It was supposed to be a week of productivity. Of completing all the lonely projects, the ones that linger like forelorn orphans around my table, staring at me from piles, begging for attention. Our life has become hurried in the last few years and like so many mothers I am collapsing into bed leaving many things half done, wishing to duplicate or triplicate myself.
Its been even crazier since I decided to in fact make acupuncture school a reality. There has been so much to do to get ready, to take the steps I need to free myself up. Nothing has come together easily. I say that not as a complaint but rather as a way to explain my absence from the places I normally haunt. I click down the to-do list mentally and it never seems like much but in the execution, in the moment it is everything. Like lifting a boulder over my head–every ounce of strength going into each task. And yet, I am aware that while I am busy being productive, our life is flying by and
I suppose that is why, I am here instead lingering at the pool, using my vacation to remember again that my life is more than the sum of completed to-do lists. It is feeling the hot blanket of summer on my skin, watching my son frolic for hours in the water, it is breathing and resting and taking a cat nap and then picking up my book. It is feeling how cool the water feels when I dive in. It is experiencing summer.
Earlier this week, I gathered my soulsisters up and we traveled to Baltimore to hear music. An old college friend was coming through town playing in a band, in a dive bar, in a gritty part of town. It was a week for for greasy chips and mussels in garlic butter and Belgian beer with orange slices, live music and finding a way to shrink 20 years into a blink of an eye. A week to touch the me that is fearless and sees life as a a wide expanse of possibility.
It will soon be time to click through my to-do lists. There are swim meets, and chores, and a room to show to potential tenants. There are playdates and bills to pay–all of them as real and rich as my time basking in the sun. But for now the scent of sunscreen and the energy sapping heat is the only thing before me and so I sink into it.
When I went to college, I made a decision.
I decided, actively decided, that I would live in joy. That I would find the positive in each situation and that I would discover something to celebrate in everyone, and every situation.
I had some simple practices to implement this decision. One, I remember so clearly, was a promise to myself that I would not to vent or complain without first considering the impact my words would have. What would the impact be on the subject of my rant (that annoying kid in class, the teacher who was boring, the rude drunk guy) but also on the people who had to hear me vent. How would this impact them? How would it change their mood to listen to my negativity?
I was tired of the high school scene with the judging and insecurities and well intentioned exhausted ramblings that were twisted into hurts by equally well intentioned, insecure and hurting people. Frankly, the whole thing had left me depleted. I realized that I had, for the first time since kindergarden, an opportunity to start over.
I have to admit, that at the time, my motivations were not 100 % pure. Like so many young women, I was deep down worried that people wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t “nice”. College, like all things, is messy. And I messed up plenty, especially when tired, or hurt, or after drinking too much beer. But I kept this decision before, like a compass that I used to find my way.
There were many unintended consequences of this decision. For instance, the light on Mt Saint James where I spent those four years was the most beautiful light I had ever seen in my entire young life, especially at sunset. Remembering it now I feel a wave of peace. I think now, that the light in this industrial town was no more special than the light everywhere else. It simply was that I was awake enough to notice its majesty–the subtle magic. With my brain more clear of rants, past and future, as well as regret, anxiety and fear about what mess my words might have wrought, I could see the world shimmer so much more easily.
What I learned through my experiment was that happiness may be a situation but joy is a decision.
A couple of years ago I went to a workshop on healing where the teacher challenged us to presence joy. If you walk into a room, that is dull or dark or full of angst, laugh, smile, giggle, tell a story. Dance. Find something beautiful and point it out. Play. See what happens.
It strikes me as funny how this powerful play in my playbook gets lost in the hubub that is my life. And it strikes me as glorious how easy it is to dust it off.
I am renewing my vows to a practice of joy. Not happiness. Not an absence of grief. But reckless, deep, unfettered, silly, magnificent, playful, unrelenting joy. To dance with abandon and to celebrate the simple pleasure of being able to feel.
I am in the process of doing a lot of dreaming these days. Leaning into long cherished visions of how I always wanted to live, wondering if it is at all possible to let go and really leap. I don’t know if I am standing on the edge of breakthroughs or breakdowns but it can get a little hairy sometimes.
At these moments, when all seems like my life is both breaking open and welded impossibly shut, I have these primal practices that I do to settle myself. I do laundry. I light candles. I make chai tea and breathe in the sweet spicy goodness that is warmth and comfort. I clean closets or sweep the floors. And then, I dance.
I often dance alone to music turned up way loud. Lately, however, there is another way. I am blessed that I have stumbled into a community of musicians who find each other on the weekends. A good Saturday night is a circle of guitars, a bass, a mandolin, a harmonica, maybe a fiddle or viola, some drums and if we are lucky a keyboard or peddle steel. And me, in the corner, dancing.
And it is here, that I touch the edges of that dream life I have always wanted, a life filled with music and authenticity. A life built around a community doing what they love, creating something out of nothing. It is here that I know that all that I ever dreamed of is unfolding, however slowly.
I wonder if they know, these musician friends of mine, how I delight in them. I wonder if they know how their play breaks me wide open in the most unexpected of ways. I wonder if they know how the sweetness of their voices opens up cracks, unsticks, unanchors and feeds me. Can they feel it is my laughter and hugs, the way I make my requests? Or do they simply just think I am their friend who comes to dance, nothing more? Does it matter? I don’t know. I don’t know.
Sometimes the music is transcendental. Sometimes it is just funny. Sometimes it is off, or no one can quite end the song. Sometimes it falls apart in laughter. Sometimes the harmonies don’t work out. Sometimes it just stops. These friends of mine are talented, each of them, but it is not their technical skill that matters. It is the joy, the silliness, the playfulness, the soul, the vulnerability and rawness that touches me. Do they know this? Does it matter? I don’t know. I don’t know.
When they play, the totality of joy and grief and goodness and love seems to unfold. My dance is the only response I can offer. They only thing I can do in the face of such beauty. The only way I know to honor the gift. My dance is my gratitude not only for them, but for my whole world, the good, the bad and the ugly. I am not sure they notice. Not sure, as they eye each other for cues on where to take the song, as they sneak their smokes in the garage, as they pour their tequila, as they move to and from the mic. My dance a gift to them, but is it? Do they receive it, take it in? Does it matter? I don’t know. I don’t know.
These friends of mine
They have lives
They work hard to live them right
And when they laugh it makes me high
They take a trip ten thousand miles
Before they fly…
And when the show is over, how I hope that they discover
The joy that they bring
And I hope that they remember
This bond we have together
And how they love to sing
This week I was cruising through my chores. My trip to Madrid had put me behind. I had so much to do. Several weeks worth of laundry had piled up and I had no work clothes. Max was running out of socks. In a burst of efficiency, I threw a load in and went up to make dinner. After homework and bath and bedtime I went down to move the clean clothes to the dryer. I put them in, turned the dial, hit the button…and then nothing. The dryer coughed a little. Strained a bit. But it would not spin. Incedulous, I tried again. And again. I checked plugs and connections and then, exhausted I gave up. A good nights sleep would do me well. I thought the same would be true for my dryer.
The next morning I was peppy. By the dryer still made the same cough. Still whined before growing silent.
We are on a very tight budget. I have practically no cushion for moments such as these. And sure enough, when I checked, other emergencies which had come earlier had eaten what little was left. I could not pay to have someone come and fix my dryer. Not now. It would have to wait.
This was not such a crisis. I delight in line dried clothes. They can be stiff perhaps but there is nothing like the smell of the outdoors, of the crisp air, on my shirts, my pajamas, my pillowcases. When Juan and I went to Mexico, I handwashed and line dried everything I brought with me on my last day and then rationed those clothes for months–breathing in the scent of a place I loved so much, a scent that did not come from mechanical dryers but from clothes hanging, swaying and drying in the Oaxacan breeze. I returned home from every trip with the intention of hanging a clothes line but each time convenience and lack of time got in my way.
This morning, as my anxious mind worried over bills, and dirty clothes and the impossibility of having time to wait for a repairman even if I could scrape together the cash, the simplest of solutions jumped to my brain. $10 for clothesline and clothes pins, sunshine and winter breezes, a reduced gas and electric bill, and sunshine infused clothes.
I recently read that Universe is always doing its best with what it has at its disposal. Always trying to arrange the moments, no matter how chaotic and sad and tragic for the best possible outcome. I could stomp my feet at our bad luck or I could hang a clothes line and delight in sundried clothes.
I chose the later.
What crazy, horrible, inconveniences have lead you to a place you always wanted to go? This wide eyed dreamer is searching and would love to hear your stories.
For two and a half hours I have been sitting here, perfectly still, wondering. Because I don’t know how else I can explain that I am moved to the point of not being able to move.
Two weeks or so ago, I was walking with my friend Stephen down the street. “How is your brother?”, he asked me. “I don’t know” I said, looking down. “I don’t really talk to him these days. In fact,” I said looking up at the sky, “I haven’t really seen him in a year and a half.” My brother is a policeman and he lives far away in a big big city. I come through town only now and again. Its so hard to drive so far with a small child. Its so hard, as a single mom, with a life so full, to get away. The few times I have made it through in the last year and a half, he has been working. He made an arrest. He was sleeping at the precinct. Or he was out of town. Its hard for a policeman in a hardened city, with a life so full to get away.
But then, suddenly, he was here. Walking through the door at my friend’s house in Silver Spring. Surprising me at a party his wife had planned from 300 miles away. Suddenly I was dancing with him like we did when we were teens, while Jeff, Jamie and Randy played music. Everything that is sweet about my childhood met everything that is sweet about my grownup life. I swung my gorgeous nephew around and around to the sounds of homemade music played in a living room and laughed and laughed.
I danced and danced with my dad, with my cousins, with my neighbors, with my kindergarden best friend, with Odette, my past, my present and the future all colliding into one perfect now.
I don’t know how she found them all. My sister-in-law. A detective’s wife. But she found my work friends, my friends from the neighborhood, my soulsisters, friends flung far and wide. Friends she had only heard about in passing. She caught their names as I spun my tales and tucked them in her heart. And she is sitting on a bar stool with her son sleeping on her lap. And I love you just doesn’t seem to be enough.
Erica and Eileen drove me home. Max would stay at the hotel with his cousins. He is squeezing every last bit of love out of their visit as he can. I still couldn’t believe my eyes-couldn’t that they were here in my living room–these loved ones of mine who live so far away. “By the time it really sinks in that you are here you will be gone” I said mournfully. I look at them with relish. I drink them in while I can.
I wonder if maybe I can put some of this love in tupperwear and freeze it, pull it out like soup on a cold and rainy day. If I could, then maybe I could sleep.
I am having to rework so many stories tonight. The thing about surprise parties is that they surprise you. And the party is only the first surprise.
I am a word girl. While I love visual art, can get lost in the movement of dance and revel in music, when it comes to making meaning of the world I find myself here. At a keyboard. Or with my nose buried in someone else’s poetry. My friend Jeff laughs at me. Whenever he is playing a new song he has written, I listen once or maybe twice and then demand to see his notes with the lyrics. Moved as I may be by the music, I need to take in the poetry of his words. I dive in there to open up more space so that the music can better seep in.
For the last few weeks, I have been exploring quiet places. Covering ground that seem ordinary and extraordinary all in one. It is impossible to articulate the wild ride I have been on. If they are paying attention, I think, many of my friends are confused. I am fine, life is good, and yet, I am so quick to well up, the shut down or to just grow quiet. Normally flowing over with affection, I am not so quick to rise and hug. I am ebbing a bit now. But its not a contraction. More like a centering, a stillness, a 40 day rest and coming home and being yin. I am moved, but not sad. I am grieving but am not lost. I know deep in my heart that everything is fine and have been trying to sink into the easiness of the world.
There is no way to explain what happens when you are growing while it is happening. Its a story that can only be told with a glance in the rear view mirror further up the road. Whenever I try and explain what shifts are happening in my heart right now, I find myself wordless. I stumble thinking that it seems both so big and so small all at once and that if I even tried I would sound so crazy it would defile this growth spurt. And in these moments I love that I can stop being a word girl, even if it makes me a bit wobbly.
This song is grounding me these days. While I have long loved it, I cannot tell you what the words are. Every time I hear it, I feel an expansion in my chest and feel a road roll out before me. Blue winter light filters in through snow dusted cedars and pine, the sun sinks low. I roll down my window and breathe in the crispness. The reaction is purely physical now matter how many times I hear it. Its a tingling expansion that moves from my chest out to my limbs. It is melancholy and joyful all at once. It is hopeful and content. It is not just grounding me. It raises me up above the trees, the weeds of words in my mind.
This is where I go, deep in the woods, deep into the water, deep into my heart to find stillness. To find the silence that can only be found here, the silence I notice when the rock hits the water. To stay.
I dreamed this place. I dreamed these words. I dreamed this moment once upon a time. I dreamed tomorrow too and kisses by garage doors as goodbyes are said and sighs are uttered when love decides its time to go home. But now there is nothing but hello over and over and over again. hello to the sky. hello to the water. hello to the rocks on the shore.
It feels as I thought I have been here for thousands of years. It feels as though my roots are sunk in this soil, as though my branches are these arms that wrap around me and keep me safe, as though this sky my sheltering place.
In the glassy stillness of the water I see a reflection–I whisper to myself as the sunlight makes the water dance “This is what love looks like.”
My dearest Jackie, who breaks all the rules, brought me a birthday gift tonight. This rockin’ Celtic T-shirt fits me like a glove, and resonates at exactly the same frequency of my little Irish soul. I am never taking this shirt off!
The words around the heart say: Like all things that are precious to us, we tend to keep our emotions under lock and key. Love itself is far too beautiful a gift not to share with everyone.
After a dinner of perfectly grilled kebabs, kick butt fish stew and the best carrot salad this side of north Africa, after a homemade ice cream cake that beat any other I have ever tasted, we sat in a circle and they, my beloved tribe helped me to create my list. My list of things to do before I turn forty. What’s beautiful about this exercise is that in adding an item to my list they pledged to do something (big or small) to help me get it done, to be my a co-conspirator, an angel to assist me, to hold my hands and jump feet first with me into the wild and messy river of my life.
In the spirit of love for them, in the spirit of my love for this life, I embrace this to do list, this plan. I hearby pledge to wrap my heart around these items and sink into the joyfulness of them.
- Take a kayak lesson on the Potomac
- Learn to throw a pot
- Perform at an open mic night
- Sing a duet with sweet Andy McD
- Learn to Irish step dance
- Go see Step Afrika
- Take Max to see Sweet Honey in the Rock
- Start to build my Goddess garden I have been dreaming of
- Paint my living room and hallway
- Create (and dare I say perfect) a gluten-free pizza dough recipe. (Homemade pizza and Eric’s homemade bread are the only two things that will tempt me off my healthy gluten free path. This gets me 50% of the way there! )
- Explore acupuncture and my calling as a healer
- Start that girls’ (age 8-11) knitting club I have been talking about
- Ride a roller coaster
- Stay a night at the Purple Fiddle
- Learn to swim
- Run a 10K
- Learn to count to ten in three African languages
- Finally master the f’in F chord
- Teach Max to knit (my sweet boy added this to my list, saying he would help by doing the learning!)
- Go out to hear live music at least ten times (this is an easy one which just makes me feel productive!)
- Figure out how to live migraine free
Wanna jump in with me? What do you think I might do in this crazy wild messy year before I turn 40? Lets do it together.
If it seems I have fallen off the face of the earth this week, I haven’t. Its just been a busy, crazy, wonderful, falling down nutty week–full of activity and drama. There was hockey to watch and sob over, live music to go see, a sweet 6 year old boy to cuddle, and an amazing party to plan. I can’t wait to tell you about this last one but its got to happen first. I am almost afraid to speak of it, for fear that I will somehow attach some expectation to it that will just ruin it for me.
I remember when Juan’s Tio Gordo and Tia Fidelina built their new house. It was a spectacular house in a modest village–two stories high with balconies dripping with bougainvillea. People came from 5 villages away to see it, to celebrate its birth. We too went down to Veracruz for the house blessing. The event was bigger than a wedding and wonderful in all the ways that happy occasions are but I personally found the rituals around the party were more delicious than the party itself. There was the shopping for the perfect ingredients, the purchase of a big spoon worthy of a witch’s cauldron, to stir mole for 500 over an open fire. There were two nights straight of cooking, grinding corn, cooking mole over coals, forming tamales by hand. There was the afternoon setting up the stage for the band. And then the magical party itself.
Its gonna be like the next few days. It started today as we passed emails around, solidifying our plans. Tomorrow Odette and I will rise with the sun, get Max off to school and we will start to shop and then chop. All afternoon sisters will come in through our front door wielding knives and will join us in the chopping, the wine, the singing. Then at 6 we will take our food to store in a big industrial fridge at the photo studio where we will work to set up our fete. Ten of us will drag tables and lights and music equipment around and transform a photo studio into something else. When we wake the next morning there will be more cooking, more running to the liquor store, more final preparations. And then there will be a party. A party for a very special woman, my housemate Odette. A simple and beautiful person who walked through our magic door and changed all our lives in ways we cannot even begin to explain, ways we are all still trying to understand. Bands will wander on and off stage, bread will be broken and wine will flow and in the end, we will have raised money for her girls, preparing them a home for a someday soon reunion, building them a family to walk into, preparing them a place of rest.
Thinking about it all I just feel giddy and grateful.
What are you looking forward to this weekend?
a pile of sambusa ready for the frying pan
The day my housemate and I delivered mandazi to many of our beloved neighbors, we were sitting in Jackie’s kitchen. “I need to learn how to make these,” Jackie said.
And so, our idea for my housemate’s cooking classes began. She is a trained chef from Central Africa and cooks amazing and beautiful meals. She is so powerful in the kitchen. While she is there, working and singing I want to sit at her feet and listen to her lilting voice, listen to the chop chop chop of her knife. She transports me back to a time and place I never knew I missed, but now I long for like a child separated from home.
On Saturday night we piled into the house–6 beautiful women. She gave us each a chef’s knife, a cutting board and instructed us in proper technique. We giggled and gossiped and the kitchen started to smell of ginger and curry and garlic. The spices were as thick as the laughter.
Sambusas are fried meat dumplings and are, when made completely from scratch,complicated affairs. There is the meat which must be cooked and seasoned and then the envelopes that must be made–flour and water mixed to the right consistency, kneaded until stretchy and soft, rolled out to the perfect thickness, cooked but not too much, trimmed, cut, folded and stuffed before they are dropped in oil and fried.
Making sambusa is a kind of meditation. And an expression of love. To stand in the kitchen and go through so many difficult steps to arrive at the perfect meat dumpling is something you would only do for love. For love of the diners perhaps, or love of cooking itself. But it is not a task one takes on lightly.
My mother-in-law lives in rural Oaxaca and cooks this way. Each tiny step executed patiently in its own time. There is no rush to get the food on the table. The grinding of the chilis, the crushing of the tomatos, so much better done by hand. “That is how the love gets in,” she would say. “Love is the most important ingredient.” It seems like in our rush rush rush convenience society it is a critical nutrient that too often gets left out of our diets. No wonder we are so malnourished these days.
As we sat down to dinner at 10 pm, a luxury for all of us with small children, the love seemed to seep out of the food. Each bite was glorious. I sat back from the table full and yes, completely nourished.