tumbledweeds

growing a family o' weeds

coming awake (this is my prayer)

I haven’t been honest with you. It’s been difficult to be here, in this space, trying to write as though my life is the same as it’s always been. Because it’s not. I need to come clean with you (it’s the only way that I can find my way back to my voice again). What I need to tell you is this: Louisa died. She was only four months old. It was unexpected, and the absolute definition of tragic. She was, is, part of my tribe.

This has changed everything for me.

These months since, I’ve been carrying this deep awareness of time. It’s like I can see the hourglass tipping, watching as each grain of sand moves from the top to the bottom.   I have only so many grains of sand, and once it’s gone I can’t ever get it back. I’m afraid of the scarcity; I’m fearful about waste.   I want to know how to hold those moments, how to understand them and appreciate them. How can I recognize each grain of sand for the gift that it is, before it is gone, slipped right out of reach, never to be had again?

Is it not enough, this blessed sip of life?

I am afraid of missing this life. I’m afraid I’m not holding it tightly enough, or loosely enough, or not having enough fun and wonder and glory, or having too much fun and not doing enough of the hard things. I fear the scarcity of the moments, that they will run out without warning, and that I’ll have regrets. I fear the risks involved to live the life I want to live, the life that will make my soul take liftoff. Because the only way to get liftoff is to get off the ground.

I don’t want to miss the adventure of my very life because my eyes are on the horizon scouting out the next one.

Here is my adventure: this prayer of exhale, the glory of rainy days and hide and seek games. The smallness of step stools at the kitchen counter, where arms reach and lengthen to stir the pot of soup. Mine is the adventure of darkness creeping over campfires, the perfume of wood smoke in our hair and our on our skin, the words spoken breathed as benediction to this life of smoldering love.

I’m coming awake to it all (this is my prayer).

It looks like this: awake my eyes are open wide to the wonders of it all – I’ve tasted the fresh harvest of the backyard garden, the carrots pulled from the dark of the earth, to be surprised by their length and girth even – faith fulfilled in the palm of a two-year-old’s hand. I’ve watched the sunset, night after night, rhythms to count on, vivid and wild colors fading to concrete darkness and then later, the promise of a new day. I’m coming awake alongside the dirt and the mud, the creek beds and rocks. I’m watching flower petals, spent and used up, riding the current of the creek as the gurgling bubbles tinkle soft lullabies. My prayer is in each step of the hike, each careful foot fall of climbing through fields of ancient boulders. Each inhale is an invitation for me see, each breath out a quiet thanks for it all.

Oh, I know I’ll have regrets.  I’ll mess it up.  Things will be hard.  I’ll fall, and hurt; I’ll watch others fall and hurt.  There will be worry.  And maybe it’s naive of me to think that it all adds up, balances out.  That the risks equal the reward.  That the climb equals the view.  But maybe it’s not.

The kids have this new fascination with the screen saver on the computer. It scrambles through the photos, and they stand all three in a line watching as they flash by. Grant is especially good at calling out, with specific detail, a narration of these photos. It’s kind of like watching a highlight reel of the last year or so. What I realized, though, is that these highlights look like life. Regular old life. We take pictures of things that nobody would have thought to take pictures of 20 years ago. We take pictures of cooking dinner, of swinging on the swings, of reading books on the couch. Photos are ubiquitous now, because we carry our cameras in our pockets. I think we know –  we know – that when we aim the lens, we are focusing on that very moment, calling it out for what it is. These very small, very ordinary moments form the highlight reel of the adventure of a lifetime.

I’m coming awake to it all (this is my prayer).

The glory is there, calls me in, bends me low in a whisper of thanks on the soccer field, the early evening slant of light catching the blades of grass, igniting the bodies that lengthen, reaching outward, burning up until they, too, show only glory revealed. The clouds, fluffy and weightless, part only enough to let heaven touch earth and in that moment all is free of care. I’m in it, my own arms and legs lost to the glory of stretching and running after them, giggling and chasing. And then I’m watching the scene, no longer in it, but next to it, writing it on my brain, closing my eyes tight to recall every detail: the scent of the freshly mowed grass, the shriek of Renee’s laughter, the warmth of the sun on my bare skin. I memorize their faces, the glow of their eyes, the sweat slicking their hair back from their faces. Oh, what a life.

And we laughed, and we cried and thought oh, what a life.

 

rebuild

Each morning for the past week or so,  I look at the windows.  I check the bathroom window, the bedroom window, anywhere I may catch a glimpse. I’m looking for our spiders.  The ones who, last year, were committed to hemming us in, wrapping us up in their silken beauty.

Our windows are empty.

Our windows are empty and I am deflated.  Instead of these painstakingly geometric works of art, I see only cobwebs.  Junky and dust-like, they only serve to remind me of all the work there is to do, still.

After looking and hoping, I give myself over to the disappointment. My head is lowered, studying nothing on the ground, when I nearly walk straight into a web.  It’s not covering our windows this year, but instead stretches widely across our front porch.  Each bay of the porch, from baluster to baluster, displays the diligent work of these spiders.  In the morning rush of getting out the door to wait for the school bus I stop abruptly in my tracks, holding the kids back, but they have already seen.  Our eyes widen at the delicate precision of these webs – there are at least four of them.  Last year’s spiders hemmed us in with their tight and exacting weaving, but this year on the front porch these spiders’ webs are expansive.  The threads are almost invisible until the sun plays on them, and resting on each tight center is a fat, black spider.

These are not dusty cob webs.

After our silent admiration, and then our vocal oohing and aahing , we march down the stairs, continue on with routine. A hand slides down the railing, without thought or care.  It knocks loose the anchor and just that quickly a web is torn apart.  We suck our breaths in tight with the realization, and a hush falls over us.  Tendrils of the web float out with the breeze, weightless in the air.  It was an accident, this destruction.  I anticipate tears from any one of us, but I am wrong.  No one cries.

That evening, I’m reading aloud on the couch with the Griffin and Renee, trying to corral the energy of overtired bodies and minds.  I trip over my words as my eye is drawn to the movement I see out the front window.  From my place on the couch, facing out into the world, I can see the busy movement of the spider, the one whose web was knocked down early this morning.  His black silhouette looks like a paper cut-out except that it is moving so fast.  Quick and deliberate, but not hasty and worried.  I continue the story, leaning on my memory of a book I’ve read countless times, but my eyes don’t leave the spider.  A selfish thought enters my mind – I don’t want to share this moment.  But then I remember the morning, the oohing and aahing, how quickly it all disappeared.  I show them.  We stay on the couch, watching the spider rebuild.

spide

18 + 18 = 36

Mark. Swinging an ax. Because.

Oh, Mark, today you turn thirty six. You were eighteen when I met you, eighteen when I fell in love with you and you with me, and somehow now it’s eighteen years after that. Aren’t we still those teenagers, swept up in the whirlwind of romance and hot summer nights? I think we are. Since then we’ve become grown-ups in this world together, or are we just playing house? Maybe that’s the same thing. You do the math, and now we’ve hit that point in both of our lives where from here on out it’s more together than apart. We are just as much a part of each other’s growing up, growing out, now.

You turned 18 and I made you a mix tape. Songs were a love language of mine, still are. We still have that tape, and I’ll be sad the day when we own a car that no longer has a tape deck. 18 years ago we listened to that tape, saying so much without having to say anything, while you unwrapped your other gift – a picture of us, probably our very first together, in a frame with a hand-painted mat around it. I scrawled a quote around it, though these 18 years later I don’t remember what it said. I still think you’d love a mix tape and a picture more than most other things I could give you.

Who knew then that we’d be celebrating the rest of our birthdays together?

Maybe you remember when we felt like the Beach Boys were singing our anthem when they would sing, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” If we were older, then we wouldn’t have to wait so long. We leaned into this getting old part, hoping that it turned the key into our future together. And it did. Maybe we are just getting what we asked for. Is it that simple?

When I was cutting your hair last week, I noticed gray hairs poking through. We laughed at them, and I maybe you’re thankful you keep your hair so short that it’s mostly unnoticeable. Later than night, lying in bed, I wondered what you’ll look like when that gray comes in longer, thicker – silver fox, wise and lithe and strong.

I can’t believe my own goodness because the creases along your eyes, weathering your face, have only strengthened your rugged handsomeness. Your face has been chiseled well with the years. Those crinkles along your eyes are from your deep and abiding smile, your ridiculous and uncontrollable laugh. I’ve watched that smile for years, I’ve known that smile forever.

You’ve been a runner for as long as I’ve known you. Like all things, your running has ebbed and flowed. This summer, though, you set your sights, you aimed and fired, and your work and training were solid. I’ve seen you run and run without much thought, without the right training, and never pay a price. In fact, mostly you’ve been rewarded. But even with this year’s solid base, that commitment to do things right this time, your knee didn’t agree with you. Is that your age showing, throwing down the gauntlet, begging for the challenge? 36 is not 18. Though that knee wanted to lay down and give up just two weeks before your big race – that last race of the season, the one you set your sights on – you kept fighting. You pushed through. 18 is not 36.

I’ve been doing some rearranging in the house lately, (no surprise), and I emptied out on old chest that had been our coffee table. Inside were dozens of photo albums. The top layer had books of the kids, but as I dug deeper there were scrapbooks from the first few years of our marriage. The kids and I yanked them out and sat on the couch turning each page carefully as I fielded questions. They are all so curious about this life that we had before them. These are our stories in here, which makes them their stories too. These are the stories that maybe someday will be told to grandkids, to anyone who will listen. I began telling our stories.

There is a picture of you, and then of me, standing in front of a frozen waterfall somewhere near Lake Wallenpaupack that one winter when we went away, a gift from your folks. It was a tough time for me, and so for us – my parents were splitting, and it felt hard to walk, to move forward, as if there was no floor, no ground.   We explored crazy antique stores and saw the movie, “Chicago” in a tiny movie theater in the rain. You remember, of course, the ceiling fell in while we were sitting there, dumping water into that theater and you knew it would happen the whole time. You eyed that bulging ceiling tile, catching the rain from some leak somewhere, and you knew that it would burst. We laughed when it happened, people shrieking around us in surprise, and continued to eat our popcorn.

With those photo albums on my lap, I studied our faces, our postures. Our eyes. We were young, yes, but that’s not so much it. Sometimes I think that I am, we are, so entrenched in this life of small children, in the parenting and the work of this family, that it’s like wandering around up close to the world. The details are beautiful but wildly abstract and out of proportion. It’s not until I step back that I can see the panorama of life where we are – to see how this piece fits into our beautiful puzzle. Our puzzle is big, baby, and from where I am it’s easy to lose track of things. But we’ve laid our corners, put our border pieces together, and we’re filling in the rest, piece by piece.

This year, we’ve been picking up the pieces of the puzzle, examining them up close, feeling their edges and figuring out what belongs. There have been many that don’t. The life lessons have been strong this year, not for the faint-hearted, and our days are numbered, all of us.

There is that famous line by Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” We are growing old together, yes, but I’m not convinced. What if the best is right here, right now, wherever we may be?  The best was when I was 16, you were 18, and you drove too fast in your batmobile car through my sleepy neighborhood. That was the best.

The best was when we I waited for you at the top of College Hill in the dawn, a whole college campus asleep except us, that very first time you drove up to see me in college. That was the best.

Was it the best when we struggled to find each other, to find our place in the world, to unleash purpose in our hearts? What about then? The mountains of Colorado, dense forests along the way, the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Something tells me that, yes, that was the best, too.

The best was when you turned 30, and tiny Grant and I waved at you while you soared above our heads strapped into that contraption with the big motor and a gigantic parachute stretched out behind. Paraflying, you were free like a bird. That was the best.

Today, singing an off-key happy birthday to you around a campfire, this is the best.

And if we’re lucky enough to see thirty six plus thirty six make seventy two, I have a feeling that that will be the best, too.

curious campbell

We have a small vegetable garden outside our back door. It’s modest, but it’s hardy, and these early summer days filled with sunshine and rain are exactly the right mix of elements to grow that garden. The plants are growing fast, strong and hard. I think that if I could just sit and stare at it, if I could focus my eyes long enough hard enough, try not to blink, I’m sure that I would actually see the green stalks moving, stretching to the sky.

This is exactly how I feel about my kids.

The thing is: I do this. With both the garden and the kids. I stare at them long and hard.

I see Grant’s muscular legs flex as he runs, his calf muscles moving in response to the hill in front of him. I see the coordination of how he cradles that lacrosse ball in his stick, a concept foreign to him only months ago. I see Renee bravely step into the deepest parts of the creek, my breath catching until I realize that she is standing, still, on her own two feet. I see her enter into worlds of imagination and create stories and vignettes of magic and mystery – how she invites us in, even. I see Griffin, always climbing, running, jumping, imitating every move of his brother and sister. I see how impetuous he can be to protect his own opinions and sense of self. I see how his body stretches longer in his bed every night when I tuck him in.

But even in staring at their beings and doings, trying to memorize every feature, every funny thing said, every milestone, every mark of time, I can’t hold it all. I am witness to the miracle of this growth – this incremental, daily work of becoming more fully who they are. Surely, this is magic.

My One Word for this year is “learn.” It’s my attempt to see how I can more fully become who I am. It’s been a difficult one for me to spin beautiful and poignant thoughts through, and what I’m seeing is this: because the learning, and therefore growing, that I perceive in the kids is so obvious and so dramatic, mine looks almost nonexistent. It seems as though the learning and growing slows, decreasing exponentially, as the years go on. If I’m looking at the kids and wondering about the miracle of their growth, then I’m similarly doing the same to myself. Only I need to look at myself with a finer magnifying glass.

Maybe it would be different if I had set particular goals for myself: learn to knit a sweater. Learn to cook Indian food. Learn to speak French. Learn to drive stick shift. But these specifics don’t suit me, and one of the very reasons why I choose words to hang my year on and not resolutions. Those specifics, however, do lend themselves nicely to checklists and are easy to assess, easy to see. But the learning inside myself is more abstract.

Kindergarten wraps up this week. Today, Grant will step off of that school bus into summer and when he returns to school in September it will be as a first grader. It’s a time for looking back and seeing the growth, measuring and comparing. Here I witness how far he has come. It is a wonder to behold the growing – how much! How fast! How long and strong and hard!

At this point, midway through the calendar year, taking stock of Grant’s journey and growth through Kindergarten, I am wondering about myself. How has this word, “learn,” been part of my year?

Here’s what I come up with: in order to learn, I need to be curious. This is motivation to find out more. Without a desire to understand the world more deeply there simply is no room to learn.   It is hard, sometimes, to be curious. It’s hard to even want to know more. It’s a push just to get through that super-basic surface level of knowing.

But If I push myself through that initial membrane, if I can jelly my brain enough to be curious, then this learning can be wildly fun. I read somewhere that in order to learn something, one must unlearn it first, and though I’m not sure if that makes sense in all applications, I certainly feel that it is relevant in my growth this year. Before I can even make strides towards growth, I need to abandon my preconceived notions, whether about myself, or some other outside subject. Learning is sometimes like free-falling.

About a month ago, our family was invited to a neighborhood party. Here’s the thing – we’re not really part of the neighborhood. Our house backs up to this neighborhood, separated by a pretty intense hill with some dense brush. But there was a harmless incident with new “neighbors” and their dogs, and we were handed the invitation. We were pretty interested to go and see what life is like for the folks on the other side of the hill, but I was a little uneasy, too. Until then our only interactions with neighbors had been slightly less than pleasant. Our backyard shares a boundary line with the folks straight behind us, and while it was not a malignant relationship, it had been terse.

We tromped up through the woods to the party, carrying a tray of Rice Krispy treats and watching for poison ivy. We were only steps behind our terse neighbors as they entered the party, too. It was inevitable that we were going to have to make small talk with them.

I tell you all of this to say that I had this idea that Bill and Teresa were crotchety old folks. What I knew of them was that they defended their yard like a fortress, and lit up their back deck with colored Christmas lights all year long. But what I learned once I let my curiosity takeover is that they are lonely empty-nesters who work really hard. They are broken-hearted over some tough stuff with their sons, and they love their small, yippy dogs with their whole compassionate hearts. Bill is knowledgeable about the moon and stars, and sometimes walks the street late at night to get a better view. Teresa can’t wait to spend a month with her grand-kids who live too far away.

Maybe I should strive to be a bit like Curious George. You know, that mischievous little monkey and his friend with the yellow hat. Here’s what I love about George: he is, of course, curious. His curiosity often leads to mischief, to misunderstanding, or to a mess. But his curiosity also leads to adventure, exploration and learning. He never creates problems on purpose, he is never hurtful or mean – simply curious. He always sets things straight in the end, and in the process usually winds up changing others’ perceptions, too. See, there is always learning.

I got to know my neighbors that day. I was curious. I asked questions. I unlearned, and then learned again. Now I know that when the next meteor shower comes our way, we’ll head up the hill to take a look at the sky through Bill’s telescope.

My learning and my growing may happen more slowly, less dramatically as it does for the kids. It may be less celebrated, less obvious. How I’m learning seems to be just as important as what I’m learning. In order to be fully curious, to allow myself to follow down that rabbit hole, I need margins of time and energy. By asking myself to pay attention to how and why and when I learn this year, I’m taking note of these milestones. I’m becoming more fully myself. I’m etching it into the molding on the doorway, right next to the kids, and writing the dates in. Maybe, if you stare at me long enough, you just might see me grow.

 

in memory

“I was wondering if everybody could be remembered. Like, if we got organized, and assigned a certain number of corpses to each living person, would there be enough living people to remember all the dead people?”
“And are there?”
“Sure, anyone can name fourteen dead people. But we’re disorganized mourners, so a lot of people end up remembering Shakespeare, and no one ends up remembering the person he wrote Sonnet Fifty-five about.” – The Fault in Our Stars

By the time we were gathering at the church, the rain that had begun as a sprinkle was now causing a scene. A pile of wet umbrellas gathered in the entryway. The hearse had arrived. Grampie was escorted to the front. After a few hushed moments, Aunt Re bravely stood up at the front of the church and told stories of her mother’s life. Some were merely the facts of her life: grew up in this neighborhood, she went to that high school, married in this year. But facts soon morphed into stories. She told of Grammie’s quirks – the things that made her endearing – and the qualities of character that infused her life with love, the love that we each held in our hearts. Beautifully told, it was a portrait seen through a daughter’s eyes and shared tenderly at the end of it all. These memories give flesh and bones, the shape of a life in love and beauty, to these facts that are life, and death, too.

But even with all of Aunt Re’s perceptive sharing – for the memory of the stories, and the feeling of warm intimacy – even with all of that, it is only one snapshot of her life. It can’t all be wrapped up in a series of funny stories, or a list of traits as if from a personality quiz. Call it the highlight reel. Keen and sensitive, it still falls short of all that was Grammie’s life.

What makes a life, anyway? Is remembrance the mirror to the experience of living?

Maybe what I’m getting at here is legacy. Maybe in our remembering, in our telling of stories, we find a way to confront the finality of death in this life, to insert an ellipses where there is a period.

Is it the recipes that are preserved, cooked with the same ingredients and the same techniques? Is it the hand-knit blankets, the wooden chest that was hammered with love, these things passed down through the ages? Is it the stories that are recounted with fondness, all throughout life, but especially at the end? Is it the things we remember – the way an eye twinkles, the way a mouth curls, the inside jokes that make us smile?

Maybe memories are like pebbles picked up from a creek bed that you can roll over in your hand, smooth in your palm. You can reach your hand into your pocket, and rub that stone, and find yourself back at the creek. Sure, it’s not the same as digging your fingers through the wet gravel, letting the current slide through your fingers in search of that perfect stone. But that’s what a memory is: experiencing it again, though through a different lens – one of retrospect, one of time and distance, and just like that stone gets worn down, more clean with each stroke, so too does a story from memory get rounded out.

And then what happens when the memories fade? When the sound of her laugh is harder and harder to recall? When slowly, gradually no one knows that story of the struggle, the adventure, the triumph? What happens when there is no more remembering?

This same week, our spunky nine year old cousin had a terrible playground accident. After a severe concussion, she now has very limited memory. She came home to a house that she can’t remember, with horses that she doesn’t know, to be taken care of by a brother and mother that she doesn’t remember. Who is she now? What happens to her stories? Do they cease to be true? What happens to those relationships, to each slice of history? Do the memories make the person? Or the other way around?

Back at home that evening after the funeral, Grant picked his head up from his coloring and asked “How could Daddy carry that casket? It was so big and heavy.” He continued with his picture, picking out another marker and intently outlining a cloud. I thought of his question, and I thought of my answer. As a pallbearer Mark’s job was, of course, to carry the casket to and from the hearse, but he didn’t do it alone. The six pallbearers together shared the weight, gingerly taking the wet stairs taking care not to slip. After the service, they leaned awkwardly over the railing on the way back down, lifting the casket high. And in the pouring rain, they soaked their backs, rain sliding down their faces disguising the tears they shed as the brought Grammie’s body to her final resting place. I thought of how the weight was distributed, shifted around as needed. And I thought of how, now, in grieving, and living, we carry each other’s burdens. We share this weight of sadness. How can any one person carry death alone? They can’t.

We carry the memories, too, the same as we carry the grief. We carry them for each other, with each other. We tell the stories back to each other when we may have forgotten. Sometime all it takes is a familiar stanza and the thread of a story that had once been dropped can be picked back up again. My sister and I have a funny habit of remembering together something that happened only moments earlier. “Remember when you tripped over the chair on the lawn?” she’ll say after we have barely pulled ourselves together from laughing so hard. But just as likely we spend time remembering things of long ago, too: “Remember that colossal kayaking trip? The one when it rained the whole time?”

Our lives are living memories, stories in the making, and in the sharing.

This is a sacred job – to be a story keeper, a memory holder.

 

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