than finding a tiny trinket that I can tuck away for Christmas for my girls.

Over the years, I’ve collected other kids, too. My daughters’ friends who hang out at the kitchen counter and snack, do homework, play games – I listen to their stories and sometimes when I’m out wandering, I find something small that will give them a laugh or let them know I’m happy to have them in my life by extension.

Those kitchen-counter gatherings happened less this fall while E was far away at school, so when she came back in mid-December, the volume of extra teenagers in the house more than doubled. Having more mouths to feed, more laughter, and more noise in my house is bliss. I don’t even have to adjust the amount of food I cook, because thanks to my great-grandmother, I am incapable of cooking for less than five or six people at a time, anyway. There are just fewer leftovers and more midnight raids on the fridge, more smiles and a few more dishes and a lot more glee in my life.

By the time the solstice rolled around, my heart was full. And even though the girls had gone with their dad for a few days, I had a lunch date with good friends and had prepared myself for the long, dark night and the letting go that comes with the winter solstice. I knew exactly what I wanted to release and I needed the dark and the quiet and the stillness to crystallize my thoughts and intentions. I lit candles, breathed deeply, formed pictures in my mind of just what it would mean to help myself be lighter. I imagined the weight and heft and color of the burden I’ve been carrying, nurturing, feeding, and by the time midnight rolled around, I had it cornered in my body and knew just how much space it inhabited. I blew out the candles and let go, seeing it disperse in to a million tiny fragments as though propelled with a giant wave rippling out, out, out. I’ll never be free of it, but having the bits and pieces spread throughout my body lessens the weight and impact. Instead of feeling it tight and heavy in my chest, I can let each of the bits be part of something larger in their own way. I woke up feeling lighter, free.

Over the following days, I spent time with dear friends and family. I saw my mom, my best friend, my brother and sister, an old friend who has known me since seventh grade whose history is both intertwined with mine and divergent. I was blessed with open arms and love and amazingly easy travel conditions. There were hugs and sweet moments of recognition as precious gifts were exchanged. Tears of joy and connection as we looked at each other and knew; we are holding each other, we see each other, we honor each other.

The date, the day of the week – it never mattered. Was it Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? I still struggle to place myself in a calendar because there are still gifts to be opened in the living room, the fridge is full of delicious food, there are forthcoming plans with friends over the next few days. My house and heart will continue to be filled up with conversation and laughter.

Even as I prepared for the ritual of the solstice, I wasn’t sure it would work. I didn’t know if I could let go of something that I know will continue to trigger me for a long time to come. And in the days following, when I was, indeed, triggered, I braced myself even as I realized I was doing better. The blow didn’t come as hard, sink as deep, or leave a bruise that my mind and heart worried over in the hours following. Letting go had worked. Somehow, I was able to use the darkness to align my heart and my head with my values and intentions and it feels as though the light hours – even though they are shorter – have more room for love and laughter. And I’m using every last second to soak up my girls and their friends and the moments with loved ones. It truly does feel like the most wonderful time of the year.

Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It’s been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.

The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.

Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you’ve ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.

Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I’ve cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.

If you’re like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that – I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.

When things happened that I couldn’t have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.

Eventually, that did several things:

  • fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it’s because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it), 
  • turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel), 
  • exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time – the vast majority of which weren’t mine to put out, 
  • reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
  • put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I became an alternately frantic and depleted half-person who was ultimately incredibly unhappy, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. 
But as I sat with Mom the other night, I reminded myself that difficult feelings do not compel me to act. Just because something is hard to witness doesn’t mean I have to DO anything about it. [Obviously, there are exceptions. If someone is in physical pain or imminent danger – yup, I’m diving in if I can.] And if I can ground myself in that moment enough to just acknowledge that what I’m experiencing is really hard and I’d rather not be feeling it, it helps me to focus my efforts. It may be that an hour or more later I will decide that there’s something I can do that will help – but those acts are purposeful, effective, and efficient. The way I used to handle things like that was scattershot – come up with all of the things I could do to cover any potentiality, make lists, call people, insert myself into the situation to “fix” things so that they wouldn’t make me uncomfortable. 
For the record, Susan didn’t like this conversation at all, and I totally get it. There is something seductive about knowing that we can effect change in any situation, especially ones that make us sad or scared or angry. And often we can be in control. For a while. Until we wear out. For me, learning to sit with painful feelings was a survival mechanism. I wouldn’t have lasted long at the pace I was going if I continued to think that I had to address every unpleasant situation I found myself in. I can say that my life isn’t any easier now, but I’m a heck of a lot happier and I believe that the things I choose to do are making a much bigger difference than before. 
Image: Low row of bricks alongside a sidewalk

On the sidewalk in North Chicago, just outside a large, upscale grocery store, Lola and I walked past a woman about my age building this brick wall. She was likely homeless, had a disposable plastic shopping bag filled with her own homemade mortar – newspaper bits, water, mud and other things only she knows – and was bent over stacking bricks and patting the mortar. Nobody challenged her, and she spoke to no one.

The next day as I walked to the El station, she was nowhere to be found, but I noted her progress and wondered whether she’d be back or if she ran out of materials or energy or drive to do more. I wondered whether she was trying to wall someone out or someone in, or if she was making herself a place to sit up off of the ground, or if she was simply creating, making something with her hands that made her feel productive.

I like to think it is the latter.

Even after all the therapy and reading and journaling and work I’ve done to counteract the cultural and familial narratives I’ve ingested for the last 47 years, it takes effort to remember that not everything I do has to make sense to anyone else. It doesn’t have to garner a paycheck or be in service to some bigger societal machine. It can simply be me using the materials I have available to me to create, to follow my heart and instincts and do what I do best and love most.

Lola, Eve and I spent the last week in Chicago, exploring, walking, shopping, and moving Eve in to her freshman dorm room. It was, by turns, uplifting, gut-wrenching, exhausting, and hilarious. These two sisters have their own secret language such that they can read each other’s emotions and rush in like a bubbling spring of water to fill in the holes, buoy the other, amplify the laughter. They know when to be quiet, when to lighten the mood with a carefully placed insult, when to link arms and raise an eyebrow to show support. It is an absolute pleasure to witness. So many times in the last week, I sat across a table from them or followed a few steps behind on the sidewalk and felt my heart swell at my good fortune. I get to be part of this.

We complained about the humidity (it was really gross – Pacific Northwesterners aren’t built for that much warm moisture), people-watched, got makeovers at Bloomingdale’s on a whim. We sat on a beach at Lake Michigan and marveled as a swarm of dragonflies swooped around in a cluster, creating their own mini-hurricane near the shore. We laughed and ate and filled an entire shopping cart at Target with hangers and laundry soap and bedding and school supplies.

I had one on one time with each of them; watching Glee with Eve late in to the night, sprawled on the couch, talking about nothing and everything. Lola and I hit five thrift stores in one day and ate tacos in the sunshine, simultaneously wishing we were home and dreading saying goodbye to her sister.

By the time the two of us settled in to our seats on the plane for the trip home, we linked arms, tipped our heads onto each others’ shoulders, and sobbed. One of the three legs of our stool wasn’t coming home with us.

Upon our return home from Chicago, I was a little lost. To be honest, I still am. I know there are essays to be written and sold. I need to continue sending out my memoir manuscript if it is ever going to be published. I have an agent interested in seeing a book proposal for a manuscript I wrote years ago, so I could work on that. None of those things pay much, if anything. Neither does mothering. I’m a bit paralyzed – do I look for a job that does pay? What can I do that’s valuable and useful? What do I enjoy doing? What can I stand doing that pays?

There’s something in me that says to wait. Just give myself time to roll with this new phase – settle in to having one less chick in the nest and use my energy to support both my girls through this transition. I don’t often think about modern technology – even as much as I use it – but I am tremendously grateful for the ability to text my girls. It means that I can offer advice and insight no matter where I am, so that when Eve feels a tiny bit homesick or has a question about returning textbooks she purchased for a class she dropped, I’m ‘there.’ Because what I know is that I am a good mom, and relying on my strengths in that area feels good to all of us. The fact that the girls know they can ask me anything, anytime, and I’ll want to answer, jump at the chance to engage with them – that is immeasurably important to me. It is a constant for all of us, a reminder that we are a team and while the characteristics of our connections might change over time, the fact that there’s a connection there is a given. I don’t support them because I have to. There is no sense of duty there. I am truly overjoyed to be their travel companion, sounding board, keeper of memories. I am using the bricks and mortar I have at my disposal to create something, and it may not look like much, but it is strong.

When I get caught up in the “but you’re not making any money” narrative in my head, I have to remember that I’m ok right now, that I do my best work when the work I’m doing is something I love and something I’m good at. And right now, the things I love most of all are mothering and writing. In that order. Today, that’s good enough. Better than good enough. It’s great. Amazing. Phenomenal.

Naturvetenskap 1

I am a storyteller and I have been my whole life. I carry them inside me, work on them, figure out the best way to share them. But sometimes the stories get heavy. Before I ever put anything on the page, the words and feelings chase each other around and around inside, making connections and trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. When I sit too long with the stories, they start to burn and I know it’s time to walk or go pull weeds. Somehow, being outside helps the sentences flow and combine in ways they can’t when I am indoors.

The stories of the last year and a half are heavier than many that have gone before, and I’m finding that walking takes on a new urgency for me and it also requires a focus I haven’t been forced to have before. These days, I have to walk farther away from home and immerse myself in places that are new and expansive in order to divorce myself from the circling thoughts and feelings. I have found an open space surrounded by trees where few people go and at least once a week I walk there and sit and untether the words from each other, and also from my head and heart. Sitting in this place just breathing helps to re-string it all in a way that offers clarity.

I am learning that there is a sort of chemical reaction taking place as I assimilate the stories and try to keep my heart and my head on the same level. Most days, the two are at war, fighting for supremacy, which sometimes means wild swings from sadness to anger. My brain can only witness so much grief before it burns it off with anger, like alcohol in a skillet. My heart is simultaneously relieved of its burden and seduced by the beautiful flames, but the anger is also expansive and  at some point I realize it is taking up too much space in my head. The sadness dissipated, but the stories are still there and they are all about other people. I imagine a large section of my brain colonized by the stories of others, the actions of others, the words of others, and I am impatient to evict them.

When I was in college, the days I spent in the Chemistry lab were some of my favorites. The cool, cave-like room with its expanse of concrete worktops and glass beakers and pipettes and orderly rhythms gave me a stillness and a focus. There were rules, a set of steps to be taken, and all that was asked of me was to do one thing at a time and remain curious – observe and report. Even if I knew what I was supposed to be creating, somehow the cascading chemical reactions along the way were always enchanting – sometimes it was a smell or a particular color flame that I hadn’t expected. Witnessing the magic kept me from getting caught up in the story or the sequence. I had my instructions. Observe and report. Remain curious.