changing landscapes

changing landscapes 1

The storm came in quickly. I remember seeing a warning for a thunderstorm at some point, but had written it off as a typical summer’s day – hot and humid and always a threat of impending doom to ruin afternoon plans. Mark was working late, which is something that we as a family have adjusted to, another familiar landscape that is changing. The kids were watching a few minutes of TV to simmer themselves into quiet after a day of summer play and swimming lessons. After finishing some quick work on the computer, I snuggled into the couch between them all, hoping that maybe it would go unnoticed if I closed my eyes for a brief moment before making dinner.

The lights pulsed, dimming and then coming bright again. I hadn’t even noticed the sky grow dark, but it certainly had. I couldn’t see any rain, yet, but knew it was only a matter of time. The wind was picking up, and I could see the tell-tale sign of the pale green underside of the leaves waving around. With the next gust of wind, the TV flickered off, and that is when the shrieks and cries of worry began. First, it was the disappointment of losing their show, but it quickly escalated to a tizzy of panic when the lights didn’t immediately come back on. Renee looked out the window just in time to see power lines dance with a wildness none of had ever seen.

Then everything happened all at once. My phone screamed at me to tell me of a tornado warning. I chased the kids, all crying, into the basement, dragging Maggie, the family dog, and a lantern with us. Passing the kitchen windows, we could see already a huge branch from one of the giant tulip poplars had blown down, crashing into one of our pear trees, where it stuck, entangled in the branches. Through the crying, the questions from the kids were rapid fire, leaving little pause for me to answer: “Is it a tornado? Will our house blow away? But we don’t live in Kansas! What’s going to happen? What about the electricity? Will we have to sleep down here? Will Daddy be able to get home? What are we going to do?” It’s in these moments of panic that I find myself most at home in my mothering. I stay calm. I hold hands, answer questions, do the next thing. The adrenaline roars through my body, and I think I know what my cave-mother ancestor must feel. Only after the storm is over do I let myself succumb to my own inner anxiety, and sheer exhaustion of mothering.

After the storm, we crept into the yard to inspect the damage. It’s not evident at first, but tends to reveal itself in the days following. This storm was destructive. A branch I had thought was fine turns brown quickly, an indication of its break from its life-giving tree. We spend the next few days driving some back country roads to survey the toll of the storm, the kids pointing strongly, shouting “damage!” every time they see a tree down. Some transformations are slight – the branch, still full and lush and green, that is outside my bedroom window hangs closer than it did, pushed lower and out by the storm. We spend days dragging limbs into the woods. I pay the kids a penny per twig to clean up the driveway.   The skyline of my back yard is different. Changed.

It has been a season of changing landscapes. Things that were once as familiar as the freckles and veins on the back of my hand seem foreign to me now.

It continues to change.

As long as we’ve lived in this little house-on-the-hill we have had a vacant wooded lot catty-corner to our property. We have long used these woods to cut through to the neighborhood behind us, and further still to the sports center and beyond. These dense woods have afforded deer and other animals the cover that they seek out, and the tall, thick trees have added density to the canopy that hems us in.

Someone bought that plot of land this spring. Then, just last week, they began cutting down trees, tying pink ribbons on the giant ones marked to come down, clearing space for a house. One hot morning, I opened the back door to sit on the patio with my coffee and I heard the roar of chainsaws. Thinking not much of it at first (after all, chainsaws have been roaring strong and fierce in the aftermath of that storm), I then heard the creak and crack and then the crash of a felled tree. This was not simply clearing debris. The kids and I stormed up the hill, to see with our own eyes. Dozens upon dozens trees, already down or marked as such.

I wanted to wave my hands, shout at the top of my lungs. I wanted to say that nobody had asked me! I didn’t get any warning! Tears stung at my eyes, and I couldn’t quite rationalize why. I slowly walked back down the hill, turning to look back when I reached my patio. Already, there was more sky than I was used to seeing, big holes in the canopy cover of green.

It has unnerved me, this change in my view.

Sure, I feel this grief for big important reasons, like the ecology of my intimate environment. The kids keep talking about the squirrels and the birds, and I feel swirled into the idea of growth and life and death.

But deep down I know it shakes me on a more personal level. Falsely, I had come to know this landscape as mine. These trees were my view, with my morning coffee on the patio, the backdrop as the kids run through the sprinkler and leap into the splash pool. It is what I see at night, the moon descending below the trees, when I sit with Mark around the fire pit.

But I don’t own those trees. Don’t own them any more than I own the sun and the clouds.

I came inside, to my familiar family room with its familiar piles of paper and same old furniture, and I began moving things. My desk went from one end of the room to the other. The TV is at the opposite end now. Little things, baskets of books, end tables, all rearranged. Standing back to survey the change, I realized how crazy this all seemed.

Isn’t that how it is, though? When the outside landscape changes in ways that seem so dramatic and sudden and out of my control, I go inward and insist on control in my interior space.

My scenery is constantly changing in such minute ways, too. The flowers in the front garden bloom and, overnight, fade. Grant tells me that his hair grows one millimeter every ten days. There countless ways that the things that I look upon are in constant flux – birth, growth, death, decay. Perhaps it’s refreshing to experience the shock and intensity of this present destruction. It forces me to see it for what it is, instead of growing numb to change over time.

This landscape has changed. The skyline up the hill and beyond my house is different. It will take time to learn the shape of it, but I will. It feels all wrong now – light in the wrong places, shadows drifting unfamiliarly across the grass. But it won’t always.   Someday this new landscape will feel as familiar as the veins and freckles on the back of my hand.

 

lessons from a hawk

I can sit on my front porch, or perch on the hill in my back yard, and most always I will see some type of raptor.  Lured by the tall canopy of tulip poplars that create a fairy tale forest, or sometimes just the stink of rotting roadkill, the hawks and vultures love to soar where I can see them.  They easily display their magnificence with their wings stretched wide, and underneath them and the towering trees, I am made small in my world.

*

I find myself in this strange new phase of mothering.  Griffin is now three, and is so much more of a three year old kid than Grant ever was, and probably Renee, too.  What I mean is this: he chased those big kids right into their territory.  I would not call him so much of a toddler, because that sounds way too primary.  Grant as a three year old was sedate and mild compared to this small-bodied faux-big-kid.  He does not want a hovering mother telling him what he can and can’t do.  It’s lovely, and scary.

It’s lovely, because for the first time in seven years the demands on my physical presence are so much less.  I don’t have to have eyes on everyone all the time.  They can all handle the stairs on their own, the bathroom (mostly) on their own, can build forts on their own.  For the first time in a long time, I have some breathing room.  This is lovely.

(It’s scary, too, because Griffin has no fear, and doesn’t back down from a challenge, nor suffer from lack of imagination.  He’s been climbing trees now for a full year, and it’s perplexing to me that he’s the child who has yet to see the inside of the ER).

This transition, like my experience with most transitions, has filled me with angst.  During those earlier, physically demanding years, their sun rose and set with me, pretty literally.  Especially with Grant, when it was just the two of us, I was the whole show.  Whatever his experience, it was a good bet that I had orchestrated it.  At times feeling suffocated, or at least limited, I didn’t always embrace my starring role, but there I was, nonetheless.   As the kids grow, however, they have learned to take charge of their own experiences, mostly.  Throw a few siblings in there, and I’m hardly the center of the show anymore.  No longer the central character in their story, I much prefer a supporting role.

Though of course I do still spend time playing with the kids, reading books, building towers, doing puzzles, so much more of their time is play that is all their own.  They don’t need me to build a fort for them – they do it themselves.  They don’t need me to entertain them with activities or arts and crafts – they have their own ideas and initiate their own games.  I’m called on to tie something up, or to reach a box way up on a high shelf.  They don’t want me hovering or interfering.

This is beautiful, and magical, and I love to see their true selves come out through this type of play. But left out of this part of the equation, I have yet to find exactly my place in all of it.  It’s an awkward transition, to find one’s self pushed from center stage to the wings, however welcomed it is.  Released from the starring role in their lives, I know have to find my way back as the central character in my own story.

When the kids run off upstairs, lost in a world of imagination, I’m left behind downstairs.  I strain my ear to catch snippets of their play, at once grateful that we have dragged our feet to put away baby monitors, not to monitor their safety, but to allow me the joy to hear them play so uncensored.  After a few moments, it’s clear they aren’t coming down for a while, and this is where my angst swirls in.  My supporting role as mother leaves me here, ready and waiting for when they need a snack, or help unbuttoning a dress, or to work through squabbles, but until then I spin pointless circles around the kitchen.  I empty the dishwasher, prep for dinner.  I busy myself with housework, needing to feel productive, but eventually I feel utterly dissatisfied.  Because a pile of laundry can’t give cuddles and kisses, and the kitchen counters, no matter how shiny, don’t ever say I love you.

Recently, I was reminded of the idiom “work before play” and I crinkled my nose at the thought. It’s not that I don’t possess a strong work ethic, or want to teach my kids the importance of earnest dedication.  It’s because I recognize how unfair and misleading it is.  There is inherent wisdom in this, of course, that have-to’s trump want-to’s, but in my world, as in most of ours, the work is never done. There is always something else that needs to be taken care of, and by continually chasing that dangling carrot, trying to finish it all before rewarding myself with leisure and enjoyment, I succumb to burn out.

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My world swings on the pendulum from acedia to freneticism, so while it may sounds luxurious or indulgent to spend an afternoon in the sunshine reading a book while the kids play on the swing set in my periphery, I know that I’m warding off mothering fatigue and storing up for the next challenge.

Though I can’t drift far, I can involve myself in things that are my own – an art project just for me, a cup of tea and a book, work in the garden.  The constraints are still there – I still need to be flexible enough to change directions, dropping it all in response to arisen needs.  And we all know how it is: the minute my hands are deep in raw chicken prepping for dinner, I’m needed in a thousand directions all at once.

I know that my work as a mother is just as important now as it was in those earlier years, and that this time I have is a gift to strengthen myself for whatever season may be next.  I know that, out of the trenches of such physically demanding mothering, next I face into years of harder emotional parenting, navigating problems that grow as their bodies and brains do. Some days, even, the next hard thing is homework battles in the afternoon or bedtime whack-a-mole. I take seriously this responsibility, then, to find the beauty for myself in the gift of this freedom.

*

I’ve been watching this hawk for a while, now.  He seems so peaceful, soaring above the noise and grit of it all.  He beats his wings once, twice, and then not again for minutes and minutes.  Conserving his energy, he reads the air, observes the breeze, then tips his wings and rises with the wind.  He soars, and he soars, higher and higher, then lower again, waiting, and watching.

the writing life

Is it weird to tell you how hard it has been for me to write?  Because it is hard.  To find time, sure, but to choose the time, too.  Because we all know this: there is time for the things that matter.  Sometimes the thing that I’m choosing to matter is rest: to sleep a bit later in the morning instead of yanking my bleary-eyed self out of bed to stare at a blinking cursor. Of course, there are the things that matter always: packing lunches, and brushing little ones’ teeth, and paying bills.  Sometimes, even, the thing that matters most is sitting with my face in the sunshine and doing very little.

When I’ve been away this long, I have a hard time catching you up.  But the truth is there isn’t much to catch up on: the kids are growing, we’re marching one foot in front of the other like everybody else, through soccer practices, and homework and preschool pick up. Through making dinner, and maddening bedtime routines, and reminders to stop all the shouting.  There’s BIG STUFF, and little stuff, and everything in between.  We’re finding ourselves outside mostly, because it’s that type of weather, and we’re filthy-dirty at the end of the day. That’s life, isn’t it?  Maybe the catching up is more in my own head, because it’s never quiet, never still there.

I’m writing, sure, even if it’s not here.  There’s always something going, always an idea, or a project, or just a sentence, even.  But if I’m honest with myself, I’ve also been avoiding writing.  It’s hard work, don’t you know?  And while it feeds me, truly deeply is the thing that stirs my soul, it can be so difficult to do it.  For so many reasons.

Anne Lamott is known to have said that in order to be a writer, one has to glue one’s butt in the seat and write.  Stick it out, and do it.  This is wise in that the only way to do something is, of course, to do it.  (Here I am, glued to my seat, finding the words, tapping them out).

But to glue myself to the writer’s chair it takes me from where I’m most needed now: in my home, as the mother of this family. It is downright messy and unbeautiful to unglue something, or more accurately rip it off – I’m envisioning ragged edges and apologetic offerings. There is very little flexibility in this line of thinking.

I have found that I have a remarkably low ability to multi-task (or, more rightly, that I can multi-task, getting things done, but with only mediocre results).  I can make dinner, while helping with homework and braiding hair, but inevitably I’ve forgotten if I was at two teaspoons, or three, or that the worksheet was addition and not subtraction.  What I’m saying is this: writing, good writing, real writing, takes my entire brain.  My entire being, really.  It’s not something that I can enter lightly, or leave easily.

A room of one’s own may be the exact prescription, here.  Virginia Woolf’s observations that concentrated creativity can be groomed out of luxurious sequestering does seem indeed both and truthful, and indulgent.  If what I’m saying is that in order to think clearly, and therefore write clearly, I need to enter into time and space with my whole brain and body, then yes, there is truth to this prescription.  But I also know this: without the volume and mass of life around me, I have not little to write about.

But maybe that’s it exactly: that being a writer is so pervasive that it seeps into all these other aspects of my life.  Just as I’m a mother, always, even when I’m all by myself in the grocery store, nary a kid of mine around (this has only happened to me, like, twice) so also am I a writer, always, even when my fingers aren’t at the keyboard. It is simply truth that I can’t turn my writer brain off.  In any ordinary day, I’m forming sentences, jotting notes, describing whole scenes in mind alone . I’m paying attention to my life, seeing these ordinary things and holding them to the light, turning them around, feeling them from underneath, observing the shadows.

Maybe this whole “gluing to your seat” thing still applies, just not the way I’ve been thinking about it.  Maybe it has more to do with gluing myself to my life.  Staying here, staying in it.  Maybe it’s about escaping less, and sticking through the hard stuff.  The boring stuff, the tedium, even the straight up pull-my-hair-out hard stuff.  It’s about continuing to scribble notes on the back of a groceries lists and old envelopes, or talking into my phone while I’m driving.  It’s about noticing the sound the last autumn’s leaves make as they tumbled down the hill, pushed by the warm spring air.  It’s about noticing what is going on underneath it the surface, mining life for the truths that connect us to each other.  It’s about simply finding pockets of time to tap away at the keyboard, stringing it all together, not in a room of my own, but on the laptop at the kitchen table next to the kids who are pounding out their own play-doh masterpieces.

That’s my experience of being a writer. Glued to the seat of life, with pen in hand.

“every once in a while…”

The bedroom door cracks open a little before 5am. Mark is awake and out of bed already, and I’m pretty sure I already heard the coffee maker grinding beans a few minutes earlier. But he’s back now, standing in the doorway.

“Campbell?” He whispers, loudly enough to rouse me, stern enough to know that something serious is going on. “I need you.”

About a thousand things run through my mind, all of them tragic and scary, so that when he tells me that Maggie, our dog, has been sprayed by a skunk I sigh with relief (if not exasperation). I throw the blankets off, and step quickly to get to work.

And we do get to work. Triage the situation. Mix the hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and dish soap. Scrub, rinse, repeat. It’s cold outside; I worry that the sudsy puddle is going to freeze into an ice rink. Make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pack his work bag. Send Maggie to the basement to dry off until the sun comes out and she can be warm enough outside. Light the candles, burn the incense, throw the laundry in. Send Mark off to work. The rhythm of the work carries us, and we barely say a word. We’ve been partners in this work of life for long enough now.

*

Heat’s in the tools, Mark is always saying. He has these things he says, these trademark quips. Maybe it’s a fatherly thing, a piece of the brain that cracks open as these men grow into dads. Maybe not. But my dad had them, too, and I don’t remember Mark saying them when we were younger.

“The heat’s in the tools,” Mark says standing in the swirling snow that blows around him, sturdy and unmoved like the weight of a statue, ready to shovel the driveway. He says this to the complaining kids getting out of the car to begin a hike. Heat’s in the tools. I’m sure that he says this to the motley gang of guys that he oversees at the jobsite, each morning setting down his coffee and strapping on his tool belt, his breath puffing like cold clouds from his mouth. Get moving.

(Heat’s in the tools, he whispers to me, his breath warm on my face in the quiet moments alone, tucking a strand of my hair behind my ear, and I soften at his words).

And of course, he’s right. Soon enough I’m sloughing off my extra layers, setting my hat aside as the work of shoveling snow heats my core from the inside out. Once on the trail hiking, the kids no longer complain, but are engrossed in the tracks of the deer and dogs and boots printed into the mud. It’s the rhythm of the work that makes time pass, and the work of it that brings the glow and the sweat and the warmth.

This week I stepped up to coach Grant’s soccer team. They were low on volunteers and high on players, and so though I don’t have any coaching experience, I said yes. The heat is in the tools, I remind myself. I know a bit about the game and a lot about first graders and enthusiasm and teamwork, so while that first game might be cold and scary, I think I’ll get warm fast. Just get moving, right?

Mark’s quips don’t stop there. Rubbing is racing, that’s another. I guess it’s from the movie “Days of Thunder,” but I’ve never seen it. To me, it’s pure Mark.

Chasing the soccer ball down the backyard, with his hip pressed into Grant’s lithe body, he laughs out “rubbin’ is racin’, Grant!” He says it when he comes back from a trail run, mud splattered down his back, thorn pricks on his calves. He’ll say it with the corners of his mouth turning upward in a puckish grin, and I’ll know that he’s dancing that line of fair play, whatever the situation. He says it as he puts Band-Aids on the kids, or grabs ice packs to ease a bump, the simple results of playing and running and being a kid. He says it to me when I share a hurt feeling, a misunderstanding with a friend. Rubbing is racing, and life is nothing if not filled with friction.

“Every once in a while, a blind squirrel finds a nut.” This is probably Mark’s most used line. Humble at his core, he says it after someone gives him an ‘Atta boy, or a congratulations of some kind. He says it after he offers some useful information, or knows a bit about something, or fixes something. He says this when I thank him for something – “every once in a while…” He says it so much, actually, that I’m pretty certain that this squirrel is not so blind, but is a very good nut hunter.

I wonder how the kids will remember this.  Doubtless, these word are a soundtrack of their childhood.  There will be times when they will roll their eyes at these remarks.  Mark might just sound like a corny dad, but he offers sage wisdom behind his witticism.  All of these quips point us in the same direction:  just get started, get moving, doing whatever it is that you’re going to do.  There will be bumps, rubs, accidents, and you’ll be on both the giving and receiving ends.  That mostly it’s work, and often you go at it blindly, not certain which direction is right.  And then every once in a while…. it all falls into place.

And that you’ll always have a dad to remind you of these things.

*

Maggie was skunked about five years ago, too. Then I had a toddler and a newborn, and had never smelled the nauseatingly strong stench of fresh skunk spray. It was scarier, then, and harder. Mark was a servant hero, taking control and dealing with the situation. This time when it happened, we knew the recipe to mix the right de-skunking concoction. This time I was less panicky about the stink. This time, I threw open windows, begging the kids to put on sweatshirts, pulling blankets around my knees to let the brisk almost-spring air into the house. I know to expect that Maggie will have strange frosted tips, the result of the hydrogen peroxide on her black coat. This time, the blind squirrel knew to ask for help, and Mark and I did it together. I know by now that the heat is in the tools. That though it may painful and cold sometimes to get out of bed, I’ll be warmed by the work, whatever the work may be. I also know that rubbing is racing, and that life is a full contact sport. We’re going to end up with some scrapes and bruises (and sometimes a foul smelling dog), but the race is long, and I’ve got good teammates.

Today is the first day of spring, but it’s snowing here.  Heat’s in the tools, friends, heat’s in the tools.

 

chasing sunsets

photo 2Our car bumped along the back country roads a few evenings ago, the voices low and small in the backseat humming along with the rhythm of the tires. Mark and I were quiet with the exhaustion of a long weekend. The sunset was setting gloriously in front of us, setting the trees on the horizon aflame. It was burning out in such a surprising way – the day had been dreary with spots of rain. But just for a bit, the clouds were gone, the sky instead painted with swaths of burning pastel. We pointed out the windows, sharing this moment with each other, staring it into memory. I tried to take a picture or two, but nothing on the screen looked like what I was seeing.  It was directly ahead of us, and it was poetry – driving off into the sunset. We chased it down to home. But we never got there, to that sunset. Because you can’t actually get to a sunset, can you?

Here’s the hard truth: I’m spinning, and I’m spun. Winter is hard for me: there is less actual light. We are not outside as much, though we try (if last year was called a polar vortex I don’t know what to call this year’s record breaking cold temperatures). Our house is small; we are in close quarters. It’s hard to admit, but I’m having a hard time seeing the light, and finding the glory. And I feel convicted, and embarrassed because isn’t that supposed to be my thing? To just slow down enough, to see life for the beauty that it offers, to say thank you, always. Right now, though, I’m doing a terrible job.

Towards the end of a really rough day, Mark shooed me off to take a long hot shower all by myself while he took over trying to manage the post-dinner, pre-bedtime crazy. As I stood motionless with the water pouring over my head I tried to fix myself, pull myself out of my ridiculous pity party. I thought of all the families that I know, personally and intimately, whose lives are harder and more devastating than mine. I thought of all the tragedy in the world, and reminded myself over and over again that a day in my life is so far removed from that. But it didn’t work. All it did was make me feel guilty.

Later that night, after the kids were (finally, finally) all asleep in their beds, Mark and I did our rounds, pulling blankets up, sweeping hair from faces, and kissing them with blessings. After I had done all that, I stood at Griffin’s bedside with slow silent tears on my cheeks. The beauty pounded in my chest, my heart beat so fiercely that I thought Mark could probably see it, glowing in the dark room, right there. I was so twisted up about it – about why it takes this dark and quiet moment to be thankful. About the work it all takes, plodding one foot in front of the next through the tantrums and the raised voices and the chores and the sheer constancy of it all. About how elusive and slippery beauty and truth are.

Just like that sunset.

That’s the thing about a sunset, about any beautiful landscape on the horizon, really. It’s there for us to see, not to actually get to. That sunset is always just ahead, leading the way. The peaks and crags of a mountain are beautiful from the ground looking up. When you’re climbing that mountain though, what’s right in front of you is decidedly less glamorous. It’s steep, and hard, strewn with brush and bramble, and often you can’t see much but a few steps ahead.

This is my metaphor right now.

It’s easy while I’m writing to take a step back and see that the mess is beautiful and daily and necessary (and I guess that’s one reason why I keep writing). But it is hard, really hard, to do it when I’m living in the middle of it, and things are unfolding all around me.

Most days I have that chance to see that sunset, look out into the horizon and see what beauty is there. But if I’m trying to chase it down, trying to hold on to it and claim it for my own, then I’ll only be disappointed when I never get there. If I have my eyes on the sunset, I’ll always know which way is west.

Sometimes it looks like the peaceful reprieve of sleeping bodies, rising and falling with breath in the dark.

the light of everyday

2015-01-20 11.05.32 Can I tell you something? I’m a bit obsessed with something. I can’t stop taking pictures of light.  Here’s the thing: once you start, it’s really hard to stop. Because that light is everywhere. And it’s beautiful.

Sometimes it can feel so hard to get at the light – both real, actual light, and its glorious metaphoric blaze, to feel it on my face, and let it seep into my heart, that it becomes this wild goose chase. Other times, even with my closed eyes I can see the afterimages dancing in my mind.

There was the Sunday a few weeks back when the kids moaned and groaned at our plan to head out on a hike. But we fought through it, we chased that light, hopeful for something magic. Ignoring the protests, Mark and I put our heads down and focused on the goal as we planned our route, prepared for the adventure. It is not a surprise when things don’t start smoothly: Griffin’s coat doesn’t zip properly, Renee is hungry already. Grant only wants to throw the football and has little interest in the actual trail. But eventually, eventually, something breaks through. The magic is there. Fresh air, sunshine: light. Dancing off the creek in ripples reflected on the rocks. We lay in the middle of the bridge, all of us, legs and arms slack, lifting our faces to the sun, ordained for something bigger. That was light.

2014-11-23 12.40.45Sometimes it harder, more elusive. There was the day off from school when I took the kids to the botanical gardens around here that has been a favorite place for countless years. Especially at this time of year, it often feels like a shot of serotonin to the brain, and exactly the light that I was seeking after a weekend of refereeing a few too many squabbles. But it’s work to get there, right? Work to fight against the lack of momentum, to convince the kids that this is a good plan, to get out of pajamas and into clothes. It is work to pack lunches and fill the gas tank. I’m willing to put in the work, certainly, in search of this light. But I want the promise that it’s going to pay off.

So we do the work, we find our hats and coats, decide to forgo the stroller. Grant bites his lip in the parking lot, and the whole thing is unravelling before it’s even begun. Most of the day goes that way: the kids are less taken by the flowers, more interested in the snacks that I didn’t bring. The fountains that the kids look forward to splashing in aren’t entirely functioning properly. The flowers don’t bloom in me like I thought they would. By the time lunch rolls around, Griffin is torn to pieces about sharing his ketchup. We are all spent. As I drove the windy country roads home, I asked myself if it was worth it, and I came up short of a good answer. We work, we strive, we pack lunches, we wear sensible shoes, and still: sometimes, there is no light.

Maybe it’s not something I can create. I can’t chase light, or magic, or glory, or hallelujah. I can’t say magic words, pray the right prayer, to get at what it is that I’m seeking.

I can only receive it. I have to be paying attention. Open my eyes. Not focused specifically, hunting out the treasure, but open to see it when it is there.

Sometimes it’s easier to see light only against the shadows. Sometimes it’s only seen in the negative space.2015-01-28 08.20.23Can there be light in the ordinary, the not-so-spectacular? Griffin routinely throws typical three-year-old tantrums about his breakfast in the morning. I’m sure I’ve cut his toast in the wrong shape, or put his water cup in the wrong place. Often, he just doesn’t want the toast that he’s just asked for, but instead wants yogurt. Whatever it is, it so ordinary, so not glorious, and certainly of the make-me-pull-my-hair-out variety of parenting episodes. So it goes with most of us: Renee takes forever to get out of bed, needing jiggling, reminding, pleading and coercing to the point that we are almost late for life.

2015-01-27 17.44.53Or what about light in the harder parts of parenting, the ones that aren’t so much pull-your-hair-out, but more a squeeze to the heart, a blow to the gut? As the kids grow, so do their struggles. It’s not as easy as fixing an incorrectly cut piece of toast. Learning how to encourage without pushing, how to support but not hold too tightly, how to love, fiercely and deeply without condition or praise. Much of it is about balance, and that is only found in the unbalance, like water seeking its level. This can sometimes look like shadows, dancing and larger than life. Those shadows make me turn my head, though, to look for the light that shines behind the shapes, or glows over the edges.

Sometimes light doesn’t come in a blaze, but it softer, gauzier.

Light can look like this: the typical tight squeeze of the five of us in our ten-year-old station wagon driving home from an evening of errands. Through the poking and pinching, a song comes on, one the kids know and love, a family “anthem” of sorts, though nothing about is child-like or typical. Mark reaches for the dial, and our car is pounding, dancing, jolting, and we each sing along, every single one of us, at the top of our lungs. Mark leans over to my ear, whispering “This. This is what memories are made of.” And with that ordination for that ordinary moment, light blazed in glory. I see it.

It’s jumping on the trampoline, again all five of us, nearly diving into each other, bouncing and tripping and squealing and laughing. I dare you: just try to this without a smile. The freedom of flying, the view from the top of the bounce, and that unpredictable double bounce: that is what light feels like.

2015-01-27 15.22.59These are the unexpected moments, the light not chased after, but simply witnessed. It’s the light at the end of the driveway, waiting for the bus,  discovering new tracks – deer, rabbit, fox, and investigating them each. It’s a 5:30 in the morning snuggle in bed with Griffin, who sees the neighbor’s far away lights through the trees and calls them fireflies. It’s the light that slants on the kitchen cabinets, just under a sink full of dirty dishes. It’s the light of the sunrise – sometimes elusive, the almost-light of a new day turning more gray than exalting. Some are extraordinary, fifty seven stories high, glinting off the Delaware River, the blank slate of a new day.

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You have to see it for yourself – the light just behind the crest of the hill, barely visible, just a hint of glow. It’s the light inside the oven when you’re baking a loaf of bread, it’s the birthday candles that usher in the next year. It’s the sun setting on the cow field across the street from school. It’s the stars punched through the black velvet sky getting into the car late at night – connecting the dots, drawing constellations, Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper, right there before your very eyes.

Sometimes, though, we have to go ahead and make our own light. Pull out the candlesticks and set the matches to them. Plug in the twinkle lights that you thought you were putting away after Christmas, but you see the wisdom in keeping them around.

It’s light inside, and light out.

The light is everywhere. It’s pervasive, seeping into the drudgery of daily life.   It’s the work of being in this world, seeing it for the truth it is, and bringing that truth into the light. It’s the ordinary transformed into extraordinary. And it’s beautiful.

“These days you might feel a shaft of light (light) make it’s way across your face
When you do, you’ll know how it was meant to be
See the signs and know their meaning
It’s true, you’ll know how it was meant to be
Hear the signs and know they’re speaking to you, to you”
10,000 Maniacs, These are Days

 

Bring it On

I was late getting out of bed today.  It was dark, still.  A bitter cold had settled on our old house over night.  I was wrapped in thick swaths of comfort and warmth, and though I knew the day beckoned, it was easier still to resist.

I did get out of bed, later than I should’ve, padding to the bathroom only after checking the thermostat.  Looking out that window, I watched the light play on the snow-covered yard. It felt darker than it should be.  The blue-light of almost-dawn lay eery shadows on the snow.  The swings gave rides to invisible friends as they gently rocked in the wind.  My eyes were drawn up the spindly naked trees, stretching skyward.

There was the moon, just a few days past full, hovering like an ornament, hung in those trees, adorning the morning.  Strong, luminescent, gently glowing with fuzzy edges.

I wasn’t late at all.

*

While I love the chance to reflect, I carry little pomp and circumstance from the end of one year into the beginning of the next.  We don’t often get wrapped up in New Year’s Eve celebrations, and our New Year’s day probably looks much like the rest of our life: quiet and together, maybe seeking out sunshine and fresh air.

I’m not big on resolutions, and I’ve had a tenuous relationship with “goals” in the more formal sense.  I’m not a linear thinker, not a type-A planner.  While I may really love lists, they tend to be more suggestive than directive, and I want my lists to look pretty and include beautiful things in them, too. In the past I’ve done the whole “one word” thing – it’s been fun, and useful, and challenging, and freeing.

This year feels different to me, though.  2014 was a life-shifting, perspective-gaining year, and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to forget the heart-swelling reality of all that was etched in my heart by reducing it down.  I’m not doing “one word” this year.  I’m not making resolutions, setting goals, making lists.

But because of this, 2015 feels vibrant.  It feels full of color and opportunity.  From where I am, with a pinky toe into it, it feels like fresh air.

*

I struggle with the notion that I am supposed to be a better person this year than last, or even a more fuller version of myself.  From my perspective, life looks to be more spiral-like, more weaving in and out, up and down, and less like a climb.  While it can be tempting to make building blocks out of our time, clicking Lego-like foundations one on top of the other, I can’t quite get myself to say that I’m always on an upward trajectory.  Sometimes I’m not. That’s where resolutions fall a bit flat, I’d say.  If last year I was going to learn Chinese, than it supposes that I’ve done that, and can build upon it this coming year, say by resolving to plan a trip to China.  Life is not as boring and fundamental as a syllabus for a class.

Sometimes, I like the version of myself from years past better than the one I am today.  Isn’t there something about innocence that we know we want to hold on to, something about the traits that we love best in ourselves before they get covered up with the cynicism of life?  I think there is.  How do you resolve, then, to take apart what you’ve built, one Lego block at a time, to create something new?

Just as truthfully, I can cringe at versions of my younger self. I’m thankful that I’m not who I once was, and grateful for every next day that I have the chance to rearrange myself again and again.

I am growing, and learning, and becoming a version of myself that resonates deeply with my soul, but my experience has felt a lot more like trial and error than a check list of things to accomplish. Sometimes it takes a dip into the past to teach me something of the future.  Sometimes its taking steps backwards, or upside down even.  Sometimes its standing still.

I want to stay soft.  I want to be teachable, mold-able, grow-able.  Less like Legos, more like Play-doh.  And this year, it means not being strung up with goals, or lists, or words, but being smushable and flexible.

2015 will have no resolutions.  I will make no check lists; I will not a choose a word.  I will not clench my hands tightly around any one thing, but lay it all in my open palms.

*

We do have some intentions for 2015.

The kids will cook more in the kitchen.  I will drink my coffee black.

Light

Be outside as much as possible.  Grow things from the ground.  Seek the smokey benediction of the campfire.  Pay attention – to each other, to the moment, to the world.  Less whining, from all of us.  Look for the light –  casting shadows through the trees, sparkling the dust motes in the family room, coloring the sky with pinks and oranges.  See it. Love without boundaries.  Take risks, big and small.  Be thankful, always.

See the unexpected moon arcing homeward, sliding down the smooth bark of the trees. I’m not late at all.