Build a fire.
Shovel early and often. Create the clearings even if you need to do it over and over again.
Go outside. Marvel at how the world can change so quickly.
Trust that when the power goes out you will find a warm place to shelter.
Pack a back pack with the essentials.
Surround yourself with the people you love.
Build a snow fort. Have a snow ball fight. Catch the last of the falling snow flakes on your tongue.
Shake the snow off the cyprus.
Eat chili. Cook chicken over a fire. Make hot chocolate.
Walk back and forth.
Play board games.
Say “yes please” when you are offered a warm bed.
Snuggle with the neighbor’s dog.
Call often to check in.
Take turns cooking.
Sit together and work quietly.
Trust. Even as the snow starts to fall again. Trust.
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
Two weeks ago, in the very moments that one dear friend lay dying, the most extraordinary thing occurred.
My phone rang. And I said hello.
On the end, from an airport city very far away, was an old friend, an old love, the one who had held my hand as I passed from innocence to knowing. It had been over 20 years since I last heard his voice which now sounded both familiar and strange. We talked light heartedly as I drove toward home, catching up on the basics of life, until his flight was called, until I pulled up at a neighbors to pick up Max. We would talk again we promised. I felt a circle drawn complete in the sweetest of ways.
I picked up Max. I talked to Jackie. I went to the grocery store. I came home and checked email. And then, only then, I learned that my friend Jenni had died, ending at long last her long painful struggle with cancer. As I wrote down time she had passed away for my journal, I did the math and realized that as I was saying a hello to one I thought I would never talk to again, another I held dear was saying goodbye forever.
And I held that simple fact in my heart. For days, I held it.
This fall I have been learning about letting go. I have been mourning my friend Jen for so long, but I have been working through other changes as well. I have been letting go of old habits, letting go of my favorite defenses, letting go of my most cherished stories. Our foundation has been wobbly as the cornerstones of our life have been, one by one, shifting, transitioning, creating space. Its been hard, scary, at times heartbreaking to see things I loved so much dismantled. As we have managed the bumps and the inevitable fear, I have carried around a mustard seed, convincing myself that I only needed a tiny bit of faith. Stumble forward onward onward–a path would appear that would make it all make sense.
One day, I asked my soulsister Kaiya, “What ever happened to the burning bush? It would be very convenient to see one, you know, with a booming voice and everything. It would be lovely for that voice to let us in on the plan. I am all about the small and subtle, don’t get me wrong, but these days I am feeling so dense and tired and lacking in faith that I would like someone to please let me know what this is all about through something as concrete as a burning bush. It would be a great comfort.”
I don’t think that phone call was a burning bush. But I do think it was a bell. A bell telling me that there is no such thing as goodbye. No such thing as forever.
Nothing is ever really lost. No matter how far away, no matter how long past, no matter how faded-it is there, tranformed perhaps, but accessible in some way, at the end of a ring, a simple as saying hello.
The other night when we returned from our Sunday family dinner, Max was undone. It a full weekend of lights and latkes, hockey and treehouses, Grinches and pancakes and too much sparkling apple cider. He was tired. But it was more than that too.
This time of year seems to stir it up–the sense of what we don’t have. Is it the Christmas list making? Or is it the darkness that descends way too early and lasts way too long? What is it that brings up the greatest longings? The biggest needs and wants?
He sobbed in the kitchen trying to explain. “I hate that you guys divorced. I hate that Papi doesn’t live here. I hate that I don’t get to see my dad except for a few hours a week.” (I know baby, I hate it all too). “I hate that I have no brothers and sisters. I hate that I feel so left out. I hate that I am the only one without a dad at these things.”
It all started when Max got his feelings hurt by someone he adores. When he was literally shoved into a corner. It happens, the shoving, life is full of unintended bumps and pushes. They in and of themselves may be no big deal but they can bring up the deepest of wounds, can stir up dragon and gremlins.
Long after he had fallen asleep, cried out and complete, I too grieved all that we have grieved over and over again and wondered how in the world to stent a broken heart? This unhealed wound, this sense of being not quite whole, makes him so vulnerable. And nothing undoes me like this, his pain exposed.
There is something about the holidays that make it worse. The endless Christmas specials with their perfect families. Just recently, we saw not one, but two stories with a magic happy ending when mom and dad got back together and families reunited just in time to open gifts.
I have spent much of the last few years knitting us a tribe, patching together our broken hearts with a community, filling the empty places with laughter and food. Inviting ourselves in to other people’s families and claiming them as our own. We have created something beautiful out of something that was broken and that is a miracle. But it can’t replace that that bright shiny big family Max always wanted, or dare I say it, that I always wanted too. I need to keep reminding myself not to attach labels or expectations to this that we built. For while this community is many things, it is also not many things. I can lose the joy of it while I point out everything that it isn’t.
Tonight I curled up under covers in Max’s red bed and together we talked about the pros and cons of being an only child in a house with a single mom. There is no one to play with when Mom does her chores, her work, the cleaning and laundry. There is no one to pinch hit when mama is busy which makes him feel lonely and a little bit unsure. The house can feel big and empty and life can seem like too much with just us chickens. There is noone to interrupt us while we read for hours on end together–books out loud, one more chapter, why not? There is no one to take away his mama when he is sick or sad or simply just needing the attention. This bed can feel just the right size for a boy and his mom and two favorite books. Truth is, nothing is all one thing and every family can feel broken and whole all at the same time.
Our family at the holidays is a meditation. About seeing. Not what is missing but what is really there, right at this moment–ugly, beautiful, broken but real, and shiny and full of goodness. Our life is a meditation about not comparing what we have against check-lists that promise unending happiness but always disappoint. As I lay in bed long after little eyes had closed, I wondered about how to move him from longing and grief to gratitude and appreciation. I know that it starts with me and my practice. Somehow it always does. He learned to speak by emulating me. Maybe he can learn to let go of wanting by watching me too. And yet, tonight, I light a little candle on my altar, say a prayer to the universe, to make it a tiny bit easier, a little bit smoother to let go and want nothing for Christmas but what I have so that he too can learn just how whole he already is.
Before I post again, I needed to stop to offer a huge thank you to the many people who have stopped by this blog, emailed, called, or facebooked in the last few days. Your kind, loving, beautiful words are a gift.
The overwhelming emotion for this week has been great gratitude for the gift of Jenni that we all shared, that indeed we all continue to share. Jenni lives on in all us, whenever we reach out to stranger, whenever we are courageous enough to be raw, and real, when we speak truth to power, when we find humor, grace and beauty in the most difficult of situations. Jenni lives on when we hug our children, when sing at the top of our lungs, when we make our art (whether it is with paper, dance, music, paint, fabric, clay or words). Jenni is with us when we cry at night, when we worry about our babies, when we contemplate the suffering in our homes, our communities, the world. Jenni is with us when we giggle with our girlfriends, when we pour “a cuppa” and sit for tea with our sisters, when we tell our stories over and over again in the hopes that we will find healing there. If we follow our stories, we will find as that in the end, there is only love–love so big and messy and wide and deep. That was the lesson of Jenni.
I have been holding a small moment of silence over here for Jen, until she be laid to rest. But now it is time to keep doing what Jenni and I enjoyed doing together–writing, connecting, watching, witnessing, living and growing.
I will. I will. I will. Everyday I will.
Several years, or maybe it was a lifetime ago, I was sitting at my desk checking email. I got a comment on my old blog, from a woman named Jennifer Ballantyne. She had been reading me for a while and had finally decided to comment, because the post I had written was so similar to one she herself had just penned. It was as though we both moving out from the same heart writing about our sons, about the experience of single motherhood from one perspective. That night I read her blog from start to finish and walked away thinking, she is me-or I am she…or maybe we were soul sisters cut from the same cloth.
Slowly, very slowly we started talking off blog, by email about writing, about creating. She had ideas for my blog, thoughts about my writing. Most of her opinions were strong and most of them were exactly what I needed to hear–my platform was awkward, my writing was better than I thought it was, I needed to showcase myself better, have more confidence. She told me I should write a book. I was touched by support, I found her easy to “talk” to, she could call me out on my writing insecurities without any of my gremlins joining in the party.
One day, while responding to an email where she was helping me with a tough piece, I mentioned to her, “shhh….don’t tell anyone but I am going on a date. My first date since Juan left”. “Tell me all about it, dear girl” she responded. At that moment the floodgates opened, and our friendship really began.
Within weeks and for a long long time after that, not a day went by that we didn’t talk. By email, by phone, by skype. We talked about our kids, about what we loved about our towns, about what we were making for dinner, what we would give our kids for Christmas. We talked about being single moms, our ex-husbands, our relationships with our siblings. I felt that she got me. She understood when well-meaning but thoughtless comments were made about how I was trying to parent Max. She understood when no one else did. She understood all the ways we single mamas struggle–all the guilt and sadness and worry we carry that sometimes feels heavier than those of our partnered up sisters. She was like a mama bear and defended me fiercely when someone hurt my feelings.
She was my confidant on the ins-and-outs of my heart. My crushes, my heartbreaks. My joys. I told her all my old love stories and she told me hers too. I was baffled by the fact that someone I had never met face to face could know me so well. She was taken back too. After awhile we stopped being baffled and would laugh about the day when we would meet, wrap our arms around each other and sit on the beach laughing…remember back then, when we were penpals and emailed long emails every night–pouring out our hearts to a stranger who would become a sister. What a crazy leap! Aren’t we glad we did it? Look how wonderful it has all turned out!
The reality was Jenni was so far away, she could see me clearly.
One spring night, when loneliness covered me like a heavy blanket, I called Jenni and we talked for 4 hours. One summer night, when she was feeling blue, my friend Jeff, some other musician friends and I and I called her and played music for her loud –giving her her own private concert via speaker phone.
Jenni’s cancer was something we talked about. Alot. But it wasn’t the basis of our connection. Almost two years ago, Jenni’s cancer came roaring back after a brief respite. We promised each other we would live each day as though it was our last.
I have been losing Jenni slowly, over the last half a year or so. Her pain has required a full-time move to hospice. She was writing less and less. At various points, we have said our goodbyes–never quite final–but making sure we knew the important stuff. That it never went unsaid. One night, on the phone, we came to a peace that we might never make it to that beach, to that moment when we would wrap our arms around each other and whisper our secrets in person. “We found each other from halfway across the world” we said. “We will find each other again. Next time. I promise.”
Tonight my friend Jeff came over for a guitar lesson. He walked in the door. He asked me how I was.
“Jenni died tonight”. I told him.
He put down his guitar. He put Max to bed. He then settled down on my couch and he said, “tell me”. I began to re-tell him all the stories he already knew–how Jenni and I first met, how we laughed and chatted and skyped and stayed up late talking on the phone. He listened as I told him about her opinions, her Jack, her dream to come to the US, her blog. He listened as I told him how Jenni understood things no one else could truly understand. I told him all I had learned from Jenni. How I learned to tell my friends that I love them, no matter how crazy or silly or odd it sounded. How I learned to listen to strangers. How I learned to push back when people hurt me. Telling stories was the only way I knew to keep Jenni alive. Telling stories was what Jenni and I did. So I told him my love stories, all the old ones I had told Jenni. And I ended with the love story about the about two soul sisters who would never meet.
Jenni is a gift to me. The lessons she taught me are rich and deep. She is with me, even if she isn’t. She always has been with me, even though she never actually was, and so, I suppose in that way nothing has changed. We have talked so much, I can hear her voice, know exactly what she would say, what she is saying. I will have it to carry with me, as I did each time we ended.
“Good night gorgeous girl. I have so much more to say to you, but for now it is late. And it is time to let each other sleep”
Good night dear Jenni. I love you. Good night.
Take care of each others children.
Walk each others dogs.
Feed each other. Regularly.
Make bread, make soup, make cookies. Leave care packages on door steps.Cook together.
Pray together. Even when, especially when, our prayers are not the same.
Search for buried treasure.
Go to parties.
Step in with a helping hand at the moment it is needed.
Know when to hold space and do nothing more.
Share good fortune, surprises and exciting adventures.
Visit each other’s past.
Venture into the woods together.
Stay through the rain together.
Make art. Make music.
Tear down walls and defy boundaries.
Watch each other blossom.
Take big risks with the heart. Cry if needed. Its ok, really.
Retreat if you need to, but leave a trail of bread crumbs to find your way home.
Expect nothing but receive joyfully and completely.
Sundays are family dinner nights.
Nights when we gather with our community around a shared dinner table, laden with food. Nights when the house vibrates with the joyful noise of children tumbling over one another. Nights when I stop and say a silent thank you for the life that has unfolded, a life rich with people who I love.
This past Sunday was Yom Kippur. We planned dinner early so that Jackie and Eric could join us before the fast began at sundown. We put out the best china and paper napkins and Odette and I cooked Rwandan food, and salad and apple crisp and then we light candles and fill the house with music and golden light.
As the sun goes down, we sit together on the floor of the living room, stuffed from too much food, children climbing over each other like puppies. And then as the neighborhood grew dark, we grab the left over bread, light tapers and walk down the street, out to the park, across the field to the bridge. The wooden bridge over the creek.
In daylight, this creek is full of preschoolers throwing rocks. When Max was small we would come here and I would sit on the big boulders on the side and watch him wade into the water–looking for pebbles. He learned to skip rocks here. My impatient sigh lost in the bubble of the water, in the murmur of the play. When the tension in the house was too much, when I had no idea how to breathe, we came to the creek. And I always, somehow found the inhale by its banks. This creek taught me how to breathe.
But now, the creek is silent, black. We cannot even see it but we all know it is there. We know, that if we dropped a rock off this bridge now, we would hear a loud plop. Faith, I suppose. Or deep intimate familiarity. Maybe a bit of both.
Jackie reads the Tashlich service. And one by one, we each think of the things we would rather leave behind, the things we want to fall away, the things we want to give to the dark, to the river. Resentment, envy, unkind words. The illusion of being stuck. Lack of faith. Impatience. Ugliness. Sorrow. We threw our breadcrumbs into the river and with each crumb we let go, if only a tiny bit, of that which was weighing us down. It falls into the blackness, into the creek. It is carried away, to be food for fish or maybe migrating ducks, to return to a useful purpose.
Hand in hand, arm in arm, we wander back up the street, lighter. It is time for homework, for bed, for getting ready for the week. It is time to move on. And joyfully we did. We do. We will.
the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves
It is hard for me to believe that it was eight years ago this morning that I first held you and called you by your name. Now you have to contort and fold yourself up to try and fit into my lap. Like a Chinese acrobat you always manage to do it. We have both grown so much since that day eight years ago.
I have said this before but being your mama has been the greatest adventure of my life. And you dear boy have lived every minute of your last year as though its been a great adventure. I have learned so much from you about jumping into life with both feet and getting my heart, soul and whole body soaked.
I am so impressed the way that you embrace things that are hard and scary and push through. Like on your first day of hockey, you came off the ice at a break close to tears because it was so hard. You hadn’t realized how tough it would be. A lot of boys quit that day but you got back out there and you were the first kid on the ice each Saturday morning.
This is the year you fell in love with Harry Potter. Now every pencil, every Tinker Toy, every piece of bamboo that we find is a wand and you are making the whole world sparkle with magic. This is the year you decided to grow your gorgeous hair long and have become the envy of most of the women in our town. This is the year that you woke up early every morning during hockey season to check the NHL stats–see what happened the night before. This is the year that you were the Addition Champion of the World (or at least of first grade) four times in a row.
Last night we put on Jack Johnson and danced in loops around the living room. You walked on your hands to “Upside Down”. You are always reminding me to shift my perspective.
I am such a girly-girl with my knitting and my soul sisters and all that. You have woken up a whole new piece of myself, a piece that I thought went by the way when I grew up–the part that loves hockey, the part that enjoys wrestling, the part that enjoys tromping through the mud and rolling on the ground and searching for frogs and toads. You have come to me and I know that as a result of this short time I get to be your mama, I am becoming more myself.
Eight years ago I started to really understand about love. Every day I learn more thanks to you.
You are my heart’s delight. Happy birthday dear boy.
“Everything cuts against the tide, when you’re by my side” -Jeff Tweedy
Tonight, after dinner, I bundled up Max and his best buddy Jake and we headed to the ice rink. It was the last game of the summer season of the Mullet League, one of the many “old guy” hockey leagues that play late in the evenings. We were there to see a couple of friends, guys who love the game so much so that they ignore the aches and pains of middle age and keep playing.
We were the only three people in the stands. Max and Jake waved their handmade signs and cheered whenever Dan or Pierre came on the ice. Max ran the length of the rink with his sign over his head whenever Dan touched the puck and carried it toward the goal. And when Pierre scored a goal, we looked at each other with glee and said, “Did you see that? I saw that! We were here to see him score!”
One of my greatest joys is being a witness.
Being the one who goes, to who stands beside, who watches with wonder and cries because it is so beautiful. Who cheers or bows her head or simply looks on and says, “yes… I see you are strong, gorgeous, smart, amazing, daring, brave”. I am at my happiest when I am standing beside someone I care about and simply being there while they do something brilliant, terrifying or heartbreakingly difficult. And I can wave and say I am here. I saw you do it. It is true and real.
I am teaching Max that 90% of being a part of a community is simply that, bearing witness to each other’s lives. Listening to each others stories with wonder and awe and compassion. Being there for each other as we bloom and wilt and breakdown only to breakthrough over and over again. Its not about doing the right thing, or saying the right thing but simply about being there–steadfast.
Being there seems to be my skill. In fact, I am beginning to believe its my purpose. To hold space, to witness. To see people, as they are–amazingly strong, utterly resilient, brave and bold and sometimes broken but unbelievably gorgeous in their being. To stand there and say, “I see you. I see your dreams, your fears. I see you, not the pretend plastic coating that you put on but you, with your messiness and your struggles and I love you. Its all going to be ok.”
Isn’t that why we all come here, this community of writers who come to bear witness to each other’s writing, lives, stories poured out on the page? We come to hold the space so something beautiful and healing and new and centering can be born. We take leaps, we soar, we sometimes fail, but above all we bear witness.
For you, who come here, or sit in my living room. For those of you who have commented, or who have held me while I cried, who played me music so I could dance or simple said, “I am here”. You are my witness to this messy and full life, spilling over with happiness and grief and fear. This is for you.